Guest post by Iain Walker

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

Minow (#22):

No it isn’t, it could reform to be less or more authoritarian, as the Anglican church did.

There are two issues here regarding the authoritarianism of the Church. Firstly, there’s one of authoritarianism in practice – the fact that it is a hierarchical organisation which emphasises obediance to the teachings promulgated from the top, and which traditionally has had a low tolerance of dissent from those teachings. This might be capable of reform, although I’m not holding my breath. There’s an awful lot of institutional and doctrinal inertia to be overcome, and any reform is (at least initially) going to have to be top-down. And I’m far from convinced that Senor Bergoglio has the moral imagination for the kind of radical transformation required – he’s at best a moderate conservative with a very selective view of what needs fixing, not a serious, root-and-branch reformer.

Secondly, there’s the issue of authoritarianism in principle. Theism itself is inherently authoritarian, in that it teaches that human fulfilment must be based on the adoption of a subservient attitude towards an unaccountable authority. Some theists (the Quakers spring to mind) manage to erect a kind of egalitarian firewall between this core principle and their day-to-day values and teachings, but it still remains the case that the tendency even in the more egalitarian sects is to teach that it is up to the individual to determine what God wants him/her to do. I.e., for all their talk of “conscience”, the underlying belief-system remains a deeply authoritarian one.

The Catholic Church is an organisation that is built on this kind of thinking. There may be Protestant sects that emphasise the submission to divine power rather more explicitly and with rather more frothing at the mouth, but the Church has constructed itself on the basis of a self-image in which it is a necessary part of the divine hierarchy. Its structure and doctrines are highly dependent on metaphysical assumptions about power, authority and submission, with God at the top, the Church in the middle, and the punters in the pews at the bottom. In other words, the authoritarianism of the Church isn’t just a matter of institutional organisation – it’s an integral part of the very mindset that gives it its raison d’etre. And while the former might possibly be reformable whilst still retaining the substance of Catholicism, the latter … not so much.

In fact, I think human rights is really a religious idea, it comes from Christianity.

There’s an element of truth in this, but only a very small one. The idea of natural law as developed by medieval Christian theologians is often seen as being influential on the later development of the idea of human rights, but the main work was done by secular thinkers like Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, Paine, Godwin, J.S. Mill and others, some of whom were Christians and some of whom weren’t.

More to the point, the influence of Christianity is at best a contingent fact of history rather than a necessary requirement. The concept of universal human rights is a secular one in that it does not presuppose any religious assumptions, and can be derived without reference to any religious ideas – all you need to do is recognise reciprocation as the foundation of human moral behaviour and be willing to universalise consistently. Just as the Golden Rule crops up independently in many different cultures, human rights is not dependent on any one historical belief system.