Archive for the ‘Religious Ethics’ Category

The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.

Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.

For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”

One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.

Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.

Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.

My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.

For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.

My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.

Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.

Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.

The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.


For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304222504575173890997846742.html

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According to The Washington Post, the leaked personal correspondence of the Pope, Joe Ratzinger, shows a “fractured Vatican,” filled with “tales of betrayal and rivalries, allegations of corruption and systemic dysfunction.” For example, the Pope’s appointment of Carlo Vigano as ambassador to the United States was a banishment of sorts perpetrated by forces in the Vatican hostile to reform. The Pope had intended that Vigano enact a series of reforms within the Vatican, but “some of Rome’s highest-ranking cardinals undercut the efforts and hastened Vigano’s exile to the United States,” according to the Post. Even the Pope’s own desire to reform the Vatican bank was undercut by “a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency.” In a way, it was Ratzinger’s own insistence that his traditionalist/conservative ideology willow down the Church to the true flock that undercut his own reforms.

In 2006, the Pope had appointed Tarcisio Bertone as Secretary of State, the second most powerful position in the Vatican. It was no accident that Bertone had been the Pope’s “longtime doctrinal sidekick”—in other words, a partisan traditionalist ideologically. That Bertone had had no international experience was apparently not as much of a factor. That he used his position over the Vatican bank to eviscerate the Pope’s financial reforms oriented to transparency while keeping power for himself was apparently something in which the Pope himself had been kept in the dark. Put another way, being a fellow anti-Vatican II traditionalist was in Ratzinger’s mind all that counted for high-level appointees.

Vigano accused Bertone of obstructing the Pope’s reforms oriented to cleaning up “so many situations of corruption and abuse of power . . . rooted in the management of so many departments.” For example, the same firms habitually won contracts at almost double the cost charged outside the Vatican. As a result, the Pope’s very own butler felt compelled to take action. “Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church, I finally reached a point of degeneration, a point of no return, and could no longer control myself,” Gabriele explained to Vatican investigators. A shock, “perhaps through the media,” Gabriele continued, could “bring the church back on the right track.” Might the butler have been suffering from a bit of naivity, however? 

If the corruption and infighting, qualities that ought to have disqualified the Vatican from leading any Christian group, have been systemic in the Vatican, any “shock” would probably merely result in a defensive circling of the wagons by the insiders. Moreover, the shock was oriented to a symptom, rather than what undergirds the corruption. In particular, the ideological fixity or “litmus test” of the traditionalists could alternatively have been the target of the butler’s “shock and awe” campaign. Put another way, the dearth of “checks and balances” could be rooted not in the Secretary of State’s amassing of power, but, rather, in the hegemony of ideological identity. That is to say, the hypocrisy goes deeper than merely fighting in the name of the one who came to turn the other cheek and love his enemies. The underlying culprit is that of the selfish and intolerant insistence that one’s own ideological preference be the exclusive door through which everyone must pass.


For the article in The Washington Post, please see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/pope-benedict-xvis-leaked-documents-show-fractured-vatican-full-of-rivalries/2013/02/16/23ce0280-76c2-11e2-8f84-3e4b513b1a13_story.html   Jason Horowitz, “Pope Benedict XVI’s Leaked Documents Show Fractured Vatican Full of Rivalries,” February 17, 2013.

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How far can clergy reasonably go in the name of religion? More to the point, are there any limits to what counts as religious? In the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, religious leaders “vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby.” According to the New York Times, the leaders had come to the conclusion that the time had come for “action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy office—the General Board of Church and Society—sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders. “I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action. And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.” I contend that Winkler missed an opportunity for a more intense or riveting spiritual response than merely praying or being sad (as though this were a religious response) as he moved off religion itself into the realm of political activism. It is possible that the clergy in general undercut their own religious credibility in becoming advocates for gun legislation.

To take sides on a political issue is to be partisan in nature. Even if many people in one’s congregation happen to take the same position, those who take the opposite stance would at the very least feel a slight discomfort in listening to a speech under the subterfuge of a sermon. The New York Times reported at the time that advocating limits on guns was controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals were opposed. A CBS News poll taken during the week following the massacre found that while 69 percent of Catholics wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed. Even in a Catholic homily, promoting gun control could distance or even offend nearly 30 percent of a congregation. The advocacy could be viewed as a manifestation of the priest’s own politics taking advantage of the pulpit.

