The Pope and Mercy: the Catholic Church has not Abandoned Its 400 Year War on Science

“Pope Francis Relaxes Church Rules on Divorce” touts a recent headline at Huffington Post, a news website whose articles often promote religion, “faith” and spirituality along with a clear bias for the Democratic Party. But he really hasn’t. What’s going missing in the ongoing and often covertly promotional media hullabaloo over Pope Francis’ frequent and seemingly liberal, even revolutionary, public proclamations is the most important fact: as Pope, Francis has the power to change the Church’s repressive doctrines and laws concerning sexuality, women, divorce, the family and human nature itself. He hasn’t.

The lack of real change is being disguised by frequent liberal public statements, such as Francis’ recent call for a culture of “forgiveness” and “merciful” attitudes towards divorced people within the Church, as though Catholic laypersons were the ones guilty of discriminating against divorced Catholics.  In support of the idea that this sophisticated public relations campaign represents real change is a huge volume of covert backing in the media disguised as reporting. Francis, possibly taking his example from the ever-popular, world-travelling Dalai Lama, is proving to be a PR expert, or at least his advisors are.

Fortunately, there is some criticism. But no one is asking the most important question: why religious organizations have the right to regulate sexual behavior when a wealth of modern, scientific evidence shows their teachings to be very, very wrong. Not only that, but their historical efforts to control the sexual lives of followers is even contradicted by their own scriptures. Behind the gilded imagery of a modernizing and reforming Church, all the old, repressive, controlling definitions of what is sexual sin remain firmly in place, even, to my astonishment as I read various reports of Francis latest screed about mercy online, masturbation.  Still a “mortal sin,” kids.

Using my favorite sin as the first example, modern, scientific studies reveal that masturbation is a normal, and necessary part of child development, as well as being healthy in adult life, married or no. Here are a few other facts that demonstrate that this cynical PR campaign is an exercise in profound, immoral hypocrisy:

a) As reported by SNAP, the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, the greatest majority of cardinals, bishops and archbishops who protected pedophile priests have gone undisciplined by the Church, worldwide.  With a few, rare exceptions, they are not being prosecuted by civilian authorities either, worldwide. The latter phenomenon suggests that the Church still has a lot of power within our societies and governments.

b) Catholicism’s raging misogyny continues, as women are still refused the right to be priests, despite the Catholic hierarchy’s longstanding and ongoing protection of the pedophile priests in their midst. The USA’s principal organization of socially activist nuns has been threatened by the Vatican for getting a little too infected with feminist ideas and Liberation Theology. So much for Francis’ public calls for social justice. Abortion, that distractive bugaboo for most of Christianity, is forbidden because, based entirely in metaphysics and shaky interpretations of scripture rather than science and evidence, god supposedly sees to it that a “soul” comes into existence at conception.

c) The Pope and his many media supporters claim that Francis is trying to reform the corrupt Vatican bank. Yet Italian whistleblowers such as Gianluigi Nuzzi, who revealed evidence of the vast corruption and lack of any real reform within the bank, the Instituto per le Opere di Religione, are being tried in the Vatican’s court and are facing possible prison sentences.

d) Francis recently ordained as a saint the infamous Franciscan  missionary, Junipero Serra (1713-1784), who arrived in California with the genocidal Spanish conquest of the Americas to found the missions there. There are “unresolved” allegations that Serra personally saw to the enslavement, beatings and deaths of Indigenous Californians.

e) Surveys easily available with a little, simple, online searching variously report that from 15 to 50 percent of Catholic Priests are homosexual. This is not to condemn their sexuality or even to worry about the actual numbers, but to reveal the hypocrisy of the Church’s continuing attempts to rigorously enforce their laws against it for believers.  Priests have been getting a pass for decades, even while forcing toxic levels of shame and guilt onto LGBT people.

