In the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” Stephen Fry asks this very pointed question: If the church in the past cannot be blamed for getting it wrong, and acting in ways now considered gravely immoral, then what is the church for? The first of five parts is accessible here. Here is a little excerpt of the question and answer context in which Stephen Fry asks the question:
I have been trying over the last two or three days to frame a response to the ongoing crisis in Ireland over the abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and the continuing refusal of the church to report such abuse to the authorities. Instead of doing what the law requires, Irish church authorities, as recently as three or four years ago, at the direct instigation of the Vatican, have continued to cover up cases of abuse. In one case, according to the Cloyne report, one priest, known to be an offender, officiated at the wedding of one of his victims! The scale of the continuing abuse simply beggars belief, but the role of the church in covering up that abuse is still an outstanding issue that should be of concern to everyone, and not only to the Irish, for the scope of the abuse by priests and religious in many other countries is simply unknown, and if the Vatican can cover up its crimes in a country that has so recently carried out large public enquiries, and put in place laws whose purpose is to protect children from religious predators, there is simply no reason to believe that it is not taking place elsewhere, especially in places where the church is highly respected and obeyed.
Then why am I having problems with my response? When words come easily, why are these words so recalcitrant and hard to come by; why are my fingers not flying over the keyboard in justified outrage and concern? Well, here is my problem. The Irish Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Enda Kelly, introduced, on Wednesday, 20th July 2011, to the Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann), a motion which, amongst other things,
— expresses its dismay at the disturbing findings of the report and at the inadequate and inappropriate response, particularly of the Church authorities in Cloyne, to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse; [and]— deplores the Vatican’s intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish State and the Irish bishops.
This refusal to express appropriate outrage is reflected in the Taoiseach’s speech in support of the motion:
It is fair to say that after the Ryan and Murphy reports, Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. However, the Cloyne report has proved to be of a different order because for the first time in this country a report on child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. In doing so the report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.
If he really thinks that “Rome has spoken; the matter is closed” could not be further from the truth, he needs much stronger words than these; for it is sheer sycophancy to suggest that the actions of the church officials are in conflict with the founding values of the church. And so, my problem is simply that only a radical resolution to the problem of the Roman Catholic Church is reasonable, and that sounds unreasonable, and perhaps even anti-Catholic. I think that the only reasonable response to the Roman Catholic Church is a quite radical rejection, not only of its religious and moral arrogance and presumption, but of its standing in the community of nations. And this must start with a fairly radical reassessment of Christianity as it is usually understood, as a religion of love and compassion.
In the first place, whereas some of Jesus’ words can be taken to show concern for the poor and the outcast, it is significant that, if we take the Jewish-Christian tradition as a unity, as Christians do, it is only with Jesus that the threat of hellfire enters the religious story. While there are words of compassion in the preaching of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels, there are many less lovely things, such as the threat of hell, an absurdly distorted view of sexuality, xenophobia, gender discrimination, self-centred concern for loyalty and obedience from his followers, including, if need be, hatred of family for his sake, and an improvident carelessness about the future while Jesus and his followers lived off the wealth of widows. It simply will not do to say that the church was founded on radicalism, humility and compassion. While Paul speaks eloquently of love, and the epistles of John remark that God is love, and that those who abide in love abide in God and God in them, there are also curt condemnations of heretics and those who think for themselves, and an absurd conviction that the day of the Lord is at hand, thus confining concern for the future to watching and waiting for the Lord to come, and pooling resources until that glorious day arrives, and the acceptance of the world and all its evils as in some sense the gift of God as punishment for those who do not believe, and as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings for those who do. It simply will not do to continue to suppose that the church is founded on the values of humility and compassion. Nor will it do to suggest that with Christianity something genuinely new and transformative (the radicalism mentioned in Kelly’s speech) entered the world. The history of the church simply will not bear out this claim.
Nor can the pope’s claim to sole dominion over the church be accepted by any thoughtful person. It was only gradually, and mainly as a result of the primacy of Rome in the Empire, that the bishop of Rome came to assume plenary authority over the church, an authority which has never been granted by all Christians. The claim to primacy is historically absurd and politically dangerous, and the assumption that the Vatican constitutes a state gives the pope and his minions excessive power to influence public life in countries where the church is active. China alone, it seems, refuses to accept that the pope’s writ extends even to the issue of the investiture of bishops and other church leaders of the Catholic Church in China, and they are right to do so. The investiture controversy was the primary reason for the cession of the Church of England from the Church of Rome, and, as popes begin once again to wield — or at least attempt to wield — this historic power in other nations, which, in effect, to the extent that they are successful, means that those nations cede to Rome not only influence but a large measure of control over the internal affairs of their countries, it is time for nations to wake up to the dangers that this power, unchecked, impends, especially on democratic polities. It simply will not do to suppose, as Enda Kelly does, that this power is, in essence, defined by humility or compassion, or will be exercised with due consideration for the rights of others. This is an unreasonable expectation. It has never been fulfilled.
There may seem to have been a sea change in the relationship between the government of Ireland and the Holy See, but I do not think this is true. To deplore something is not to condemn it, nor is it to understand what is being deplored. The acts are deplored; the source of the problem remains unexamined. It lies in the unaccountable power of the Vatican. It will take much more outrage than this to make a real change. So long as the Vatican is permitted to act on the international stage as an independent and sovereign state, and popes are granted powers and standing that they cannot rightly claim, the kinds of offences that are happening in Ireland are doubtless happening elsewhere too. The Vatican is a menace to the decency and good order of the world. Its continuing position regarding women is a danger to all of us, since, by refusing women the right to control their own reproductivity, the Vatican is perpetuating a world population growth which the world cannot only not sustain, but that is causing increasing environmental problems, as ecosystems are destroyed, not only by greedy corporations, but by incresing numbers of mouths to feed and lives to save. At the same time the church is the direct cause of manifold suffering for untold numbers of children and their parents precisely because the world cannot sustain its present population, let alone populations which are increasing daily.
The Vatican is a danger to democratic polity, for its political influence, which is exercised with deliberation at the behest of the pope, is everywhere a direct intrusion in the affairs of free and democratic nations. The fact that most nations accept diplomatic representation from the Vatican means that Roman Catholic concerns are kept close to the centre of power. It would be naive to imagine that this does not have an immediate effect on decisions that are made by governments, especially in those countries where many are faithful and devout catholics. When Ireland expels the papal nuncio, and refuses to accept a replacement, then the outrage at the actions of the church in Ireland will be sufficient and effective. Other nations should heed what is happening in Ireland, and learn from it. Popes are not to be trusted, and religions do poison everything.