The Duty of External Obedience

While I was doing research for "The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium", I came across some amazing passages in the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia's article on infallibility. Since it can be safely assumed that these still represent the Catholic church's viewpoint, I thought it was worth calling some wider attention to them.

The article starts out by making the same threats that are endemic to all forms of Christianity: the ominous proclamation that the church is infallible, and if you don't believe what they tell you to believe, you face an eternity of torment:

...the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority. This conclusion is confirmed by considering the awful sanction by which the Church's authority is supported: all who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.

(I like to imagine the pope holding a flashlight under his chin while he says that. Woooo, spooky!)

Now, as I mentioned in the previous post, the church doesn't claim that all its teachings are infallible, just the ones that it says are infallible. But from the standpoint of the ordinary man or woman in the pews, it doesn't matter, because the church says that the penalty for rejecting any church teaching, whether claimed to be infallible or not, is the same. Disbelieving anything the church commands you to believe is a mortal sin, and those who die with a mortal sin on their souls, etc., etc. The New Advent article acknowledges this:

...[T]he same penalty is threatened for disobedience to fallible disciplinary laws or even in some cases for refusing to assent to doctrinal teaching that is admittedly fallible.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that it proves the church's allegedly God-given authority is a sham, because in the past they've demanded that people give their assent to claims which even the church now admits are false. The most obvious case, of course, is when a church tribunal censored Galileo's writings, threatened him with torture and consigned him to house arrest for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. And the New Advent article acknowledges this, but the apologetic they propose is truly staggering in its delusional arrogance: the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible. [But]... the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional; and in the next place, internal assent is obligatory only on those who can give it consistently with the claims of objective truth on their conscience - this conscience, it is assumed, being directed by a spirit of generous loyalty to genuine Catholic principles.

To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right [who "happened" to be right? —Ebonmuse] while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.

What this means, if I read it right, is that Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe - unless they know for a fact it's false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they're still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false, and they're still required to obey any command the church gives that's based on that falsehood, which may include a decree of censorship ordering them to never discuss the thing they know is true or even to destroy the evidence that shows it to be true.

And if the church issues an ex cathedra proclamation, even that option of completely ineffectual resistance is taken away. Anything that's taught infallibly, Catholics aren't permitted to doubt, even inwardly. They're required to believe it wholeheartedly and that's that, and if they don't, they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.

The church's claim of absolute authority over the lives and even the inward thoughts of its members shows how far it hasn't come. In fact, its mindset hasn't really changed at all from its medieval, theocratic past - the days when it really did have the power it now only believes it has, when it could compel governments to obedience and threaten heretics with torture and death. Inside the Vatican, it's as if time has stood still for centuries: the church's rulers dwell in faded citadels surrounded by memories of past empire, and still delude themselves that they command the eternal destiny of the world. They're welcome to live their lives in dreams of the past if they wish, but when they venture out into the present day and pompously proclaim their superiority over the rest of us, the only response they should get is the laughter and scorn they so richly deserve.

September 21, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

Although many sects of Christianity consider their own beliefs to be infallible, Catholicism has a formal, bureaucratic process for adding new inerrant teachings to its canon. When the pope speaks "ex cathedra", officially defining a new dogma, it's becomes something that all Catholics are required to profess. (I like to think he has a special "infallible hat" hanging in his wardrobe.) As the church thoughtfully explains, an ex cathedra statement must be true "independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result".

Now, admittedly, it's true that the pope doesn't claim to be infallible about everything he says. (I know, what a humble guy, right?) Although he can theoretically decide to issue an ex cathedra proclamation about anything at any time, it's true that the claim of papal infallibility has only been formally invoked on rare occasions. The last time it was used was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven was an article of dogmatic belief for Catholics.

However, what's less well known is that an official proclamation from the Pope isn't the only way for the Catholic church to issue an infallible teaching. If all bishops throughout the world at any given time agree on a particular belief, then that belief is considered to automatically be infallibly true and dogmatically binding on all Catholics present and future. The church calls this the "ordinary and universal magisterium". Pope John Paul II, for example, explicitly stated that the prohibition on women priests is a permanent and infallible part of Catholic faith because of this doctrine.

