How Critical Should We Be of the Pope?

It is my observation that many people have cut way too much slack for the Pope and the Catholic Church. The crimes committed against children and the institutional cover up of these is one of the biggest moral scandals of our day. So, not one to keep my opinions of irrationality to myself, I wrote the following paragraph to the NZ Herald, in response to a well meaning lady who thinks recent criticism of the Pope is intolerant and disrespectful :

Correspondent Susan Jean Marlow believes we should not heap scorn on the Pope, which is an attitude that shows she agrees that free speech is fine until it treads on her cherished beliefs. Many people would like to give the Pope a free pass on the transgressions of the organisation he heads, purely because millions of people elevate him to status as “God’s appointee on Earth”. Many of us, on the other hand, judge the claims and actions of the Catholic Church and the Pope as we would anyone else. How many institutions, other than clerical, would be treated with equal respect if trusted members of said organisation engaged in wholesale child molestation? Would we maintain our respect for them when they try and “keep it in house” – essentially covering it up? The Pope should also be called out for the recklessness preaching of “sinfulness” of condom use in sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of people die of aids every year. It is not intolerant or inciting religious hatred to point out stupidity and to hold people like the Pope accountable for harmful consequences that result from their actions.

‘Nuff said. I do think many people in clerical authority positions get away with far more than they would if they weren’t operating under the banner of “God’s annointed”. As Christopher Hitchens points out after numerous scandals involving pastors and reverends: “In America, if you put reverend in your name you can get away with anything”.

Anyway so a few days later, someone, clearly ticked off with my assessment of the 21st century affairs of the Catholic Church (pun intended) had something to say (below). I thought it was worth analysing because it is a common retort by apologists trying to defend the by nature indefensible:

Your correspondent Fred Lunjevich says the Pope should be condemned because some priests abused the trust placed in them. He asks what other group would continue to be respected if their members engaged in child abuse. Statistics from the USA suggests teachers are more likely to abuse children than Catholic clergy. Do we trust teachers? Mr Lunjevich also implies the Pope should condonethe use of condoms because millions die of Aids in Africa. But those millions are not exactly obeying the Pope’s commands on sexual morality. What makes him think those people care what the Pope says anyway? – Jason Clark, Massey.

Okay, where to begin. First off, this rant is a strawman argument and does not fully address what my letter expressed. I was arguing that the Pope gets cut a little more slack than he deserves because of the reverence Catholics grant him. I did not talk about condemnation or trust I specifically talked about evening the playing field so that people and organisations, depsite rank, privilege and authority, be judged and held accountable by the same standards.

Second, the Jason Clark’s response is a false analogy. I specifically talked about organisations and institutions. Jason refers to “groups” specifically teachers. The Catholic Church is a monolithic organisation with one head authority representing all Catholics in the entire world. “Teachers” is not an organisation. In fact “teachers” refers to many different groups of people with varying values, hierarchies and organisations. There would therefore be as many different approaches, beliefs, values and cultures within the group “teachers”.

Other reasons why comparing “teachers” to the Catholic Church is in error:

  • Stats from abuse by teachers is probably due to the fact that teachers are not a law unto themselves and are held accountable by the communities and organisations in which they operate. They get found out, reported and likely removed from their positions. Hence why there are child abuse statistics.
  • Catholic child abuse statistics are incomplete and only just coming to light. Cover up these horrendous crimes against the innocent and the stats will be lower than they truly are.
  • Teachers do not claim to be the arbiters of morality. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims it has a direct line with the creator of the universe when it comes to moral truths. This means they ought behave in ways better than us mere mortals and should therefore be criticised more heavily for moral terpitude.

One other thing… SINCE WHEN DID HAGGLING ABOUT WHO COMMITS THE MOST SEX CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN BECOME NORMAL? No morally sane person I know thinks sex abuse of any kind is okay. One statistic is bad enough, especially when priests, Bishops, the Pope and church doctrine claims that they are a moral authority, worthy of being listened to.

What makes me think people listen to the Pope?

As an argument, I don’t think people take this one very seriously. I mean, really?? The  Pope is revered by Catholics everywhere, including Western nations where criticism of religion and free speech is common and acceptable. African communities tend to exhibit more traditional, superstitious and religious. This is probably why in 2005, there were 135.6 million Roman and Eastern Catholic members in Africa. This is in a population of 809,105,000 residents in Africa. In 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa, it was estimated at 158 million.

Are we expected to believe these people uniquely don’t listen to what the Pope has to say? The church claims that condom use is sinful and therefore against God’s will, how many Catholic’s in Africa would hear the Pope say this and go “nah, the old duffer is high on grass”?

People clearly listen to the Pope, or if not, they take the word their Priest or Bishop who is more often than not preaching the official doctrine (what the Pope says). Besides, if one person lsitened to the Pope, and went against sound contraceptive advice, had unprotected sex and contracted aids, would that be okay?

What makes me think people listen to the Pope? Simple. People believe authority. Period. We are primed to do so. In fact, lesser authorities command our respect and attention all the time. Authority is one of the attributes identified by Robert Cialdini as a major factor in influencing people. As authorities come, the President of the United States may be the only person who could rival the Pope in a “I am the greatest authority in the world” competition.

I won’t go into the fact that Christian missionaries of all stripes go to Africa to lend a hand, all the while denying sensible contraceptive advice, and in fact speak out against it. These beliefs and actions really do cause damage and should not be respected – especially when they come from the leading authority for hundreds of millions of Catholics around the globe.


One response to “How Critical Should We Be of the Pope?

  1. viewfromreality

    BTW… I am an ex-Catholic but did not have a terrible experience and have no “axe” to grind. In fact, every Catholic leader I was associated with were and are lovely people.

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