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Catholic History, Sex, and Cardinal Pell Part I

There have been several media articles (not in Australia, where the media is banned from reporting the issue), posts on Facebook, and comments on Twitter over the last two weeks rejoicing in the conviction of Cardinal Pell on charges of child sex abuse.

That trial and its outcome are nothing to rejoice in.

I intended to respond to those posts and articles by addressing the trial and the evidence presented. But when I began, it became clear that I could not do so without first considering the context of some of the other reasons the Catholic Church is commonly held in contempt by Australia’s left-wing media and others.

Consequently my planned response is in two parts. This first part addresses some of the common misconceptions about the Catholic Church and its history. This is not a comprehensive discussion, but a brief summary. For anyone seeking more information, I recommend Diane Moczar’s Seven Lies About Catholic History, which is both well-research and documented, and easy to read.

The second part focusses specifically on the child sex abuse scandal, and the trials of Archbishop Wilson and Cardinal Pell.

I became a Catholic a few years ago because I was convinced that the faith taught by Jesus to the Apostles, and by the Apostles to those who came after them, was the same faith taught in the Catholic Church today.

Paul describes the Church (1 Tim 3:15) as the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Jesus (Mat 16:18) said the gates of hell would not prevail against it. But the entire edifice of Protestantism is built on the belief that between the 1st and 16th centuries the Church had fallen away from the truth, the gates of hell had prevailed against it, and there had been a great corruption of the faith, an apostasy so deep that remedying it required the formation of an entirely new church.

There is no evidence this large scale apostasy ever took place. Reading the early church fathers makes it clear that what the early church held and did and believed was the same Catholic faith as now.

For example, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c 110 AD) bear witness to the structure of ministry (bishops, priests and deacons), the day of worship (Sunday), and the crucial role of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Justin the Martyr (c 140 AD) writes of the incarnation, the trinity, Sunday worship as opposed to the Jews who worship on Saturday, grace and the call to love as the reason “God cancelled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, setting it aside and nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14) He writes of the Eucharist as the defining form of Christian worship, and the importance of careful and humble adherence both to revealed truth and to reason.

There is clear continuity from the Apostles into the early Church. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (in what is now Turkey), had been taught by the beloved Apostle, John. Amongst those taught by Polycarp was Irenaeus, who was born in Smyrna and later became a priest, then Bishop of Lyon in Gaul, now France. Amongst other things, Irenaeus (c 150 AD) bore witness to the importance of the church in Rome, stating that all churches everywhere must be in fellowship and agreement with that pre-eminent church. He talked about the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her co-operation with the will of God. He talked about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and he identifies the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the only gospels to be given credence in their description of Jesus’ life and work.

Or read the history of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), where the generous and formidable Bishop Nicholas of Myra (better known to us as Santa Claus) slapped the heretical priest Arius across the face. Not because what Arius taught about the person of Jesus could not be taught from Scripture – both Arianism and Orthodox Christianity can be supported from Scripture – but because everyone knew, including Arius himself, as St Nicholas suspected, that Arianism was simply not what the Apostles had taught, was not the tradition in which St Paul had commanded the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:15) to stand firm and to which they were to hold fast.

These are just a few examples of hundreds of possibilities. “Sola Scriptura,” the idea that the Christian faith in its entirety can be formulated exactly from the Bible alone, is a late medieval invention, a nonsense. No text can be read without context, or outside of an interpretive community. Sola Scriptura leads to a never-ending splitting of the Church, and a never-ending parade of prophets and preachers who have at last discovered the real meaning of the Bible, or who have received some new revelation.

There were other issues I needed to consider. I already knew that the claimed opposition of the Church to science was nonsense. Science and the scientific method could only take hold in a world view that the material world is objectively real, not simply an illusion, that the material world is good – something worth investigating, not an evil to be escaped from, that the material world is ordered according to rules which can be investigated and understood, and not by the whim of inhabiting spirits or an god who rules by fiat, and that faith has nothing to fear from the truth. This is the standard Western understanding, so it seems difficult to many Westerners to imagine that people could think otherwise. But in reality this combination of beliefs is uniquely Judeo-Christian. This is why science, the systematic and objective study of reality for its own sake, has taken root and flourished in the West as nowhere else, which has in turn given the West enormous advances and advantages in science and technology. The Church has always been the patron and protector of science.

The usual response to this claim by detractors is: “But what about Galileo?” The fact that most people can think of only one possible counter-example in 2,000 years of Church history is itself telling. In reality, Galileo was never tortured, never imprisoned, and was always free to teach the Copernican theory as a theory, as was done in other Catholic universities throughout Europe. (Catholic universities is a tautology, by the way – every university was Catholic.)

The Church insisted that students be taught every reasonable alternative, with the evidence for and against, and allowed to make up their own minds. The problem the Church had with Galileo was that Galileo refused to teach anything except his own pet theories. In many of these, he was completely wrong. For example, as Einstein noted in 1953, his theories about tidal action were nonsense. Galileo believed the rings of Saturn were not rings but a large moon on either side. He was savage in his attacks on Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grazzi, who correctly described comets as small heavenly bodies, while Galileo insisted they were reflections shining on vapours rising from the earth, and refused to teach or consider any other possibility. As philosopher of science and Berkeley professor Paul Feyerabend noted, it was the Church, not Galileo, which was on the side of reason and science.

But what about the Crusades? Don’t they prove a violent and imperialistic tendency in the Church? Well, hardly. The Crusades were a limited response to nearly 400 years of Islamic aggression. The magnificent Christian civilisations of the Middle East and North Africa were crushed, millions tortured, raped, murdered, leaving a legacy of violence and poverty that remains to this day. Spain was invaded. The great centres of Rome and Constantinople were besieged. Nor was it only Christians who were affected. Zoroastrianism was virtually wiped out in Persia, and the invasion and destruction of the peaceful and creative Buddhist society of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan was well advanced. The Crusades were not even an attempt to regain lost territory, but to stop the advance of terror any further into Europe, and to enable safe passage of pilgrims to the holy land.

But the inquisition – that was horrible and violent, and there can be no excuse for that, right? Well, again, no. Kings and queens from the earliest days of humanity until quite recently almost all held that uniformity of religion was vital to a unified and loyal state. Anyone who did not believe as the King did should be executed as a traitor, or at least exiled. At no time was this more clear than in Spain following the Reconquista in 1492. The Church stepped in and said, in effect “Wait. If anyone is going to decide who believes the right thing, that should be us.” During the entire period of the Spanish Inquisition, from 1480 to 1700, of 44, 674 cases heard, 826 people were handed back to civil authorities for execution – less than 2% of the total. What would have happened without the Inquisition? Without that brake on royal power, as many as 72,000 Lutherans, Catholics and other religious undesirables were executed by Henry VIII in the last 20 years of his reign. The Inquisition saved thousands of lives.

But what about child abuse? Surely a church whose leadership is so prone to child sexual abuse must be deeply corrupt? Part two of this article addresses that issue, and the cases against Archbishop Wilson and Cardinal Pell.