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Pope quote more nuanced than I thought – but he’s still no moral authority

My mea culpa on this one quote — widely reported out of context, which I accepted uncritically as the full context based only on its widespread dispersal — doesn’t mean I’m softening my opinion on the Pope’s past duplicity and his inability to own up to simply being wrong about anything. Nor does it mean that I was particularly wrong about my assessment of his quote, even with context, though the distinction you have to cut for it is rather fine.

Daniel Fincke pointed out at Camels With Hammers that I was wrong about what the Pope was trying to say when I denounced any claims to moral authority he once had in this post, stating that he all but admitted morals are subjective. Having read the full address, the section that everyone’s been quoting as stating that pedophilia was in some way acceptable in the 70s, is in actuality a claim that some people with that philosophy “corrupted” the otherwise incontrovertible stranglehold on objective morality the Catholic church claimed — and therefore this (wholly fictional) pedophilia meme was drawing the Church away from the objective morals that exist in their doctrine.

In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today. Against them, Pope John Paul II, in his 1993 Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, indicated with prophetic force in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos the essential and permanent foundations of moral action. Today, attention must be focussed anew on this text as a path in the formation of conscience. It is our responsibility to make these criteria audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity, in the context of our paramount concern for mankind.

Fine, okay, sure. So you, as usual, presume that the Catholic Church had some sort of monopoly on morality prior to some insidious corruption, and you point to some fictional boogeymen that have instigated the corruption without actually pointing out who they are. And never mind those pedophiles you shielded from the law, let’s just conveniently omit them from the equation. As far as I know, the only people ever arguing that pedophilia is okay at the time was NAMBLA, and they were and still are, as far as anyone else can tell, entirely populated by Feds laying down a honeypot, and right-wingers trying to dig up dirt on the evil liberals that supposedly support this lamentable organization.

The fact is, this claim that society began to view pedophilia as acceptable is empirically not true, and that makes the Pope either misinformed or a liar. The age of consent in most Western societies has remained static or generally been increased (with near-age exemptions) since the 1900s when most places had an age of consent of 12; while there may have been the odd fringe lobby group here or there advocating lowering or abolishing it, these groups failed, meaning this philosophy if it even existed as a wider societal movement failed to gain any sort of hold. Amongst the few nation-states with very low ages of consent are Vatican City, wherein the age of consent may be the Old Testament Biblically proscribed 12, or it may be the updated Italian age of consent of 14, depending on whether or not the Lateran Treaty era Italian rule or the updated one is in effect. I’m not certain that the law was updated in Vatican City, but I suspect it may not have, given that there’s from my research no place to view the Vatican’s actual laws online. Though this might not be the case — feel free to let me know. This is the closest I could find that didn’t relate to Canon Law, and even it says there’s precious little on the ‘tubes about Vatican law.

Wikipedia suggests they have indeed updated it, though without supporting evidence on the specific law; in which case, I’m making an incorrect assessment. There was a clause in the Lateran Treaty that any law passed would automatically apply to the Vatican “except in cases of radical incompatibility”. Without any full list of their laws, I can’t check which law is presently in place. And beyond that, 14 is still far lower than the generally used 18-with-near-age-exemptions everyone else seems to have settled on, which as far as I can tell is in equal measure built out of a conservative “think of the children” movement and actual scientific evidence about mental maturity and ability to consent in an informed manner.

All that said, this still does not address the ways in which Pope Ratzinger has shown himself incapable of making nuanced, critical moral choices, such as when he explicitly doubled back on how evil condoms are, and whether or not they’re even efficacious in combatting AIDS. I can say without reservation that the original claim that condoms are ineffective, which he’s directly contradicted without refuting outright, is willful ignorance at best, and mendacity at worst. Either of these undercuts his claims to moral authority. The fact that he issued no mea culpa in saying that maybe condoms are a lesser evil than AIDS despite his earlier assertions and the death they may have directly caused in sowing disinformation about condoms, I hope, proves his morals inferior to my own. I mean, hell, I’m making a mea culpa about a very slight misinterpretation that does not alter my assessment of his statements one whit. Even given the wider context, and the retraction of my statement that he’s admitted morals are subjective, he is still incapable of making any kind of moral judgment whatsoever that’s worth considering. As a moral paragon, he is empirically lacking.

