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Popes, Infallible and Otherwise - Riffs and Licks
Popes, Infallible and Otherwise
As a recovering Catholic (for better or for worse, one is never an "ex" Catholic any more than one is an "ex" alcoholic), I can't let the Pope's passing go without some comment.

Let me start with one point. People are joking in various ways about the loss of the "infallible" Pope. No one in modern times has ever claimed the Pope was "infallible" except under a very narrow set of circumstances. Basically it is only when he speaks as the head of the Church (rather than as a private person, or a theologian, or a diplomat), to define a point of doctrine once and for all in a way that will be binding for the entire Church. This was more or less settled at the First Vatican Council in 1870, although a significant schism resulted (dissenters became known as "Old Catholics").

Speaking under these circumstances, the Pope is said to be speaking Ex Cathedra (literally, "from the chair") and it happens only rarely. The last time was in 1950 when Pius XII issued Munificentissimus Deus, declaring that Mary had been assumed into Heaven without dying. It has been argued that Paul VI's encyclical affirming the ban on contraception (Humanae Vitae, 1968) was issued ex-cathedra, but this is not commonly accepted. (In fact, it was probably one of the single stupidest things the Catholic Church has done in modern times.)

Thomas Cahill wrote about "infallibility" in the Times yesterday, perhaps one of the only worthwhile bits of reading in the sea of imbecilic coverage since Saturday. Regretfully but sternly, he says what almost no one has been saying: that whatever his gifts as a diplomat and spokesperson, John Paul II damaged the Catholic Church perhaps beyond repair. Preaching against the use of condoms as millions died of AIDS, undercutting his own statements about Third World debt and treatment of the poor by aggressively supporting rapacious dictators in the name of anti-Communism, and systematically purging the Church of any shred of independent thought (in Cahill's words, "the ranks of the episcopate are filled with mindless sycophants and intellectual incompetents"), he has driven millions away from the Church.

Furthermore, his blind insistence on celibacy and his misogynistic refusal to consider any role for women in the Church has thinned the ranks of the priesthood in the U.S. even as the number of Catholics has increased. (Lots of interesting statistics at Future Church.) And his successors are likely to think exactly as he did, given that only three of the cardinals voting for his replacement were not appointed by John Paul II.

I doubt I'd be part of the Catholic Church no matter what direction it had taken, but one really has to wonder what would have happened in the world over the past quarter-century had John Paul II, who spoke with perhaps the most moral authority of anyone on the planet (someone pointed out that he had been seen live by more people than any other human in history) had spoken out against bigotry, rather than in favor of it; had encouraged a rational approach to sexual health and practices in the Church rather than covering up for child abusers and promulgating nonsensical and dangerous doctrine; or had evinced even the slightest support for the priests and nuns who worked so hard, and in some cases died, for the poor of Latin America and other places.

One should not allow the misbehaviors of its hierarchies to disguise the good that Catholic organizations do or the many Catholics who work hard for social justice. But it is a shame that the most genuinely Christian people in the Church are doing their work in spite of, rather than with the support of, the hierarchy.

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rubytramp From: rubytramp Date: April 6th, 2005 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks Ken, as a Jew I was wondering about this subject but didn't know who to ask. It is however, very much along the lines of what I was thinking.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: April 7th, 2005 10:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm prepared to get tomatoes thrown at me for this, and I hope X isn't reading. But I actually find something admirable in precisely what makes the Church so pig-headed. It is like what you posted recently about moral absolutes. They think they know them, and they're not willing to change to please modern sensibilities.

I can't use contraception; what if I already have 10 children, or pregnancy would endanger my health, or my husband has AIDS and rapes me regularly? Then suffer. Christianity is ABOUT suffering. Christianity is about give all that you have; it's about turn the other cheek; it's about God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son. Look at the crucifix and then say it's a hardship to abstain from sexual intercourse until you want to procreate! They don't sugar-coat Christianity and it causes me to have more admiration for them than I do for many religions who seem to want only to dispense theological candy.

