This post has been stumbling around my head for a while now, like a drunk goth trying to find their way out of an unfamiliar club – but thanks to a couple of posts from Captain Ranty (one of which has been removed but I saw by the wonders of RSS and the other of which is here) my thoughts seem to have stumbled in a rather dazed fashion into a semblance of coherence. I’m afraid this article is going to be about religion and worse than that Catholicism and the Pope – and if that wasn’t bad enough I’m not even going to bash them that much. So now you’ve been duly warned I’ll not be at all offended if you skip this, and my normal ramblings will resume in due course.
For this to make any sense, I suspect a bit of back ground is needed. I’m a seemingly rare beast in that I was brought up a Roman Catholic (though I went to a state school), was very involved in the life of my local church until I left home and I’ve no horror tales to tell at all. My family was on friendly terms with several of the priests who were frequent visitors to the house and remain to this day some of the best people I’ve met. I even studied a bit of theology and was involved in the chaplaincy at university – this obviously has shaped my outlook on the world rather strongly, and I consider the Catholic church as a whole and definitely as a concept to be a good thing ™.
Which staggeringly brings me towards the matter on which I want to touch, Captain Ranty’s original post referenced an article which suggested that the Pope was excusing past behavior as being a product of it’s time, yet the text of the speech actually given reveals a rather key missing sentence:
“This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos.”
Again the Pope in being quoted out of context shocker, which is it seems to me a recurring problem (perhaps especially when he admits the church got it wrong). The various speeches of the Pope and Bishops are aimed at particular audiences and the current Pope, who is by all accounts an excellent academic, seems to fall foul of how such a message can be used. Likewise the variously reported statements on condom usage which always attract so much attention neglect that it’s advice aimed only at those who are members of the church everyone else can ignore them. That these pronouncements are only advice is seemingly something frequently forgotten both by members of the church, and also those commentators outside of the church. Not much is actually required belief to be in communion with the church, despite it’s authoritarian reputation (often richly deserved, but not in keeping with it’s teachings) mostly it just offers advice. Certainly advice that should be taken with varying degrees of seriousness, but none the less just advice that needs to be filtered through the individuals circumstance and own conscience. Following the advice of the church doesn’t absolve one from the consequence of ones action or inaction (“I was just following orders” is never an excuse).
That this is message isn’t taught enough or expounded clearly is I believe a great shame. But with religion as it seems with politics people seem to prefer to be told what to do rather than to have to think about it themselves and take individual responsibility. But then the church it seems is falling into the same trap that has reduced our political choices to that of picking between different parties with the same policies. The church should always when making a public announcement be talking of the ideal, and holding to it’s principles even if awkward and unpopular to do otherwise removes what value it has. It is on this point that I have most of my problems with the church. For example it “recently” decided that having the movable feasts on weekdays was too awkward so moved them to the nearest Sunday, severing a tie with the past and the usually important history and traditions of the church. A minor thing I’ll admit but how can the church appeal to it’s continuing tradition in one matter an discard it in another – the Church should be consistent if it’s to claim to proclaim a universal truth. Likewise in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we see the contradictory advice, and lack of universal principle in that it advises against “the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine” (2290) but then goes on (2291) to prohibit the use of drugs “except on strictly therapeutic grounds” describing any other use as a “grave offence”. Now last I looked alcohol and tobacco were both drugs, so where is the moral demarcation between these acceptable drugs and those that are a grave offence – no guidance is given, no pointer to an underlying truth.
So I’m not a fan of how the advice of the Chruch is presented, nor the actions of many of it’s officials, but it is made of humans and thus is flawed and prone to make mistakes – sadly often horrendous mistakes given it’s position in many communities. On such occassions like so many other bureaucracies it’s officials seem to react by arse covering rather than it seems with compassion. But as the joke says “the church is full of hypocrites but don’t worry there’s room for plenty more”. I left the church because I couldn’t reconcile my personal views with those of the mainstream church and there’s only so much advice I could ignore before deciding that by staying within the church I was being disrespectful to it and to those within it (Much like leaving your parents home when you decide you can’t live by their rules any more).
Despite all this (and this finally is sort of my point) I think the Church (not just the Roman Catholic church but I’ll stick to that as I have most experience of it) remains a force for good, and with the growing strength of liberation theology it can offer an example of an alternative to demanding the state provide everything, and clear evidence that communities will pull together and provide for each other. Daily evidence of which continues (by all reports) in the North London community I grew up in. No organized religion isn’t vital for such self help, but it doesn’t seem the worst method either. However as with the state it needs for it’s bureaucracy to shrink back a lot and just provide a space for people to come together and discuss how best to, as Bill and Ted would put it, “be excellent to each other”. For fundamentally, though at times it seems to forget it, the Roman Catholic church is a non-coerced collection of individuals who are aiming to do the best they can for everyone they encounter. Which really isn’t too bad a model for how a libertarian small state society might actually work in a modern world. There are of course many other models that also work, but I’m less familiar with them – and they’d have made this article even more rambling and long winded than it is already.
I’ll admit this is an idealistic unrealistic point of view, but what point is religion except to help us towards unobtainable perfection and what is one persons path to that perfection may not be anothers. As Teilhard de Chardin observed we all have a unique path to discover the divine*.
* No reference as it’s recalled from an old lecture, so sorry if my recall is wrong.