Roman Circus

Two thousand Catholics turned up to support a major prayer rally a few days ago in support of their bishops' "Fortnight of Faith", a highly political campaign against the Obama administration's health mandate. That's the one that would force employers to offer comprehensive medical coverage, including contraception, to female workers, even if the employers happened to be Catholics. This is apparently the greatest threat to religious liberty in the entire history of the United States. Or, indeed, since Henry VIII had Thomas More's head chopped off for objecting to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

I don't know how many the organisers were expecting, but that doesn't sound a lot to me. Presumably most rank and file Catholics, most of whom don't agree with official church policy on this issue, had better things to do with their time. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, appeared to acknowledge this when he declared that "The call is not just for priests to preach, but for the laity to respond."

If the laity aren't responding, the bishops have only themselves to blame. Has there ever been a campaign more delusional and lacking in self awareness than the "Fortnight for Freedom"? With hypocritical hyperbole, the bishops denounce any interference with their privileges, with their desire to discriminate or to impose their views on sexuality on the rest of society, as fundamental assaults on their freedom of religion. But when Catholics - nuns, for example - start to think for themselves, they are told to either shut up or leave.

The bishops' message is a simple one. Religious freedom isn't for individuals; it's for the church. It's not the right to exercise their conscience they seek, it's the power to impose their conscience on others. If you are a woman working for a Catholic school or hospital - or even, on the bishops' most extravagant demands, for a secular employer who happens to be a devout Catholic - then you sacrifice your right to the health benefits enjoyed by women working for non-Catholic employers. It is frankly offensive, in a world where Christians are every day persecuted or subjected to communal violence - in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in China, in North Korea, in Nigeria - for pampered and sanctimonious American bishops to bleat about how they are disadvantaged by laws and regulations whose only intention is to extend equal treatment to everyone.

The Catholic Church likes to think of itself as being above puny human laws and always has. Thomas More, who tortured and burned heretics in the name of the church he gave his life to defend, makes an especially fitting patron for the Fortnight of Faith. Another of its English martyrs, Thomas Becket, who refused to accept the jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal law over anyone who could claim "benefit of clergy", has his legacy in the slow and grudging response to the sex abuse scandals in many countries, the foot-dragging and obstruction, the refusal to share information with police, the shielding of offenders. Just last week a senior Catholic, Mgr William Lynn, was convicted of child endangerment in Philadelphia for covering up for paedophile priests. There will, no doubt, be others.

It would be almost understandable (if still wrong) if this were taking place in Europe, where secularism sometimes does trump religious privilege. But the First Amendment of the US Constitution - as interpreted by the Supreme Court - already gives religious bodies extraordinary exemptions from laws that apply to other Americans. Other than the Vatican itself, there is nowhere in the world where the Catholic Church is quite so feather-bedded. Yet still they complain. Still they exaggerate. Still they act like they're about to be fed to the lions in the Roman arena.

Tim Stanley gives a good insight into the traditionalist Catholic mindset when he lays into the American nuns whose liberal ideas have caused such consternation at the Vatican:

The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions left in the West that simply cannot change. Its theology is like a delicate spider’s web: remove one strand and the entire structure would collapse. It can’t be done.

If, for example, the Church permitted female priests, two possible conclusions would be drawn. First, that God can change his mind. That’s patently absurd, as it undermines faith in the Almighty – God can’t make mistakes. Alternatively, if an exclusively male priesthood was never really part of God’s plan, then perhaps the Church got God wrong?... And without any doctrinal yardstick to measure things by, might female priesthood be an error, too? Is it time for a mature debate about ordaining parrots?

Yes. If the Roman Catholic Church altered its rules to allow women to be priests, nothing could prevent the ordination of parrots. Because a woman is just like a parrot, isn't she? Both squawk, and neither has a penis. That an intelligent observer like Tim Stanley can even think such a thought, let alone imagine it is a sensible contribution to a debate, shows just how seriously screwed up traditional Catholicism is, at least in the minds of its champions.

But of course the Catholic Church has changed its mind repeatedly over the course of the centuries, hasn't it? Not so, says Stanley: on matters of doctrine at least, it has never changed its mind, "never been proven theologically wrong." Hmm. How would you even begin to prove something theologically wrong. Or even right. All theological statements are opinions.

Does Stanley imagine that - to take one obvious example - the Church's opposition to Galileo was purely scientific? Of course not: it was theological. Galileo's heliocentric view of the solar system was unacceptable because the Bible and Catholic tradition insisted that the earth was the centre of the universe. It was of great theological - moral, eschatological - significance that this should be so. Galileo prosed a huge challenge to the authority of the church that had little or nothing to do with the question of who was right, scientifically; one that struck at the root of the Christian scheme of salvation.

A later pope eventually offered Galileo a half-hearted apology. In 1992. But the church had long before tacitly accepted the truth about the universe and revised the theology accordingly.

"If this is obvious to a layman," asks Stanley, "then why do the American nuns persist with their theological innovation? Alas, the answer is that some of them simply aren’t very Catholic. Or, at least, their Catholicity takes a second place to their political liberalism."

Or maybe, just maybe, their understanding of their faith has moved on slightly from the sort of adolescent rhetorical games Tim Stanley feels the need to indulge in. To be fair, though, the theological conservatives are now in the ascendant in the instituions of the Catholic church. The liberals - like the US nuns - are sidelined, besieged, dwindling in numbers, even dying off. Stanley is right about that. Congregations are down overall in Western countries, but within those congregations a hard core of traditionalists is increasingly vocal and influential. Liberal priests, nuns and even bishops look like yesterday's people. Hence the triumphalism regularly on display at, for example, the Catholic Herald.

But the liberals haven't gone away, and their complaints are getting louder. There's a big row brewing, for example, over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, which conservatives are attempting to spin as an antidote to liberalisation rather than an embrace of it, as most people thought at the time. There are millions of Christians who feel an emotional and cultural attachment to the Catholic Church, who believe in Jesus Christ, but who feel alienated from the current reactionary leadership. Diarmaid MacCulloch, the distinguished historian of Christianity has recently suggested that the Roman Catholic Church "seems on the verge of a very great split over the Vatican's failure to listen to European Catholics." A failure to listen to American Catholics too, of course. Who knows? Few people in 1500 would have predicted the Reformation.


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