Back to the Dark Ages
The following editorial is from Free Inquiry magazine,
Deification of John Paul II
Secularists were surprised, dismayed, even appalled by the virtually
unanimous adulation accorded to Pope John Paul II following his death
and burial. The U.S. mass media were whipped into line with obsequious
devotion-and with nary a critical comment. Political leaders from all
over the world descended on Rome with displays of piety and reverence.
Photos of three former presidents of the United States bowing before
the body of the pope were seen worldwide. President George W. Bush
called him "a champion of human freedom." The U.S. media repeated the
mantras that the pope was "the greatest person on Earth in the
twentieth century," an extraordinary defender of human rights, and "the
moral authority of our time." There was very little, if any, dissent
about his role, though many of his policies are open to severe
Propagandistic statements emanating from the Vatican's public-relations
department (run by Joaqu’n Navarro-Valls, a key member of the militant
order Opus Dei), declared that "Jesus Christ had welcomed the Pope in
the last hours of his dying," as did "Mary, mother of God." Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, who would succeed John Paul II, declared at the
funeral that "We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today in
the window of the Father's house . . . that he sees us and blesses us."
Signs throughout St. Peter's Square held high by his devout followers
read "Santo subito," a call for his immediate canonization. All of
these declarations were carried by networks and news services worldwide
at face value. The Daily Mail in Britain ran a front-page headline that
screamed, "Safe in Heaven!"
No doubt, John Paul II was charismatic and photogenic, a celebrity of
the mass media and the jet set; he kissed thousands of babies and waved
to huge crowds everywhere. He was of course opposed to totalitarian
communism, though whether he was single-handedly responsible for its
demise is highly questionable. He constantly talked about "the dignity
of human life," but what he meant by that is open to controversy-for he
interpreted the meaning of that phrase according to Vatican doctrine.
The pope was after all only a human being, not a god, and efforts to
deify him are indeed presumptuous.
The Church of Rome claims that it was founded by Simon Peter, whose
bones are allegedly buried in St. Peter's Cathedral. (They have never
been carbon-14 dated, nor has the claim in any other way been submitted
to scientific confirmation.) The authority of the pope is based upon
the saying attributed to Jesus by Matthew: ". . . thou art Peter"
(Hebrew Cephas, Greek Petros), "and upon this rock I will build my
church. . . . And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of
heaven" (Matthew 16:18-19). Some critics have charged that this passage
was an interpolation; surely it has never been corroborated. Equally
surely, the author of Matthew never knew Jesus, so that Jesus' great
charge unto Peter is based on hearsay. Nor does a similar passage
appear in any of the other Gospels. According to legend, Peter visited
Rome, where he preached to a Christian community, as he apparently did
throughout the Roman world. The Eastern Orthodox church and the
Protestant churches dispute the legitimacy of the papacy's claim to be
the chief emissary of Christ on Earth.
In any case, papal history has been bloodied by wars, crusades,
inquisitions, persecutions, hypocrisy, corruption, and the sale of
indulgences. Reading the Ten Commandments, one finds the following
declaration: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"-yet the
Rome of St. Peter's is full of graven images, most of them statues of
various popes who have been enthroned with regal power. How the image
of a half-nude Jesus on the cross-dedicated to helping the poor and
suffering-can be reconciled with that of popes embroidered with pomp
and finery is hard to fathom.
In any case, why the corporate media in the United States and worldwide
should present without dissent the Vatican's propagandistic
views-particularly its claim to be the primary legal and moral
representative of Jesus on Earth-is, I submit, unfair and untruthful.
There are surely positive aspects of the ministry of John Paul II. He
sought to reach out to other faiths in dialogue-for example, to Jews
and Muslims. He also apologized for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and
the trial of Galileo, which is all to the good! But he was an adamant
opponent of women's rights, at least within the church, refusing their
ordination; and he opposed divorce, reproductive freedom,
contraception, abortion, and artificial insemination. He was an
implacable foe of the "death-with-dignity" movement and its advocacy
for euthanasia and assisted-suicide, which struggled to offer the
incurably ill merciful release from their suffering and pain. He
insisted upon a celibate priesthood, though the church did not practice
celibacy during its first thousand years. He was also a strong foe of
stem-cell research, on the arcane theological premise that the "soul"
is implanted at the moment of conception or of the first division of
cells in a petri dish-in spite of the consequent positive benefits that
may accrue to humankind from stem-cell research.