In any case, while most probably think that the Church eventually made peace with science some vague time after its persecution of Galileo, it has not.  While it can no longer burn people at the stake to enforce its myths, its doctrines have not changed as scientific knowledge advanced. Christianity’s continuing attempts to control the sexual and social lives of ordinary people are thoroughly and legitimately contradicted by the findings of modern scientific studies; tons of them, across many disciplines, from genetics to endocrinology to neurobiology to psychology and more. So while it may appear that the Church and the other major Christian sects have made peace with science, with few exceptions, they have not.  Substitute “women,” “gay” or “sex” for the censorship of Galileo’s observations of our heliocentric planetary system and you get the idea.

More than anything, what reveals the sham Francis and the Church’s hierarchy are foisting on the World are the Catholic Church’s own doctrines, especially the central doctrine of papal infallibility. Francis is the Pope, and as Pope he has the power to change anything. When the Pope speaks “ex cathedra,” (from the chair, i.e. officially) in the form of a document called a Papal Bull, the accumulated body of Church doctrine that defines the Papacy holds that a pope speaks directly from a superior relationship with god on matters of faith and morals.  Of the billions of us on the planet, the Pope is the only human who somehow receives binding instructions from god as to issues of faith and morals for the rest of us. He can make changes to the Church’s body of “Canon Law” as he supposedly responds to direct, divine communication.  The latest of his “progressive” screeds about mercy the media are fussing over is not a Papal Bull but is called an Apostolic Exhortation.  The significant difference is that it has no force of Canon Law, and does not define sins.  At base, it is only a sort of nonbinding recommendation.

Here is a quote from Wikipedia that explains the Catholic Church’s system of laws:

“In the Catholic Church, universal positive ecclesiastical laws, based directly or indirectly upon immutable divine law or natural law, derive formal authority and promulgation from the office of pope, who as Supreme Pontiff possesses the totality of legislative, executive, and judicial power in his person. The actual subject material of the canons is not just doctrinal or moral in nature, but all encompassing of the human condition. It has all the ordinary elements of a mature legal system: laws, courts, lawyers, judges, a fully articulated legal code, principles of legal interpretation, and coercive penalties.”

Note the word “immutable.” Francis would like us to believe that this is so, but the Church has changed its teachings before.  For example, while Limbo (no not the dance) was never an official teaching of the Church, it was nevertheless commonly taught almost from the beginning of Christian history. Lacking the status of an official teaching, the Church’s theologians kept it in play with rhetorical trickery, calling it a “legitimate hope” based in the knowledge that faith provides: that   “god is merciful. ““Salvation,” meaning access to heaven after death, depends first upon being baptized, baptism being the first of the Church’s “seven sacraments.” In my time, it was taught that people who did not have the opportunity to be baptized end up in a sort of “imperfectly happy” storage area called Limbo until Christ comes back in his “Second Coming” and separates the humans then alive into good sheep and sinful goats. The always-around-the-corner Second Coming, also known as the Last Judgment, brings a halt to material existence itself. Heaven will apparently have enough good souls by then to provide adequate, eternal worship for god.

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Violations of its laws, such as with suicide, homosexual “acts” or divorce, are considered “sins;” some of which – including childhood masturbation — are defined as “mortal sins.” Mortal sins are defined as those that send the souls of the unrepentful and unforgiven to burn and crisp in Hell without surcease for all eternity if they don’t run to confess their sins to a priest before they die. This from a “merciful” god. (George Carlin, we miss you.) There’s a great description of eternity in a traditional sermon recorded by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The priests and nuns made sure we were adequately terrified by their stories of hell starting in the first grade, long before one is developmentally able to give masturbation a try. Disobedience to priests, nuns and parents was the major sin for young children. Parental abuse such as I suffered was never in the picture. As a six-year-old child entering first grade in a Catholic school in 1948, I was taught, with no little graphic imagery, how in Hell, our entire body would blister and burn, but that tissues would quickly regenerate so they could burn some more and keep one in continual agonizing pain for the rest of time.  Biblical tradition and its various interpretations were by no means similar, one must ask just where did this horrible imagery, this poisonous patriarchy, this hideous, child-abusive, terrorist teaching, come from?  Many European cities and castles preserve the horrible torture dungeons of the old aristocracy as tourist attractions, and there we find the origins of this most common model of Hell. It has profound political implications, as it shows the often seamless interrelationship between the Church and the ruling nobility for most of European history. For those who violated the commandments of the king (or be suspected of a crime or holding the wrong version of Christian teaching) you could get tortured, especially with fire, red-hot irons, and such. These and other horrific means of torture are displayed in the old dungeons. The torture dungeons were also “down below,” usually in the bowels of a castle or prison. The devils/demons of Hell are the torturers of the king, or as with the Inquisition, the Church itself. (Hell has also been portrayed as a place of freezing cold, as with Dante’s punishment-fits-the-crime Inferno, in his Divina Commedia.)