Something really rubs me the wrong way about finding a religion that simply feels good. Shouldn't the goal be finding the truth? The kind of thing that grates on me is a phrase like "I wouldn't want a God who [did something I wouldn't like]" such as "I wouldn't want a God who sent homosexuals to hell." Well I'm sorry if that's not what you want, but what if it's TRUE? Again, absolute truth - does it exist? If it does, are you going to change it by refusing to accept it? What do you gain by joining a religion that simply makes you feel good?

And Catholicism is fairly consistent. You can't kill in the womb, or in the electric chair, or in Iraq, or during stem cell research. I'm not saying I agree, I'm saying that at least it's a consistent logical system, which is something else that scores them points with me.

So here's one sect's version of unwavering absolute truth. It's totally medieval, but for consistency and sheer strength of principle it beats a lot of religions out there. Which isn't saying much, and that's why my entire statement of admiration is heavily qualified: for a religion, it's OK. For a system of belief with no basis in reality whatsoever, it's OK by me.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: April 7th, 2005 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, well, when one starts tossing around ideas like "absolute truth" around one must accept that it may be difficult to agree on what they actually are. Nonetheless, I do believe they exist and I do believe we should be thinking about them and living up to them, and I don't believe the Catholic Church (which is not by any means the whole of Christianity, which is not by any means entirely representative of the teachings of one Jesus of Nazareth, 0 - 33 C.E.) represents much of any of them.

I agree with you that in some senses the Church is at least consistent -- if you truly believe that a fetus is a human being, then there are no possible exceptions to an abortion ban; it is not acceptable to kill a child because his or her father was a rapist -- but consistency is hardly a virtue in and of itself.

I don't think absolute truths make you feel good. I think they are things to live up to. There's a great line in Jackie Brown where Samuel L. Jackson says to his burnout girlfriend, who is stoned to hell on the couch, "You better stop smoking that stuff. It saps your ambition." She gives a woozy pothead laugh and says, "Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV." There are religions that encourage you to do what feels good and they've provided us with great words like "hedonist" and "sybarite."

So I understand what you're saying, but ultimately one has to judge by results. Considering how many people have been hurt and killed -- and are still being hurt and killed -- by the Roman Catholic system of belief, it is not at all OK with me.
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: April 8th, 2005 03:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are religions that encourage you to do what feels good and they've provided us with great words like "hedonist" and "sybarite."

It depends on what you mean by "feel good," too. In the short term it would feel good for me to nap on the couch in between bouts of reading old mystery novels and eating takeout. In the medium and long term, it would feel good to accomplish some things in my life that require me to leave the couch and expend energy. In the end, I have to quote Emerson here, from Self Reliance: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world."
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: April 8th, 2005 03:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Christianity is about embracing suffering: that's a favorite theme of the recent John Paul II. That's certainly how they'd like to frame the argument, and how they've been framing the argument since the First Century. But you know what? There's a huge difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering.

An earthquake kills 50,000 people in Japan. Okay, some of that suffering might be unnecessary, in that better building codes or rescue procedures might save lives, but mostly it's suffering that's unavoidable: the world is a dangerous place. On the other hand, AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. There are at least 25 million people infected with HIV on the continent. One factor in this bleak situation is the Vatican's insistence that condoms are immoral, and that only abstinence is acceptable. It's hard to quantify the Church's responsibility for AIDS deaths in Africa, but given its sizable influence there, it certainly bears some of the burden for many, many unnecessary deaths.

That leads me to science. The Vatican's stances on stem cell research, contraception, abortion, and Terri Fucking Schiavo are all incongruent with the science in each case. The Vatican's positions are not merely another realm of authority (faith as opposed to science), they are actually in direct conflict with the empirical evidence we have in these areas. You ask, " Shouldn't the goal be finding the truth?" YES! And the Vatican is guilty of ignoring the truth, at best, and contradicting it, at worst, to hew to an ideological position.

