Can we trust a sinful Church?
Blogged by James Preece on 6th August 2012
We evil bloggers spend most of our time sat in darkened rooms. It's not that we like the dark, it's just that the concentrating we have to do to maintain the constant feelings of hatred tends to bring on a headache and the darkness helps with that.
When I'm not sat in a darkened room trying to think up ways to make life more difficult for people I've never met (an activity which obviously has nothing to do with protecting my children and is entirely driven by malice) it is always nice to get an email from an enquiring young mind who is asking big questions at an age when I spent most of my time painting little models of goblins.
Anyway, with his permission, here is our brief exchange. His question...
Catholicism and history seems to be inseparable. My issue is in the absolute conviction the church encourages its members to have in the Church. No-one can say the Catholic Church has a perfect history. Of course not, who has? Yet, history is, as Catholics well know, is not simply past. Through the 'laying on of hands', the sacraments and the apostolic succession history is carried forward. This is where my argument lies.
By perpetuating the history of the Church, Catholicism does not leave much room for criticism or change. There seems to be a distinction here: Christianity and the Catholic Church. In the Church's embrace of history, it promotes the Church over (some) Christian principles. Why is it that, after five years in a Catholic School, I have not heard honest acceptance of some of the barbaric and flatly inhumane history of the Church? The Crusades, the persecution of protestants, the abhorrent Christianisation of South America, the opposition to the enlightenment and support for slavery come to mind. In other circumstances, I would not mind, as this is only history. Yet, in a Catholic environment that seeks to perpetuate and instrument this history, history should be available as it happened. By cherry picking its history (in sacraments, the Catechism and liturgy) the Church is guilty of contradicting itself over the importance it has in its past. I am not here to say I oppose history. I can fully imagine the beauty there must be in reading, praying and singing words that have done so for centuries; the beauty in receiving wine not dissimilar to the drink Christ took at the last supper; and in worshiping in buildings where worship has happened for possibly thousands of years. The Church - rightly - encourages and places importance in such aesthetic and spiritual beauty. But just as the Church venerates this history, it suppresses the history of torture, death and deceit; the very same history that is passed on through the apostolic succession.
I notice you quote Thomas More on your blog. It seems somewhat ironic that the Utopia that he lays out in his book mirrors the Church today. It seems good, very good at first. Later, however, all is not as good as first seemed. Thomas More, as I am sure you know, was cannonised by the Church in 1935 and then declared 'heavenly statesmen of politicians and statesmen' by Pope John Paul II only 12 years ago.
The Church, surely, is aware of More's fatal persecution of those who 'dared' to read the Bible in English. More burnt these 'English Bible readers' until charred and dead. And, I have argued, this is not simply history! This is passed on, sainted and then venerated by the most infallible of male human beings on the planet. Thomas More, a man who committed far worse than the martial use of condoms, not attending mass one Sunday or day of obligation or participating on a Gay Pride parade. A killer, a callous and pernicious murderer who shows absolute contempt for human life whilst simultaneously promoting the Catholic Church. How, not as a Catholic but as a human being, can you nod through the veneration of such a hypocrite? The very type who Christ, who all can admire, had the most loathe for. It is interesting to note that Christ did not criticize the prostitutes, the drunks or the thieves. No, he turned his criticism to the establishment, the pharisees and the ostensible 'holy men' (the Popes of their time). Those who acted contrary to how they preached. I do not claim to know what Christ would say now. But, it would not surprise me if he had a lot to say to the Catholic Church. Despite their spread of the 'body of Christ' and his message, the Church is responsible for barbaric acts of contempt for human life, doctrinal prejudice and often undue judgement. I am sure he (or her!) would be very impressed with the loyalty of 1.2 billions Catholics. My only question is, loyalty to what? Christ or the Church?
