It may be because I live on the east coast and not too far from the epicenter of his stay, but it appears as though the entire county is thrilled to host the pope on his six-day visit to the United States. And it is not only Catholics who appear to be excited, but non-Catholics and even atheists as well. Polling, for what it is worth, shows that most Americans have a positive view of Pope Francis (though to what extent that enthusiasm is genuine or an index of a successful public relations strategy is another matter all together).
Personally, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, it is satisfying to have one’s personal views validated by a figure of such high stature. People like myself for years have been expressing many of the concerns articulated by Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Laudato si’: environmental destruction, economic inequality, market fundamentalism, rampant consumerism – it is pleasant to know that outlets like the Wall Street Journal will have to say something about these issues, however dismissively, whenever the pope talks about them.
Nevertheless, people like myself (that is, Leftist, secular humanist) are often in the awkward position of applauding the man who sits atop an institution that also represents so much that I find unconscionable: retrograde attitudes toward women and homosexuals combined with sympathy and protection for pederasts, for example.
Moreover, it is difficult to find myself in agreement with someone who represents, perhaps more than no one else in history, the absurdity of organized religion. It ought not be forgotten, for instance, that the pope is said to be infallible in matters related to Catholic doctrine. The concept of infallibility makes me equally as uncomfortable as the credulity that is embraced – even celebrated – among those who believe that faith is a legitimate way to decide what is true and untrue.
While Pope Francis is a Jesuit, a member of perhaps the most intellectual of the Catholic orders, I am always reminded of the words of the founder of that order, Ignatius of Loyola, who said, “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”
It is this kind of mental surrender that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya had in mind when he warned that “[t]he sleep of reason bring forth monsters.”
So while the rest of the country, desperate for unity and optimism, celebrates the pope’s visit, I have decided to recount what monsters are let loose when reason is put to bed – that is, what evils we allow to occur when we permit bad ideas to flourish.
First, a few disclaimers.
My criticism of the pope and Catholicism is directed solely at church dogma. Nothing in my remarks ought to be construed as anti-Catholic bigotry – as hatred toward Catholics as people. And to the extent that I am critical of Catholics, it is only insofar as they believe in and act upon the harmful doctrines I am about to describe (which, apparently, many professed Catholics themselves disagree with).
Relatedly, as is the case with criticizing any religion, there is very little value in cataloging all of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church throughout history. The purpose of religious criticism is not to determine how “bad” a religion is, or to judge, on the whole, whether any religion has had a net positive or negative effect on humanity; rather, the purpose is, or ought to be, to identify those aspects of the faith which are incompatible with a modern, enlightened, scientific understanding of ethics, spirituality, history, and the natural world.
All religions offer competing interpretations of the world: its history, its future, and its moral structure. They are not, as some religious apologists contend, metaphorical or misunderstood humanisms. It is therefore important to assess each religion’s specific doctrines and the consequences of these doctrines, including those of Catholicism.
One dangerous Catholic dogma is the church’s disapproval of contraception. Grounded in the belief that sexual intercourse without the purpose of procreation is unnatural and thus unethical, the church holds that the use of birth control, including condom use, is unacceptable. It is this belief that led the former pontiff, Benedict XVI, to affirm that condoms “increase the problem” of AIDS in Africa. The church’s stance against the use of family planning, rooted in this archaic doctrine, is one of the primary obstacles to empowering women in the developing world.
A similarly harmful dogma is the concept of ensoulment.
According to Catholic teaching, each fertilized egg is the recipient of a divinely created soul at the moment of conception. While this teaching does have the positive effect of fostering an inherent respect for human life (though such a doctrine is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for such respect), it is flawed in that it equates the value of collection of just a few hundred preconscious cells with that of a fully formed person.
It is this unjustified equation that has led to the deterioration of several branches of medical research that have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people today and in future generations.
Consider as well the Catholic view on the first instance of ensoulment in history. According to Catholic dogma, while evolution may be true, Adam and Eve were real historical figures in whom God implanted the first souls, marking the transition from animal to human life. With their rebellion against God, they not only engaged in personally sinful behavior, but also infected all of posterity with original sin.
While Christ’s death and resurrection are said to have redeemed mankind (including non-Christians) for its sins, it is established doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church is the only one true church: extra ecclesiam nulla salus – “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The church teaches that those who die in mortal sin – which includes the conscious rejection of Christ, his sacrifice, and the one true church – suffer an eternity in hell.
It is important to point out several aspects of this element of Catholic theology.
First, there is very little reason to believe that the events discussed above – the Fall according to Genesis and the Resurrection according to the New Testament – ever occurred. Israeli archaeology has shown that many of the events as described in the Old Testament are unsupported by the historical record, and textual analysis of the New Testament shows that the Gospels are unreliable and inconsistent accounts of the life, death, resurrection, and significance of Jesus Christ.
If these events did not occur, then the entire basis and corpus of Catholic teaching – and of Christianity as a whole – are meaningless.
Second, it is important to reflect on the psychological pain that Christian theology, and Catholic soteriology in particular, has caused millions of people. The unsupported claims about the torment that awaits those who reject the church has led countless people to agonize over the fate of their own souls and the souls of loved ones.
The absurdity of Catholic theology was made exceptionally evident in 2007 when, after 800 years of teaching the existence of limbo, the Vatican abolished this haven for unbaptized children. Theologians, it appears, have access to a seemingly inexhaustible quarry of nonsensical ideas with which to build castles – and dungeons – in the sky.
Third, the Christian and Catholic obsession with the afterlife, is, I sustain, an unhealthy one. While the pope is right to advocate the virtues of selflessness, it is another thing altogether to say, as he did in 2013, that we should “divest ourselves of worldliness.” A hatred of this world and an eagerness for it to end – attitudes central to Christ’s teaching – cannot be the foundation for the development of a truly prosperous global civilization.
Finally, it must be pointed out, especially in the general mood of ecumenicism and bonhomie that surrounds this entire papal visit, that there is a significant price that humanity pays for being fractured into separate tribes on the basis of unsubstantiated religious doctrines.
If the pope’s visit proves anything, it is that there are truly no good reasons to create unnecessary divisions among humanity. If people of all faiths and no faith can rejoice in being in the presence of someone who is devoted, in large part, to advocating for the alleviation of human suffering, imagine how unified and prosperous humanity could be if such a person was not also the head of an institution that is founded on divisive mythology and that propagates an outdated moral code.
It other words, the public’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis is indicative not of the moral superiority of the church or the pontiff per se, but of the general consensus around what constitutes moral wisdom: modesty, compassion, and a broad concern for our ecology and for the welfare of others.
Yet despite this consensus, the religious complexion and diversity of our country – and world – leaves us without a common vocabulary to express this solidarity. It is for this reason that it is all the more urgent that humanity finds a way to outgrow its religious attachments and begins to develop secular traditions and ethics that can finally heal the divisions that religion so needlessly creates.