The ordinary and universal magisterium is probably also why Pope Paul VI overruled his own handpicked commission when they recommended that the church permit contraception: because even though the pope has never made an ex cathedra statement about birth control, the unanimous agreement of bishops up till that point made it an infallible matter of morals, and therefore, according to the church, impossible for them to ever change their position.

Now, I've got a question: Under the doctrine of the ordinary and universal magisterium, is it an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic church that priests who rape children should be sheltered and protected from the law?

If I understand the principle, the dissent of even one bishop would render this null and void as a church doctrine. But, as far as I'm aware, this has never happened. As far as I'm aware, no Catholic bishop anywhere has ever informed the police voluntarily when a priest was accused of molestation, as opposed to turning over said priest because his proclivities were already known or as part of a legal settlement in which that disclosure was compelled.

It seems absurd that the Catholic hierarchy should hold as an infallible truth of faith that the church should protect pedophiles. And yet, the church's officials have consistently acted as if this is the case. They've consistently acted as if avoiding the embarrassment of a sex predator being discovered among the clergy is more important than preventing that person from preying upon children in his pastoral care. Whether they've explicitly said so or not, they certainly seem to think that shielding child molesters from the law is an essential part of Catholic morals.

September 16, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

The storm may rage and the winds may howl, but I'm still here! (So far.) Here's a couple of interesting stories I didn't have time to write more about this week:

• Following Rick Perry's urgent prayers for rain in his drought-stricken state, Tropical Storm Don formed in the Gulf, headed toward Texas, and then dissipated before dropping any significant rain. The drought continues. How long will it be before Perry's Christian supporters start to seriously consider if God is punishing him for something?

• The Filipino Freethinkers win "The One" category at the Tatt Awards! Congratulations to the FF, and thanks to everyone who voted for them.

• Following some very disappointing decisions at the United Nations, here's one that's a welcome change: the UN affirms that criticizing religion is a human right.

• Jon Huntsman torpedoes his chance at the Republican presidential nomination by announcing he doesn't deny two of the foundational theories of modern science.

• The U.S. defense agency DARPA plans to award half a million dollars in seed money for a feasibility study for a ship that could send human beings to another star. This money is a drop in the bucket next to the trillions that would actually be needed to construct such a ship, but it's good to see that some people still have the ability to contemplate the biggest and most adventurous questions.

• Sam Harris writes a superb article on Objectivism. "Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people‚Äôs children? It amazes me that such questions require answers." (Edit: But please see this disclaimer.)

• In a previous post, I wondered if the Irish government would match its harsh condemnation of the Vatican with action by seizing and auctioning church property to compensate the victims of church-sanctioned sexual assault. I'm extremely pleased to read that they're doing just that, pressing the church to hand over control of land and schools and pay half the compensation bill for abuse victims in Roman Catholic children's homes.

August 28, 2011, 12:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink23 comments

Photo Sunday: Barcelona

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August 7, 2011, 10:46 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink1 comment

Photo Sunday: Valencia

We saw a lot of churches and cathedrals in Spain, but the Cathedral of Valencia could claim one mark of distinction that some of the much larger and more impressive ones couldn't. Namely, it's the final resting place of that most precious Christian relic, the Holy Grail itself. To see that and more, click to continue...


July 31, 2011, 2:32 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping, Continued

I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Catholic church is actually relieved to be dealing with a scandal that, for once, doesn't involve priests raping children with the protection of their higher-ups. How else to explain their abject contrition over the discovery that, in Australia, they abducted tens of thousands of children born to unwed mothers in Catholic hospitals and gave them up for adoption without consent?

Australia's Roman Catholic Church has issued an apology for its role in the forced adoptions of babies from unmarried mothers during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a practise that has been described as a "national disgrace".

It is estimated that more than 150,000 young women across Australia had their children taken away at birth without their consent, often never to be seen again.

Women subjected to forced adoptions in Catholic-run hospitals have described being shackled and drugged during labour and prevented from seeing their children being born or holding them afterwards.

..."We acknowledge the pain of separation and loss felt then and felt now by the mothers, fathers, children, families and others involved in the practices of the time," the apology said.

"For this pain we are genuinely sorry."

Like the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, this horror had its roots in Christianity's wicked theology of original sin and human depravity. Doubtless, young unwed mothers were assumed to be sinful, immoral, the "wrong" kind of people; and of course, in the church's eyes, that meant they had no human rights and could be treated like slaves.

