Guest post by Gordon Willis: The combined result is cruelty


Originally a comment by Gordon Willis on Why the Catholic church is an intrinsically immoral institution.

Let’s look at Christian doctrine. Because of the sin of Adam (he believed a woman who believed a snake) we are fallen creatures, which means that we cannot obey the Law. This means that we are all condemned to eternal torment. But God, in his mercy, sends his only begotten Son to redeem us: his willing self-sacrifice on the cross expiates our sinfulness and makes us one with God, as we were before the Fall. Therefore, whoever believes in Jesus as the Saviour of the world will inherit eternal life. Jesus reduces the Law to two commandments (love God, love your neighbour) and Paul goes on at great length about the impossibility of observing the Law and the consequent necessity of faith in Christ’s sacrifice to attain redemption.

And that’s it. That is what the Church is all about. It is not in the least concerned with rights, with care. Love is of God, it is God who provides it. So however the Church tortures you to recant or believe, God still loves you, while the Church does its holy duty to ensure your salvation, whatever it takes.

This is the mission, the goal, of the Church: that everyone should believe this insidious drivel. You can inculcate belief by force, by fear, by kindness. You can mix up all three, and as far as I can see, the last is what actually happens. The combined result is cruelty.

You can only go so far in reforming this, without doing away with it completely. This is where Christianity sticks, and this is the core that can never be changed, and from which the excesses and the cruelties result.

Comments

  1. says

    There are many ways to look at it. But Gordon does a good job of summing up an important central part.
    I also don’t see how you could reform the Catholic church to not be evil while still having something that even remotely resembles the original.

  2. jaggington says

    I strongly suspect that, at the very least, a significant minority of the Catholic Church’s upper hierarchy do not actually believe in God; they are aware that they are continuing with a falsehood and that they do so out of self-interest. I actually believe this applies to most religions, just as I believe it about the practitioners of other superstitions such as astrologers, psychics and spiritualists. (I think it also applies to many other walks of life where people create a mystique of expertise, such as financial analysts and business gurus and IT managers).

    Almost everything they do is about entrenching their power, protecting their own interests and deflecting attention from the truth. They feed off inequality, disharmony, suffering, poverty, conflict and even war.

  3. yahweh says

    Minow’s optimism about the possibility of reform of the Catholic church in the previous post is admirable but I would point out that the impetus towards these moral improvements always comes from external, secular forces and rarely (ever?) from the church’s own beliefs or hierarchy.

    It is secular public opinion which is now pushing the Christian churches – against fierce resistance in some cases – to accept women and homosexual men as priests. [Apropos of nothing, given how many priests are homosexual in the first place, the implied delusion (that there aren’t any -or not many- at the moment) should be pretty embarrassing.]

    Similarly the abolition of slavery was led by outsiders and opposed by churches (with the admirable exception of the Quakers).

    Individual church members may certainly have helped push their churches towards greater decency, but the point is that the churches themselves have almost never taken a moral lead.

    It is the secular holders of silly notions like ‘human rights’ who are driving the Catholic church and others to become decent organisations, just as it is secular forces which are leading the drive against FGM while Islam is in two minds.

  4. yahweh says

    It’s a delicious irony that the idea that the Catholic church should be intrinsically immoral is so hard for believers to accept when it is a core Catholic belief that people are intrinsically immoral (aka original sin).

  5. Omar Puhleez says

    A good piece from Gordon Willis.

    The first Christian missionaries who came to Britain had a difficult job to say the least. They were up against the organised political power of local tribal chieftains who commonly refused to allow them to preach or to have any communication with their communities. Those that were allowed in typically lived as ‘holy hermits’, and built their hermitages close to a spring or other supply of water, typically no closer than three bowshots away from the chief’s camp.

    The above provision was for their own protection, as some bowstring-happy warrior with a skinful was likely to stagger out some Saturday night and let the holy hermit have it, just for something to do.

    However, the hermit had a few high cards to play. For a start, he was in communication with the mightiest god of them all, who could beat the pants off any around. Second, he could intercede with this mighty god and save any warrior’s soul from the fires of Hell. Third, he could refuse his services, and let the warrior’s soul take its chances. But fourth: the religion of the one mighty god was a great constitution for a confederation of tribes, which would then quickly absorb or overwhelm all the rest. Oh, and fifth, the hermit was commonly literate, and had read in a book which told all you needed to know about the one mighty god.

    This unifying function of religion remains to this day, and frustrates a lot of rational critique. Because to function, a religion does not have to be rational. It just has to keep the tribes united, and the society from falling apart and dissolving politically into warring factions. It has to tell a story believable in a context where criticism of its doctrine is discouraged, or perhaps even outlawed.

    As time goes by, I think its ability to do this is waning, for fairly obvious reasons..

  6. mudpuddles says

    @ John-Henry Beck, #1

    I also don’t see how you could reform the Catholic church to not be evil while still having something that even remotely resembles the original.

