I was just reflecting on all the effort I’ve been spending lately knocking at the rusty doors of that anti-modern institution, the Catholic Church. “Leave it alone,” my friends tell me. “They’re history. We live in a secular state. They don’t count. Stop trying to lift them up off the rubbish heap of history.”
If I lived in Europe, I’d be more inclined to listen to that advice. But this is the United States of America, a nation still very much in thrall to institutional religion, and we are still fighting battles for human dignity against the retrograde forces of fundamentalist and authoritarian religion. As any Californian who followed the Prop. 8 debacle can tell you, when the Roman Catholic Church puts up the arrogance and the Mormon Church puts up the money, civil rights can be taken away, and those arguing this is a secular age have their argument pulled out from under them.
So “Ignore them” doesn’t strike me as the way to go. Which leaves us with two alternatives: fight them, or engage with them peacefully. Fighting comes more naturally. They are, after all, outrageous. Rage making. The image of this institution so filled with corruption and decay still laying claim to moral leadership still has the power to take your breath away. The arrogance of the claim of infallibility has never been matched.
But the long term solution, I think, is to dig around in what makes the church tick. The church itself is divided. To rage against “the church” is to reduce the complexity and allow the blindly authoritarian wing of the institution to speak for the entire institution. And that’s a cognitive, as well as a strategic error. There’s more to catholicism than silks and satins and ermines, and the claim of papal authority.
The German pope, Benedict XVI, is the latest and strongest example to date of restorationist popes, if you see what has happened to the church since Vatican II as restoration of catholic conservative forces, and you understand conservative as associated with papal centrality. Benedict is the latest and most ardent voice of resistance to modernity, or “aggiornamento” as John XXIII, the organizer of Vatican II, was urging. Instead of ecumenism, he has brought retrenchment. Instead of a forward looking attitude of humility in the face of a history of anti-semitism, he has brought a holocaust denier back into the fold and prayers for Jewish souls back into the mass. And he has bolstered up the notions of male dominance and sex for reproductive purposes only.
From a political perspective, “holding on to an unchanging tradition” or “supporting the status quo” to say the same thing in other words, is the best way to hold onto power, and making it doctrinal is the best way to convince others that what is is better than what might be. Standing firm within tradition ties you to those who have gone before, and numbers can be intimidating. Who are you to go against what has been held by billions of people through the ages?
Until modern secularism began taking hold, the greatest threat of all time to the Roman Catholic Church was the Protestant Reformation. And the greatest antidote, the intellectual grounding of the Counter-Reformation, has been Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was the first to set up for debate the natural against the supernatural, philosophical thought against theological thought, church against state and belief against science. Catholic theologians today may not all be Thomists, but they all acknowledge that Catholic thinking would not be what it is without this 13th century thinker. In fact, the previous pope Benedict actually declared at one point, “Thomas's thinking is the church’s thinking.” Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing and decreed that all Catholic seminaries and universities must teach Thomas's doctrines. Not only that, where Thomas did not speak on a topic, the teachers were "urged to teach conclusions that were reconcilable with his thinking" (the Encyclical, Aeterni Patris, of August 4, 1879). Thomas, now Saint Thomas, Leo declared, should be patron of all Catholic educational establishments.
OK, so now imagine you’re a woman who wants to become a priest. What does your patron saint of catholic thinking have to say about women? Women, he said, are a product of weak sperm. Women are deficiens et occasionatus (“unfinished” and “accidental” – occasionally translated, I’m told, “defective and misbegotten”). If, at the time of conception, the weather is muggy, the climate could have a negative affect on the sperm so that instead of producing a male, the pregnant woman produces a female. This makes it appropriate to treat her, not as a slave, because she is a creation of god, but, without question, as a subordinate. Looks like you’re out of luck, lady.
On the purpose of sex: Sex is for reproductive purposes only. Masturbation, oral sex and coitus interruptus are worse than rape. (No kidding. Worse, than rape.) Stick to the missionary position, because it’s harder to conceive when you go into other positions while doing it.
On animals: We have no duty to animals, because they have no souls. Cruelty to animals is not a good idea because it could lead us to become cruel to human beings, but there is no moral obligation to be kind to animals.
My purpose in bringing up these points is not to deny the genius of the man, nor argue against seeing him as a wise and learned man. But it does strike me that there is a danger in making a saint out of somebody who was obviously so terribly human, and limited by the ignorance and prejudices of his age.
If there is justification to resisting modern humanist gender equality, where is the Church coming from, if not Thomas Aquinas? And does one “correct” the man when he errs on the “weak sperm” theory? And if so, why not on the “naturally inferior” theory, as well?
All manner of pain and sorrow stem from unenlightened application of “natural theory.” Just listen to any discussion of gay rights in America these days. “It isn’t natural” is the number one homophobic argument. Ask the homophobe where he or she gets that idea from, and most can’t tell you. Mostly nowadays, that argument has become detached from the sex for reproductive purposes only argument, and is now spouted by rote.
But chances are, it’s from Thomas Aquinas. Whether it came directly from his writings, from a sermon in church, from discussion at the dinner table after church, from kids on the playground who got it from discussion at the dinner table after church, chances are, especially if you are a product of Western Civilization, it comes from Thomas.
We all have ways of separating truth from nonsense. Of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Robert E. Lee has thousands, possibly millions, of admirers, and not only among American Southerners, as a gentleman, a patriot, a man of honor. But he beat his slaves, and he fought and killed hundreds of thousands in a war to keep the federal government from taking away the right to hold slaves.
We make heros of all the wrong people because we’re all caught in the spirit of our times and blind to its evils. We need to let go of the need for heros, allow for the fact the Robert E. Lee loved his wife and children, but held ideas of an age we have excellent reasons to distance ourselves from. (And remember, by the way, that Goebbels, too, loved his children, without making other unnecessary comparisons between the two men.)
How nice if the Catholic Church could move on. Separate what Aquinas said that should endure and what he said that should not. How nice if it could recognize women are not a result of bad sperm.