Category Archives: Absolutism
Let’s get it straight to start with. Without factual information, some of it provided by science, ethics could not get off the ground. But factual information is not enough, despite the continuing attempts by scientists or science-minded amateurs to suggest that science is sufficient to accomplish what moral philosophers have been unable to accomplish — namely, a more completely adequate understanding of the moral life. Michael Shermer, who already has one book to his credit regarding this issue, is now planning another, and if his essay over at Rationally Speaking is anything to go by, this next foray into the world of philosophy is going to be, if anything, less satisfactory than the first. At least it shows a lamentable failure to learn about moral philosophy before undertaking the journey.
Why Shermer should think that he can really provide a grounding for morality without studying what the best of the philosophical tradition has had to say about morality is simply beyond me. The overweening hubris involved is a bit like military commanders who forget that every battle has flanks around which enemies can move unmolested, unless they are protected in advance so as to protect what the Germans call the Schwerpunkt of the battle. Shermer begins by dismissing moral philosophy with disarming words about “the Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” To start by dismissing as irrelevant the fundamental distinction between science and morality, without any effort to learn what the so-called “fallacy” of the movement from “is” to “ought” consists in, is a recipe for aporia or confusion which must dog the remaining steps that he must then undertake. It is fine to pass an enemy’s strong points, if you intend to come back and neutralise their power, or if you can blockade them, so that they wither on the vine, but to leave an enemy at your back who is self-sustaining is simply a fallacious strategy, and will render all that you do otiose.
I’ve been reading articles about the pope’s resignation (or abdication, if you take seriously the pope’s claims to be a monarch), and all together they form a pretty mixed bag. It cannot help but dawn on one that no one really knows what’s going on, and very few seem to have any idea at all how things are going to play out from this point. One commentator, according to the Globe and Mail, a distinguished Hungarian Jesuit, said sotto voce that it was “the end of the pontificate.” To many people Ratzinger’s resignation came as a complete surprise. Even high ranking members of the hierarchy seem to have been taken off guard; yet others say that there were signs that this has been rumoured for at least a year. But, surprise or no surprise, the thing that gets me the most is Ratzinger’s claim that he did this for the good of the church, which makes him look a bit saintly, humble and actually caring, something that was in scant evidence during the nearly 8 years of his pontificate. Peter Stanford, over at the London Telegraph, even went so far as to say this:
There is no mystery, or smoking gun, but rather just extraordinary courage and selflessness.
Can anything be so simple in that hotbed of intrigue and double-dealing known as the Vatican, where inmates feed on each other daily, and spend lifetimes jockeying for power? I doubt it. The papacy is set up in such a way as to generate infighting and disloyalty, and some of the most unsavoury characters are raised to high office. Where it is taken seriously, spiritual power is much more corrupting than mere worldly authority. It was not for nothing that Lord Acton said, with the doctrine of papal infallibility (which he opposed) immediately in mind, that, while power corrupts, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And that, sadly, is precisely what it has done. Ratzinger was only the latest confirmation of that. When he was elected in 2005 it was like putting the fox to guard the chickens. The sex scandals had been picking up steam, and the one man who was at the centre of that particular whirlwind – since, as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger had presided over the disposition of sexual abuse claims, and had mandated the silence of victims and perpetrators under threat of excommunication — was placed in a position where he could continue to hamper investigations into who knew what, when it was known, and what was done in consequence. The disdainful attitude of the papal representative to Ireland towards the commission to inquire into sexual abuse was a clear indication of the pope’s unwillingness to face the gravity of the offences and the part that he played in the cover up of those offences. It is hard to forget Vincent Nichols’ response (after the Ryan Report was issued in 2009) about the courage of the offenders to face up to their actions, with not a word about the suffering of the abused children involved in their crimes, and the church’s complicity in those crimes, by covering them up and shunting offending priests from parish to parish where they could offend again. Ratzinger could only have dealt with the crimes had he not been involved at a crucial level himself in their commission.
And then to have made a state visit to the United Kingdom during which he was at pains to condemn, by associating it with the Nazis, the growing activist movement towards unbelief, which has been one of Ratzinger’s constant refrains during his pontificate, condemning atheists as not altogether human, and characterising all unbelievers as a danger to morals and civilisation, puts the icing on the cake of his betrayal of reason. For this came from a man who was at the centre of a cover up of crimes against humanity that offend the very conscience of humanity. Are those now praising the pope for his humility and selflessness in giving up the papacy simply forgetting what is perhaps the defining event of his entire papacy? He spent eight years consolidating the power of the papacy and its hold over the hierarchy — and thus, of course, over the whole church — while fending off any real investigation of his role and the role of the CDF in the cover up of sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Can anything be more egotistical and self-serving than that?
I have said before, and have been called on the point by a number of people, that what has put the Vatican in this mess is the Vatican I declaration of the infallibility of the pope. This, I was smartly told by those who wish to defend this completely idiotic doctrine, is limited to those occasions when the pope speaks in a special way (speaking ex cathedra, as the official language has it) on matters of faith and morals. But no one has adequately defined when the pope is speaking in this special way. So, when Paul VI – who followed the genuinely caring John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council in part to undo the harm done by the First Vatican Council – was faced with the recommendation of his commission on birth control that the church change its stand, he demurred, because this would have immediately called his own authority and that of the papacy into question; for in order to change the church’s stand on this matter, he would have had to accuse of misleading the faithful, a previous pope, Pius XI, who, in his encyclical, Casti Conubii (Chaste Marriage), had condemned artificial birth control as contrary to the natural moral law. And so Paul VI (Montini) added his own contribution to the growing case for the infallibility of the church’s stand on contraception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which supplemented Pius XII’s Humanae Generis. It is interesting and perhaps significant to note, that this chain of papal pronouncements on contraception was precipitated, in the first place, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1930, which had decided in favour of artificial birth control in some circumstances. And so Paul VI added his voice to the growing chorus of papal voices condemning contraception, a decision which has painted the papacy into a corner from which it cannot escape.
