It's Good to be a Secularist (PULL!)

Monday, March 29, 2010
The news is awash with reports of the latest pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. From the snarky to the serious to the cautious, everyone has something to say about the situation. What did Bishop Ratzinger know, and when did he know it? (Answer: Far too much, and early enough to do something about it.) Are the current attempts of the church to make themselves out like the victim in this scandal indicative of their disconnect to the rest of the human race? (Answer: Yes.) Is this the impetus the Church needs to become more relevant, more in tune with the people it's here to serve? (Answer: Probably, but I doubt they'll actually, you know, execute on that idea.)

Which brings me to the point of this blog post: It's good to be a secularist. Not because I'm not required to give 10% of my income to some mind-blowingly incestuous institution that's only interested in centralizing and monopolizing their power structure (although that's a REAL BONUS), but because I have no emotional skin in this game.

Faith is, by definition, an emotional construct. People of faith have made an emotional decision to simply close their eyes and jump when it comes to accepting ideas or descriptions of events that have no empirical data to back them up. That's not a criticism - it's simply the truth, and pretending it ain't so doesn't make it any less true.

As a secularist, my own brain doesn't work that way. I don't think the pope is divinely chosen - I think he's "elected" for political reasons in one of the most political institutions on earth. I don't think the Catholic Church has a divine mandate - I think they're a self-serving bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who are far more concerned about their own power than the people they're supposed to serve.*

So when I hear there's yet another instance of the Church letting some pedophile get away with abusing young people, I don't see a "shepherd who has gone astray" or some other euphemism. I see a criminal. I see an individual who is broken on a fundamental human level. The occupation of the individual has no bearing on what I see, other than to note that those who are placed in positions of trust, and then betray that trust, are even more reprehensible than regular pedophiles. The fact of the matter is that if you sexually molest children, I don't give a good goddamn if you're a priest, a doctor, a lawyer or  Indian Chief - you're a criminal, and you should be treated like one. If you cover it up, you're a criminal, too. If you cover it up and then give the pedophile the opportunity to do it again, then you're a criminal who deserves to be hit in the face with a shovel. Simple. Celibacy doesn't have anything to do with it (although I think it's a dumb rule). The pedophile is simply BROKEN.

Compare that to those decent, sincere Catholics who have had to deal with this scandal for so long. These poor people have had the foundation of their belief system shaken by this behavior and the Church's reaction. It's been simply devastating for many of them. Asking them to be objective about this issue is like asking a devout Jew to be objective about Israel, or middle-eastern Arabs to be objective about, well, Israel. You might find a few hardy souls who can separate their emotional investment from the topic at hand, but they'll be few and far between.

Which is why this issue should be addressed and resolved by secular authorities first when it occurs. If a priest is accused of molesting children, the local secular authorities should press charges, and proceed with prosecution if appropriate. The accused, if found guilty, should be sentenced to appropriate punishment within the laws of the jurisdiction. What you don't do is expect the Catholic power structure to punish one of their own. We've already established that the Church is incapable of doing so in any meaningful way, and in fact will allow their parishioners to suffer horribly if that means they can protect their own.

Now, if the Church chooses to defrock a priest as a result of some secular offense, I can't help thinking that's none of my business. If the secular crime has been addressed and appropriate punishment administered based on the rule of law (such as being forbidden from working with children moving forward), then what the Catholic Church chooses to do is kind of on them. The Establishment Clause demands it, at least in this country.

For my own part, I'm glad the matter is academic for me on an emotional level. I can't imagine having my world view devastated by the revelation that some noted secularist turned out to be a pedophile. Such acts are horrifying, regardless of who commits them, but it wouldn't rock my world, since my foundation is not based on an external institution.

As for the pope, all I have to say is: PULL!
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*As distinct from Catholics, who are as varied and individualistic as any subgroup.

11 comments:

Rachael said...

If you haven't read it yet, Sinead O'Connor wrote a piece about this as well. I was only 12 when she ripped up the picture of the Pope on SNL, and it didn't have a whole lot of meaning to me, other than it got riffed in Mad magazine a bunch of times. She certainly puts it in to its full context here.

Vagabond said...

Janiece, as someone who made a decision to become a Catholic as an adult, I can tell you that there are many members of the church who agree the church hierarchy has fumbled this situation badly for decades, with disastrous results for many children and families. We agree that pedophiles are criminals. period. I think you would be surprised at the number of lifelong Catholics who see this issue as a criminal one, rather than a crisis of the faith.