    Very true. I have worked for years with a Catholic priest (a close friend who died recently) on poverty reduction and human rights issues. He knew I was an atheist, and had many conflicts himself about his faith and Church teachings (one reason he retired from curacy and began to focus on voluntary work in developing countries many years ago), and we had some great discussions. We once debated the idea of Catholic Church reform. He told me that it is well established and accepted within the Catholic hierarchy that the Church can never ever reform its position on women in the priesthood, or on homosexuality, divorce, abortion, or on a range of core human rights issues. The reason is simple – the current stance of the Church is based on the notion that the Church is implementing (not interpreting) the Word of God, as written in the scriptures, and as communicated by God directly to the Pope (to every Pope that ever has been). So any effort to change policy would be an admission that (a) every single Pope has been fundamentally wrong on these issues, destroying Catholicism’s core tenet of Papal Infallibility, or (b) God was wrong, destroying the very concept of an all knowing Catholic god, or (c) its all a bunch of lies anyway.
    In other words, if the Catholic Church reforms on any of the issues, it admits to always being fundamentally wrong, to nearly 2,000 years of error, and destroys itself. It simply cannot change in any substantive manner on any of those core issues if it wants to survive as the Catholic Church.
    @ yahweh, #4

    It’s a delicious irony that the idea that the Catholic church should be intrinsically immoral is so hard for believers to accept when it is a core Catholic belief that people are intrinsically immoral (aka original sin).

    I never thought about that, but so true!

  7. Peter Hilton says

    The basis of the Church’s rejection of the heliocentric model was “The Church could not have been so wrong for so long.” QED.

  8. says

    @ 6 – I frequently cite the problem you describe, when some bishop explains about the child-rape coverup by saying “we didn’t realize being raped by a priest was bad for children back then, nobody did back then.” Oh yes? So much for their claims to moral superiority then.

    And they don’t even seem to notice it – although more likely it’s just that they know most of their audience won’t notice it. “You have to obey our timeless teachings about women and homosexuality and abortion, plus as recently as five years ago we had no idea that rape might be harmful to children.”

  9. Gordon Willis says

    The basis of the Church’s rejection of the heliocentric model was “The Church could not have been so wrong for so long.” QED.

    Ha ha ha! Have you heard the one about Intelligent Design?

  10. Gordon Willis says

    It’s a delicious irony that the idea that the Catholic church should be intrinsically immoral is so hard for believers to accept when it is a core Catholic belief that people are intrinsically immoral (aka original sin).

    I never thought about that, but so true!

    Yes, it’s an excellent point. It addresses head-on the belief that the Church is the Bride of Christ, the earthly representative of God to his people. This is why it cannot be wrong, and therefore must hide the sins of those humans who represent it — not just bad priests, but bad nuns, bad bishops, bad cardinals and bad popes. So if God has elected the Church to express God’s will to earthlings, and the Church is ineradically corrupt, what does this say about God?

  11. John Morales says

    Gordon,

    So if God has elected the Church to express God’s will to earthlings, and the Church is ineradically corrupt, what does this say about God?

    That God works in mysterious ways.

    (duh)

  12. Gordon Willis says

    That God works in mysterious ways.

    Yes, John Morales, but that doesn’t address the critics, does it? and it is the critics the Church has to silence, while it pacifies those who need to believe. There is also the doctrine, from the Gospel of John (the prologue), that God has made himself known in the person of Christ, and that by faith we shall know him. So mysterious ways aren’t good enough, though I take the point that the Church will talk about “mysterious ways” if it suits them. Which brings us back to my point…

  13. John Morales says

    Gordon, the faithful have faith. Simple as that.

    And reality is no impediment to faith, but rather an opportunity to exercise it. :|

    (I know, because I’m married to a practicing Catholic — one who (like most) doesn’t consider their own non-compliance with unwanted bits of dogma to be hypocritical, and who admits the whole conceit is silly when examined rationally)

    … it is the critics the Church has to silence, while it pacifies those who need to believe.

    Look at the history of the Church — if the evident hypocrisy of the existence of (say) orders of Knights Militant or of the Inquisition didn’t sway the faithful, the current hypocrisies (such as turning a blind eye to child rape and built-in misogyny) aren’t going to be any more successful at doing so.

    I don’t believe the Church needs to silence its critics; rather, I put it to you that on the contrary, the very existence of critics is useful to the institution, because it provides validation to its narrative that it’s the Church which is the subject of persecution and that it’s striving against human reactance for the benefit of humanity.

    I don’t want to seem defeatist, though… I consider that its strongest tool is (as others have noted) the inculcation of children into its narrative, and that this is a tool that will not suffice in this age of ubiquitous communication and availability of information, and I think we’re already seeing unprecedented change regarding the viability of its techniques.

    But I think it will take more time, because change is going to be generational.

  14. John Morales says

    [meta]

    BTW Gordon, I consider your OP to be rather good, and I want to make clear I don’t dispute its essence.

  15. Minow says

    blocquote>And that’s it.

    The trouble is, that isn’t it for many or even most Christians. There is a lot more to it. And that more is where the possibility of non-authoritarian forms of Christian organisation (forms that you can actually see happening all over the place) comes from. Buildlng an aunt Sally to knock down may feel good, but it doesn’t get closer to the truth.