Therefore, a cleric’s decision to weigh in on a political issue could potentially divide or even rupture a house of worship. At what cost to the worship? Indeed, partisanship itself may be inherently inconsistent with worship. Whereas the latter is transcendent in nature or orientation, political issues are “this worldly” and thus eclipse transcendence. Jim Winkler not only risked introducing division into Methodist churches; he also missed the opportunity for transcendence beyond that which comes with prayer. In other words, he was going off a false dichotomy.

Admittedly, there was something unifying, and thus holistic, in the gathering of clergy from the three Abrahamic religions (and various sects thereof) at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. exactly one week after the shooting. It might be tempting to conflate this unity with that which is presumed through faith to go along with transcendence (e.g., an attribute of God or of the experience itself). There is something “other worldly” about the church bells including on toll for the 20 year-old gunman who committed suicide after having killed 20 children and 8 adults at the school. That is to say, including him changes the perspective to one that is more holistic, even transcendent, because he is grouped in with the victims. Experiencing the toll for the shooter can be transcendent because the symbolic act goes beyond “the ways of this world” in treating humanity itself as a part rather than the whole. The unity of various religions taking part would have enhanced the significance of the transcendence were it, rather than gun control or even sadness for the victims, emphasized by the clergy. Had they been oriented to changing the perspective to one that is more transcendent, they would have remained within the religious domain.  In fact, they would have been promoting it! Using the occasion to lobby or organize for gun-control legislation, on the other hand, shifted attention away from the more transcendent perspective onto one that is divisive or at least all too familiar in terms of partisan divisions.

Generally speaking, a religious perspective that is transcendent via symbol, myth or ritual can situate a horrible situation that seems total. Including the two “sides” of a conflict in a way that erases sides altogether by adding a transcendent dimension—which relativizes the conflict itself—can demonstrate the utility of transcendent experience itself, and thus religion. The point is not forgiveness. That new moral implications can ensue is also not the point. Nor does it mean that religion is morality (or even is bound to moral principles). Drawing a moral lesson from a tragedy is not in itself religious. Worse still, taking a side and promoting it—which from a religious angle could be categorized under self-idolatry—treats the conflict or issue itself as the background or basis rather than as relative or partial. Perhaps in wanting to cover more ground, the clergy oriented to gun-control legislation may actually wind up with less from the standpoint of their own native fauna. In wanting more, maybe we betray ourselves and, in so doing, can actually wind up with less.

For more, please see Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted in 2012 just after his Church rejected legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops that a “lot of explaining” would be necessary. For the Church of England “undoubtedly” lost a “measure of credibility” societally as a result. “We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the Church’s General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.” As a result, “we have . . . undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.” Some commentators even suggested that the Christian sect known as the Anglican Church might lose appreciable membership as a result. While such a prediction may be exaggerated, Williams’ comments can be unpacked for greater insight.

 general synod

First, whenever an organization breaches societal norms, it can be expected that the group suffers a loss of credibility, or reputational capital, as a result. This is true of entities in business and government as well as religion. When the breach is on a well-established norm, the loss of credibility can effectively relegate the organization in terms even of being taken seriously.

Second, Williams points to “theological principle” as a possible rationale behind the laity chamber’s rejection of the proposal. It is interesting that the theological point was not an obstacle in the clerical chamber, as the proposal passed there. It can be asked, however, whether the tradition passed down that Jesus had only male disciples is indeed a theological principle. If so, would a preference for bread at breakfast be a theological principle for a Christian were Jesus said to have only eaten bread in the morning? Theologically, if Jesus is “fully human, fully divine,” then would his particular habits while on earth necessarily be theological in nature if they are in regard to the “fully human” side? Jesus walking through a door after his resurrection can be taken as theological in nature, whereas absent any theological rationale on his part for having a bunch of guys as disciples, it could have been a reflection of the culture at the time. Were Mary Magdalene one of the disciples, the assumed theological principle would turn out to be wrong, which would have even greater implications for historical Christianity in that it will have been wrong on something it regarded as theological. In short, the “fact” that Jesus walked around historically introduces non-theological reasons for some of his decisions.

