Martin Luther began his polemic against the Roman Catholic Church by stating: “It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.”
Luther was reacting to a decadent and greed-tainted church, and was able to cut through the spurious propaganda of the pious to show plainly that the church had lost, in some sense, the sublime early principles of Christianity.
Recently, my mild anti-clericalism was evoked in a missive sent to the Merrimack student body, beginning with a warm and comforting reminder of the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, the letter quickly belied a sectarian tenor, saying: “For those of us in the Catholic tradition, this is a time of thanks and of profound optimism.”
The large swaths of Protestants of course, are outside this general will, and therefore do not seem to have much to be sanguine about. This seems to be a tad offensive, not to mention tribal, and clearly shows that the pungency of the critique of 1517, and the writings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al, have not been diminished in the intervening years.
The Catholic Church, in other words, makes expansive claims for itself, claims that do not always cohere, or deserve, the adherence and respect of Christians. A principal reason for the phenomenon of “lapsed Catholics” is the craven negligence of the church to deal with the scourge of child rape in its own ranks. The New York Times recently reported on Pope Francis’s remarks on the ongoing scandal: “Pope Francis has created a special commission to advise him on the protection of minors and the reform of church procedures. One glaring area that must be addressed has been the Vatican’s failure to punish members of the church hierarchy who took part in the widespread, systematic cover-up of the pedophilia scandal and shielded priests from being charged in the criminal courts.”
The Times remarked that Pope Francis has exhibited a reformist streak, displaying the necessity of a stronger response within the church itself, “because you cannot interfere with children.” While there is much to admire in the new pope, such as his devotion to the poor and embattled immigrants in Europe and elsewhere, this language flirts dangerously with euphemism.
Is “interference” really being morally equated with rape? This is callous, not to say perfunctory, given the heinousness of the deed, the years of psychological damage and moral degradation of the victims, and the failure of the Church to “set its house in order,” as the expression usually runs. The omnipresence of euphemism is in part the reason for a less vigorous condemnation by secular society and mainline Protestant churches, leading to evasive reactions within the Vatican. Confucius, in the Analects, noted this phenomenon: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” Therefore, the constant use of “abuse” in place of rape has assisted in rhetorically diminishing the degree of the crime, serving to unjustly expiate the Vatican’s guilt.
The Time quoted a voice critical of the church’s machinations: “Until he takes some actions, it’s hard to believe that his request for forgiveness is serious,” said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. It is confusing that the church, after years of maladroitness regarding criminals within the hierarchy, should be expected to do a volte-face merely due to the ushering in of a new and liberal leader.
Joseph Ratzinger was renowned for advocating an internal policing of ranks, which has been tortuously slow in coming. This moribund process actually shows that the jurisdiction should be taken out of the church’s hands and placed under the ambit of secular law. What other organization could expect so much magnanimity and leniency in dealing with the abomination of child rape? Turning matters over to the law would doubtlessly catalyze much-needed reforms. But, again there is the ubiquitous charge that to even raise this question is to be a foe of “tradition,” and opposed to the sacrosanct place of the church to maintain family values and patriarchal order, irrespective of the actual behavior of the Vatican.
There are other problems with a doctrinaire adherence to the Catholic model, parochialism and homogeneity being the most prominent. Luther and Calvin’s legacy consists of the individual and a Bible working out a personal relationship to God unmediated by millennia of tradition, hierarchy, and custom. The Catholic model is slightly different, valuing the primacy of cohesion and order, with confession and Mass as the arbiters of what a good Catholic should do to attain the numinous. This is commendable and ennobling in many ways, but it can also have the unintended effect of cultivating an uncritical devotion, passive rather than active.
This is of course, not incompatible with human flourishing, both intellectually and spiritually.
High regard should be shown to the model of Augustine, especially the sapience he lent to Christian apologetics. Likewise, modern Catholics like Pope John Paul II have done incredible work. The latter’s fight for justice in his native Poland, and his staunch opposition to the barbaric practice of the death penalty (and yes, abortion) justly place him within the benevolent traditions of Christianity.
However, this does not mean the church is without serious foibles, nor makes it immune from criticism.
Turning to Merrimack helps explicate the results of this. Bread and circuses is the main cultural staple at the college, with very little emphasis outside of the classroom on culture, education, politics, or theology. A quick experiment can be indicative of the school’s ethos: Spend some time in Andover’s library, listening to the conversations of college and high school students, and then do the same thing at Merrimack. The vast disparity of values and norms should be self-evident. In other words, homogeneity runs rampant, while the eclectic and peculiar fails to be welcomed.
Furthermore, the exclusivity of the church helps to inhibit liberal values, holding homosexuals in contempt and women outside the ranks. It also withholds communion from fellow Christians (this is not the case in Protestant churches). There is, then, less of Paul’s famous “Neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free,” but more of a pedantic, legalistic and worldly religiosity.
It remains the case that Luther’s opening salvo on the cathedral door in Wittenberg helped to herald not just a reformation of Christianity, but also the germinal moves to liberal democracy and the primacy of the individual over the state, church and hierarchy. In the process, the Reformation eventually helped to vitiate tribalism, parochialism and obscurantism, a firm reminder that any courageous individual with probity can bring forth profound and revolutionary changes.