The Catholic Church’s contemptuous attitude towards its “flock”

Christopher Hitchens once pointed out how insulting it is for religious leaders to describe themselves as “shepherds” leading a “flock,” since the metaphor which implies their followers are sheep. (Hitchens also commented that he once heard a pastor in a country where sheep were unknown refer to his followers as “swine.”) Now Adam Lee has found some quotes from the Catholic Church that makes the insult even more explicit.

From a 1906 papal encyclical:

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.

And now from the Catholic Encyclopedia, with a cringe-inducing reference to Galileo:

[I]n the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible…. [but] the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional…

To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.

But best of all is this quote from Ignatius of Loyala, founder of the Jesuits:

That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.

Those who’ve read Orwell’s 1984 may recall the Newspeak term blackwhite here:

…this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.

In 1984, Orwell explicitly drew connections between religion and totalitarianism, describing totalitarianism as having refined the older tactics of religion. With much of what’s 1984 though, the connection is even closer than that; the things being described just are things religion has done.

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  • DaveL

    As someone who raises sheep, I’d like to point out that this metaphor gets even worse. It’s not just condescending in that it implies the faithful are sheep. It’s that one should always remember the shepherd doesn’t do his job purely out of love for the sheep. He takes care of them so that he can at some point shear them, sell them, or kill and eat them.

  • bbgunn

    And as legend has it, sheep are shaggable, too.

  • Mattir

    It’s worth pointing out that leading sheep requires Skillz™, including the ability to understand what the sheep think and want. Strikes me that the RCC is sort of failing at this with their ham-handed bullying and refusal to give the sheep at least some of what they want. Humans are social animals and have hierarchies just like sheep, but the clerics of the RCC aren’t shepherds, they’re just more sheep dressed up in shepherd suits,

  • Annatar

    double check your first sentence. “refer to describe themselves,” and “metaphor metaphor.”

    • Chris Hallquist

      After 6 1/2 years you’d think I’d be better at proofreading… but no…

  • Rob

    Thanks for some new stink bombs I can add to my arsenal. Found this too:

    To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.

  • dorcheat

    I once overheard a couple of plain clothed catholic priests joking in the gym locker room about the daily grind of “hatching, matching, and dispatching.” I knew they were priests because a catholic friend of mine pointed them out after they had left.

    I decided not to share with my catholic friend about their conversation about “hatching, matching, and dispatching.”

  • Ysanne

    Nice one with the black-and-white thing. Recently, my step-kid, coming home from Catholic school (not my decision!) told us about the following conversation with his teacher:

    Teacher: “And if you look up in the sky, you can see heaven and God and the souls of dead people in it.”

    Kid: “I can’t see anything of the kind there, just blue sky and white clouds.”

    Teacher: “Well, heaven is on top of the clouds…”

    Kid: “I’ve been on a plane and looked at the top of the clouds and there was no heaven or God or angels.”

    Teacher: “Well, heaven is even higher up, in space.”

    Kid: “No way, there’s no air to breathe in space and no clouds to sit on.”

    The teacher left it at that. In a way, I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t follow this debate through to its logical conclusion: Since dead people and God don’t need to breathe, heaven is ok in space, making it the home of the space zombies. ;-)