April 07, 2009
The Catholic Church, like other rigid religious belief structures such as Orthodox Islam and Judaism or fundamentalist Christianity, does not hesitate to draw lines in the sand, to state clearly what is allowed and what is not, and then follow that policy wherever it leads, even if it leads over a cliff. In the face of derision they are willing to hold on to their position for decades, even centuries, before quietly conceding that they were wrong.
For example, when they decided that Church doctrine required the belief that the Sun orbited the Earth, they pulled out all the stops to force people to oppose the Copernican model, in 1616 banning the teaching of the heliocentric model and in 1633 putting Galileo under house arrest and forcing him to recant his view under threat of torture by the Inquisition.
Of course, that didn't work, with even Catholics rejecting that absurd policy. The church quietly reversed that position only hundreds of years later, in 1992 when Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. But the Pope then went on to claim that Galileo may have been divinely inspired, saying: "Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." This was a rather pathetic effort to recover some dignity from an embarrassing debacle for religion.
After initially opposing the theory of evolution because it seemed to deny the special creation of humans, it was only in 1996, long after almost everyone had accepted the correctness of evolutionary ideas, that the church again reversed itself. It again tried to salvage some dignity with the Pope saying that there was no problem with accepting the physical-biological basis of evolution, provided you accepted that the soul was divinely created. The Pope did not go so far as to suggest that Darwin too might have been divinely inspired. That might have been a bit too much.
What gets the church (and religious people in general) into trouble is that they enshrine as doctrines beliefs that may have been consistent with scientific knowledge at the time the doctrines were formulated. But science does not stand still. As science advances these doctrines lead to all kinds of contradictions that require religious insititutions to backtrack, something they are loathe to do.
For example, the business of the soul gets the church tangled up in knots because the church says that human life is sacred because god both creates and inserts the soul into the fertilized egg at the very moment of conception. That may have seemed clear enough until one starts asking what happens to the soul if the embryo fails to implant itself in the uterus and the pregnancy is spontaneously aborted? It is now estimated that about five fertilized eggs are produced for every one that leads to a birth. So why doesn't god wait until the egg gets implanted instead of wasting souls?
Or what happens if the fertilized egg later splits into twins? Does god then have to create another soul? Or does the original soul split also? (There is also the uncomfortable implication that god spends all his time watching people have sex so that he can be ready to manufacture a soul at a moment's notice at the appropriate time. Either that or he has set up an elaborate automated system that is triggered whenever an egg is fertilized and that also creates and inserts the soul, maybe using a random number generator system for selecting the soul's qualities. That would free god to do other things, like play golf.)
Based on that doctrine about life and the soul beginning at the moment of conception, the Catholic Church opposes abortion and the death penalty and the use of blastocysts (the stage at which a fertilized egg reaches after about five days when it is a clump of 70-100 cells) for embryonic stem cell research, and the use of anything that has the effect of preventing the fusing of the blastocyst with the uterus wall.
The church also opposes the use of contraceptives. As Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, 14 of July 25, 1968, "Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means."
Their adherence to doctrine has recently again led the church into controversies such as the recent one when the Pope in Africa said that he opposed the use of condoms even to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Then there was the awful story recently from Brazil about a man who raped and impregnated his nine-year old step-daughter. Doctors said that she was too young to give birth to the resulting twins and so an abortion was approved by the girl's mother and carried out. What did the Catholic Church do? It excommunicated the child's mother and the doctors but exempted the father from that same punishment or any punishment at all.
Needless to say, this has caused an outcry but the church has stuck to its guns. The Church's Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Catholic Church's Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, said that the mother's and doctors' crime was worse than the rape because they aborted two twin fetuses, while the step father did not actually kill anyone. "Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified."
One could make the case that murder is worse than rape, and that since abortion is murder in the eyes of the church, their position is consistent with their doctrine. But when applying doctrine consistently leads you to take decisions that are outrageous on general moral grounds, then perhaps one should re-examine one's doctrine. For example, if the stepfather had used a condom when committing his appalling crime, then even though that would have prevented the pregnancy that led to the subsequent abortion, would the Church then have punished the man? That is bizarre.
The problem with the Catholic Church is that it takes them a long time to realize that when their commitment to a doctrine leads them to decisions that are patently absurd, that it is their doctrine that must change.
It took the church a long time to change its doctrine on Copernican ideas and on evolution. How long will it take them to realize that doctrines that result in opposing the use of condoms, even though it prevents the spread a horrendous disease like AIDS, or that excommunicates those trying to help a child after a rape while not requiring action against the perpetrator, are doctrines that are in major need of revision?
POST SCRIPT: Great moments in religion
Two Israeli newspapers removed pictures of two women in a group photo of the new Israeli cabinet and replaced them with images of anonymous men, because for some religious Jews publishing pictures of women is viewed as "a violation of female modesty", another example of using the bogus exaltation of women as a means of oppressing them. But what caught my eye was this sentence towards the end of the article: "Restrictions include using only Kosher telephones".
There are kosher telephones? Yes, indeedy! It is yet another example of technology being used to find loopholes in Jewish law so that observant people can be pious without inconvenience, in the same way that Certified Sabbath Mode ovens enabled them to eat hot food on the Sabbath.
So apparently these religious people worship a god who is so nit-picky that he gets mad if people close or open an electrical circuit on the Sabbath but is mollified if they find loopholes such as giving a computer chip instructions to do the same.