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.
Podcast Ep. 150: The Week in Politics and Atheism
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