On his many trips to Asia and Africa, he insisted that condoms not be
used; and he argued for abstinence. These polices no doubt caused
millions of deaths from AIDS and contributed to population growth in
the Third World. Although a critic of poverty-in his favor-and the
excesses of capitalism, he also opposed liberation theology in Latin
America, which meant that the Roman Catholic Church continued to
support the power structure of these countries. Last but not least, he
opposed dialogues between Roman Catholics and humanists after 1988, in
spite of the fact that three earlier dialogues had been highly
successful in finding common ground. Unfortunately, this was in the
wake of his overturning of Vatican II, which had attempted to bring the
Roman Catholic church into the modern world. During his reign,
superstitious miraculous sightings of Mary and Jesus were encouraged;
even exorcisms returned to a church that for many decades had been
skeptical about claims of demonic possession.
When it is said that the pope believed in "human rights and freedom of
conscience," let us be clear about what this meant. The defense of
human rights is a principle now widely accepted across the world, but
these rights are to be found neither within the Bible nor in the
history of the Roman Catholic Church. Quite the contrary, the church
wished to "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's,
and unto God the things which be God's," for centuries condoning
slavery and oligarchy. Well into the twentieth century, the Roman
Catholic Church explicitly opposed democracy and human freedom in
various parts of the world. Indeed, it still demands subservience from
believers, defends its own authority as potentially infallible, and
harshly discourages dissent about its theology. Moreover, it has
consistently attempted to breach the separation of church and state
wherever it has amassed enough power to do so, for example, seeking
public funding for Catholic schools and hospitals. Moreover, many Roman
Catholic hospitals deny reproductive and contraceptive services to
women, even if they urgently request such services.
What is so ominous in the United States for secular humanists is the
alliance today between conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals.
Working together, they have been emboldened to attack secularism and
the First Amendment as never before. A whole line of right-wing
conservative commentators in the media such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean
Hannity venomously castigate secularism. Like Soviet apologists from an
earlier era, they seek to rewrite history by claiming that the U.S.
Constitution is rooted in monotheism and the Bible. They overlook the
fact that the Constitution is a thoroughly secular document and that
the First Amendment is the first clear statement on a national level of
the separation of church and state.
Last but not least, John Paul II claimed to be an implacable foe of
homosexual rights and vigorously opposed same-sex marriage. Yet the
papacy dragged its feet when unbelievable revelations of the abuse of
children arose in the United States and elsewhere. Some 4,450 Catholic
clergy in the United States alone were accused of molesting children,
yet the Vatican helped Cardinal Bernard Law to escape prosecution in
Boston by appointing him to a cushy job in Rome; nor did the church act
decisively against priests who were pedophiles.
The power of the Roman Catholic church is enormous today. Reports of
its demise are premature, although its numbers are not quite as great
as church sources suggest. Large numbers of the more than one billion
Roman Catholics claimed by the church worldwide, though baptized, no
longer are practicing Catholics. This is true throughout Europe. Italy,
for example, has the lowest birthrate of any country in western Europe,
which strongly indicates that Italians do practice birth control.
Indeed, during a recent visit to northern Italy, I heard more anti-pope
jokes than anywhere else in the world!
Even so, church influence remains overwhelming. According to the Wall
Street Journal, the combined year 2000 budget of Catholic parishes in
the United States was $6.6 billion; even this does not include the
spending of 585 Catholic hospitals, 230 Catholic colleges and
universities, and 8500 Catholic primary and secondary schools, which
would indicate that the total budget of the American Roman Catholic
church is in the tens of billions of dollars. And the political power
of the Roman Catholic church is awesome. It has become more militant
today because of uncritical support by President Bush and evangelical
fundamentalists on many issues. Bush is opposed to what he calls the
"culture of death," though he supports capital punishment and the war
in Iraq, which killed and maimed thousands of GIs and over a hundred
thousand Iraqi people. At least John Paul II opposed capital punishment
and the Iraq war, which pitted him against his evangelical allies in
the United States.
