Wolves in the Fold

In February of 1906, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical titled “Vehementer Nos“, which denounced France for its passage of a revolutionary law establishing the separation of church and state. This document contained a blunt insight into the Catholic view of the relationship between religion and government:

That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error.

Happily, France ignored this musty blast from a figure who – then, as now – serves as the most prominent representative of superstitious medievalism. Today, as Catholicism continues to decline in Europe, the French state can proudly point to its strong constitutional guarantee, as well as widespread popular support, for the principle of laicite, or secularism.

However, I want to focus on a different part of this encyclical. In another section, there’s a revealing passage which lays out the Catholic, and arguably the Christian, view of what a just society would look like.

The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors — a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging. It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

This section puts plainly into words something that atheists have long pointed out: one of the primary purposes of religion is to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite. In many systems, such as Roman Catholicism, the members of this hierarchy choose their own successors, thereby ensuring that lay members have no voice whatsoever in how the organization is run – the perfect antithesis of democracy. Pius’ words drive home that, in his belief system, he and his trusted lieutenants are to make every decision, while the ordinary believers are expected to conform and obey “like a docile flock” – in other words, without dissent, without questioning, and indeed, without independent thought.

Pius was not the only one to envision the ideal society as a rigid hierarchy of obedience. On the Protestant side, C.S. Lewis likewise endorsed this view when he wrote that obedience is “intrinsically good” – regardless of what the specific command is. Like Pius, he stated that when we obey others, we fulfill the role we were always meant to play.

These religious leaders view their followers as a flock of sheep, placid and obedient. That being the case, there’s only one role left over for atheists to play: the wolves. Fiercely independent and solitary, we lurk just outside the fold, serving as figures of terror and dismay to those who huddle within its safe boundaries. (Given the chance, I’d much rather be a wolf than a sheep…)

Of course, in an important respect this analogy is reversed: in this case it’s the shepherds whose intent is malicious, exploiting and – where necessary – sacrificing the sheep for the sake of their own power and prestige. They fear us lone-wolf atheists not because we’d do their followers harm, but because we could wake them up to how they’re being taken advantage of.

It’s no surprise, then, that religious authorities throughout history have sought to depict atheists as unnatural, terrifying figures whose ways the faithful would be best off not inquiring into. But when those shadows of ignorance are dispelled, we emerge into the light as human beings just like everyone else. The religious elite whose own power is sustained by keeping their followers in the bonds of sheeplike obedience may have reason to fear us, for our rise means the downfall of their pretensions and the loss of all their ill-gotten gains. But the lay believers who stand to gain a better life, free from the confines of blind and senseless obedience, have every good reason to welcome us.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.thegreenatheist.com tga

    This is your best post in a long time, thanks for sharing this passage from Pius X!

  • http://athinkingman.wordpress.com athinkingman

    Thanks for this. I found the information interesting and chilling. The more I find out about Roman Catholicism, the more I am amazed that it is still getting away with so much and has not been resisted more stridently.

  • hb531

    These religious leaders view their followers as a flock of sheep, placid and obedient. That being the case, there’s only one role left over for atheists to play: the wolves.

    I wonder where other belief systems fit into this analogy, from Protestant to Wiken? This is important, because without tolerance for other religions (from a Catholic’s perspective), atheism’s voice and adoption rate would be stifled to an even higher degree. Not from an individual’s perspective, but rather from society as a whole.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    I was thinking on posting something similar. Now I have one more soucre for inspiration.

  • Jim Baerg

    This really makes sense of “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. It no longer sounds like hyperbole.

  • Dutch

    This 100 year old document is interesting, but is it really relevant today?

    “These religious leaders view their followers as a flock of sheep, placid and obedient”

    Oh come on now, “the flock” of today are not dumb. Go on and attend a Catholic mass, then follow the sheep out the doors. They head out the doors and re-enter secular life, their half-hour a week to God being finished. Catholics, in fact any religion, have no real commitment to God.

    Other commentators here treat this article as if it were relevant. Do yourself a favor, hold your nose and attend a Catholic service. Then stand in the parking lot and see for yourself.

