National Public Radio’s religious affairs reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a story about the reactionary (not that she used that word) trend in the Catholic Church the other day. She spoke to the Bishop of Lincoln (Nebraska), who told her that when it comes to doctrines, the church is not a democracy.
“These are not open to votes,” Bruskewitz said. “These are what God has revealed, and the custody of that revelation is of course in the possession of the Church.”
Bruskewitz said the Church can’t compromise its views just because the secular world doesn’t like them.
We’re numbed to that sort of thing by habit, so it seems more or less “normal”, even if wrong. It’s mistaken, but it’s our familiar local semi-comfortable version of mistaken, the non-exotic, European, Christmas and Easter one. It doesn’t seem as absurd, or childish, or primitive as it would if “God” were replaced by “Ouroboros”.
That’s unfortunate, because if the absurdity jumped out at everyone – a grown man, at the top of his profession, saying that “core doctrines” were “revealed” by a distant magical being and are in “the custody” of his organization and cannot be rejected or changed by mere humans – then fewer people would acquiesce.
Imagine someone in a position of dignity and authority – a politician, a judge, an academic, a diplomat, a Nobel laureate – saying that decisions about matters such as birth control and abortion and same-sex marriage are not for human beings to make, should not be based on what humans want and need, but are revealed by the Tooth Fairy, and in the custody of celibate male priests of the Tooth Fairy.
The impertinence, the outrageousness, the usurpation would be instantly and universally obvious. The Tooth Fairy! Are you kidding me?! The Tooth Fairy doesn’t get to decide what I’m allowed to do – it’s none of the Tooth Fairy’s business and by the way there is no Tooth Fairy.
“God” is the same kind of counter as the Tooth Fairy, but we don’t hear the word the same way. Even atheists don’t, especially not at the level of unconscious processing. (This is part of the point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I like to use proper names for the same purpose, much as rude people like to call the Queen Brenda or Betty. Call God Sally or Bill and things immediately look different.) It’s disconcerting, what an enormous head start theism is able to give itself with just a Holy Name endlessly repeated.
So take God out of it, along with Allah and Yahweh. Call it Terry, which is a unisex name. The core doctrines, which include birth control, the rights and responsibilities of women and men, choice in dying, choice in marriage, to name a few, were all “revealed” three thousand years ago by Terry. Terry is not available for consultation or petition. The revelation by Terry was a one- time event, and non-optional – not take it or leave it, but just take it. The Catholic Church has “the custody” of this revelation, and we human beings have no rights in the matter; we just have to obey.
It looks like a sour joke, but it’s exactly the situation according to the Bishop of Lincoln and the Vatican, and millions of people accept it and obey it.
It’s tragic, isn’t it? We’re such a promising species in many ways. We have a rocket ex- ploring the rings of Saturn – you can follow it on Twitter. We have poetry and music and art and architecture and bridges. We used to have the ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu and the Bamiyan Buddhas. We can explore and learn and create – but we have also come up with this horrible fraudulent way of imposing stupid rules that are treated as Terry-given and unchangeable. We create both poetry and tyranny. It’s enough to make a cat laugh.
In a sense, it’s precisely this matter of being a promising species that motivates us to believe in a Terry. We’re promising because we want more – we want more than enough food to get us through today, safety from that predator over there, relief from this pain. We want bigger things. This makes us dissatisfied with such a temporary being as we are. All humans have short lives, no humans live enough centuries to make a major difference. How can such transient entities make good decisions about morality? We need someone who can take a longer view, a less selfish view.
The wish is understandable. The problem is that inventing one and treating it as holy is just more of the same, but disguised. Terry isn’t the desired better-than-human entity; Terry is just another human idea. Terry’s rules can be as selfish and self-interested as any other human rules, and they have a built-in clause that forbids correction. “These are not open to votes. These are what God has revealed.”
It’s possibly the most disastrous idea the species has ever had.