Third, the argument that a theological rationale should have priority over a well-established cultural norm introduces complexities. On the one hand, God’s omnipotence, or power, cannot by definition be limited to human mores or even ethical principles. The Book of Job bears this point out. God does not exactly allow Job to be treated ethically by the devil. On the other hand, the theological domain transcends a human’s grasp. To the extent that allowing a theological principle to trump a societal norm—even an ethical norm—implies a sort of omniscience or “all-knowing” regarding the principle, it could be that societal norms, at least with regard to what is believed to be fair, should constrain how far people go with their theological principles (even if such a limitation does not apply to God). In short, the vote may evince a certain theological arrogance. William’s reference to the vote not being “intelligible” to the wider society could imply a certain conceit, for it could be that the common-sense fairness regarding women was not “intelligible” to the Church’s laity represented in the chamber that voted down the proposal. If so, the proper response would not be one of a “lot of explaining to do,” but, rather, a lot of listening.

For more on this piece, please see: “Women Bishops: Rowan Williams Says Church Has ‘Lot Of Explaining To Do,” The Huffington Post, November 21, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/21/women-bishops-archbishop-_n_2169883.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

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Just as religion does not establish or confirm historical facts or metaphysical reality, neither is a theological system an ethical system or principle thereof. Even if religious experience can result in more compassionate conduct (the experience making one more sensitive to existence itself, and thus to others) that is in line with an ethical system, religion is not itself about ethical conduct in the world. Rather, religion has a transcendent referent beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

In fact, the Bible contains stories including rather unethical divine decrees, such as that even the women and children in Jericho be killed and that Job be made to suffer unjustly. Omnipotence cannot be limited by an ethical system. One might argue that even though God cannot be contained within a human ethical system, humans can (and should) be held to account ethically. Indeed, half of the Decalogue contains moral prohibitions, such as against stealing. It would appear that I have dug myself into a hole! Religion appears to contain moral proscriptions. This is not to say that religion is ethics, however. Perhaps it could be said that the Decalogue itself contains religious and ethical commandments—the latter serving more of a civil purpose. In other words, the Ten Commandments might have been designed to do “double duty”—some serving religious purposes and others societal. Indeed, Yahweh was to be the king of Israel, though this conflation broke down as the need for human political rulers could not be ignored. Religion does not do well when it encroaches on politics. We should know this by the twenty-first century.

In terms of morality, it is admittedly possible that a religion impacts conduct in a way that appears to us as ethical but is actually theological. For instance, if God is love (Augustine), then benevolentia universalis (universal benevolence) can be understood as caritas in terms of conduct. Loving one’s neighbor, according to Jesus, is loving God. What you do to the least of mine, you do to me. This is not to make an ethical claim that people should be benevolent toward others (i.e., that it is unjust not to be benevolent); rather, benevolence, theologically taken, is a way of saying something about God’s self-emptying (agapé) essence and a way of having a religious experience of it.

Beyond cognitive assimilation of the two main commandments, religious experience itself can make a person intrinsically more inclined to treat others with compassion, and thus (incidentally here) in line with ethical principles that we value. Specifically, the sensitivity that comes about from isolating intense transcendent experience includes not only a more sensitive awareness of the presence of the divine, a sensitivity to existence itself can follow afterward. Such a sensitivity naturally involves attending more to others in a way that can be recognized as love or compassion. In other words, compassion is the “mood” in such sensitivity as is engendered by isolating an intense grasping or yearning for that which is inherently transcendent—transcending even the “religious object” that we regard as transcendent.  Rather than saying, “I should be caring or compassionate to this person,” one simply is because one is more sensitive in one’s awareness in general. The same dynamic no doubt occurs in Buddhism wherein meditation and compassion are at the very least positively correlated (i.e., two pillars). So too, I suspect that the Jain monks who are careful in walking so as not to step on a small bug (even going naked and using a broom) are so sensitive to non-injury from a sensitizing experience in meditation. An ethic of non-injury is an ethical manifestation, whereas the sensitivity being experienced is spiritual, and thus in the domain of religion.

