Dogmatic Hypocrisy

by Marc Morgan

“It is about time that the Vatican adhere to social justice in human affairs, and leave its pseudo-dogmatism as a feature of its past.”

In very recent times we have been reminded of the sacredness of the Catholic Church’s orthodoxy. We have also learnt that there are two sides to the dogma the Church seeks to profess. Indeed, as Paddy Agnew writes in the Irish Times, what recent Vatican revelations highlight is a division between “church law” and “God’s law”. Putting this into context, the Vatican’s latest censuring of the Irish priest, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, depicts an institution struggling to preserve its dogmatic teaching even among individuals of the Church’s own making. Fr. D’Arcy is the fifth Irish priest to have been censured by the Vatican this year.

The censuring comes at a time when the Church, especially in Ireland, is facing increasing pressure for active responsibility in the damages caused as a result of the child sex-abuse scandal. Much of this pressure has come from a new BBC documentary which details the inaction of the Church towards abuse allegations that were brought up by victims during and since the 1970s. Calls have been resonating throughout Ireland (including in its parliament) for the resignation of Cardinal Sean Brady, the highest Catholic representative in the country.

For the newly silenced Irish priests, their spiritual upbringing during the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s must almost seem alien to them now. Vatican II was supposed to enact a reformed church, opening up and adapting to modern mentalities, leaving behind its strict authoritarian practices; engaging in dialogues and negotiations on how to address questions of repressive power and poverty. For these priests it was not hard to imagine, at the time, that come 2012 they would be part of a democratic and tolerant church. What their recent fate has only reminded them of, is how hopeful their expectations were. Of course, censuring ‘outspoken’ employees has been a prominent feature of the Church’s business even since the promising days of the Vatican II council. Child sex-abuse has also been prominent during the same period, everywhere from Ireland to Australia. But while dissidence has been clamped down, rape has been cast a blind eye. And it is revealing to note that the man who currently presides over the entire Catholic kingdom took active part in Vatican II’s reforms.

The dissidence which the Irish priests are accused of, concerns matters which most Irish Catholics actually stand by. Fr. Brian D’Arcy, for example, just recently received an anonymous letter from the Vatican, after 14 months of being under their official censure, which silenced his ‘liberal’ views on celibacy, women priests and homosexuality; topics on which he regularly wrote about in The Sunday World. Surveys have found that, almost 90% of Irish Catholics would support the introduction of married priests, while 77% would be in favour of women priests. Furthermore 75% of Irish Catholics believe Church teachings on sex are irrelevant. In his articles, Fr. D’Arcy was also critical of the Church’s handling of child abuse, using legal procedures to cover up its responsibility, and called for a reform to the Church’s structure; again issues which most Irish Catholics would not disfavour.

Addressing the Irish Times, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi was reported saying that it is “normal” that, when priests publically take “positions… not compatible or coherent with church teaching”, there would be repercussions on behalf of the Vatican. This seems to be the main point of defence on the part of the Church and of the more fundamental Catholics. And this is understandable, given the ‘sacredness’ of Church teaching, derived supposedly from the word of God; the same source that has repeatedly informed the Church’s hierarchy that child rape can be covered up. So, it is argued, that if these priests wish to commit to their personal views they must do so in private or either leave the institution. The latter point is easier said than done. As Irish writer and journalist, Fintan O’Toole states, “that would be to walk away from the only adult life they’ve known. It would be to write off decades of work and sacrifice – to accept that the most profound decision of one’s life was based on a delusion.”

On keeping their views to themselves these priests face a wall of hypocrisy and contradiction. Is Benedict XVI saying that it was reasonable for Vatican II reformers to question concepts like ecclesiology, liturgy, the interpretation of Scripture and the giving of Mass but not for current priests to question church teachings on celibacy and women priests? This brings us back to church law trumping a benevolent God’s law. And, when children were being raped for decades by ‘messengers of God’ it was ok for the Church to sit and look at each other wondering what to do, but when a few priests begin to talk about gender equality in the Vatican and gay marriage, suddenly a committee is formed to “pore over The Sunday World with a magnifying glass, looking for the minutest speck of heresy.”