There are a large number of congregants and clergy who think progressively and believe that reform is badly needed. One of the underlying problems that has allowed criminals to prey upon children in this setting is the aura the Catholic Clergy has traditionally enjoyed. Priests traditionally were viewed by congregants to be authority figures, blessed by God and ordained with knowledge and wisdom. Most Catholics traditionally had a hard time believing their pastors were capable of these acts. The individual congregations also played an enabling part, by pressuring those who wanted to speak out and blow the whistle to stay silent, often blaming the victims.

This situation is now, thankfully, changing. Too slowly and with not enough support from the Vatican to be sure, but changing nonetheless. More are willing to speak out, not just to the church, but to the police.

In one area I will disagree with you. I think the vow of celibacy has a great deal to do with this issue, when speaking from a foundational standpoint. Though I do believe there are those whose faith calls so strongly as to make that particular vow acceptible to them personally, I think requiring the vow has attracted an unacceptible element to the priesthood. People who are sexually and psychologically broken are attracted to the priesthood by the vow in the hopes that the vow alone will keep them strong. In addition, people who exhibited these traits were historically encouraged to enter the catholic clergy by their families and the community at large in the mistaken belief that "God would keep them strong." There is also an element that was attracted to the priesthood by the "opportunity." There is also some evidence that a life of celibacy can enhance or foster psychological issues of a sexual nature.

The practice was actually on it's way out during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many catholic clergy openly had wives and the policy was in no way enforced universally in the church. Gregory VII reinforced the policy in 1074 mainly as a way of keeping church property (and therefore wealth and power) in church hands. You see, Popes and bishops that have no children are not tempted to bequeath church property and titles to their sons.

I know this is a long winded response, but then this is an issue that, while simple in practice (i. e., pedophiles are criminals), has a complex solution with many underlying causes. As someone who will be a father soon and very well may send his children to Catholic institutions for education (more out of a concern for the quality of the local schools than religious zeal), you can bet that I've given this a lot of thought. My fellow progressive congregants are agitating for institutional change, and I do believe our voices will be heard, eventually.

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

I've been saying this for years over on my own sites and in real life discussions -- the Catholic Church would never survive a full-on business-practices audit.

I'm not discussing a situation where a CPA comes in and takes a gander at the books, then sends you a pro-forma letter; I'm talking about an internally-sponsored audit to find everything from inefficiency to corruption.

Most of my friends know me as an atheist (the term 'secularist' is too politically-correct for me; I've known for a long, long time that 'god', too, is an emotional construct, used to by one group to subject another to its rule). As an atheist, I've never really cared much about the Pope, one way or another - but the fellow in charge right now is, as you've said, a criminal.

Of course, Italian law is pretty convenient - it protects the Pope both as an official and as a person; the Vatican has the same legal standing as a foreign country (it's why Mussolini struck his deal with the Papacy during WWII - the one allowing him to set up his offices so near the Vatican so as to avoid Allied bombing).

Sam Harris made an eloquent statement at the TED2010 conference about the irrelevance of religion. We'd do well to have abandoned the savagery which is religious practice centuries ago.

Vagabond said...

Will, I hate to be a contrarian but . . . The Lateran Treaty (giving the Vatican the same status as a spearate country) was signed in 1929, ten years before the beginning of WWII. The politics of the treaty had little to do with Axis machinations and more to do with the will of the Italian populace. As such, it's Vatican law and not Italian law that sets forth the Pope's legal status and protection.

The Catholic church has enough problems and historical misteps. No need to create more through inaccuracy.

Janiece said...

Rachael, I've been meaning to read that - thanks for the link.

Vagabond,I appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this matter. I'm well aware that there are many, many Catholics who feel as you do, which is why I tried to differentiate between the Catholic Church as an institution and Catholics as members of a faith group who have been used, abused and misled by their leadership. This post was not meant to imply that the laity are a bunch of doormats who are run roughshod over by the evil Vatican. It is disingenuous, however, to even imply that the Catholic Church is anything other than a top-down organization that places enormous value on authoritarianism. I don't think that's what you meant, necessarily, but I think any grass roots effort to reform the church will be met with fierce resistance. It's not in the Vatican's self-interest to allow the type of change you and your fellow progressives desire, and you know the Pope and his cronies will not come into the 21st Century willingly.