    There is no conviction in Christianity, but in time that will change.

    Dutch

  • Steve Bowen

    I wonder where other belief systems fit into this analogy, from Protestant to Wiken?

    This is where the believers close ranks. Whatever they may think of each other in private the established “book” religions pay each other enough lip service to keep the atheists at bay. Better to believe in something than nothing eh?. I don’t extend this analogy to Wicca. I’m sure they don’t expect tolerance from the catholics. However most Wiccans (and I’ve met a few)are as anarchic as atheists so don’t fall into the flock mentality, also their concept of God tends not to be an authoritarian one, for a start they assume an underlying female principle and their “spiritual” relationship is primarily with nature, not the deity.

  • http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com/ SilverTiger

    The idea of playing wolf to a flock of sheepish believers is certainly appealing but as I am already a tiger, I will stick with that.

    I agree that the pastors are the more toothsome members of the band as they bear the responsibility for the abuse whereas the “sheep” could nominally open their eyes and, seeing the truth, set themselves free.

    It is a good thing you do in revealing these indications of the real motives and intentions of organizations like the Catholic Church which do not hesitate to present a hypocritically smiling and reasonable face to the public.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hear, hear.

    Except I don’t think of myself as a wolf. I think of myself more as Harold, the sheep in the Monty Python sketch, trying to convince the other sheep that they can fly.

    “He’s that most dangerous of animals — a clever sheep.”

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    And on a more serious note:

    “…the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”

    Sweet merciful Zeus. I can’t believe they actually came out and said that. It’s bad enough to think something like that privately (as I believe many of our political leaders do). It’s so much worse to consciously be convinced of it, and even prouldy declaim it.

    And given recent events, it gives me chills.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Just because the article is about a statement a hundred years ago doesn’t mean its irrelevant. Given the fanaticism of our recent pope I have no doubt the papacy would agree with this.

    As for the “no conviction in christianity- but that will change” that’s what we fear. What if they decide biblical literalism is the right path again? What if they actually believe what they say they do? If that happens you get the results we have seen from the muslim world- violence, pain , suffering and death.

  • Alex Weaver

    Considering that the Catholic Church’s official position, to which all Catholics are required to subscribe, is that the pope is infallible, this is still very much relevant.

  • velkyn

    ah, the catholic church longing for its medieval power. Poor things.

    For you Americans out there, just a heads up to read HR 888 and get your representatives to destroy it. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:H.RES.888: Revisionist history at its finest.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Well, has anyone looked up the Church’s present stance on “Vehementer Nos”?

  • MisterDomino

    I found this post particularly interesting, as I am a francophile, a French Historian AND former Catholic!

    The French concept of “laïcisme” or “laïcité” (which the French claim doesn’t translate directly into English, but I think Ebon found its best equivalent) has been a staple of French society ever since the Third Republic. Today, more than three quarters of the French population identify as atheist or non-religious. And a large chunk of the remaining quarter consists not of Christians, but rather North African Muslim immigrants. In France, the only people you’ll find in churches on Sunday are tourists.

    This, of course, isn’t surprising considering that the Catholic Church had such a stranglehold on France for a very long time (remember: two regents during the Bourbon dynasty were Richelieu and Mazarin, both Catholic Cardinals). I always recommend Voltaire’s “Candide, ou l’optimisme” for anyone craving a delicious send-up of fanatical Catholicism. ;)

    @ Dutch:

    //Oh come on now, “the flock” of today are not dumb. Go on and attend a Catholic mass, then follow the sheep out the doors. They head out the doors and re-enter secular life, their half-hour a week to God being finished.//

    For the record: go to Planned Parenthood when there are protestors stomping about outside with aborted fetus posters. Four out of five are Roman Catholic.

    I will say, though, that there is some truth to Dutch’s statement. People are not that dumb today, but these “people” are only those that have been exposed to a long tradition of western secularism. This is most likely why the Catholic Church is so adamant about reaching its arm into the Third World, in places such as Africa and parts of Latin and South America, where there is not an established tradition of a separate church and state.

    And I won’t even get started on AIDS in Africa and the Church’s stance on contraception.

