Modernity in Action

There are good reasons for regarding the Catholic Church as the world's first truly modern institution - the institution, moreover, that set the pattern for much of what we today regard as quintessential features of the modern world, even of modernity itself.

The Church that emerged in very much its current form during the Counter-Reformation was the world's first multinational corporation, subsuming strong local identities and practices in a core business model directed from the centre. It had an elaborate and graduated career structure, fed by in-house training programmes that stressed uniformity of practice; it pioneered managerialism, and maintained loyalty to the organisation through complex enforcement procedures. The Inquisition, the main instrument of this enforcement, was among the first fully professional tribunals. The catechism was the first teaching manual to equate learning with the repetition of externally-decreed formularies: modern examination techniques, with their multiple-choice questions and model answers, are its direct descendants. The Jesuit adage - give me the child, I will give you the man - might be the motto of any modern education system; and the Jesuits themselves, for long the Catholic Church's elite, foreshadowed today's corporate MBAs. No wonder that they came to be seen by those not in their ranks as Machiavellian careerists.

Propaganda, indoctrination, hierarchy, subsidiarity, dogma: all Catholic words for Catholic concepts that have transferred naturally to the secular world. So we should not be too surprised to find the Catholic Church behaving in the bizarre, dysfunctional, amoral fashion that we associate with any modern government or bureaucratic corporation - for example, blindly following rules in defiance of common sense or humanity.

This is what seems to have happened in Brazil, where, to widespread shock and disbelief, the Catholic leadership tried legally to prevent doctors from performing an abortion on a raped nine-year-old girl. Despite the clear danger to the child's life - to say nothing of the impact it would have on her psychologically - the church argued that she should be obliged to carry twins to term. "We consider this murder" a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Olinda declared. When the bid failed and the termination was carried out, Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho responded by excommunicating the girl's mother and the doctors who performed the procedure. He did not excommunicate the man charged with raping the child, her stepfather, stating that "the crime he is alleged to have committed, although deplorable, was not as bad as ending a foetus's life".

Despite worldwide condemnation, the archbishop's action has been supported by the Vatican. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told La Stampa that "the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated".

Given the principled nature of the church's opposition to abortion, it's hard to argue against the Cardinal's logic. The argument is almost syllogistic in its purity. Abortion is a mortal sin, because it is the destruction of innocent life. It is destruction of innocent life because life begins at conception. It is irrelevant that the innocent life should have been brought into being as a result of a foul crime: raping a small girl might be a sin against morality and, in this case, an abuse of trust, but such sins, unlike abortion, do not result in loss of life. (Quite the reverse, in fact.) Therefore, to mark out the special sinfulness of abortion it brings with it, not merely penal sanctions, but the spiritual sanction of expulsion from the church's salvific grace, which also brings with it (as an added extra, as it were) a one-way ticket to Hell.

This, needless to say, is what makes the archbishop's decision seem especially cruel. It is all very well for some to say that the girl's family is better off outside such an apparently hard-hearted institution, but it is at moments of great trauma that people most feel a need for the loving embrace of religion, for human compassion and an assurance of the love of God. Instead, the message is: your sin in saving this girl's future and in all probability her life is mortal; the sin of her abuser merely venial. Emotionally, morally, this seems indefensible. But such sentimentality mistakes what the Church is all about. It's not there to be nice: it's there to embody the Truth, and it betrays its mission by sacrificing principle to expediency.

As the old legal maxim has it, a hard case makes bad law. It is precisely because this decision sounds so hard-hearted that it must be right. To be fair, a rule must apply equally to all. If a principle is the correct one, (and respect for life is, by most standards, the correct one) then it is by applying it absolutely that the widest benefit can most efficiently be achieved.

Ruthless logic alone cannot explain the intensity of Catholic opposition to abortion, however. It also derives from the church's corporate culture. Because its position is out of step with the prevailing view of the secular world, it has become totemic; and from being a particular instance of respect for life, it is now seen as the primary expression of it, to the extent that a special sanctity, beyond the merely human, has attached itself to the foetus. One consequence is that within the church's structures "extremism" in defence of unborn life becomes a means of demonstrating spiritual virility. So that a stance such as archbishop Sobrinho's is not merely logical, it is also (in terms of the church's internal politics) astute.