  16. Gordon Willis says

    @John Morales #14 Thank you for your kind comment. More on #13 in a mo’.

    @Minow #15

    that isn’t it for many or even most Christians

    Yes it is. Those are the core tenets of Christianity. Everything else is theology: what are the practical consequences? and (especially) how does it work? All the edifices are built on them, all the disagreements stem from them, nothing is permitted which is not in accordance with them (more disagreements there). In particular, the whole mission of the Church is to promulgate and inculcate that essential doctrine of redemption and salvation. Good works count for nothing beside the sheer importance of preaching the “Good News” (euangelion, gospel), and they all believe that we are redeemed through faith, which is why they want us all to believe it. And once again, Minow, you have made a sweeping general statement based on too little information. It’s a bad habit and I wish you wouldn’t do it.

    As to the rest of your comment, I think that Iain and Ophelia have dealt with your concerns rather well under Iain’s guest-post. There are no non-authoritarian forms of Christianity, because doctrine is based on God’s will for us creatures and his consequent redemptive action within his creation. One cannot simply deny this and remain within the religious fold. I wonder if you are confusing authoritarian with having a priestly hierarchy, but authority comes from both tradition and scripture, and there are always those who know more and talk more and preach more and insist the most on conformity (to God’s revealed will, of course), even where there is no formal priesthood. For many, there is a book, you see, and it’s all written down, but there’s so much in it that people have a habit of picking the bits they remember and getting confused, so it’s good for them to have learned people to remind them and to explain it all. And it has God’s authority. And so do they. I learnt all that at university prayer-meetings. There are always authorities.

  17. Gordon Willis says

    @John Morales #13

    And reality is no impediment to faith, but rather an opportunity to exercise it.

    You make it sound so simple. The truth is that faith is a constant battle (cue “Fight the good fight with all thy might”). Quite apart from the fact that all the disputes between Arians and Trinitarians and Monophysites et alii have never produced an agreement about how it all works there are all the daily stresses of our lives, like becoming homeless or losing a loved one or getting depressed or developing a fatal illness or hearing about some shocking criminal act: in short, all the “why, why, why?” of our lives. Christians have to arm themselves to the teeth to resist doubt, and it can be a truly terrible struggle.

    (I know, because I’m married to a practicing Catholic — one who (like most) doesn’t consider their own non-compliance with unwanted bits of dogma to be hypocritical, and who admits the whole conceit is silly when examined rationally)

    It seems to me that in practice, most ordinary religious people are like this. They probably know little about the tenets of Christianity, and they would be incredulous if they discovered them. They don’t go to Bible-study meetings and assume merely that if one is good one will go to heaven, and they ignore the boring bits about redemption but like the words and the stories. They are, of course, healthy and sane people who have reached an accommodation with the idiotic notions they were brought up with, an accommodation based on practical experience and common sense. I just wish they wouldn’t keep calling themselves Christians, because they aren’t. On the other hand, it’s natural for them to do so, as they are products of a Christian milieu.

    Look at the history of the Church — if the evident hypocrisy of the existence of (say) orders of Knights Militant or of the Inquisition didn’t sway the faithful, the current hypocrisies (such as turning a blind eye to child rape and built-in misogyny) aren’t going to be any more successful at doing so.

    I think you are now begging the question of why, with all this horror and misery, people still keep their faith. I think — it’s just my opinion — that (1) people who have been brought up to believe feel a need to continue to do so, and excuses will be found, such as: the truth of God’s word is not tainted by the sinfulness of his creatures (the fact that the Church’s role is to express God’s will on earth — see Matthew 16:19, which I commented on earlier — should cause people to ask serious questions about this, but they don’t); and (2) many people have a strong need for certainty (the conservative mind?) and cannot easily let go of a world-view that has become part of their lives. The latter are generally the most active and the most dangerous from the point-of-view of the security of people who cannot conform, in one way or another, to their comfort-seeking prejudices.

    As to the business of critics, you may well be right, from a sociological perspective, but it is still the mission of the Church to bring everyone into the fold, so critics have to be silenced. Besides, as the whole structure is imaginary, it really doesn’t do to have people saying so. After all, most of the hierarchy do in fact believe their religion, and do sincerely believe that they are doing God’s will, even when they are doing really their own. All the subtlety of Catholic moral philosophy cannot prevent them from doing that. It’s once again the problem, as I said to Minow, of there being so much to remember that people get confused, and so we have people like Father B. (whose name I have now forgotten).

  18. Gordon Willis says

    In my fourth paragraph (Look at the history of the Church), perhaps I should have added a third point which should probably be distinguished from the second. Many people are happy to have someone to solve the big problems and just do as they are told (cue Islam?). It is simply easier not to have to worry about the imponderables of life, and very reassuring to know that someone can speak authoritatively on them. No, it’s not “pathetic”, it’s just pitiable, if you follow me. Life is hard, not everyone is brave, not everyone is clever.

  19. John Morales says

    Gordon @17, thanks for the response. It seems to me that you’re not really disputing any of my contentions, but rather fleshing them out, though your first paragraph at first appears to be doing so — but surely, the [theological] disputes and the daily stresses of our lives are part of reality!

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