Religious compassion is thus experiential as spiritual sensitivity rather than as moral. It follows that authentic religiosity inherently relegates (or transcends) the ethical issues of the day and therefore (especially!) particular positions on them. In claiming that religion contains the domain of ethics, one is apt to dogmatically (i.e., arbitrarily) seek to impose one’s own moral stances as though they were required theologically. By implication, one’s referent point is in this world rather than transcendent. Indeed, a single-issue moral-political position can be imposed as a litmus test on religious faith. For example, to treat an anti-abortion plank as somehow binding politically and even ethically in terms of religion, as if one’s creedal validity depended on it, is to extend religion beyond itself and assert its dominance even there. Essentially, this is to use one’s authority in religion to presumptuously impose a political position on an issue as a “required” ethical stance. The self-idolatry is in the fact that the position is conveniently the person’s own. That is, rather than being religious, the aggression is based in self-idolatry under the subterfuge of theology. Essentially, one is applying a non-theological litmus test to severely delimit theology while simultaneously extending religion onto the realms of politics and ethics. In actuality, the effort is not at all religious or theological.

I contend that to make a religious claim is not to make a moral (or political) claim. Religion contrasts the righteous from the evil, rather than the good from the bad. Religion transcends our moral positions, so it cannot hinge on any one of them. In other words, a moral position is something other than a theological stance. They are two different things. I think we have just gotten used to tucking morality in with religion because of what we have been told. To say that having had sex before going to church somehow gets in the way of being able to reach out to the divine, experiencing intently beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, seems arbitrary to me. Victorian strictures generally speaking may be good morals for living a good, wholesome life, but they are besides the point in terms of religious experience and the nature of the divine. In other words, for something to be immoral is not necessarily for it to be sinful, and vice versa. Sin interferes with religious experience that transcends self and the world and ultimately with union with the divine, whereas unethical conduct violates an ethical principle in the world. A given act could be both sinful and immoral, but this is merely to say that the conduct offends for two qualitatively-different reasons. To be immoral does not in itself make an act a sin. Nor is a sin necessarily immoral conduct. In fact, sin, being oriented to the transcendent (as a repudiation), cannot be based in conduct or even a principle of a human (ethical) system.

So someone using religion to push a particular moral and/or political position, such as taking one side on the matter of political liberty from the state as applied to abortion or smoking pot, encroaches onto politics and morality beyond the domain of theology, and thus what that domain justifies. As just one indication of the over-reach, Jesus is not recorded as taking a position on either issue (even as certain of his “followers” have presumed to “rationalize” their views as Jesus’ position). Speaking more generally, one could tell the over-reaching functionary or epigone, “That we have agreed to be a religious congregation is not to say that we agree on particular moral issues or to meet as the Republican Party.” That is to say, religious agreement does not necessarily mean moral and political agreement. Strangely, the over-reaching person thus confronted is apt to insist on agreement on a “religious-determined” moral stance anyway. Over-reaching tends to ignore obstacles. The person’s presumption that a particular relgious faith requires one to hold particular stances on moral issues of the day can and should be called and rejected even if this is ignored; the presumption too can be ignored. By this approach, the sheer extent of presumption that typically goes unrecognized (and tolerated) in and through religion can be made transparent and finally repudiated.

In general terms, empirical, historical, metaphysical, moral and political claims have no power, currency, or business in religious matters. Theological conviction is not somehow subject within its domain to a demand from another domain. Nor does a theological claim have legitimacy in another domain. Theology does not reduce to a single issue in another domain, whether that domain be history, politics, science, morality, or economics. Economic justice is important, but it is not religion. Being moral is important, but it is not religious. To claim that one’s faith is for a particular social structure is to hold an oxymoronic category mistake wherein religious faith is somehow based on human socio-economic ideology.

Religion transcends the limits of human cognition and perception; the referent point is Wholly Other. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). The domain is not based, therefore, on an empirical or historical fact, or a political or moral position.

Because religion is not theologically based in the realm that we know and perceive (even though we clothe divine objects in our garb), religion is experienced by grasping or reaching beyond, or even just by being open to the presence of the divine behind existence itself. Such transcendent experience is typically associated with religious symbol, myth and ritual, which can be viewed as means because the experience itself goes beyond them. Yet somehow religion has a tendency to encroach on other areas, such as being presumed to be applicable before a meal or in the context of a baseball game (e.g., making the sign of the cross before batting–an utterly strange ritual that is quite out of place yet generally accepted). Sustenance and sporting activities are not in themselves religious. To presume them to be so is to overlay the sacred on the profane—implicitly relegating the former as practically ubiquitous in our daily activities (and thus as a tautology). Somehow, without thinking, we humans have developed a tendency to allow our religious vines to grow into other gardens—even imposing the interloping itself with religious sanctions!