I could understand your admiration for the Vatican's ideological consistency if it weren't leading to so much unnecessary misery and death. As it is, I see the Church hitting AIDS victims (and Third World women of reproductive age, aspiring female clergy and gays and a long list of others) in the head with an ideological hammer and then saying "Life is suffering. Jesus suffered worse. Get over it." It's hypocritical, self-serving, and mean spirited in a way that I believe directly contradicts the spirit of many of Christ's teachings.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: April 8th, 2005 10:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
"The Vatican's stances on stem cell research, contraception, abortion, and Terri Fucking Schiavo are all incongruent with the science in each case. The Vatican's positions are not merely another realm of authority (faith as opposed to science), they are actually in direct conflict with the empirical evidence we have in these areas." How so?

"It's hypocritical, self-serving, and mean spirited in a way that I believe directly contradicts the spirit of many of Christ's teachings." Sort of. Is it hypocritical to try to end some kinds of suffering by causing other kinds?

And I'm not trying to argue that it's not mean, or wrong, or stupid, or totally medieval; just that's it is consistent and as valid as any other religious view.
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: April 9th, 2005 01:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
And I'm not trying to argue that it's not mean, or wrong, or stupid, or totally medieval; just that's it is consistent and as valid as any other religious view.

Yeah, I get the sense that you enjoy being the devil's advocate a bit. (Yup, pun intended.)

"The Vatican's positions...are actually in direct conflict with the empirical evidence we have in these areas." How so?

In all of those cases the contradiction revolves around what it means to be a person. When the Vatican says all life is sacred, it means all human life: it's okay to eat meat and wear leather, to use insecticide and drain wetlands for condos. Was Terri Schiavo a person? Not according to the numerous physicians who examined her: no brain function above the stem.

Similarly, is a fetus a person? A golden retriever has more cognitive ability than a fetus, reads and responds to emotions at a pretty high level, and can communicate in a rudimentary way. A fetus, let's face it, is an inert blob. It can respond to stimuli, depending upon its stage of development, with about the same level of sophistication as an earthworm. Yet no one is pressing to outlaw euthanasia of dogs (or even chimpanzees, which are more human than some humans), but the Vatican and its reactionary fellow travelers certainly want to outlaw abortion and stem cell research in the name of fetal life.

The anti-choice crowd will say that a golden retriever doesn't have the potential to become human, but a fetus does. So do ova and sperm, and very soon, just about any human tissue, thanks to cloning. You don't have to think very hard to see the implications in that: are you prepared to have your ova removed preemptively every month, rather than have them "murdered" in the course of your monthly cycle?

"That's ridiculous: menstruation is a natural process that isn't controlled by any act of will. I would have to take extraordinary actions to stop it." Yes, but you'd have to take less extraordinary measures to flash freeze your eggs, than you would to save a fetus born three months premature; certainly less extraordinary that keeping the body of Terri Schiavo alive.

The conflict of church and science is that the church doesn't care what the empirical evidence on cognition, suffering, and the boundary between life and death. The Vatican has staked out an ideological position, and it defends it regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

I know your admiration for the tenacity of the Vatican's positions is a sort of academic one, but it strikes me as intellectually and morally weak. There are, to go to an only slightly more extreme example, plenty of neo nazis whose worldviews are wholly consistent, and no more scientifically ridiculous than the Vatican's position on sex, abortion, gays, and other issues.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: April 9th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
You can't scientifically prove or refute the contention that God puts a soul into a human being at conception and it remains there until death, that this applies only to homo sapiens, and that it applies to all human life including fetal and vegetative. It is "another realm" as you said two posts ago; it doesn't matter what science says about brain activity; what has that got to do with a soul?

If a neo-Nazi group was saying something about racial superiority, that WOULD be scientifically refutable. But as I think out loud, what if they framed it in terms of religious belief? It could still be a tenacious and consistent belief system that I could defend on those grounds, but it would turn my stomach even more than the current discussion, which is already beginning to test my mettle as devil's advocate.

The Catholic Church shouldn't change. It should DIE. If it changed, it wouldn't be itself anymore, it would be just another Protestant sect, harming people in a more half-assed way than it currently does for a much longer period of history than it is likely to do in its current form. Let the next pope be even more despicable than the last one! Let people leave the Church in droves! Put this institution out of its misery.
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