Friday, 27 November 2009

The abuse of Catholicism

Damian Thompson fears that the latest revelations about clerical sex-abuse - and the church's blatant, cynical and long-lasting attempts to cover it up - "could finish off Catholic Ireland". It will, he predicts, "make the Catholic Church even more loathed in Ireland than it already is."

Let's hope so.

Thompson puts the problem down to the "arrogance" of bishops who "believe that almost anything can be kept secret from the laity if it might 'damage the good name of the Church'." But it's more than just arrogance. What is described in the report is full-scale criminal complicity. No fewer than four archbishops of Dublin protected known paedophiles, allowed them to move to new parishes to find new victims and refused to inform the police of serious crimes, instead locking up damning evidence inside "a secret vault" in Dublin. They also cultivated "inappropriately close relations with senior police officers", who were persuaded to ignore complaints of molestation and rape. As good Catholics, they too were concerned with the good name of the Church.

That was all decades ago. But even this year the Vatican was obstructing the investigation. The report's author, Judge Yvonne Murphy, wrote repeatedly to Rome and to the papal nuncio in Ireland seeking information, and received no reply. They are still seeking to protect their "good name", even though they no longer have one.

The present head of the church in Ireland has belatedly apologised - to God. Obviously, the worst crimes were committed by individuals. But as the report notes, it was "the structures and rules of the Catholic Church" that facilitated the cover-up. It was the whole rotten edifice - the whole idea of the church as an organisation set up by God, with the divine right to decide what is true and false, right and wrong, to tell people how to live their lives - that enabled the situation to develop. It wasn't just the arrogance of particular bishops. It was the arrogance inherent in an institution that believes itself to be literally infallible.

If these people had any shame they would close their doors tomorrow, sell off all the churches to fund homes for the poor and compensation for the victims, admit that an organisation that is capable of such manifest corruption simply has no moral right to continue in being. Any other institution, revealed to have had, over decades, an official policy of covering up such vile crimes would be disbanded, its leaders put on trial, its assets seized. No decent person would want anything to do with it. Yet this Sunday, as every Sunday, its official representatives will dress up in their fancy vestments, deliver their sermons, dish out their bread and wine, as though nothing has changed, as though the behaviour of the messengers in no way detracts from the truth of the message.

How can they?

For Catholics, the truth of Christianity is bound up with the institution of the church. Jesus, they believe, gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and Herr Ratzinger still has them clutched tightly in his crabbed little hands. The church is more than the community of believers: it is itself a large part of the belief. Individual priests, bishops, even popes (when they are not being infallible, that is) may err, but the church itself embodies Truth and Rightness, and its followers are meant to accept (in the words of the Catechism) "with docility" what the leadership tells them. For many decades, in Ireland, this was taken for granted. The extravagant, absurd, domineering claims of the church were a natural part of life. Sadists and child molesters had only to get themselves ordained and they received carte blanche to do whatever they liked. They were, after all, working for God. If you believe that the church is God's chosen mechanism for salvation, it stands to reason that its "good name" counts for more than justice, or the law, or the suffering of individuals in its care.

Throughout its history, the Catholic church has behaved atrociously: persecuting heretics, launching crusades, stoking up antisemitism, retarding scientific progress, propping up fascist dictatorships, promoting fake miracles and fraudulent relics, selling indulgences, instilling sexual guilt. Even its leaders admit that not everything the church has done has been good. Yet they don't draw the obvious conclusion, that when an organisation is guilty of sustained wickedness there must be something profoundly wrong with it as such. Of course, it has been responsible for some good things. Palestrina wrote nice music for its services, Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel tolerably well, there's even a case to be made for a few of its saints. But for all that it is a preposterous, anachronistic and fundamentally abusive institution. Neither its antiquity, the fact that it boasts a billion members, nor its status as a religion should protect it from collapse. It has lost all moral legitimacy. It should be wound up.

Last week at the Vatican, Ratzinger snubbed the Church of England's saintly but muddled Rowan Williams by according him just twenty minutes of his precious time. Next year, he will be in Britain. It would be appropriate, would it not, if Williams were to find himself urgently called away on business?