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Back to the Dark Ages

Paul Kurtz

The following editorial is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 4.

The 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 criticism.

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.

Benedict 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 democracy.

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 secularizing trends.

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 secularism.

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.

Death with Dignity

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, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.  

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