This said, when spreading the Christian faith into new lands it is business as usual for the Church’s hierarchy. Priest censorship is forgotten. This was evident from Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba in March. At a mass preached on La Havana’s Revolution Square, with Che Guevara’s silhouette looking down on the masses, the Pope issued pleas for continued steps to be taken “to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing the faith openly and publicly”.   The Pope went further and said that “Cuba and the world need change” as well as the recognition of the basic rights to religious freedom and freedom of expression. He expressed that the role of the church must be to “count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace.”

Closer to home, the Catholic Church seems to respect none of the freedoms that it professed in Cuba. This is only as true as the latest censorship of the five Irish priests, most recently Fr. Brian D’Arcy. If Church dogma is what the Vatican seeks to protect then it should at least do so consistently and universally. Its adherence to a set of dogmas only shows that what it professes as Church law in some areas is markedly different from what it preaches as God’s law elsewhere. It is about time that the Vatican adhere to social justice in human affairs, and leave its pseudo-dogmatism as a feature of its past.

  1. Sabrina said:

    Sure, leaving dogma behind is exactly what it needs to do. And yes, it should also adhere to (secular) social justice and humane practices. But the truth is that if it does so it will no longer be religion. Religion is unjust an unequal. It claims to speak the word of god, and to have authority over ethics and morality and yet manages to be blind to the fact that raping children is wrong. It manages to persistently exclude women from any position of authority. It manages to still maintain its opposition to things like gay rights on the grounds of holy texts despite the fact that the same text also supports slavery.
    Here is what Brady had to say:
    “With many others who worked regularly with children in 1975, I regret that our understanding of the full impact of abuse on the lives of children as well as the pathology and on-going risk posed by a determined paedophile was so inadequate” (
    That’s funny. Inadequate understanding? About the acceptability of raping children? And yet the same men profess the ability to tell the whole world how to live? Interesting. Funnily enough, the fact that they’ve come to see the wrongness of their action now points to the fact that their understanding improved. Does that mean god’s understanding of child rape improved since the 70s? That is, because they all speak the word of god, don’t they?
    Those people who are so afraid of losing the meaning of their adult lives as you’ve correctly pointed out are costing us in justice and equality. But hey, as long as we can spare those poor men the realisation that they got it wrong (and the need to deal with the consequences), everything is cool.

  2. Sabrina,

    Thank you for your comments. I very much agree with what you say. Institutionalising faith has certainly not helped the cause for justice and greater equality. But I think faith, on its own, can be compatible with justice and equality. It does seem paradoxical that the earthly individual, from whom the Christian religion bases its entire image, was apparently overly concerned with social issues of power and poverty around his native Nazareth and beyond. And it always seemed, to me at least, that Jesus used the goodness of ‘God’ as inspiration for the ‘good’ in others and never as a moral hindrance on their thoughts or feelings. In my view, the best modern day exposition of this philosophy can be found in the work of the Latin American/Spanish Jesuit priests during the 1970s and 1980s. Their work and philosophy came to be known as ‘Liberation Theology’. It is a movement which I strongly recommend reading into, especially individuals like Leonardo Boff, Gutierrez and Ellacuria. It carries a fascinating history, not least because of the way the movement was discredited by the Vatican and by the military dictatorships of Latin America at the time, the latter eventually resorting to secret service assassinations to get rid them. These were men with good hearts, an extreme devotion to the poor and a thirst for social change in the region of Latin America; a ‘pain in the ass’ for the authorities. Their terrible fate bears strong resemblance to of that of someone’s; someone who hangs in the very Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

    Concerning Church dogma, I think there is a strong correlation between the Church’s views on celibacy and clerical paedophilia, something I didn’t emphasise in my article, but which is important. All humans are naturally endowed with sexuality, to an extent that it can be labelled a biological characteristic of our species, like the language faculty. If this biological ‘law’ is artificially meddled with, as the Church seemed to have done by strictly adhering to the ‘divine law’ of priest celibacy, then it was only likely that throughout the ages many priests would look to find some outlet for their sexual passions.The most convenient target of these natural desires were, and continue to be, the innocent and ignorant young. I think this is quite an understandable development, and it is a mark of the Church’s self inflicted wounds. (It would be like raising a child in any urban region and preventing that child from speaking for the whole duration of its life).