XVI: A New Fundamentalist Pope?
The 115 mannequins of the College of Cardinals-all dressed up in
lookalike toy-soldier costumes-secretly elected radical conservative
Joseph Ratzinger as pope with no public discussions of the pros and
cons permitted. Given Ratzinger's reputation as the enforcer of
orthodox Catholic dogma during the reign of John Paul II, perhaps he
should be characterized as a fundamentalist pope. He was appointed
prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981
(formerly known as the "Holy Office of the Inquisition"). He was
largely responsible for the purge of liberal theologians in the United
States and worldwide during John Paul II's papacy. Many theologians,
such as Hans KŸng (the influential Swiss theologian), Leonardo Boff
(Brazilian liberation theologian), Matthew Fox, and others were
suppressed. In January 1987, Charles Curran lost his license to teach
at Catholic University of America because of his liberal views on
sexuality. Ratzinger also condemned Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of
Seattle for his inclusive attitudes toward gays and women. "Papa Ratzi"
vigorously prosecuted ideas he thought to be dangerous. Thus, the
humanistic reforms of the Second Vatican Council-which Ratzinger helped
to shape, but later repented of-have largely been repealed.
For the homily he delivered just before being elected pontiff,
Ratzinger attacked "secularism" as the main enemy of the Roman Catholic
Church. He also included on his hit list "relativism," "pluralism,"
"dissent," tolerance," and "modernity in itself"-all concepts and
values dear to secular humanists, committed to the civic virtues of
The best definition of a fundamentalist is (1) one who believes in the
Absolute Truth; (2) is certain that his sect, cult, denomination,
religion, or Church has a monopoly on Truth and Virtue; and, indeed,
(3) believes that his church's creed or dogma has been authenticated by
God himself (or Jesus) as the only road to salvation.
From this vantage point, all other religions or philosophies are lesser
forms of truth. Many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians are
still aggrieved by a document written by Ratzinger in 2000 ("Dominus
Jesu"), which dismissed other denominations as "not proper churches."
Ratzinger also declared: "Only in the Catholic Church is there eternal
salvation." This would seem to undermine the ecumenical spirit of Pope
John Paul II. In his book, Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger condemned
tolerance as a "pretext to distorting truth."
Ratzinger has attacked what he calls "the dictatorship of relativism."
I agree with his indictment of the "subjectivity" of postmodernists,
for there are objective standards within science and ethics. We should,
however, distinguish relativism from subjectivity. Modern science and
ethics show that although knowledge is relative to human inquirers,
there are rational and empirical tests of truth claims.
What we should especially fear, I submit, is the "dictatorship of
absolutism," especially when it is enforced by an authoritarian
institution. Ratzinger believes that a special revelation gives
absolute authority to the papacy. This is hardly objective but is based
on faith, not reason. Secular humanists dispute the premise of Roman
Catholicism that Jesus is the Son of God (there is insufficient
evidence for that claim) and that the pope is His chief emissary on
Earth (this is a political, not an empirical claim). As a matter of
fact, Roman Catholicism is itself a human institution, and as such is
relative to human interests and needs. So Ratzinger is deceiving
himself and others in masking the reality that this revelation is
embodied in an historical institution whose primary interest is in
solidifying its own power. Relativism and freedom of conscience at
least allow individuals to be free from authoritarian control.
Interestingly, Ratzinger assumed the name Benedict. George Weigel,
American apologist for orthodox Catholics, heralds the fact (The Wall
Street Journal, April 21, 2005) that in the year 529, a monastic town
was being constructed in Italy for Benedict's monks, at the same time
that the Academy (founded by Plato) was being closed in Athens. Now, it
is true that the Benedictine monks gave us an excellent liqueur, even
delicious eggs, named after them (eggs Benedict), but their rise also
spelled the end of the great civilization of Hellenism and the
beginning of the Dark Ages, when learning and inquiry went into eclipse
in the West for almost a millennium.
It was only with the Italian Renaissance that the sparks of secularism
began to glow again, with the rediscovery of the great classics of
pagan civilization (thanks largely to Averršes and Muslim scholars).