Though Daniel might consider this an “unreasonable torrent of expletives”, I feel fully justified in reiterating my highly emotionally charged and vitriolic statement: “Fuck this Pope. Fuck all the Popes, but fuck this Pope especially.” I do not feel it erodes at the other statements I have made in this post in any way, shape or form. If you do, you’re welcome to tell me how and why.


  1. says

    I left a comment over at Dan’s blog explaining my position as being what I believe your position to be, that any explanation or context given to lessen the severity of the actions of the priests is reprehensible and subtly implies that there are mitigating factors.

    I find Dan’s post to be nit-picky. By asserting that the pope never came out and said morality is subjective, a truth of fact, he ignores the context of the speech and that it is my belief that he implied as much.
    It is a common tactic among lawyers to imply something, then say that they didn’t mean what any reasonable person would take from the statement, then move along. They planted the seed, they let you take it home and let it grow….

  2. khan says

    Well having ovaries myself I am sure I have nothing to contribute to this discussion (according to pope ratzi).

  3. says

    George: Yeah, there’s the fact that any law ever changes, that proves that morality is subjective; especially if those laws are accepted by the Vatican. But Dan’s nit-pick is valid. That’s why I wrote the post I did last night. You’ll note I don’t back down on anything but that the Pope ever claimed there was anything but objective morality.

    khan: Well you’re welcome to contribute here. I doubt Ratzinger would ever read my words (if he ever DID) as anything but those of an angry apostate, so I’m sure he’d have nothing to say about you whatsoever.

  4. says

    Why can an atheist apologize and retract a false claim so easily? Even when I would have been prepared to split hairs with you….
    You really are an immoral bastard.

  5. says

    My reply to George’s concerns are here and here

    I do not think I was being nitpicky at all. There was a legitimate misrepresentation of the pope’s position and Jason was correct to retract that previous interpretation.

    I also was not using this alleged nitpick to defend the pope but leveled many charges against him, applicable to the more accurate understanding of his meaning.

  6. says

    I will take this opportunity to retract the term nit-picky. It implies that when criticizing someones position, we are somehow able to apply our interpretation of their remarks and present it as their position. A statement should stand or fall on the merit of the argument, not on my misleading interpretation of it and not on the merit of other arguments that person has made. Drawing conclusions without making a full contextual case is always wrong; this is a truth I should be acutely aware of, especially in light of recent events.
    Sorry Dan.

  7. Miranda says

    This has nothing to do with the moral debate aspect of this post, I have my opinions and am keeping them to myself. I just wanted to point out that 18 is the age of majority, not the age of consent. The age of consent in Canda is 16, raised from 14 in 2008. (Something I learned and was entirely shocked by when I was studying criminal law). Unbelieveably this is not a hard and fast rule, there are exceptions depending on the circumstances.

  8. says

    Oh dude, I flog myself over my grammatical errors and typos all the time. Mostly my problem is syntax and typos. I think my grammar is usually okay, but if you’ve got some stuff, send them to [email protected]

    But, yeah, I need to write shorter sentences and pack less adjectives, adverbs, and relative clauses into them. I make a paragraph or two’s worth of ideas into one sentence all the time.

    But if I try to stop that, then I will likely write far less, so it’s this trade off I make. The blog is rougher around the edges but far more prolific this way. If it became more work to polish, I would be frustrated more and write less and accomplish less overall with it. I know this because I went almost all of last August paralyzed over insecurity about my style and squandered some good writing time and some of the audience I had amassed with a good run of well-clicked links in June and July.

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