As for the influence of celibacy in these matters, I do understand that the issue is more complex than my commentary suggests. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, to me, it simply doesn't matter. In my mind, pedophilia is akin to rape - it's not a crime about sex, it's a crime about violence, so implying that the celibacy vow attracts deviants feels like a red herring to me. I'm not saying the criteria should not be changed - I think it's a stupid policy for many reasons, but it's no excuse for diddling little boys. Please note, I'm not saying you're using it as a reason to excuse these miscreants, but there are many who do.

Will, I'm not comfortable with the label "atheist" for variety of reasons, but it does seem evident that the power structure in the Catholic Church is there for the benefit of the power structure of the Catholic Church rather than their congregants. In that way, I'm happy to not a Catholic (or even a Christian). My freethinking self is just not at home with that kind of organizational structure.

I'm definitely not comfortable with advocating the complete dismantlement of religion. Just one of the many ways with which I'm not on the same page as the "new atheists" such as Sam Harris.

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

Vagabond - if you'll read closely, that's not what I said at all.

The treaty in 1929 wasn't linked to Mussolini's location of his personal offices to the Vatican. I never said they were linked.

Regardless - (1) the Pope is protected, and (2) Mussolini was in cahoots with him.

Cheers!

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

Janiece - I've been told by many friends that I'm more rabid than they are; that's cool by me - I'm comfortable with it.

That said, I'm also comfortable with zero-tolerance for religion. It's a savage practice which has caused far more human misery than it has ever produced good.

Janiece said...

Will, that particular debate (whether or not the effects of religion are more positive or more negative on the whole) is not the topic of this post, so I'll table the matter for another day. But I suspect that I would come down in opposition to your view, especially if taken in light of the entirety of human history.

And I'm also comfortable with you being more militant than me. My comment wasn't meant to be critical. Things would be more than a little boring around here if everyone had the same points of view.

Fathergoose said...

Paragraph 5 is my favorite, and the last line is pretty good too.

Vagabond said...

Janiece, thanks as always for the welcome and allowing (even slightly) contrarian viewpoints! After re-reading my comments, I wanted to clarify a couple of points, as I think my first post ended up slightly muddled. First, I am in complete agreement with you regarding the current regime at the Vatican. The last two popes have spent 30 years doing their best to roll back the progressive changes to church doctrine and practice started with Vatican II in the 60's, silencing progressive bishops and organizations within the church. The current pope has spent his career as a cardinal repressing news of the terrible crimes perpetrated by members of the clergy. I'm certainly not the only church member that is agitating for an end to the current state of affairs.

It is my hope, shared by many of my fellow congregants, that the revelations of abuse and crime will help promulgate this much needed reform by allowing the progressive voices in the church to be heard again. In that way, at least some good would come from this terrible, unforgivable state of affairs. Of course, nothing will change while the current pope reigns, and that time frame will last until the pontiff passes (there being no mechanism in Vatican law for deposing a reigning pope, short of abdication).

Second, you made mention of a "crisis of faith" in your post, writing of Catholics having the foundation of their belief system shaken by this scandal. I would argue that many, and perhaps most, Catholics can and do separate their faith from the actions and policies of the institution of the church. We understand that the church is run by humans who often fail to do the right thing and are prey to their own human frailties. Yes, that is contrary to church doctrine and a bit radical, but faith without practicality is fanaticism.

I hope I don't sound preachy (I do so hate people who are preachy). I just thought I'd try and give you and your readers a little "inside information", as it were. You made a point of separating the laity from the church hierarchy in your post and I wanted to reinforce your point and, perhaps, shed a little additional light on the subject. Too often, I find that many folks think of Catholics as being mindlessly in lock step with every pronouncement the Vatican chooses to promulgate. Thank you for pointing out that's not necessarily true, and for letting me sound off a bit more. Many of us fully understand what a complete disaster the election of Benedict XVI was for the church as a whole. Some further reading can be found at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/03/the-pope-and-the-world.html

Janiece said...

Vagabond, thanks again for your insight. In terms of the comments here on HCDSM, I don't want an echo chamber, so I'm always happy when intelligent people come in and give me their points of view. As I noted to Will, it would be mighty boring around here if all my commenters were my bug-eating bitch-boys.*

I realize that Catholics are not necessarily zombie-followers of the Pope, and that there are many (especially here in the U.S.) who are progressive and would like to see some fundamental changes to the church. My comments about Catholics being devastated about the repeated pedophilia and subsequent cover-ups were based on my reading. Of course the most emotionally traumatized are going to be the ones who speak the loudest, and that's why I made the comments I did. Generalizations are never safe, but I think it's fair to say that a large minority have been fundamentally affected by this crisis.

*If you got that reference, you win the Internet today.