Michael Gerson has a gushing, incredulous, and elitist-enraptured op-ed today about Pope Benedict.
After noting the sex-abuse scandal of recent years, Gerson goes on to say:
But members of a church older than any nation tend to take the long view. In the 10th century, Pope Sergius III grabbed the keys to the kingdom in an armed coup and promptly had two of his imprisoned predecessors strangled. His son, by his 15-year-old mistress, Marozia, eventually became Pope John XI. Marozia's grandson, Pope John XII, stood accused of great crimes as well. According to one account, he "mutilated a priest . . . violated virgins and widows high and low, lived with his father's mistress, [and]converted the pontifical palace into a brothel." Those were the days to be a reporter covering the Vatican.
Gerson lets fly a little Freudian slip here, referring to the Roman Catholic Church as a "kingdom". When the disciples of Jesus were bickering among themselves as to "who was the greatest", the humble Carpenter from Nazareth rebuked them. The Kingdom Christ came to establish was not to be on the order of those kingdoms of the earth whose monarchs dwelled in palaces and feasted off the labor of others. I guess we can see which view of "kingdom" the popes came to exemplify.
Catholics generally regard the survival and success of such a flawed institution as evidence of divine favor. The church has managed to outlive all of its scandals -- and all of its critics.
Thinking people might reason that a history of atrocities such as these by a notoriously self-exalting and dictatorial institution are reasons to be skeptical of the whole shamefully extravagant enterprise. But maybe that's just me.
But it gets worse. Reason, it turns out, is not for us secular mortals. According to Gerson (and many, many other apologists for Papal authoritarianism), a history of Papal murder, mayhem and sexual shenanigans (the long years of the torturing and burning fires of the Inquisition of unbelievers and "heretics" go unmentioned by Gerson) is a minor blip in what is a glorious reign of church "reason":
[D]espite charges of dogmatism, the church is the main defender of reason in the modern world. [The church] teaches the possibility that moral truth can be known through reflection and argument.
No, it doesn't. The church teaches that moral truth is the special province of the Church Magisterium (i.e. the Pope and his Bishops) and that those of us among the peasantry must concede to the church all responsibility for thinking in these areas and must consent to be bullied and told what to do by an institution with a history of retarding moral development on a collosal scale.
It criticizes what Pope Benedict XVI has called the "dictatorship of relativism" -- a belief "that does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." "Being an adult," says Benedict, "means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties."
Having faith means, instead, that we should surrender our will and thoughts to Holy Mother Church.
Secularism has traditionally taught that human beings will eventually outgrow religious conviction and moral absolutism -- that skepticism is evidence of maturity. Benedict contends that modern men and women, unguided by reasoned moral beliefs, turn toward adolescent self-involvement. Their intellectual growth is stunted. In a world where all moral claims are seen as equally true and equally false -- the world, for example, of the modern university -- human conscience is reduced to biology or prejudice. Moral behavior may continue to ride in grooves of socialization or genetics, but moral assertions are fundamentally arbitrary -- always trumped by a two-word response: "Says you."
By asserting that the human mind can grasp moral truth, Catholicism also defends the reliability of reason against the superstitions of our time.
The "superstitions of our time" is a very interesting phrase. I wonder if Gerson is referring to the rather silly belief by secularists that the earth revolves around the sun. Or the church belief that a priest-officiated ceremony transforms mere bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. But I digress.
And this is important for a very practical reason: because a belief in human rights is also a moral conviction. Catholicism teaches that relativism and a purely material view of man have disturbing social consequences. "The criterion of personal dignity," wrote Pope John Paul II, "which demands respect, generosity and service -- is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they 'are,' but for what they 'have, do and produce.' This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak."
The point here is simple and radical: As the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton argued, men and women are either created in "the image of God" or they are "a disease of the dust." If human beings are merely the sum of their physical attributes -- the meat and bones of materiality -- they are easier to treat as objects of exploitation.
And the belief in the fires of Purgatory and eternal Hell fire are reasonable and humane?
So Catholicism offers a second contribution: It is the main defender of human dignity against a utilitarian view of human worth. And the church has applied this high view of man with remarkable consistency -- to the unborn and the elderly, the immigrant and the disabled.
Is the church a defender of the right to not believe in the church?
Individual views on issues of life and death vary widely, even within the Catholic Church. But it is a good thing to have at least one global institution firmly dedicated to the proposition that every growing child, every person living in squalor or in prison, every man or woman approaching death or contemplating suicide or trapped in profound mental disability, every apparently worthless life is not really worthless at all.
Again, does anyone besides me think's its awfully presumptious for an institution with hundreds of years of religious wars and murderous inquisitions under its belt to be lecturing anyone on morality and human worth?
An institution accused of superstition is now the world's most steadfast defender of rationality and human rights. It has not always lived up to its own standards, but where would those standards come from without it?
The world's most steadfast defender of rationality and human rights? Me thinketh the man doeth protest too much.
Put simply, the Papacy is the most glaring example of irrational elitism in the history of the world. The Pope and his loyal followers believe that the church has the right to tell us what is right and what to do. How much more elitist can you get?
Consider, in addition to the horrors of the inquisition, which among other things bequeathed to the interrogator the idea of water-boarding, the declarations and demands of another, infallible predecessor to Pope Joe. I give you the infamous Papal "syllabus of errors", which condemned, among other things, democracy, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state.
Some rationality, reason and human rights, there. Thanks, but we'll reserve the right to govern ourselves, thank you very much.