    All we can hope for is that all those silenced priests realise that the Church got it wrong and not Jesus, themselves or evolution. Like the Latin American priests, they were doing the right thing (none of them, as far as I know regret what they said). What the situation requires is popular pressure from those on the outside, as as happened with Wall Street.

  3. Sabrina said:

    Firstly, I would like to apologise for my first comment; looking back at it made me realise it resembles a tirade more than a reasonable argument. I will make sure the following will not be of the same nature (though, of course, you’ll be the judge of that ( ; )
    Faith, you might be right, is compatible with justice and equality. But faith in what? Faith in humanistic values, faith in the goodness of human nature, perhaps. But faith in God? I have a slight problem with that- our only knowledge of what God wants comes either from scripture or from the institutionalised religion. And unfortunately, both absolutely fail at being consistently equal and just.
    This is not to say that there is no good at all in religion; the point is, that when we look for the good in religion we end up with values which are not inherently religious. They are values which can be defended and taught without god, and what’s more is that they are defended *better* without god.
    What is interesting is that people keep insisting that the good in religion justify keeping it, despite all the bad, and that all the institutions need to do is ‘reform’ and be ‘put under pressure’. Why?
    We are faced with a problem- on the one hand we recognise that religion, as it is, is illiberal, unjust and unequal, on the other hand, look how great it could be if it weren’t so! If the people in charge did not make it so! And here are the bad news: they have had a good few years to do so and they never have. That’s because they truly believe in the timeless teaching of the church- why should they change because of godless trends in society? The fact that faith could , ideally, be great cannot be of solace- it was never great, and never will be.
    You identified it correctly- they got it wrong. They denied something which is inherent to human nature. But this again points to their need to justify why we should continue listening to their authority. They claim to be directly speaking the word of god which leaves us with two options: either they misinterpreted god all along (in which case, why should we believe that they are right in their views about gays and contraception for example) or they were actually speaking the word of god and god is the kind of deity that would support practices which lead to child-rape (in which case, why should we even *want* to follow his ethical teaching?)
    I have a problem with your last paragraph- what do you mean by saying they didn’t get it wrong themselves? They didn’t get it wrong by allowing a horrible practice to take place, turning a blind eye to something which is evidently immoral instead of practicing that wonderful capacity, reason, to judge for themselves that any benign deity would *not* allow it?
    The wounds the church inflicts on itself are inherent in its nature. If they were to simply adhere to the values by which people like you an I judge them they would no longer be religion. There is nothing wrong with that. The point I’d like to reiterate is that we no longer need religion to tell us what’s right or wrong. We do a pretty good job without it, and indeed, a better job by the looks of it. The goodness in religion is in things which don’t need the support of religion; they can stand perfectly well on their own secular and humanist feet.

  4. Sabrina said:

    p.s. your name suddenly looked familiar- did you give a talk at an undergraduate conference at King’s College? If so, what a small (virtual) world =)

  5. I agree with the points you bring up in your first paragraph. Indeed what I intended to say was faith in relation to human values. Even faith in these values, through a personal God, is fine. God as presented by the Bible, for example, is just one out of many ways to view ‘him’. No institution or organised body should have a monopoly over such a transcendent being, who’s existence we may only be able to ‘feel’. So faith, as I outlined before, should not take institutional form, as it is possible that any action can be justified on the basis of having been carried out ‘in the name of…’, without any plausible evidential backing.

    What you spell out further on is the classic rational argument against the existence of a benevolent God. Many theists would tell you that faith lies in a realm which reason cannot enter and so the arguments are ill-founded. But the same argument may be held against faith, namely that there are realms of ‘knowing’ in which reason plays the more important part. Yet the Church still largely discriminates against the importance of reason in human affairs.

    When I say that they didn’t get it wrong ‘themselves’, I am referring to the Irish priests who have been recently silenced by the Vatican for holding the ‘liberal’ views that they hold. I don’t believe that they got it wrong, i.e. the conclusions that they formed about various aspects of the Church’s teaching. I think you probably thought that I was referring to the Vatican.

    I stand by what you conclude, although one must recognise that faith and spirituality do play an important role in the lives of many people. We should never, therefore, seek to silence those individuals that think these ‘feelings’ to be of intrinsic value to their lives, like loving another human being.That would be unreasonable.

    p.s. I did give a talk in King’s College undergraduate philosophy conference. Indeed what a small world.

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