My initial rhetoric that the Church does not encourage change embodies the conviction in the authority of the Church. From what (little) I have seen, I see that this is not confined to the Vatican. Catholics take it upon themselves to carry out the teachings of the Church. Whereby I have seen hetresexuals judge homosexuals, males judging females and the stick in someone else's eye noticed before the log in their own. If the judgement of God really is so great, as the church purports, then why do we need to judge? No more than whites can tell blacks they are inferior can hetreosexuals tell homosexuals they are immoral. Why not look to your own sexual immorality before leaping upon someone else's? One man sleeping with another will not affect another. If this is wrong, God will decide. Not, I believe, the Pope or any other inherently fallible human. If the homosexual is disordered or 'wounded' as I heard an (otherwise wonderful) priest tell our class then so is the priest. By denying the natural call for sexual relations they are, by the Church's teaching on homosexuality, disordered. Or, no more disordered than the homosexual who foregoes procreation for the sake of a relationship with another. Akin to the Pope (or any other Clergy) who foregoes procreation for the sake of a relationship with God. Why is the stick in the other noticed before the log in one's self?
I know I have missed out in the above the commitment of missionaries, the kindliness of priests and the work of CAFOD and SVP. Essentially I am throwing stones to see what is returned.
Many thanks for reading. I am greatly anticipating your reply!
The following answer to your email may seem a bit strange and I hope you don't think I am trying to dodge the issues - we can have an in depth discussion about the details of particular historical events if you want to, but I find it more helpful to talk about these things in general terms.
For example - of torture, slavery, death, war, deceit etc. These are all specific examples of moral evils. What your email takes a lot of words to say is simply this: The Church has permitted, encouraged and engaged in moral evil. In fact, we can boil it down even more, we can simply say: The Church has sinned. That might sound like dodging the issues but it is actually an admission of defeat. Yes, you are correct - the Church has sinned. You win round one.
At this point it is tempting to discuss the scale of it - a few white lies by a Pope in 1462 wouldn't be quite so bad as the wholescale genocide of native south americans by the Spanish Catholic Conquistadors (you can add that to your list if you like). But remember why we are having this discussion - we are trying to decide whether to trust the Catholic Church when she tells us the answers to big questions about God, Salvation, the meaning of life etc..
Obviously the scale matters - it matters terribly to the victims and it is vitaly important in discussions about how to avoid atrocities in the future and so on. But on this particular question - the question of "can I trust the Church?" - I submit that the scale is not important at all. An otherwise perfect Church that stole one currant bun from a fat kid in 1264 has clearly proved itself capable of being at fault, so how could I trust it?
There is no minimum safe sin level. It is not as though we could trust a Church that performed below a particular sin threshold. The Church didn't pass it's quota in 325AD or render itself untrustworthy when it reached a particular level of depravity. It's also something of a red herring to look at things like CAFOD and the SVP as though giving money to the hungry can some how cancel out burning people to death.
We can either trust a Church that sins, or we can't - and we know that the Church has sinned. That's what it all boils down to.
I'm going to leave that question hanging in the air for now before this email gets too long and it seems silly to proceed any further without giving you a chance to respond, but I do want to add two quick points:
Firstly, that from a scriptural point of view it seems we should expect the Church to sin. Jesus recruits sinful men one of whom betrays him to his death and another of whom denys him three times. Jesus then promotes the denier to "the rock on whom I will build my Church" and then almost immediately tells him to "get behind me Satan".
Secondly, that we should be careful what we wish for - would we actually want a perfect Church? I mean to say - am I perfect? are you? Neither of us really wants to join a club for perfect goody goody two shoes people. We both want a Church that is a "hospital for sinners". We object when the Church forgives St Thomas More for his involvement in the administration of cruel punishments, but is that forgiveness not the very thing we hope to receive ourselves?
Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on all this,
P.S. I have ommitted from this email a whole category of questions the Church should ask herself about the future, quesitons like "should we continue to venerate St Thomas More?" etc. Those questions are massively important if the Church is true, but if the Church is false then why waste our time? Who cares if a false Church venerates St Thomas More? If the Church is false then to hell with it. Why waste our time?