  • Karen

    Sweet merciful Zeus. I can’t believe they actually came out and said that. It’s bad enough to think something like that privately (as I believe many of our political leaders do). It’s so much worse to consciously be convinced of it, and even prouldy declaim it.

    That’s not at all shocking or weird in conservative religious groups. Actions such as submitting to god, following blindly (“wherever He will lead”), debasing and denying oneself are all considered positive and desirable, even today.

    The problem is that so many sheep have been domesticated generations and generations ago, and even if the wolves can reach them and show them that they are doomed, they simply aren’t equipped intellectually or emotionally to leave the flock. It’s sad, but their independence and logical thought processes have been selectively bred out of them, just as the shepherds planned.

  • goyo

    Don’t forget the recent comment by Mike Huckabee where he said that we need to change the constitution to conform to god’s word.
    There’s your protestant representative.

  • Eric

    goyo,

    huckabee is a baptist, even worse!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    C.S. Lewis likewise endorsed this view when he wrote that obedience is “intrinsically good” . . .

    He wrote what?

    I’m honestly shocked. After all, C. S. Lewis is rather popular, yes? And not just among the more crazy fundamentalists. I don’t know, you convince yourself that most of the Christians you meet ever day probably aren’t that bad and then you realise that large numbers otherwise sane, intelligent, questioning people probably accepted that idea from Lewis without blinking, as they nodded along to his endorsement of their worldview. Freaky.

  • Christopher

    I wonder if Christians would accept obedience as “intrinsically good” if – all of a sudden – the “god” they worship started giving them orders that contradict the creeds and doctrines they were raised on (ex. homosexuality isn’t a sin, so don’t treat it as such; you must worship at least one other “god;” you must go ack to sacrificing animals; etc…): is it really obedience to a “god” they consider “good” or obedience to an ideology?

  • Wedge

    I wonder if Christians would accept obedience as “intrinsically good” if – all of a sudden – the “god” they worship started giving them orders that contradict the creeds and doctrines they were raised on (ex. homosexuality isn’t a sin, so don’t treat it as such; you must worship at least one other “god;” you must go ack to sacrificing animals; etc…): is it really obedience to a “god” they consider “good” or obedience to an ideology?

    Nope. They would know it wasn’t really God telling them that, because God thinks just the same way they think. It’s that warm fuzzy feeling a theist gets inside when their doctrine says exactly what it should that tells them it’s true. Obedience is only a virtue to the ‘true’ God, who does what they want him to. Circular as all get out.

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    It’s stuff like this that’s always great to see when people claim the US Constitution was founded on christian principles. Oh, would those be the principles of being sheep following the herd? Was that what the Revolution was about?

    Christopher, you bring up the old morality question which they can never answer properly – is something good because god says so or does god call something good because it is? The first is tyrannical and subject to god’s mood swings, the second makes god a slave to something beyond him. This is one of those things where when you ask a christian, you just play the Jeopardy! music in your head as you watch their face contort. :)

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Considering that the Catholic Church’s official position, to which all Catholics are required to subscribe, is that the pope is infallible, this is still very much relevant.

    Not to nitpick, but IIRC, the Pope is only infallible when he speak ex cathedra, “from the chair”. Which is rare.

    I also agree that most Catholics in the street, especially in the US, don’t think like that. Most are Cafeteria Catholics, and given the conflict with American “rugged individualism”, I doubt you’d find all but the most rabid Catholics (like Bill Donohoe and those people that picket abortion clinics) agreeing with this aspect of the 100 year old encyclical.

    But it still is patently reflective of religious thinking in general, and the Catholic Church’s official position in particular.

  • Dutch

    Mister Domino,

    Don’t even bring-up planned parenthood.

    I see nothing wrong with demonstrators outside their facilities, as long as it is peaceful. Did you ever see “Silent Scream?” Take God out of it, if you want – it’s still brutal, and calous. Few care about the unborn. We are the only species on this planet that does this. Do a google image search on abortion(warning, very graphic, sad images)

    Thank your lucky stars that your mom wanted you.

