Once a Catholic, always a Catholic – that’s me, alright. Despite the fact I have long since left the Church, God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost (changed to “Spirit” in my youth; so much for the immutability of the divine), organized religion, and the idea of the supernatural altogether, I am still a Catholic.
I think like a Catholic. My worldview has been shaped – though not dominated – by Catholicism. In this, the nuns, the priests, the brothers, and probably a monk or two have left their mark on my intellectual, social, and spiritual development. And I will thank them for it till my dying breath. There is great beauty to be found in the strands of logic and insightful, penetrating analysis of humanity by Catholic thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and other Catholic theologians and philosophers.
Conversely, this makes me a lousy atheist. I don’t hate people of faith although making fun of them is sometimes too much of a temptation to resist. Nor do I see religion as “an opiate of the masses” as Marx and Barack Obama (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed…”) view this all too human phenomena. Belief in a supreme being does not disqualify someone from engaging in rational thought otherwise, although the contradictions can get hairy at times. To this day, Catholic thinkers have, for the most part enriched our inner dialogue as we struggle with the most basic questions of right and wrong.
After 12 years of Catholic education, it is hard to slough off habits of thought that force me to see the world through a prism shaped by my Catholic upbringing. My parents were what used to be called “good Catholics.” They went to church every Sunday with their 10 children in tow (drawing little amazement from the other boomer families made up of 5,6,8, or more kids). They gave us a Catholic education through high school and college if desired. We followed Catholic rituals and practices. (To this day I will not eat a fish stick thanks to meatless Fridays during Lent.)
They say you can always tell what a man believes and how he thinks by going through his library. I challenge anyone to make that adage good in my father’s case. It would be hard to glean anything specific of my father’s politics or religious beliefs from the astonishing breadth of philosophical tracts that lined the shelves of his 3,000 book library. In this, he did the 10 of us a favor by not foisting any particular political or moral view of the world on us. Free to explore ideas from Marx to Martin Neimoller, the Moran children grew up free thinkers – just as my parents intended.
That said, as I grew to adulthood and rejected organized religion, I nevertheless still thought like a Catholic even though I didn’t live like one. In fact, I trace my conversion to conservatism based largely on the fact that in many respects, Catholic teachings line up very nicely with conservative principles although the Jeffersonian ideal of liberty doesn’t translate very well. But in the establishment of a moral and just society – one being just as important as the other – conservatism and Catholicism seemed to me a match made in, well, heaven.
That is why I feel it necessary to defend the Pope and to some extent the Catholic faith from this kind of attack:
“Whenever a cult leader sets himself up as God’s infallible wing man here on Earth, lock away the kids,” said Maher, comparing the Catholic Church to the polygamist cult authorities raided in Texas last week.
“I’d like to tip off law enforcement to an even larger child-abusing religious cult,” Maher said. “Its leader also has a compound, and this guy not only operates outside the bounds of the law, but he used to be a Nazi and he wears funny hats.”
That was Bill Maher speaking shortly before the Pope came to the United States in case you missed it. Maher continued to put his foot in it:
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Bill, you shouldn’t be saying that the Catholic Church is no better than this creepy Texas cult.” For one thing, altar boys can’t even get pregnant. But really, what tripped up the little cult on the prairie was that they only abused hundreds of kids, not thousands, all over the world. Cults get raided, religions get parades. How does the Catholic Church get away with all of their buggery? Volume, volume, volume!
If you have a few hundred followers, and you let some of them molest children, they call you a cult leader. If have a billion, they call you ‘Pope.’ It’s like, if you can’t pay your mortgage, you’re a deadbeat. But if you can’t pay a million mortgages, you’re BearStearns and we bail you out. And that is who the Catholic Church is: the BearStearns of organized pedophilia—too big, too fat. When the current pope was in his previous Vatican job as John Paul’s Dick Cheney, he wrote a letter instructing every Catholic bishop to keep the sex abuse of minors secret until the Statute of Limitations ran out. And that’s the Church’s attitude: ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,’ which is fine, far be it from me to criticize religion. But just remember one thing: if the Pope was—instead of a religious figure—merely the CEO of a nationwide chain of day care centers, where thousands of employees had been caught molesting kids and then covering it up, he’d be arrested faster than you can say ‘who wants to touch Mr. Wiggle?’