The “patron saint” of my childhood Catholic parish, “Renaissance humanist” “Saint” Thomas More, oversaw both torture and burnings at the stake of “heretics” before Henry VIII gave him the chop in turn for not attending his wedding with Ann Bolyen. A copy of More’s portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger hung prominently on the back wall of our church. Then there’s heaven: God sits on his throne there, surrounded by his worshiping hordes of angels and human spirits just as with the sycophant courtiers continually felching the asses of the king or queen at court, or for that matter, anyone more powerful than yoursel.  So if you were, for example, a medieval peasant, you had to struggle with not one repressive force, but a double whammy, a synergy of two which reinforced each other: the king or queen on the one hand, and as easily seen throughout Europe, a church in every little village spying on the populace through the sacrament of Confession. And, throughout most of European history, there was often no separation between the nobility of the Church, the cardinals, archbishops and bishops, and the secular ruling nobility.  The oldest son got the castle, and the second son got to be a bishop.

As we marched in the usual regimented fashion down the halls of the Catholic grade school I attended in the Forties and Fifties, we boys were angrily scolded if we put our hands in the pockets of our school uniform, salt-and-pepper corduroy pants, the idea being to prevent us from covertly masturbating. As ludicrous as this scenario obviously was, it demonstrates the nuns’ and the Church’s appalling ignorance of sexual matters and its abuse of normal sexual development in growing children. It was child abuse. Christianity has long held that children are inherently sinful, and must be “disciplined” in order to make them proper “warriors for Christ.” And disciplined we were. It should be noted that girls wore skirts that did not allow one even to imagine they could have had similar access.  The general atmosphere of cruel sexual repression thus created, including the separation of boys and girls in the classroom, and sometimes even in separate schools, often established lifelong, toxic, guilt and shame, and not only in sexual matters. It is an effective mechanism for instilling guilt, shame and self-doubt, and with self-doubt, comes control.

The Church’s entirely unscientific sexual teachings put most of the faithful in a situation in which it is impossible to avoid committing “mortal” sins.  Normal sexual urges, from puberty on, are transformed into “occasions of sin:” “temptations” by an always-lurking Satan (rather than normal human development) whose job is to take you down into Hell. Fortunately, one can apologize directly to god for mortal sins such as masturbation if no priest is available.  Have a sudden heart attack right after a nice wank, however, and you’re out of luck: off to the deep fryer. Less serious, or “venial” sins don’t send you to hell, but do get you time in “Purgatory,” a place of “purification”of sins which continually frys you up exactly as in Hell, but only until the Second Coming.  Being forgiven by god, still doesn’t get you off the hook. Even if forgiven while you’re alive, your sins, large and small, still accumulate punishment time in Purgatory, the Catholic version of karma. You can, through good works and prayers while alive, get some time removed from your purifying punishment, as well as that of deceased relatives and others, but you never know how much. We were taught that Purgatory is not as bad as Hell, but only in one way: because you have “hope.” The hopelessness of the damned, being separated from god for all eternity, is taught to be a large part of the suffering there. But in purgatory, hope supposedly buffers the hideous pain because you know you’ll eventually get out to join god in heaven, either at the Second Coming or whenever he decides you’ve had enough. Beneath the surface, this theology underlies our “modern” conceptions of crime and punishment, including the appalling conditions in our prisons. No wonder they’re so often a failure.