For example, I do not pray before I eat. Yet “religious people” presume that I should. Their presumption is especially strange because the dinner table is not where people go to have religious experiences. We go to the kitchen or dining room to eat. That eating can be part of religious ritual (eg., the Jewish Seder and the Christian and Sikh communions) does not mean that eating for sustenance–a biological function–is somehow also religious or should be. Religion, it would seem, also tends to encroach on the biological. So it is strange if not bizzare that sitting at a table simply to eat biologically should somehow make us vulnerable to pressure to tack on a disparate element that is extrinsic to the main purpose (i.e., eating) and thus out of place. The interloper should be made to feel pressure to back off.

Similarly, a religious functionary interested in politics might pressure his flock by demanding, “Vote this way on this issue or you will go to hell!” This statement is the epitome of the presumptuousness that typically goes along with the encroachment of religion outside its own domain. More than a year before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, I heard a young, very highly-strung and self-righteous Catholic priest, whom a deacon referred to as “an abortion of a priest” (i.e., done before he began), twice included in the petitions of the Mass, “That a pro-life candidate will be elected president in 2012 election.” On a third occasion, he preached that his flock should be willing to die for the anti-abortion political movement as if it were equivalent to Christianity itself. The priest presumed that truth was on his partisan side and that society in general was “pro-death.” He also claimed to being “objective” in stating that going to a Protestant service is to walk away from Jesus. I must admit wondering how that priest passed any psychological test in getting into the priesthood. Perhaps not coincidentally, his reactionary, right-wing bishop (who was viewed locally at the time as a supercilious ass for his hypocritical anti-gay forays into local politics amid the recent sexual abuse of at least one child by one of the priests in the dysfunctional parish) was hardly a check on the self-righteous priest, and there was obviously no check on the bishop. I suspect he assured the stubborn priest that he was on the side of truth rather than the self-idolatry of ideology. Incredibly, the priest’s loyal flock seemed unbothered by the line that God takes sides in U.S. presidential elections–even siding with the Republican Party (as Barak Obama’s political position is firmly pro-choice) based on a single issue.

How “pro-life” is a Republican capital-punishment stand? Does killing a few human cells a day or two after conception trump the possibility that an innocent adult is put to death in Georgia or Texas? Even ethically the priority here is at the very least questionable. Is this even a theological matter? Is it theologically viable to view God as voting for a single-issue Republican “social issue” candidate? Admittedly, it may be nice for some people to know that the source and condition of existance takes such an interest in our partisan political affairs and takes sides. For the young, right-wing priest who is so sure of his moral/political stances, “God as a Republican” may be convenient, but unfortunately it is also utterly exclusive of religious experience that transcends the self and the earthly realm. In other words, the divine attribute of being Wholly Other is ignored as God is made to fit within our moral and political agendas.

The ideological pitfall of self-idolatry is particularly likely when we presume we know a lot about a transcendent object even though the nature of its essence is defined as beyond the limits of human cognition and perception. Typically, what we attribute to it is an artifact from one of the other–human, all too human–domains. Even what the divine reveals of itself into our realm must be as though light barely making it through a dark stained-glass window (Augustine), yet we presume to know so much outside our little cave–actually imposing our “religious” agendas on others. This is one reason I stress attention on the distinctly religious experience itself rather than to the nature of the theological object that can nonetheless be used as a means if not obsessed on too seriously (i.e., made an idol).