In fact, procuring an abortion is so serious that is belongs to a special category of sins that (if committed or procured by someone in holy orders) can only be forgiven by the Pope himself. The only other sins that bad are: defiling the Eucharist, attempting to assassinate the Holy Father, breaking the seal of confession and, for a priest, having sex with a confessee and then offering forgiveness for the act. From a spiritual point of view, they are all far worse than murder.

And it's not hard to see why. They all in their various ways call into question the authority of the church, they impinge on matters of spiritual credibility. All modern organisations (and the Catholic Church is the prototypical modern organisation) treat offences against the organisation, or the organisation's power, credibility or procedures, more seriously than almost any other type of offence. That is why whistleblowers find themselves sacked or demoted while the corrupt or incompetent insiders are merely "censured"; why rape victims can find themselves placed in contempt of court after breaking down in the dock; and why it is a very bad idea to be cheeky to a policeman.

The tragic case of the Brazilian girl makes the Catholic Church appear harsh, out of touch and in possession of a strange sense of priorities. In that sense, it confirms the impression created by very different recent case of Bishop Richard Williamson, whose Holocaust denial was treated (at least initially) as of less significance than his willingness to accept the authority of the Pope. It still is, in fact: having been ordered to repudiate his statements made on Swedish TV, he demurred, and it is this "disobedience", rather than the views themselves, that now makes him unwelcome in Rome. As in any large company, obedience is what matters: obedience to the rulebook, obedience to the CEO, obedience to the corporate ethos, enthusiasm for singing, without irony, the company song.

The present pope has often spoken of the importance of reason for his vision of the Catholic faith. Reason as in rationality, that is, rather than as in reasonableness. And there can be little doubt that the organisation over which he presides is a supremely rational one, a giant logic-chopping machine that (allowing for the absurdity of its initial presuppositions) can be relied upon to turn out the correct response. And, having produced its answer (which, given its divine sanction, is also The Answer) it will defend its position with all the doggedness, subtlety and intellectual brilliance it can muster. That's how modern organisations always behave. Legalism, buck-passing, following procedures, the corporate mindset, "never apologise, never explain": these, rather than art, music, architecture or charity, are Catholicism's greatest gifts to our world.


asquith said…
I agree with the thrust of what you're saying.

Better to have a heart of flint & say "these are the eternal truths that we're sticking to, regardless of what civilised man thinks" than to be a woolly in between, not agreeing with everything the Pope says but genuflecting away to get Tamara & Tarquin into that school given that we can't afford to go private after Rupert lost his job in the city.

Yes, these problems exist in other religions. But if you're a Protestant, or a Muslim, at least you can say that a particular religious leader doesn't speak for you & you've got your own beliefs. (I still would not agree with your faith & find it questionable, but it is possible to say such a thing & remain honest). Those who choose to be Catholics are bound to the Pope & are part of this rotten organisation which apparently finds child abuse acceptable, but will damn a child who seeks refuge from unimaginable torment by having an abortion.

Words fail me when I try to express how much I loathe these scum & those vermin who are crushing young lives in Pakistan. But at least they're consistent & principled: well, so am I.

Yes, you could say that simple folk are consoled by religion. But simple folk are haunted by irrational fears of damnation, & abuse their children because of religious teachings, so the apologists had better be careful before they try to make me feel guilty about my defence of atheism.

A lot of this is cut & pasted from a private blog post that I didn't particularly want the general public to read. It was written through red mist. But even when in the rage zone, I could at least see the Church's point of view, whereas the fence-sitters have nothing of any worth to say & should be punched in the face.
A superb post, neatly summing up why Julian the Apostate should have started earlier. Well, you get my drift. In a way this horrific story from Brazil is a good sign, though. I look forward to Latin America following Spain. Portugal and Ireland, into the light.