A critical point: Francis’ “liberalizing” appeal for mercy hardly softens the Church’s body of Canon Law. All the old reactionary theological concepts, laws, rules and definitions of sin in place to continue to terrorize Catholics with the Church’s medieval torture dungeon visions of Hell and Purgatory. Francis is supposedly giving his bishops the power to cancel out the mortal sin in divorce and “annul” marriages, but under which circumstances. What will actually go on in their closeted hearings with married couples is as yet unknown. This is why the recent claim of one of the Church’s many apologists that Francis is engaged in “stealth reform,” is unmitigated bullshit. Calling Francis’ many liberal statements stealth reform disguises the actual lack of change with the claim that Francis’ many exhortations will create attitudes among the clergy and faithful in which unenforced or supposedly deemphasized moral laws will eventually die on the vine.  In reality, the faithful in Western countries are already not paying much attention to Church theology on many issues, such as contraception, premarital sex, masturbation and divorce. The “liberalizing” may be in reality a sneaky attempt to bring such “fallen away” Catholics back into the fold of a Church that in America at least, has lost many millions in dollars and congregants, priests and nuns, and much respect, due to the as yet unresolved sexual abuse scandals.  Add to this its earlier repression of Liberation Theology – allegations that Francis was involved with the Argentine Junta are no longer mentioned in the MSM — and other attempts at liberalization on the part of congregants and ordinary priests, “brothers” and nuns, many of whom simply left.

The terrible irony is that this proposal continues to give moral authority to the very cardinals, archbishops and bishops who protected the priest pedophiles in their parishes, some allegedly continuing to do so. So pedophile protecting bishops, archbishops and cardinals, some unknown number of whom, de facto, must themselves be pedophiles, are those who will have increased power to regulate marriage and the family? Most have gone unpunished by either the Vatican or civil authorities (failure to report felony crimes is itself a crime).  According to SNAP some still are protecting them and moving them around. As to Francis’ call for merciful attitudes: these men showed no capacity for mercy while they were protecting priests who were raping children. Is it realistic to believe that they will now follow Francis’ exhortation to show mercy in adjudicating divorces?

Here’s more about mercy. Theologically speaking, just as with children having no recourse against abusive parents, if you’re a beaten wife with a violent, alcoholic husband, you’re still out of luck if you want to split the scene. Maybe the archbishop will give you a break if you go to him and beg. However, there are no guarantees, and no written expansion of Canon Law, or any other document that would concretely and openly define the conditions under which a divorce is permissible.  The rules, if any, remain hidden. How easy it would be for Francis to formally establish that having a violent partner automatically allows for divorce. And scientific knowledge: the psychology professions know that most wife beaters are pathological to the point that they’re most often unamenable to reform. If even court-mandated psychotherapy and counseling are so often unsuccessful with such antisocial personalities, how in the world can Church hearings affect any change? Consider the hugely positive social effects if Francis and the Church made a firm and forceful statement on the worldwide, huge, social problem of the abuse of women and children by changing Canon law to allow divorce in such circumstances?

Francis’ primary excuse for not backing his public statements with actual changes in Church doctrine – commonly repeated in the writing of his many apologists in the media — is that his supposedly progressive ideas are resisted by conservative cardinals, archbishops and bishops within the church, including a “homosexual lobby” among them. He may, legitimately, fear changes in sexual doctrines will create a schism, but also reveal the role of sexual doctrines in the maintenance of power and control. But in actual fact his authority overrides all.  If he’s so unhappy with the “homosexual lobby” he could simply defrock each and every one he finds, including many members of the Hierarchy that protected pedophiles. All he’s done is to have made a few dramatic excommunications or “job changes” of those who became too notorious or publicly stood up to him. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz von Elst, AKA “the bishop of bling,” who embarrassed the Vatican by spending some 31 million Euros on his official residence in Limburg, Germany, while cutting the salaries of his staff, was only fired from his job.  He will be “reassigned.” However, a German priest who publicly came out as gay with his partner, in protest of the Vatican’s continuing repression, was defrocked. In practice, the Vatican’s attitude seems a little like the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Ironically, Francis’s inaction and hypocrisy are also exposed by key Church doctrines; the doctrine of Papal Infallibility defines Papal authority is going undiscussed, even in progressive news media. In fact, as Pope, he can change anything he wants. The fact of the matter is that the Hierarchy – cardinals, archbishops and the rest — know full well that if he does not do anything more than talk, they are being given the message that they are free to continue to hold to the Church’s reactionary views, including definitions of what is sin.

