Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column. Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around. We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.
The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority. Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context. Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.
It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators. Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.
And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional: “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.
Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves: “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.” That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking. The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.” This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.
In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.” Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves: public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding. Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.
We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church. Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies? But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave. Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism. Is it really rational to expect them to leave? And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?
So where does that leave us as humanists? I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within. But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.
Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:
- Official papal visit site (promotional pap, not defence of the pope)
- Decline of UK Catholicism (statistics, with commentary lamenting the fact)
- British Social Attitudes Survey (lots of information on religiosity in the UK)
- A better example of why the pope’s power is a problem for everyone to be concerned about, from Ben Goldacre.
- Greta Christina, asking “Why is anyone still a Catholic?“