I happened to hear some interesting facts about the original Catholic view of the souls of wee bairns in Aubrey Manning's series Unearthing Mysteries on BBC7. The one about Spitalfields Hospital makes clear that, in the mediaeval church, the body of a woman who died while pregnant should technically have had her foetus(es) removed before burial, to keep that pesky unbaptised body out of God's consecrated earth. The programme is on iPlayer here:
kevin said…
you got it spot on. it make the pope look like a fool it unlawful what Cardinal Giovanni Battista doing
Wasp_Box said…
Good post. Your analysis is interesting. One never seems to see a merciful, forgiving god in the proclamations of the elderly chap in the white dress. That’s the game though – hell and damnation unless you do what we say and give us your money. They beat Ted Haggard, hands down, at milking the marks but I guess they’ve had longer to perfect their techniques.

I certainly hope Valdemar is right and the Brazilians react against this nonsense but I'm not holding my breathe.
Anonymous said…
As always, you give much food for thought.
I have always found the reference to the Catholic Church as mother particularly inapt.
Or, if it is a mother, it is like those metal surrogate mothers Harlow built in his experiments on monkeys that stabbed and rattled the infants and yet they still clung on, so great is the primate need for love.
The Church is more a machine than anything.
Ironic that the stories of Jesus' clashes with the Pharisees centred on their legalism whereas he seemed to prize love and compassion.
Elephant said…
Minor nitpick:

The maxim is actually "Hard cases make good law". "Hard cases make bad law" is a saying of Lord Denning - essentially that if the rigorous application of law leads to an unacceptable result, then the law (or its rigorous application) is wrong.

Of course, doing something about it is only an option if you acknowledge that the law is made by fallible human beings.

Your comparison with the mindset of the modern organisation is spot on.
WeepingCross said…
As usual, you rather temperately and moderately point out the real nature of what's happening, and how (contrary to what RCs themselves may think) it differs from what happened in the past:

"a special sanctity, beyond the merely human, has attached itself to the foetus"

This paragraph has the key to why, despite your generous ascription of logic to the Church authorities' position, they are led to argue that the sanctity of life is defended by allowing the deaths of three individuals rather than two.

But I find myself disagreeing more with the context than the action. If, bearing in mind the situation of abuse, this family's priest had said 'You are all implicated in terrible, horrible wrongs. I can't give you communion until you confess and are reconciled', and took them through that process like a proper pastor should, that would make sense to me. But instead, the Church (apparently) storms in with its lawyers and public statements, making an horrific pastoral situation into a circus act of political machismo. The organisation triumphs over its own purpose.
The Heresiarch said…
Father W:

"If, bearing in mind the situation of abuse, this family's priest had said 'You are all implicated in terrible, horrible wrongs...."

You're talking about the abortion, right? Even in this circumstance you would regard it as a "terrible, horrible wrong". The only terrible, horrible wrong here was the abuse: the abortion, whatever you may think about abortion generally, was in this case the only humane way of dealing with the situation, and was neither terrible nor horrible. Your suggestion that the family need to confess - to be made to feel guilt about doing the morally correct thing - is almost as shocking as the Archbishop's excommunication.

As to the "three deaths for two" argument, I agree with you. I imagine (and here I depart somewhat from my original line of thought) it's a question of inuitive morality rather than strict logic, similar to the runaway train paradox. A train is heading down a track and will plough into a crowd of people; by pulling a lever you can divert the train onto another track where it will only kill one person (who would otherwise live). Most people agree to pull the lever and kill the one person. However, if instead of pulling a lever they can save the crowd by pushing a fat man into the path of the train, most people would refuse to push the fat man. Most people would, I guess, imagine the abortion as closer to pulling the lever than to pushing the fat man; but the greater moral rigour of Catholic theology leads them to see the abortion as more like pushing the fat man; but, the logic being hard-wired by years of training, their response is effectively an emotional one.
WeepingCross said…
I was talking about both wrong things. But something can be the only humane way of dealing with a situation, and still violate a moral principle. No one would celebrate the death of the single person whose demise secured the survival of the crowd, would they? I think guilt for 'doing the right thing' in those circumstances is entirely proper, and in fact acknowledges the pain and contradictions involved in being human. The RC's 'moral rigour' is a way of trying to escape tragedy and wall your heart against pain, to convince yourself a wrong thing is actually right; not so very far from someone taking the position that an abortion is a matter of no moral consequence. I don't think it works. It either breaks down, or it kills the heart.
The Heresiarch said…
They may feel guilt, even if that guilt is not merited: and part of the reason they will feel the guilt, being Catholics, is that they have been told from an early age that abortion is an absolute evil, perhaps the worst of all possible evils - certainly the one that the Catholic church tends to harp on the most. Which is part of the problem with your solution. I quote again: you think the priest should tell the girl's mother, after all she's been through, "I can't give you communion until you confess and are reconciled" - and you think that's somehow compassionate?