What's remarkable is that this practice continued even after society as a whole had become more enlightened. The article mentions that, by this time, Australia offered state-paid benefits to single parents in recognition of the fact that there's more than one kind of family. But even after the country as a whole had recognized that these less-conventional family relationships deserved protection and support, the Catholic church continued to act like a medieval dictatorship, treating women and children as if it was entitled to decide their fates with or without their consent, and splitting up mothers from their babies in the interests of forcing them into the "right" kind of family.

Now that the truth has come to light, the church's tattered moral standing has taken another blow. I said earlier that they were contrite, but maybe I spoke too soon. After all, they're still displaying their usual sense of entitled superiority, acting as if others should bear the burden of compensating the victims of the wrongs they committed:

As well as issuing an apology, the Catholic Church has called on the government [emphasis added] to establish "a fund for remedying established wrongs" and a national programme to help mothers and children who were harmed by the forced separations.

Notably absent from the church's apology is any offer to help identify the people who organized and participated in this act of mass child kidnapping so that they can be prosecuted. Given the time involved, many of them are probably dead by now, but it's an avenue that should at least be pursued. As with the child rape scandal, it appears that the Catholic authorities are willing to make a symbolic show of apology only as long as no actual punishment follows for any of their wrongdoing.

* * *

In other news, there's this cheering story wondering whether the Vatican's relations with Ireland have been permanently damaged. In the wake of the Cloyne report, public anger against the church is at a high-water mark, with some going so far as to hope that the church will follow the News of the World's example and shut down permanently. And the Pope isn't helping, with a stiffnecked response that can best be summarized as "How dare you peasants act so ungrateful after all we've done for you".

Even when the facts of the situation would seem to dictate sackcloth and ashes, the church continues to take the path of defiance, acting as if it's not subject to the laws of the nations in which it resides. Granted, opinions change so slowly inside the Vatican, they may not have realized that this is in fact no longer the case. But, I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Irish government and people jolt them into the present!

July 29, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

Ireland Versus the Vatican, Continued

I've mentioned in the past that Ireland, which gave the Catholic church more privileges and greater deference than almost any other country in Europe, was rewarded for its devotion with one of the highest per-capita rates of child rape by priests than any other nation else in the world. That scandal continues to unspool, and today there's another big update.

In 1996, in response to public outcry, a committee of Irish bishops drew up a policy which would have made it mandatory to report suspected sex predators among the clergy to the police. As I wrote back in January, the Vatican expressed strong reservations about this policy, warning that full disclosure of accusations to the civil authorities could interfere with internal church investigations (which, of course, it considered more important).

As a result, the mandatory-reporting policy, although it technically remained in force, was shelved by the bishops and never enforced. What happened next is no surprise: predator priests continued to abuse children, and the church continued to do nothing. As recently as 2009, parishioners were lodging complaints of abuse and molestation by members of the clergy. An independent investigative committee has just released its most recent report, which only covered the rural diocese of Cloyne; but even so, it turned up allegations against 19 priests since 1996.

"That's the most horrifying aspect of this document," Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland's minister for children, told a news conference on Wednesday. "This is not a catalogue of failure from a different era - this is about Ireland now."

The Irish government is furious, as well they might be, but as usual, the Catholic church has shown little sign of concern. Bishop John Magee, who resigned last year but was in charge of the diocese during the period covered by the Cloyne report, offered more empty apologies but nothing else. In response, Ireland's prime minister Enda Kenny summoned the Vatican's ambassador for a harsh dressing down. As Ophelia Benson put it so aptly, reading these words was like music to my ears:

"There's one law in this country. Everybody is going to have to learn to comply with it. The Vatican will have to comply with the laws of this country," Gilmore said after his face-to-face grilling of the ambassador, a rare experience for the pope's diplomats anywhere, let alone long-deferential Ireland. (source)

This is great stuff. Even better was the announcement that the government plans to introduce a law which would make it a crime for anyone, church officials included, to fail to report allegations of sex abuse to the civil authorities:

"The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar," Kenny said.

These are good first steps, but Ireland needs to go further. When the abuse scandal first broke, the government made a disastrous decision to protect the church by assuming almost all the liability for settlements to abuse victims. I hope they're giving serious consideration to reversing that decision by seizing and auctioning church property to pay compensation to the victims. (And if it hasn't occurred to them yet, I hope some freethinking Irish voters will suggest it.) I also hope that Irish officials will consider following the lead of the Philadelphia grand jury that recently returned indictments against church officials for protecting child molesters. There ought to be more than enough evidence already to file charges.