    Dutch

  • Tim

    That being the case, there’s only one role left over for atheists to play: the wolves. Fiercely independent and solitary, we lurk just outside the fold, serving as figures of terror and dismay to those who huddle within its safe boundaries.

    I honestly hate to have to spoil your lovely metaphor, but wolves aren’t independent or solitary at all; they hunt in packs. With all due respect to the author of the excellent “Choking on the Camel”, which I just sent to my Christian parents and girlfriend in the far-fetched hope that something might result.

    Lyten: I utterly agree with you about C.S. Lewis. I’ve held him in great respect for many years, both when I was a Christian and after I saw the (day)light. I guess everyone has their off days, huh?

  • DamienSansBlog

    Not to nitpick, but IIRC, the Pope is only infallible when he speak ex cathedra, “from the chair”. Which is rare.

    I also agree that most Catholics in the street, especially in the US, don’t think like that.

    So: was “Vehementer Nos” written ex cathedra or not? Does the Catholic Church still stand by this particular medieval-minded statement, or have they put it off to the side, as with geocentrism?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”

    That fact that religion has not only survived but thrived,given the above quote, is only one more indication that the vast majority of people prefer conformity and safety in numbers. It also brings to mind a quote from a WWI German general (in a different context): “Theirs is the rage of dreaming sheep.”

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    We are the only species on this planet that does this

    That’s true. The rest kill the infants. So much kinder.

    Nor does it matter to Ebon’s point that “‘the flock’ of today are not dumb.” That the parishioners don’t accept their role doesn’t invalidate the point that the priesthood wants them to accept it.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    The Pope has spoken ex cathedra only once since the doctrine of infallibility was proclaimed: the declaration that the bodily assumption into Heaven of the Virgin Mary was an article of faith.

  • MisterDomino

    Dutch,

    My point wasn’t a tirade against pro-lifers, but rather the observation that many Catholics still structure their lives around the Church and its teachings. In this case, it’s the “Care for Creation” idea, that since all humans were created in God’s image, any mistreatment of life is a direct insult to God. These people aren’t protesting abortion because it’s inhuman; they’re doing it out of religious conviction.

    And I realize that you couldn’t have possibly known this, but I’m an orphan.

  • Eric

    As Ridger pointed out, the other species kills the infants, or eats them, or other such. Yes, that is much warmer and fuzzier isn’t it? I love the Wild Kingdom version of the Lion King much more than the Disney!

    And actually Dutch, we are NOT the only species to practice purging of non-developed fetuses. Some cetacean species ingest certain aquatic plants which act as “morning after pills” and the fetuses abort.

    And they are finding other animals do similar when the risk of carrying the fetuses to term endager the herd, the indicudal etc… Want another example to show you are incorrect? Look up “delayed implantation” and aborted carryings in bear populations.

    Sorry Dutch, you are not correct.

    And as someone who has gone through an abortion with a partner, anyone who “protests peacefully” outside the clincs are barbaric, confrontational miscreants. And the majority ARE “tolerant” and “loving” christians. Don’t kid yourself for a minute that the moajority of people who choose the procedure are eager or happy to do so. It is a hard and complicated decision, with many facets to think abouut and consider. And thankfully, we live in a time when we can have the choice. And you believing a human life begins at conception does not make it so. And with the new research coming out on brain function, brain development, and the like it is showing more and more that human “life” does not begin at conception.

    And souls are not real. Souls are not valid in any discussion for this. And if you say they are and want to use the soul to politicize the debate, you had damn well better be ready to provide some hard evidence and fact to back it up.

    As for “The Silent Scream”, that little piece of misguided propaganda goes back HOW many years now (or DECADES) with procedures and policies that are no longer used! If you are going to talk like you know something, have something to back it up.

    Ebon, I am soory if I am being snotty or harssh to another commenter, but when I see ignorance like this it hits me on a personal level and feel the need to say the honest truth.

