Let’s begin with a story. This one isn’t mine–it belongs to James Carroll, who recently published an extraordinary piece in The Atlantic, “Abolish the Priesthood”. I’ve read it a few times, because it well and truly broke my heart. Here’s a man who studied to be a Catholic priest after Vatican II, inspired by the message of reform he thought it contained; who then served as a Catholic priest for five years; who realized that Vatican II would never be put as fully into action as he’d hoped, and left the priesthood for chaplaincy; who later took up the mantle of Boston Globe columnist, where he reported on clerical sex abuse; and who, ultimately, when faced with the reality of Pope Francis’s dishonesty, decided on a fasting of the soul. He no longer takes the Eucharist, because he believes the priesthood must be abolished, so that the Catholic Church might be reborn.
Why did this break my heart? Because, from my position as a secular humanist, it seems an unnecessarily Herculean effort to try to reforge his religious stories instead of… walking away from them completely. But then, that’s the difference between people who have been trained (or who’ve trained themselves) to believe that when they listen to their innermost thoughts they are also hearing the voice of a god. I’ve never been coached in such a way. I’ve never had a whole lifetime within a given religious story to contend with, whenever new evidence presents the world in another light.
And so of course I read an article like this and think, good grief, just give up the (Father, Son, and the Holy) ghost. Contribute to secular non-profits doing good work the world over instead! Ease your way into recognizing Christianity as mere cultural mythology, and carry forward whatever good parts of it you still can!
…But for all my knee-jerk frustration, Carroll’s struggle is legitimate.
He’s trying desperately to make his faith match higher convictions than Catholicism allows for, and I see how much suffering that cognitive disconnect has caused him.
I just… don’t see how he’ll ever succeed, because I fear he’s completely misread a key aspect of the Catholic faith–and, yes, that’s a claim I’m willing to make even though his experience within it far outstrips my own.
I fear he’s forgotten, that is, that it’s a mark of faith to submit even to an unjust institution in Catholicism. I remember being especially struck by Everyman, a medieval morality play, for precisely this reason–because priestly corruption was discussed therein by anthropomorphized virtues trying to help Everyman prepare for death. In Everyman, the bigger priestly sin is greed, but these virtues still argued that it was right and good for Everyman even to take confession from a sullied priest, because the idea is that the priesthood will have to answer to its god separately. And so even today, the average Catholic’s role is simply to show their god the same loyalty to one’s master that Christ extols a dishonest steward to do, in Luke 16 1:13, because one must
9 Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
10 He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
11 If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? (9-11)
(Good grief, is the Biblical character of Christ so morally wrong about so much.)
But then again, Carroll’s not the only one who gets this aspect of Catholicism wrong.
So too does every legal-abortion advocate, who tries to use the Church’s awful past to undermine anti-abortion advocacy today.
Lousy Arguments Against Anti-Abortionists
I myself sometimes get caught up in the history of abortion legislation, so I’m sympathetic to articles showing how recent anti-abortion legislation is bound up in histories, say, of racism; or how the Catholic Church once regarded abortion more as a carnal sin than murder (and here I’m going to cite a Catholic rebuttal, which nonetheless concedes the variation over time).
However, these are terrible arguments against religious anti-abortionists, especially Catholics. Because, okay, say it’s true that the Catholic Church hasn’t been consistent. Say it’s true that it’s been motivated by a host of other pressures to politicize this fight. Let’s even say it’s had its share of priests covering up procedures to hide personal sins. Fine.
Even then, to use its history against it would be no different than someone suggesting, say, that since the U.S. Democratic Party was once pro-slavery, it has no right claiming to be a party of anti-racists now. (It has no right for other reasons, mind you, but that’s another matter altogether.) Or that since LGBT+ communities used to be much more bi- and trans-phobic in their practices, they have no right claiming full inclusivity now.
Indeed, a central component of humanist discourse is our ability to grow from past error: to try to produce a better, more humane world than that which we were born into. So it’s supremely hypocritical of any humanist to condemn an organization for ostensibly (by its own internal metrics of humane action) trying to do the same.
Oh, but it’s fun, right? And don’t we atheists love to show the flaws in religion’s supposed eternal inerrancy?