There may be a natural, instinctive guilt, and that natural guilt may acknowledge a genuine, if lesser, evil. In this case I wouldn't think so, but I'll concede the point. But what you seem to propose would compound that guilt, to weigh it down with theological - and quite abstract - notions of sin that are not naturally connected with it. Worse, it puts the onus - and the blame - on to the victim; it says, "you have sinned". Yet even if the abortion was in some abstract sense wrong, to have entered into it in this set of circumstances was not a wrong act, because the alternative would have been more wrong. If there is only a choice between two evils, then choosing the lesser of the two evils cannot itself be evil; it must therefore be good.

What you seem to be proposing - and what the church seems to teach here - strikes me as close to what the ancient (pre-philosophical) Greeks believed about guilt being a freefloating stain that attached itself to people regardless of their moral culpability.
WeepingCross said…
You mistake me. I wasn't suggesting a 'solution'; but that this was a course of action a putative Roman priest could follow while remaining perfectly faithful to the magisterium, without all the posturing of bishops publicly excommunicating people from a distance and issuing religious muscle-flexing statements to the press. I was pointing out that the Church's choosing the one approach rather than the other reveals that, as you say, the chief motive is the integrity of the organisation rather than the people involved in it.

Philosophically, I think we have an impasse here. I do think that while you can pursue the lesser of two evils, yet its being the lesser doesn't transform it into a good act, whereas you take a relativist view (a word I use just as a statement of fact, not a term of opprobrium): circumstances can make a bad act good. The two positions I see as being parallel: the magisterium regards the child's death as morally indifferent because it avoids the abortion (indifference does seem to come across in the public reports of the Bp's words); others might regard the abortion as morally indifferent because it avoids the death of the child (though they're likely not to see an abortion as morally complicated under any circumstances). I'd say the inevitability of choosing one of those paths can't make either of them 'good', even though I'd choose the abortion like most people. I can understand how you might see this as just pyschologically disastrous wordplay, but obviously for me these concepts have to have some bite.
The Heresiarch said…
I honestly don't think my position is relativist, even in a descriptive sense. You write:

I do think that while you can pursue the lesser of two evils, yet its being the lesser doesn't transform it into a good act

It depends which act is being referred to. There's the act of abortion itself, objectively (you would say) bad; I tend to agree, as it happens. But there's also the act of choosing the abortion over the alternative, which we agree is worse. It's that act of choice, rather than the abortion itself, which I would argue is objectively, and absolutely, good; and thus making that choice is a morally good act and should not incur moral obloquy.

It is because I argue that the moral meaning inheres in that act of choice, rather than in the results of that choice, that absolute principles can be applied to it. So there's no relativism here: there's only one correct response, and that is to agree to the termination.
WeepingCross said…
I don't think I can argue with that! Though I think that investing the fact of choice with such moral significance that it overrides the content of the choice actually made is one that can lead in all sorts of directions ...
Erik said…
I think you are missing an important point here: Those twins would never have made it to term, and any attempted birth would have killed the 9 year old girl. The only moral decision was abortion.
WeepingCross said…
Not to open this all up again, but to point out the TIME article (,8599,1883598,00.html) which reports Abp Sobrinho's actual words. As the Heresiarch noted, he does indeed, and very explicitly, regard killing a foetus as worse than killing an adult - I suppose that's what too much Thomas Aquinas will do to you. And apparently the RC Church only wants in it 'those who keep God's laws'. Well, as the holy apostle Paul says, 'all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory', so I assume they're all going to excommunicate themselves.

Popular Posts