Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Millstones vs therapy

According to this report, a hotline set up by the Catholic Church to deal with the victims of paedophile priests melted down on its first day:
"The numbers were far more than the handful of therapists assigned to deal with them could cope with. In the end only 162 out of 4,459 callers were given advice before the system was shut down.

Andreas Zimmer, head of the project in the Bishopric of Trier, admitted that he wasn't prepared for "that kind of an onslaught." The hotline is the Church's attempt to win back trust in the face of an escalating abuse scandal that threatens the papacy of German-born Pontiff Benedict XVI in Rome."
Jesus said, "It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones."

I wouldn't accuse the bishops of Rome being ignorant of these words. Rather, one can only assume that given the obvious scale of the problem here, they concluded that applying the words of their lord too literally would involve an unfeasible amount of heavy lifting, which is why they opted for 'therapy' instead.

The crimes are an abomination. While fresh revelations about the scale of these are unfolding continuously, they have been well-known for some time. What is truly astonishing is the response to them. It's as if the Vatican formed a committee and set its members the task of finding the most offensive self-justification possible. The hands-down winner was the Pope's preacher who compared adverse media coverage with European anti-Semitism. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to deliver this grotesquely offensive anology on Good Friday, of all days - a date in the Christian calendar that European Jews had even more reason than usual to feel a little uneasy.

I was left wondering: is this Rome's Ceau┼čescu moment? There was something about the reaction - from old men accustomed to obedience and deference, responding with arrogant incomprehension to the fact that they are no longer receiving it, that reminded me of this. A phenomenon that is both tragic and repulsive.

But it is unlikely that Rome will suffer so immediate a downfall. It has been around so much longer and so will die so much more slowly. Or it may survive if it painfully adapts to the modern world that it despises so much. But its survival is by no means guaranteed. This is something Our Maddy of the Sorrows might want to consider. In her latest she uses the present travails of the Roman Church as a peg on which to hang a tedious spiel about the 'New Atheists'. Religious believers are multiplying, she points out, and nowhere more than in China.

Yeah, but she fails to make the distinction - a common failing of religion's opponents too - between religious belief and the institutions that codify it and claim a monopoly over it. The former seems to be flourishing; the latter, on the other hand, are clearly having a few problems.

In the case of China, for example, the form of Christianity that seems to be expanding the fastest is the protestant Christianity that owes it origins to the underground 'house church' movement - a phenomenon that appears to owe nothing to any episcopalian structure.

The Chinese experience repeats what has been observed in history many times. China's Christians have flourished under persecution. This would be real persecution - imprisonment, torture - as opposed to the light and momentary experience of adverse publicity in the liberal media.

The relationship to state power seems to be crucial here. It was the same in first century Rome or Bismarck's Germany. Religion also seems to flourish when it is confronted with legal indifference, as in the United States. But the prognosis when it is sponsored by the state is not so good. Organised religion suffers the most when it is associated with state oppression - and especially if said state is overthrown and a revolutionary regime takes revenge, as in Jacobin France or Stalinist Russia. But while less catastrophic, it also seems to wither on the vine if it has the sort of state patronage that it has in the English constitution.

This raises an interesting paradox for those religious believers that whine about a lack of religion in 'public life' and also for those of us who are strongly opposed to it: perhaps what we wish for has exactly the opposite effect from the one we desire. For arguably organised religion is Britain's oldest and least efficient nationalised industry.

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