  • javaman

    Dutch, I think its time that you man up and reponse to Eric, and I am still waiting to hear your inner secret knowledge.I am still open to believing in god if i see some prove, anything, i’ll set the bar low.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    OT, sorry: If my mom had aborted me, it would be no loss to me, since I never would’ve become who I am today. I think this sort of thinking is wrong, but very common. People think of abortion in terms of their life now suddenly being snuffed out, and yet somehow they still exist and have lost all they had. But that’s not the way it works! A fetus has nothing – no conscious experiences, no memories, not attachments of any sort. They lose nothing, and there is no “spiritual being” around to lament not having had the chance to live a bodily life.

    On topic, papal encyclicals are official church teaching. Even if they are not spoken ex cathedra, they are still binding on Catholics. They’re sneaky – you see, there are two ways for a doctrine to be infallible, and in fact, all doctrines are infallible. If they are spoken “from the chair” or if they are held traditionally and taught by the Magisterium. It’s that second part that not many people realize. Everything that the Church teaches is binding upon Catholics. Thankfully most Catholics don’t know or believe this! I think bringing such encyclicals to life is one way to make sure that they never do.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Also of interest:

    Did you know that the Catholic Church had agreeable relations with not one but two evil dictators?

    Read the text of the official Catholic concordats (the equivalent of a treaty) between the Church and the Third Reich, and the Church and Franco’s Spain.

    Third Reich: http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_ss33co.htm

    Franco’s Spain: http://www.concordatwatch.eu/showkb.php?org_id=845&kb_header_id=828&order=kb_rank%20ASC&kb_id=1700

  • MisterDomino

    Don’t forget the statement issued by the Holy Office of the Vatican in 1866 supporting the institution of slavery.

    The Church has made mistakes, but everyone has. We’ll grant them that much leeway. However, they seem keen on making the same kinds of mistakes over and over again, and this is exacerbated by the fact that whatever doctrine they preach is “infallible.”

  • shifty

    I always find it interesting when apologists defend their positions by saying that a certain belief or interpretation is no longer appropriate because circumstances have changed, or time has passed. Dutch ponders on the relevance of a 100 year old document in todays world. This is the same process we use to evaluate a 2000 year old “document” whose relevance we question.

    I think what theists are tacitly admitting to is evolution. Unfortunately, they are blind to the fact that it is continuous. You can’t have it both ways. But this is an evolution that is participatory.

    shifty

  • lpetrich

    Mathew WIlder, have you found anything on the Vatican and Antonio Salazar of Portugal? The Vatican was definitely good buddies with Ante Pavelic of the Ustasha party of Croatia, another thuggy leader.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I haven’t heard of that, but I’m not surprised! They also supported reactionary governments in Central and South America.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Thanks to Mr. Wilder on the bit about encyclicals. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.

  • http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com Tom Foss

    As for “The Silent Scream”, that little piece of misguided propaganda goes back HOW many years now (or DECADES) with procedures and policies that are no longer used! If you are going to talk like you know something, have something to back it up.

    I’m glad someone addressed this, because I would have otherwise. Not only is “Silent Scream” an outdated bit of argumentum ad gross-out-iam, but the procedure described therein was outdated and misleading at the time the film was made, twenty-odd years ago. Moreover, it’s hard to be “brutal” to something that can’t feel pain, like a 12-week-old fetus. There’s hardly a fact in “Silent Scream,” but what it lacks in logos it absolutely makes up for in pathos. The only time it ever ought to be cited is as a perfect example of a bad argument against abortion.

  • Alex Weaver

    Take God out of it, if you want – it’s still brutal, and calous. Few care about the unborn.

    You’re mistaken there: fortunately, many if not most women in industrial democracies are responsible and compassionate enough not to give birth to children they are not willing and able to adequately care for.

    That *is* the kind of caring you’re talking about, right?

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I see what you did there, Alex.

    (Jolly good show.)

  • spaceman spif

    Reading this particular piece got me to thinking of the history of the Bible. In my opinion, in the Old Testament it was all about the religious leaders absolute control of the Israelites, mainly through fear and threats. It was a brutal time in history, so most of God’s laws in the OT were brutal themselves.

    By the time the NT rolled around, that control through fear remained although it was softened somewhat with discussion of showing kindness and compassion toward others.

    History has shown again and again, it’s amazing the control you can have over large groups of people when you introduce fear into their minds, no matter how irrational.