(Written on 23 December 2012)
‘A bit over the top’ was my immediate reaction on noting a report quoting Richard Dawkins as saying, ‘Being raised Catholic is worse than child abuse’, see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251963/Being-raised-Catholic-worse-child-abuse-Latest-incendiary-claim-atheist-professor-Richard-Dawkins.html
Certainly, in the panoply of organisations that have been in the business of thought control, the Catholics stand out as one of the great successes. The symbols of Papal control can still be seen all over Rome, and here I am referring to the constant reminders above inscriptions and monuments all over the Eternal City, the symbols that remind the viewer as to who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven. It is, to my mind, a symbol of mental terrorism to remind you who is supposed to have the power to “loose and bind” your very soul to either Paradise or Hell.
Before I am misunderstood however, I must declare that I am not a religious man. As with Michel de Montaigne, I “would easily carry, in case of need, one candle to Saint Michael and one to the dragon”, but may I hasten to add that I hold this a-religious view not because I have insight into whether or not a Spiritual Reality of this kind exists – and therefore a gatekeeper to Heaven is necessary – but because I do not know if it is so. It may be that there exists a God who is more interested in the minutia of human life than say in the minutia of ant life, but I cannot see any evidence or reason for such a state of affairs. The only interest I have ever come across when considering this matter has been that of the people peddling the idea. So, this post is not about a belief in a God, but is confined to a comment prompted by Dawkins, that the Catholic Church is or was a great menace.
It is not a simple thing to show that the Papal symbols are not instruments of thought control, but it is easy to show that Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious systems that employ psychological blackmail. Throughout history the industry of priests has been to exert a form of mental terrorism through promises of Heaven and or threats of Hell, be they in this world, the third world, or the next world. And while most civilisations have got over it, we still see this manipulation of the minds of people by pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs and sangomas all over the world; the bedevilment of life in the Middle East in this way is a case in point.
When our younger son was about 10 years old he had the misfortune of having a junior school teacher who was a dreadfully religious, reborn spinster. Not only were her obligatory sex-education lessons very confusing for the boy – mainly because this miserable woman was telling of what she had heard, not of what she knew – but because she solemnly declared if a child had not been baptised in a church, and should they die, then their souls would go straight to Hell and Damnation…, for eternity. As we didn’t believe in that liturgy, my wife and I had not bothered with the ritual of baptism and so now, simply to assuage the child’s deep anxiety, we arranged for the lad to be baptised at the local church; something I expect the Church and the teacher had in mind in the first place. As it happened, the baptism was a happy occasion and in the end no harm was done, but the iniquity of frightening a child in this way is, to my mind, quite unforgivable. In that respect I am in agreement with Dawkins.
But is or was everything about Catholicism as bad as he seems to suggest? Well, I am not a Catholic, and I am mindful of H G Wells’ view that in the question of the dissemination of knowledge, “It was not the Roman Republic whose heir the Church esteemed itself, but the Roman Emperor.” It may well be that the intention of Church education was to facilitate the subjugation of the common minds by the clergy, but in the end, the fact is that it did open up the prospect of the modern educational state. And as I hear you cry, ‘Oh yeah, what about Galileo’, may I point out that no matter whether the leaders of the Church planned to enlighten or oppress thinking in the world, it was indeed the organisation of that Church that provided the vehicle for the general dissemination of knowledge throughout the Globe for hundreds of years.
Perhaps more importantly, as pointed out by Kenneth Clark, “The great achievements of the Catholic Church lay in harmonising, humanising and civilising the deepest impulses of the ordinary people.” One of the ways in which the Church did this was by presenting the virtues of tenderness and compassion to a barbaric world through the introduction of a female principle of the form of the Virgin Mary; a key figure in Catholic worship and to my mind a most enlightened idea. After all, why should we take seriously an all-male Divinity? Male and female principals are characteristic of every stabilising world religion and perhaps, if the Judaic religions had included a female principle, we would not be witnessing the present and protracted fighting in the Middle East.
And then of course there is confession… as noted, I have never made confession (if that is what you do with it). By the same token, I have never been on a psychiatrist’s couch, so in that sense I am not much better than a virginal sex-education teacher, so I will quote Kenneth Clark on this topic.
The historian cannot help observing how the need for confession has returned, even – or especially – in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers. The difference being that instead of confession being followed by a simple comforting rubric which has behind it the weight of divine authority, the modern confessor must grope his way through the labyrinth of the psyche, with all its false turnings and dissolving perspectives… because as a rule it is the act of confession that matters, not the attempted cure. (Civilisation, BBC and John Murray, 1971, p. 177)
It is quite true that through the dogma, bigotry, corruption and secrecy of the Catholic Church’s Councils and Inquisitions, a large number of people have been damaged over the years – and for that the Church stands rightly accused – but the Roman Catholic Church ultimately, in my view, did more good than harm and is therefore not deserving of the Dawkins headline.