These are harsh measures, but the bishops have proven again and again that nothing less will suffice. They've shown countless times that they'll never act against child molesters on their own initiative. Their only loyalty is to the institution of the church, not to the people who attend it, and whenever anything happens that could embarrass the church, their first response will always, always be to deny, delay and cover up. They'll never take action unless they're forced to by the threat of criminal sanctions - arrests and prosecutions of bishops, seizure of church property to pay compensation to victims, and the like. The Catholic authorities are in need of a sharp reminder that they're subject to the law like everyone else, and I hope Ireland gives it to them.

July 20, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments

From the Mailbag: Shedding the Burden of Suffering

Earlier this week, I got a lengthy letter whose author gave me permission to share it with you:

Dear Ebonmusings:

I gave a glimpse to your musing about the carrot and the stick - I didn't expect it to talk about morality, mainly because I realized that the latest part of my life as a christian was about pursuing a carrot and a stick.*

Allow me to share my story. Sorry if it's a bit depressing, but I can assure you that I'm much better now (and much better than before, since I embraced atheism and got rid of many prejudices and sick attitudes).

I had always been a devout Catholic. My devotion was fed in a positive feedback loop by my own spiritual experiences. I had thought God loved me and considered me so special that he had given me some visions and experiences that I read about in the works of Catholic saints. Today I just realized it was mere delusion.

Anyway. My problem was when, for health reasons, I had to leave a hellhole called seminary. I was going to be a missionary priest. I couldn't even finish the first year because there was no doctor there and I got ill more than once - worse, I lost around 20 pounds of weight from malnutrition. To make things worse, they made us work and live in very unsanitary conditions - once, the pork we were going to eat was left to rot for around three days under the sun, without us even suspecting it. I fell ill and had to take whatever antibiotics we had at hand. Eventually I got better. During the mission, I slept less than five hours a day for more than a month thanks to my brothers, who always stayed late, and I had to be the one who would wake up first to be able to take a quick shower before Mass at 6 AM. Eventually I got the flu and had to leave everything.

When I returned home, I realized my father had already given up my home to my sister who recently had gotten married and was expecting a baby. So I had to live in a little storage room that was below the ground level. This was bad because it flooded occasionally and sometimes the sewer overflowed, and I couldn't get my own apartment because I couldn't find a job.

Still wondering why God had left me in this situation, I realized I was growing older and I needed to find myself a wife - as I couldn't stand my loneliness... much less the depression that I was going through. I was tortured by my loneliness and my escapes in masturbation (which meant that I sinned)... at the same time, I was going through such horrible despair that I wanted to kill myself. But I couldn't because God would send me to hell. I begged him to kill me or give me a hand, a new room, etc.

Eventually I realized I could no longer live isolated in that room (only to come to my parents' one-bedroom apartment for breakfast and dinner), so I decided to live with my parents and sleep on the couch. There was a little problem... my dad always woke up at 4 AM and I couldn't sleep well. At one point I began dreaming about having my own bedroom. In the dream, I was so happy but I remembered it was just a dream, and I woke up crying and wanting to die.

During that year, I kept asking myself: "Why, God? Why?" Why was the question that God never answered. And I realized today that I had always wanted an answer as why God was testing me in such a horrible manner. At one point I felt abandoned, crushed and hated by God - I felt there was no other explanation.

I sought help which didn't come. Even after being able by mere chance (actually, the landlord increased the rent and some neighbors had to leave, so we moved to a two-bedroom apartment) to finally get my own bedroom, my bitterness hadn't gone away. I kept asking for and expecting a compensation for all my undeserved sufferings. They didn't come.

A believer's life on Earth is always carrying a burden of suffering... seeking a carrot named "help" with a stick named "Faith". In my case, if I ever dared to question God's infinite love, or even his existence, I would doom myself to hell. I couldn't even curse his name (in fact, I haven't, even as an atheist - except that claiming that he doesn't exist might be cursing him). So, I was doomed to suffer if I challenged ("tempted") God, and I was doomed to suffer and wait hoping God would be compassionate towards me otherwise. Also, because I was such a sinner, I felt that God was punishing me and I couldn't get any help.

