Sunday, March 31, 2002

Sex, religion and politics - where else but the Catholic Church?

One of the most... ghoulish religious issues at the moment is the seeming implosion of the American Catholic Church, following the public revelation that it has been effectively running a protected child abuse racket over the past few decades.

Criminal sexual assault of children by clergy is certainly not a problem confined to the US, to Catholics, or even to Christians. But to the rest of the world, America has always seemed somehow larger than life - big country, big cars and big people, and ditto with the scale of this problem. I mean, one single former priest - John J. Geoghan - has been accused of molesting no less than 130 - count them, one hundred and thirty - children. To diffuse the public anger that this disclosure incited, the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, finally agreed to dob in another 90 priests suspected of child sexual abuse to the DA. No matter what the proportion of pervert priests are when compared to the entire population of the Boston Archdiocese, this is a staggering scandal no matter what way you cut it. Since then, pedophile priests have been falling out of the trees all over the US.

This is just huge in the US press - of the dozens of articles, the Boston Globe, NY Times, WSJ and Salon have the most thoughtful coverage. American Catholic commentators have weighed in aplenty, with on the whole a reaffirmation of their own personal faith in God combined with some no holds barred criticism of His local administrators.

The Vatican's response, aside from a lukewarm 'tut tut' from whoever is writing the Pope's speeches these days, (see conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who desribes his statement as 'necessary but not sufficient' ) has basically been to:

  1. Blame the permissive Americans
  2. Blur the distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia, thus blaming the gay priests

Anything, to avoid taking any responsibility themselves for the fact that the Catholic Church's moral compass has gone severely beserk.

Americans have understandably reacted with indignation at the implication that problems like this are somehow a product of their culture. NYT's Maureen Dowd scoffs that 'The Vatican has shrugged off the international spate of sex abuse cases and acted as if this is another overhyped American tabloid sex scandal.'
She's right, but to a foreign eye there are also a couple of inimitably American aspects to this sorry saga:

  • The payouts and legal hush money. As you do if you're an image-conscious operation beset with a huge corporate PR problem, the US Catholic Church has already paid out tens of millions of dollars, all including non-disclosure clauses, to Geoghan's victims alone, and has reportedly budgeted for at least a hundred million more. That's a lot of cake raffles. (How must the donors feel, to see their contributions diverted from good works to limiting public liability for the Church's bad works?)
  • A Minneapolis lawyer is suing a group of Catholic bishops for allegedly violating federal anti-racketeering laws - laws introduced specifically to target mob gangsters in Mafia-run organizations. Only in America...

Conservative Vatican spokemen (is there any other kind?) have firmly blamed the problem on gay=pedophile priests, and let a raging genie out of the bottle in the process, including Maureen Dowd again, and intellectually formidable gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan. Virulent debates are underway over whether celibacy contributes to the abuse, whether the priesthood specifically attracts the sexually confused, whether there would be any priests left at all if all the gays and/or non-celibates were drummed out, and even if, gasp, allowing women into the priesthood might improve things.

We have also all increased our vocabularies and learnt what an 'ephebophile' is. Since anything sounds preferable to 'pedophile' (remember the self titled 'Man Boy Love' associations of a few years ago?), proponents of 'ephebophile' have evidently consulted the cosmic Scales of Awfulness and concluded that sodomizing a 16 year old boy plays better with the readers than sodomizing a 6 year old one.

To a complete church outsider this would all seem like a mildly interesting field study in sociopathic organizational collapse, were it not for the real and ongoing tragedy of the hundreds of young lives blighted by these evil and disgusting men and the structure that protected them.

Do tell me if I'm being naive here, but... even an unbeliever knows that Catholicism, as one of the major Christian faiths, must therefore be at some point based on the teachings of Jesus and Jesus had very little if anything to say about fancy dress or pointy hats or rigid hierarchies, but much to say on treating other people well. Formal Catholicism has gone so far off the rails, is at such odds with its spiritual founder's intentions, that how lay Catholics can possibly reconcile themselves with this is a major mystery to me...

The point of no return is back that way

The shocked neighbours of murderers and serial killers invariably describe them as '...a quiet guy, polite, always said Hello,', and so on. Horror can strike out of nowhere - even in places where they are used to horror.

A schoolfriend of 18 year old schoolgirl Ayat Akhras, the latest Palestinian suicide bomber at the time of writing, saw her that morning and 'was surprised when I heard that she blew herself up in Jerusalem,'. Well, what else can you say. What else can surprise anyone about this ghastly Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It transcends religious conflict - it's a war of ancient homelands, of ancient histories, of a concentration of all human spiritual and political failings into one blighted place. The mothers of Ayat Akhras and all of the Israeli victims cry alone, but their grief is universal.

Communism - a political religion (but don't tell them)

Having no great spiritual beliefs myself, I still fully support the rights of those who do. Being free to act according to your faith and being free not to have one at all are part of the same thing. Non-believers should extend to the religious the tolerance that they would like to be shown themselves. While this can work on a personal level, formally institutionalized Atheism can be just as oppressive as formally institutionalized religion, and here I find myself in the somewhat novel situation of defending Christians against Atheist thought police.

Namely, the current Chinese Government. China allows "state-sponsored, state-supervised Christianity, where the government vets the church, the priests, even the prayer books," but any non-approved Christianity is driven underground - see this Australian Broadcasting Corporation report.

Not content with that, a news story today reports that the Prime Minister of Australia has been pressured by the Chinese Government not to meet the Dalai Lama during his forthcoming visit to Australia.

Now, Australia, where I live, is not on the international A-list and we do not get that many visits from that many genuinely important foreign figures, let alone the leader of a major world faith - imagine any national leader snubbing the Pope, for instance.

Sure, this says heaps about the moral fiber of Australia's current leadership, but the Chinese Government is like some Orwellian mind control squad. You'd think they'd have enough to do persecuting their own Falun Dafa movement to worry about who down at the bottom of the world is just going to have a cup of tea and some civil small-talk with the Dalai Lama. I don't know anything about the Falun Dafa, but any group prepared to stand up to China's moral thuggery has my support.

Saturday, March 30, 2002

Welcome to Rationalist

Rationalist aims to be a secular and international look at the role of religion in recent and current political and social justice issues.

September 11 caused a massive tide of online news, opinions and analysis, in which religion has figured prominently. We've been repeatedly reminded, despite some rather damning evidence to the contrary, that Islam is a 'religion of peace'. 'God Bless America,' seemed to be the most common initial cry from a shell-shocked US. It would appear that God is weighing in on both sides in this conflict.

Yet Americans have far more to fear, it seems, than Islamic jihads and holy warriors. An excellent recent TNR article, 'Bad Faith' by Peter Beinart, accuses the Bush administration of:

    'implicitly writing atheists and agnostics out of America's moral community. When they describe the country they love, they describe a place where people of different faiths live in harmony and equality, and where people who follow no faith simply do not exist."

and goes on to report on studies that have found:

    '66 percent of Americans viewed atheists unfavorably--almost twice the percentage that held a negative view of Muslims. ...
69 percent of Americans would be bothered by a close family member marrying an atheist.'

I do not believe in any religion. I strongly support a tough US military response against those responsible for September 11. I am astounded that so many Americans would nevertheless view me so disapprovingly.

What is it about atheism that scares people? Do they think we're all devil-worshippers or such? Since I don't believe in God I'm hardly likely to believe in the devil either. And when was the last atheist suicide bomber?

"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth - more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom on the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid..."
Bertrand Russell, 1916