Now Maher is paid to be a clown so perhaps we should ascribe his outburst more to the fact that he was just doing his job shocking the sensibilities of his bourgeoisie audience who are titillated when an anti-establishmentarian like Maher sticks it to an icon like the Catholic Church.
Maher was forced to apologize about the Nazi crack – a patently untrue charge that anyone with a passing familiarity with the battle in Nazi Germany between the Church and Hitler would never have made. The Pope, as a young Joseph Ratzinger, was forced by law to join the Hitler youth despite Hitler’s signed assurances (the Concordant of 1933) that the Catholic Youth Organization would remain an option for families who did not wish their children to join a secular group.
Predictably, Maher was unapologetic about his other “charges” including his weird interpretation of the letter sent by Ratzinger to all the Bishops of the Church when he was Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Maher grossly misrepresented the contents of the 2001 letter then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the bishops. He did not tell them to “keep the sex abuse of minors of State of Limitations ran out.” The letter clarified that the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had jurisdiction according to the Church’s law (canon law) to try clerics concerning abuses of the sacraments, and also, as the letter put it, a “delict against morals, namely: the delict committed by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue [thou shall not commit adultery] with a minor below the age of 18 years.”
What Maher’s criticism fails to take into account is that not everywhere in the world where the comedian’s attitude toward Catholics dominates is the Church protected by a document like the US Constitution. In fact, Ratzinger’s concerns that the Church be allowed to deal with pedophile priests only in extremely narrow circumstances was protection for the Church in those places where authorities share Mr. Maher’s less than expansive view of religious freedom. There are dozens of countries in the world that would take Mr. Maher’s supercilious suggestion that the Catholic hierarchy should be locked up to heart and use either real or trumped up charges of abuse by priests as an excuse to destroy the independence of the Church from government.
The Catholic Church operates in a world that is by and large not very friendly to it. But clearly the abuse scandals here and abroad as well as the actions of individual bishops to cover it up, pay off the victims, stonewall secular authorities, allow pedophiles to continue their abuse from posting to posting knowing their propensity to “sin,” – all of this dark chapter in the Church’s history must be aired out and exposed (with due diligence made to respect the privacy of victims) before the breach that has opened up between the hierarchy and the congregation is closed.
Does this validate Maher’s over the top, exaggerated, hateful rant? As any good satirist, Maher has taken the germ of truth and blown it up into impossibly overstated and wildly embroidered bombast – all for a few laughs and the notoriety that comes to those who deliberately offend people in order to get attention; much like a 5 year old who tells his parents he hates them.
Perhaps Mr. Maher believes religion should be regulated by government. He doesn’t say so outright but the threat inherent in his diatribe is clear. Is that simply part of his shtick? Or does this angry atheist actually believe that government should find a way to “regulate” against these sorts of outrages?
To place those institutional sins in the context of the modern Church is difficult. The Pope, in his visit to the US has tried to reconcile the Church’s interests with those of the victims – pleasing some and not others:
It is in the context of this hope, born of God’s love and fidelity, that I acknowledge the pain which the church in America has experienced as the result of sexual abuse of minors,” Benedict said.
“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention.”
During the Mass, the pope said the church has worked “to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation” and to ensure that children are safe.
That last has come to pass only recently and ignores the years of neglect prior to the last few years of the John Paul II pontificate and Benedict’s ascension. This doesn’t erase the problem and much more needs to be done. But it does make a start that any fair minded person would have to admit that while long overdue is a necessary and vital step on the road to reconciliation.
I have expressed my admiration in the past for this Pope and his remarkably supple intellect with its subtlety and depth. But this is a case where the Pope needs to show leadership and compassion – a test he has passed to this point. What he does when he returns to Rome will determine whether his American flock continues to distrust their bishops. They certainly have reason to – a fact not lost on this Pope who will seek to heal the breach caused by the abuse scandals and make the Church whole again.