This is what I wanted to share. Faith is evil, it forces many unnecessary sufferings on people who seek divine help that will never come, instead of seeking the help of our fellow humans and realizing that if you don't help yourself, nobody else will.

Finally I would like to thank Reddit for sharing so much insight on life and helping me realize there is no God. It's been a liberating experience.

Please feel free to post this on your site, as long as my testimony remains anonymous.

Thank you for listening.

* In a follow-up e-mail, he explained: "One note about my testimony... it wasn't a carrot and a stick used to hit (as in reward / punishment), but a carrot hanging on a stick. This is why I called the stick 'faith', and the carrot 'happiness'. You try to move, but the stick moves with you. You cannot get the carrot until you finally get rid of the stick (the faith)."

July 15, 2011, 6:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

Photo Sunday: Seville

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July 10, 2011, 2:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments

To Win, We Just Have to Show Up

In the wake of marriage equality's victory in New York State last Friday, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler posted the following to Twitter:

Now, fully 1 in 9 Americans will live in a state with legalized same-sex marriage. Our mission field is getting more complicated.

On the surface, this is a strange statement. Mohler apparently believes that the legalization of same-sex marriage will make it more difficult for Christians to win converts. Why would he think this?

My wife and I discussed this, and I can only come up with one explanation that seems reasonable: Mohler is against same-sex marriage because he wants society to discriminate against non-Christians, thereby making conversion to Christianity a more attractive offer. If all people have equal rights, then Christianity will be forced to rely on its own persuasive power to make converts, rather than holding out unique privileges that are only available to Christians - and that's a competition he fears!

And it's not hard to see why. If proselytizers like Mohler seek to convince gay people that their sexual orientation is sinful, wrong and must be changed, they'll have a much harder time making the case to people in a happy, stable, committed relationship with all the benefits offered by the state to opposite-sex couples. They'd prefer that GLBT people be a downtrodden and oppressed minority, punished and scorned by the state, unprotected against discrimination in jobs or housing, shut out from all the legal benefits society has to offer. They don't want to compete on a level playing field, but one that's tilted in their favor; they want people who won't convert to suffer for their defiance.

The same thing happens with atheism. In their furious hushing of atheists and demanding that we be more respectful, in their efforts around the world to pass bills punishing speech that insults or denigrates religion, we see that what the major religious groups and their allies want is to silence dissent. Again, they don't want to compete in a marketplace of ideas; they want society to be their parishioners, sitting in enforced silence while they alone stand in the pulpit and preach.

There's a lesson here for freethinkers: to win the debate, we just have to show up. If we can speak freely and make our case, we've already won. If we can successfully claim the same rights and the same privileges as religious people, we've already won. If ordinary people have friends and family who are atheists, and know that they have friends and family who are atheists, we've already won. If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured, because we know that in an open and fair debate, our arguments are the better ones and will carry the day. It's only coercion and prejudice that can hold us back, and both those obstacles are weakening and falling one by one.

* * *

In other news, New York's churches are still sputtering in fury over the passage of marriage equality this weekend. The Catholic bishops were caught off-guard and were never able to mount an effective opposition, but now that they've lost, they're venting their anger by spitefully vowing to ban pro-equality politicians from events at Catholic schools and churches:

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of the diocese of Brooklyn, called on all Catholic schools to reject any honor bestowed upon them by Gov. Cuomo, who played a pivotal role in getting the bill passed.

He further asked all pastors and principals to "not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration."

Personally, I couldn't be happier that this naked bigotry is on open display. I want the bishops to announce it far and wide, preferably in bright neon signs. I want the whole world to hear the message loud and clear: "If you believe gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else, we don't want you in our church!"

I say this because every survey shows that the younger generations are overwhelmingly in favor of equality. By making assent to bigotry a non-negotiable condition of membership, by vocally insisting that the one thing that defines a Christian more than anything else is being anti-gay, the bishops are accelerating their slide into irrelevance. Some denominations are bowing to the inevitable, but the Catholic authorities have made this their hill to die on. And the way they're going, they'll get their wish. Already, as many as one in ten Americans are ex-Catholics, and that number is only going to increase. In twenty years or so, the religious landscape in the Western world is going to be very different, and that's a change that I look forward to seeing.

June 29, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

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