This led to the Protestant Reformation and the scientific, democratic,
industrial, and informational revolutions which transformed the modern
world and provided humankind with so many benefits of the good life.
The Roman Catholic church generally opposed every step forward against
Many liberal Roman Catholics are astonished by Ratzinger's election (he
is really the Stalin of the papacy, whose key role is to enforce its
bureaucratic rules and dogmas). The Vatican's propaganda apparatus is
attempting to soften his image as the Grand Inquisitor, given
widespread criticism of his election. Will he change? Alas, if the
Church of Benedict XVI continues to defend the fundamentalism that it
has in the past two decades, what a tragedy this would be for the
modern world-given the growth of Protestant fundamentalists who insist
that only they will be saved by the rapture, and the fundamentalists of
militant Islam who insist that only devout Muslims will be welcomed in
Heaven. What sanctimonious nerve on the part of all
fundamentalists-whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim-to
condemn everyone else to hell except their own brand of True Believers.
President George W. Bush visited Cardinal Ratzinger at Vatican City in
June 2004, seeking support for his presidential candidacy. Ratzinger a
week later wrote a letter to U.S. bishops declaring that Catholic
politicians who are pro-abortion should be denied communion. (The
hierarchy later waffled). But Ratzinger had allied the Vatican with the
American right wing.
We are facing a clear and present danger to our liberties in the United
States by militant religionists. We need to forthrightly defend
The preamble to the Constitution states: "We the People of the United
States, in Order to from a more perfect Union, establish Justice,
insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote
the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves
and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the
United States of America." Thus, it derives its powers and liberties
from the people, not from some divine dispensation granted by a foreign
theological potentate speaking "in the name of God."
Its Article VII states, ". . . no religious test shall ever be required
as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United
States." The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law
requesting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof. . . ." Thus, the Constitution of the United States is
a secular document. Ratzinger's attack on secularization is an attack
on the American system of government.
The tragic case of Terri Schiavo further illustrates the power of
Catholicism in alliance with evangelical fundamentalists in the United
States and their influence upon the media today. Efforts by her
husband, Michael Schiavo, to remove feeding tubes after his wife had
lingered for fifteen years in a persistent vegetative state were
rebuffed time and again. The final outrage, of course, was the effort
by the Congress to interfere in the process and to insist that the
courts rehear the case. Pope John Paul II's voice was raised in
opposition to removal of the feeding tube, which helped to feed the
frenzy of those opposed to euthanasia.
The death-with-dignity movement had made tremendous progress in the
last thirty years. It is widely recognized that there is a need for
living wills and health-care proxies. Large sectors of the American
public agreed that Terri Schiavo ought to have been allowed to die and
that Congress should not have intervened in this matter. The case had
been heard over and over again by the courts. Fortunately, the feeding
tubes were finally removed, and stayed that way, and Terri Schiavo was
allowed to die in peace.
All of this emphasizes the fact that the right of privacy is vital in
spite of efforts by theological ideologists to erode these rights.
Would that the corporate media had enough courage to provide some
hearing for the rationalist scientific viewpoint. The field of medical
ethics has involved some the best minds in the medical profession,
philosophy, law, and other fields. A significant moral principle has
been developed and is widely accepted: namely, that the informed
consent of the patient, made known by means of a living will, should
determine whether or not extraordinary measures ought to be taken to
keep a person alive. We recognize that Terri Schiavo did not have a
written will, but apparently there was enough prima facie evidence from
other eyewitnesses as well as her husband that she would not have
wanted to be kept alive in spite of her parents' insistence that she be
forced to do so.
We have argued in these pages that when the end of life is near,
reflective moral decisions can be made based upon the intentions and
wishes of the individual involved and taking into account the
individual's quality of life. We can thus provide ethical guidelines
for these decisions without reference to absolute theological dogmas.
No church should be allowed to restrict the individual's right to
choose to die with dignity, to control his or her reproductive freedom,
or in any other way to determine one's own life as one sees fit. This
is central to secular humanist morality, though clerics or even popes
may stand against it. And it is based upon the principles of moral
freedom and the right of self-determination instead of an absolutist
moral doctrine based upon an authoritarian religion.
Paul Kurtz is
editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry,
emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo,
and chair of the Center
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