A few days ago I took Pope Ratzinger to task for some things he said in his address to the cardinals and the curia, seated in an over-decorated hall somewhere in the depths of the church headquarters these aged virgins consider to be a state. However, there were two speeches, and I originally mistook one for the other in my earlier post entitled “If it is so important to live according to one’s nature: Castrate the lot of them, I say!” His Christmas message to the Roman Curia is not the same as his message on New Year’s Day — “for the celebration of the World Day of Peace”. Together, the two speeches raise some serious questions that deserve closer reading, for they are, jointly, a clear indication that the Roman Catholic Church intends to interfere in the internal affairs of nations by prescribing moral legislation pertaining to matters now in dispute: specifically, matters concerning the marriage of homosexuals, abortion and assisted dying. Given the Vatican’s apparent status as a state, although, as Geoffrey Robertson points out, “[n]either the Vatican nor the Holy See, or [sic] both together, satisfy the legal definition of statehood” (The Case of the Pope, 65), these claims are intrusive and dangerous. That the leader of a religion, occupying a few acres of Italian soil, should have diplomatic representatives around the world would be laughable if it weren’t actually happening. States should recognise that for a nation to have diplomatic relationships with a church to which some of its citizens belong is already to have blurred the edges of the separation of church and state, and, as I shall mention later, the pope’s Christmas message makes it clear how dangerous an obfuscation this is. While I am no organiser of protests, this is something that should be protested and defeated.
Here are the reasons, clearly set forth by Geoffrey Robertson. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) provides that:
(1) Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state. [my italics; quoted in The Case of the Pope, 86]
Robertson points out that for many years the Vatican has done precisely that. It has reserved for itself and its own law, cases concerning clergy sexual abuse of children, and has refused, and often required silence on the part of the offended person or persons, until statutory limitations had expired, on pain of excommunication, to inform the appropriate civil authorities of the felonious actions of its employees. Besides this, the church has interfered in the internal affairs of countries to which it sends papal representatives, by the ‘spiritual blackmail’ of Catholic politicians, threatening excommunication if they do not, in relationship to legislation such as that concerning abortion and homosexual marriage, vote in accordance with orthodox Catholic moral principles. Robertson’s conclusion is clear:
The reality is that the Holy See has, by exerting its Canon Law jurisdiction over crime, and by making spiritual threats to democratically elected politicians, fundamentally ignored the Convention obligations of a state under Article 41 of the Vienna Convention, and should no longer be treated as if it is one. [86-87]
This is important, in view of what the pope, in his address to the Curia, has to say. It is my view also that we should cease to pay attention to the elaborate fiction of the papacy, by using the titles and names associated with the office claimed by the pope. The man’s a man for a’ that. He was given names by his mother and father, and used those names for most of his life. Now that he is the octogenarian totalitarian ruler of an effete collection of old cronies pretending to be a state, the name that he has so narcissistically chosen for himself, and which is imagined by some of the faithful to raise him above the common lot of humankind, should be reserved for intra-church occasions — they may, of course, call each other whatever they like — but we who dissent from the pretence of holiness and spiritual jurisdiction should not accord him the respect attaching to the customs of these few acres of Italy, whose presumed ”statehood” depends upon that scoundrel Mussolini, which was simply a fascistic con, just like all the rest of that man’s pretended power and glory.
Available in Polish translation here. Thanks again to Malgorzata!
Here’s a picture of the Clown of the Vatican giving Christmas greetings to a room full of celibate fundamentalists who have made a new year’s resolution to oppose gay marriage with all the power supposedly vested in them by the Ruler of the Universe. Indeed, Christmas, for the pope and his henchmen has become the occasion of the most virulent anti-gay campaign ever to emanate from the frowsty halls of the Vatican. Instead of peace and joy, and the sentimentality of cribs and cowsheds and a sacred baby, we have the pope in attack mode. The overly ornate hall is meant to intimidate us, but don’t let the pictures of angels dupe you. These guys know all about realpolitik.
To be quite frank, it now simply makes me angry, that a bunch of celibate men should gather together and tell the rest of the world what sexuality is for, and how people should act with respect to their nature, as though human nature were a fixed datum which cannot be varied or further defined. If the Jesus they pretend to worship were to walk into this hall, they’d have him arrested and sent packing. But the thing is that here is a room full of contradictions, every man jack of them acting contrary to his nature (or at least pretending to do so). And yet they have the unmitigated gall to define how the rest of us are to live. According to a Reuters report, the pope (along with his gang of overdressed “virgins”) is forming a coalition of religions to defend “real” marriage and to oppose the legalisation of gay marriage, and it’s high time we told this geriatric failure of a human being that we don’t think this gathering of men sworn to celibacy has anything to teach the world about sexuality or the family. About love, clearly, they have nothing to teach, the pope’s hateful “Christmas” message having gone out to all the world. You know the pope thinks he’s in trouble when the substitutes gay marriage for the manger and the holy mother and child.