But just we atheists show ignorance of the Christian Bible when we tacitly accept liberal Christian takes on, say, social welfare systems as the only possible policies to draw from the words of Christ, so too do we show ignorance of Catholicism writ large when we try to change the minds of average Catholics by pointing to the flaws of their institutions.
And they also know that the essence of their faith involves perfecting submission to the Church’s rituals, the Church’s decrees, the Church’s policies, in the hope that any error on the Church’s part will be rectified by its husband-in-Christ in his own way and time.
Meanwhile, the fact that not everyone does submit, that some average Catholics do try to change the foundations of their faith, is testament just to how much the secular world has outgrown Catholicism’s lesser ethical precepts, and to how much average Catholics moving through that more nuanced, rational, and growth-oriented secular world are struggling (as Carroll is) to match this story of sanctified submission with the need for more independently moral action.
I mean, good grief, the Nuremberg trials ended 70 years ago. “I was just following orders” is not an acceptable excuse for one’s complicity in atrocity. Not ever.
So What Remains?
I think we walk in error when we try to shame Catholics (among other religious persons) out of their anti-abortion positions via the dissemination of horrible and hypocritical histories within their institutions. Obviously the Church of the Crusades and the Inquisition can never have been as consistently “pro-life” as it would have you believe, but that’s not the point. The point, for most individual believers in the virtue of faith, is an utter devotion of the self to their god and, with it, full submission to their Church’s mandates–whether those mandates are about homosexuality, fertility treatments, divorce, transgender persons, end-of-life care, climate change, or abortion.
So if we want to create meaningful change, we in the secular world would do well simply to stop letting moral discourse exist as a conversation with specific religious movements, as if on an equal platform, and instead to forge ahead in creating a more ethical secular society for all. We need to create more James Carrolls, in other words, by naturalizing more compassionate and effective public policy. We need to make it seem perfectly self-evident, in the hearts of persons across the faith- and nonreligious-based spectrum, that one must pursue those societal structures that yield the most immediate, sustainable, and comprehensive improvements to human life.
And at that point, religious persons can contend, as Carroll attempts to, with their own religious structures. Their own cognitive dissonance between the mandates of their heart and those of their spiritual institutions. That’s their battle to fight, not ours.
Or, alternately, they can give up the stories they’ve been raised in–stories they’ve dedicated their whole lives to, with all the pride that must be risked in any fallout!–in which case we can warmly encourage them not to spend more of their lives wrestling with those flawed dogmas, but instead to look forward with renewed optimism and vigour to all the humanistic good the secular world can advance on its own.
Let’s make religious groups play catch-up, in other words, by refusing to debate public policy on their moral terms. By instead dedicating the majority of our attention in the secular-humanist world to figuring out what the best policies should look like for all the aforementioned issues (and more), and then by seeking out their enactment.
Let’s make it clear, in other words, that we’ve got more important things to do with our time–especially in this most critical era of climate crises the world over–than to shame institutions built on ancient stories.
And yes, I say this while finding it horrifying how much power these institutions have over secular spaces, and lives. I grieve for a world where, say, Alabaman women know full well that a fertilized egg inside a research fertility can be terminated without legal consequence, but one placed inside themselves, even via rape or incest, cannot. A world where feminized persons the world over recognize that saving life is not actually the point–because this sort of legislation, as all my humanist readers well understand, only increases death rates. A world where we know that better approaches to reducing abortion rates already, abundantly exist, but we still have to witness community after community choose fear and pain out of ostensibly religious precept instead.
All of this infuriates. Nonetheless, it’s just as maddening for me to consider how much more authority we atheists give them, when we consent to continue to argue on such draconian terms. The Catholic Church is wrong on a great many humanist positions. It’s wrong whenever it advances policies that leave more frightened people making panicked and isolated choices. But arguing with it still feeds into its social power.
Let’s instead show its followers how wrong it is by building a society that leaves the Church’s lesser ethical guidelines in the dust.
There is enough to do, after all, that we’ve no time to spare on such farcical debate.
Personal Update: These essays are going to be Sunday-only for the next little while, as I am focussing a great deal of my attention on researching and writing articles about the local community I discussed here. Thank you ever so much for your readership, and warmest wishes to you in the course of your respective lives. May you all have the ability to make an impact wherever your local communities need you most.