Sunday, April 04, 2010

On Moral Authority - in lieu of an Easter sermon

Interesting, now we know that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy all the way up to its CEO, the Pope, has been busy protecting child sexual abusers the world all over (the Irish government report on the abuse in the country mentions that child sexual abuse in Catholic outfits reached endemic proportions with confirmed cases now exceeding 15,000). We also know that the current Pope thought nothing was problematic about bringing into the fold of the church a known holocaust denying bishop. The list goes on and on and on. If this wasn't the 'church' but some Islamic outfit, no doubt they would be under security services' surveillance, but hey, it's the 'church', so it's kinda different I presume.

Part of the church (any church's actually) rationale for interfering regularly with the democratic state's policy making has to do with its claim to possess special 'moral authority'. So the church has been ever since busy writing high-minded documents protecting the 'unborn' (aka taking away women's rights to control their own bodies for the duration of their pregnancy). The church also issues, in the age of AIDS no less, guidance prohibiting all means of modern birth control such as using the pill or condoms to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted illnesses. They tell dying people that these patients have no moral claim to determining how they end their lives, even though this obsession with earthly living should be non-existent, considering that eternal paradise that is supposedly awaiting the deceased. Then there's endless documents going on about homosexuality and how terrible this 'disorder' is, and last but by no means least the church issues guidance documents inventing ever more reasons for religious conscience based objections to the provision of particular professional services by its members (aka special societal treatment for its professional members). In retrospect it is surprising that the church has rarely, if ever, commented on that small matter of pedophilia. Presumably an oversight.

In any event, the Roman Catholic church went recently out of its way to recruit right-wing outliers of the Anglican church. These outliers are opposed to women priests as well as openly gay priests. The pope saw an opportunity to increase the reactionary contingent among his preaching staff by offering such Anglican outliers a job in his organisation. It should not surprise anyone that the CEO of the competing Anglican church saw an opportunity to get even. He said in an interview that the Irish Catholic church had lost 'all credibility' over its handling of the child abuse scandal. He is right, of course, the Irish Catholic church lost indeed all credibility, as has the rest of the worldwide church. Being the Archbishop of Canterbury he then quickly recanted a day later, saying that he regretted his comments (but not withdrawing them).

What puzzles me is the proposition that the Roman Catholic church (or any other church for that matter) has special moral authority at all. I can see that it would have some authority over folks subscribing to its ideology. After all, if you're Catholic and your church offers a baseline normative guidance that it considers binding for its members, that surely is fair game. It's a bit like being voluntarily a member of the Communist party and embracing capitalism. Doesn't really work. The thing is though, that routinely you see its colourfully dressed senior staff come out in public telling all of us what we must and must not do, regardless of whether we have chosen to join their ranks. In other words, it uses its claimed moral authority to influence how people who do not subscribe to its views should live (indeed, even how they should die). And, interestingly, it is reported in the mass media as if there was any moral competence that these preaching guys have. This truly reminds me of the naked emperor case, except this time they're wearing dresses. The nakedness that we ought to call to the public's attention is that they do not have any moral authority at all in secular, multi-cultural societies. So, if they think that the 'unborn' is of infinite value and that abortions are always wrong they got to argue their case beyond their ideological base (aka believers). Their senior management staff happily use words such as 'genocide' and 'holocaust' in the context of abortion, presumably to make clear how 'wrong' abortion really is. Of course, this ain't answer the question of what it is that is wrong, ethically, about abortion - if anything.

It is insufficient for them to come out and quote the pope or any of their church documents that are relying on their religious scripture when they try to influence public policy. This is so, because too many people just don't buy into the biblical fairy tales. Now, it's perfectly possible that there are other, non-biblical reasons for why abortion might be ethically problematic, but these need to be explicated and defended.

What this boils down to is this: Religious folks must engage in proper ethical analysis and argument just like everyone else who wishes to make an ethical argument in public discourse. No matter how much they would like us to believe that raising their arms to the sky, wearing dresses and saying 'God' is somehow sufficient to claim moral authority, it clearly won't do in lieu of a proper argument. The reason for this is obvious, by engaging in such activities you actually avoid public scrutiny. This is unacceptable in the context of public debate in a democracy. It's high time we called them on this each time they pop up in the public domain and decide it's time to tell us how we ought to live our lives. Reminding them of their own endemic historical moral failings is perhaps the perfect hook on which to hang doubts about their moral authority (just in case you prefer a historical as opposed to a straightforward normative argument). Which reminds me, why I should suffer as a result of their sectarian celebrations - I can't even buy food today, the gym is closed, etc etc. Why is it seen to be fair game that their celebrations may impact legitimately on my life and that of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and any number of others who are not Christian God people?

And here ends my Easter sermon.


  1. Yay for Udo! Happy pagan chocolate festival to you! Bummer about the gym being closed, though.

  2. The Church has certainly failured in some regard,but it does not follow to now say because of these past failures,her moral teachings should be disregarded. Of course,there are sme of these teachings,that are a bit problematic and topical,but it still doesn't mean dat there is no sense in them. There are ways in which our perceptions are formed,and how they govern d way we see,and how d way we see governs how we behave,utterances and conclusions. I tink ur confusn stem 4rm dis angle. I will enjoin u to read d church's docs and proclamatns wit a more open mind,and even research into sme of these teachings. D church's arguments and analysis are nt just based on bible,believe as u put it,but a combinatn of scientific,anthropological,ethical and theological.

  3. Helen, I'm afraid I have to disagree that his "confsn stem 4rm dis angle." Apart from offering what is either a truism or a falsity (depending on how you use the word "see"), you contribute only dogmatic pollution. The entire point is that the bible acts as the side constraint on all other considerations, and thus they are all limited by dogmatism. Or, when it becomes expedient for them to do so, the Vatican conveniently reinterprets some passage or another.


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