Here’s the most important aspect of all this pseudo-revolutionary posturing: science has long impugned the validity of most of the Church’s laws regulating marriage, women, sexuality, and more. The Church is in the same position with sexual issues and marriage as it was with the observations of the aforementioned Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Galileo’s improvements to telescopes allowed him to make observations that provided irrefutable evidence that the Earth and the rest of the planets revolved around the Sun, rather than the Sun revolving around the Earth.  Among other things, this threatened the Church’s teaching that humans were at the center of God’s creation.  Galilei was kept under house arrest for much of his life for being a scientist.

Let’s bring evolution into the picture, too, as while the Church has supposedly accepted evolution, the Church has not changed anything in response to other scientific facts about sexuality, women and marriage. Science and evolution continue to threaten Christian and other spiritual ideologies on many fronts, but despite the continuing vicious attacks against dissenting scientists, science is not attacking religious beliefs, but facts do, completely independent of any motivation to attack religion. Even the New Age spiritualties, including Buddhism, have their anti-science polemicists; also fearing their metaphysical doctrines will be revealed for what they are. First, the fact of evolution denies the anthropocentric creation myths.  Evolution and astronomy, the latter science now looking back in time nearly to the Big Bang, both deny that we are in any way special, a hugely important fact as we face the extinctive potentials of global warming, continuing environmental pollution and nuclear war. Evolution tells us that, like most species have in the past, we could go extinct. Since theology defines humanity as the only species with a soul, ask at which point along the millions of years of evolution of the African hominids did our ancestors become humans; that is, infused by god with a soul at conception and needing guidance from above, especially in sexual matters. Our successful survival as a species (so far) did quite well for hundreds of thousands of years without organized religion to tell us how god wants us to live.  The genus Homo separated from our then closest ancestors, Bonobo chimpanzees, only about three million years ago, but Christianity is barely two thousand years old, and Judaism under the same god and many of the same rules is perhaps only five thousand years older at most. According to scholars, the Bible itself was written only about 500 years before Jesus Christ came on the scene.

Scientific investigations of marriage and the family started as the scientific revolution began to hit its stride in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), Marx’s well-known colleague, became aware of early anthropological studies of non-European peoples and cultures as European countries sent their intellectuals to follow the victories of their genocidal armies to study conquered peoples. The studies revealed and continue to reveal that the Church’s model of the nuclear family and strictly hetero sex within it was not the wary most of the people on the planet lived. There were many variations of marriage and sexual behavior found worldwide, and most social and family structures were – put this up in lights – matriarchal and often polyamorous.

Calling divorce a “mortal” sin and thereby forcing people into permanent, patriarchal and all too often abusive and, significantly, economically imprisoning relationships, is completely unrealistic, reflected – among other evidence — in about a fifty percent divorce rate. Nor is family violence, most of it committed by men, taken into account, nor is addiction, mental illness, alcoholism, prison, war or poverty. Modern studies find that even healthy relationships quite naturally form and sometimes end, as people frequently change over time and what sustained the relationship in the beginning is affected by such changes. Families can be bankrupted by illness, unemployment, consumerism and debt, but we see no Christian demonstrations in front of banks, insurance companies, malls and corporations. Instead, abortion clinics and nonconforming sexuality are targeted as evil, a dangerous, entirely political and deliberately distractive idea.  Claiming abortion is murder can also be seen as a form of propaganda, justifying the repression of women and taking the focus away from the real murders: deaths caused by wars, poverty, economic exploitation, the armaments industry, profitable addictions to alcohol and tobacco, cancer from environmental pollution, poor to no medical care and all the rest.  In sum, millions of deaths per year. The world could certainly use more mercy.  Real mercy. Especially not Christianity’s ongoing, dominant orgy of judgmentalism that suborns it, publicly condemned by Christ himself in two public teachings.