A religious functionary presuming that religion trumps politics even in the political realm is like someone going into someone else’s house and demanding that the owners follow orders; being a guest is not enough for such an interloper—he presumptuously imposes the ground-rules of his house as governing in another person’s house as well. The intruder shouldn’t even be in the other’s house–not having been invited–and yet he presumes being in a place from which to impose. Such a person should be told to go home, with a firm kick in the ass added for good measure as an incentive. Sadly, such a person is so deluded and blind to his sordid presumptuousness that the lesson would go unlearned. “Did I say something wrong?” he might ask as he is being firmly led to the doorway. His neighbors might be tempted to build a fence around his house so he would not be tempted to go wandering into any of their homes again. Indeed, otherwise, he might be inclined to go into his next-door neighbor’s backyard in order to replace the native fauna with his own favorites. “What happened to my tomato plants?” his neighbor might ask. “Well,” he might condescendingly reply, “you need to grow oaks so I took the liberty of . . .” Stunned, the owner might interrupt the young man. “Oaks? In my vegetable garden? Out!

So to the religious functionary who claims the “right” to dogmatically interlard an empirical, historical, metaphysical, moral or political “fact” in the name of religion, I say, “Get out! You have no basis wandering around in those other areas, and yet you have the gall to aggressively impose your views in them under the subterfuge of religion! Your church is not a history or astronomy department, a metaphysics class, a moral society, or a political party.” Claims in those other areas are like ignorance that presumes to have sufficient validity that it can get away with being arrogant, as if on stilts during a flood even though the ignorance should to be underwater rather than above. That the ignorance is given a place at the table is troubling enough; that the ignorance presumes to ignore or dismiss knowledge and impose itself with whatever authority it can muster at the head of the table is disgusting.

I contend that presumption is ubiquitous in institutional religion. The arrogance is typically conveniently hidden under the subterfuge of humility and piety. If people vote with their feet, say from a dysfunctional parish whose “leaders” will not repent, the religious functionaries conveniently presume in their preaching that the absent rather than they themselves are at fault. The functionaries assume quite conveniently that those who have left are obliged to conform to what outside observers would say is dysfunction stemming from the top. Sadly, the functionaries’ arrogance alone is enough to eviscerate transcendent religious experience; their passive aggression (i.e., religion as a weapon) virtually snuffs out the chance for any authentic religiosity. Incredibly, this is of no concern to the arrogant interlopers whose instinct for dominance demands to be satisfied regardless of where and at what cost.

Were religion itself more delimited and focused on transcending experientially, using symbol, myth and ritual as religious preps, a more distinctively religious phenomenon could manifest and be experienced as sui generis rather than as a subterfuge for self-idolatry.

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A subtle trend has been underway since 1979 in the Roman Catholic Church. Joe Ratzinger’s ascendency to the papacy after the death of John Paul II (a pious man whose piety itself is his legacy of leadership) was only one of several markers on this Roman road leading back from the Second Vatican Council. Broadly speaking, the movement has been to reverse the movement from the council wherein the laity were to take a more active role liturgically in the Church. The reactionary movement away from this has been to stress the distinction between clergy and laity. I contend that this distinction played a role in the abuse of lay children by priests.

Part of the shift since the election of John Paul II has been to go back to more of a distinction between the clergy and laity. For example, instead of making Communion available to the laity under both species (bread and wine consecrated) as much as possible, “traditionalist” priests prefer to reserve the sacred blood for themselves. Underlying this is a clerical view of the clergy as holding a unique sacrificial priesthood with Christ—the laity thus being inferior as only partaking in the priesthood of the people via baptism.  Vatican II sought to increase lay ministry (sharing ministry with Christ) by encouraging offices like the lay Eucharistic minister and (relatedly) in making the Blessed Blood available to the laity as often as possible. Put another way, a priest who refuses to provide the cup during daily Masses even as he avails himself with it is increasingly out of the norm under Vatican II.

Were “high clericalism” limited to extenuating the liturgical prerogatives of priests, the Church would be far less vulnerable to scandal due to the behavior of its clerics. In October 2011, Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese of Kansas City, Missouri were indicted, according to The New York Times, “on criminal charges for failing to report a priest found to have pornographic photos of children, including children of his congregants. The priest [had been] accused of having taken more such photographs in the months before church leaders turned them over to law enforcement. . . . Much of the anguish, then and now, concerned the decision not to inform law enforcement — or the parents . . .  — about Father Ratigan even after the school principal had written a letter detailing concerns that the priest’s behavior fit the profile of a child predator, even after church officials in December discovered hundreds of photographs on his computer that included nude pictures and ‘upskirt images’ of girls, and even after he attempted suicide. Instead Father Ratigan was sent to live in a convent and told to avoid contact with minors. But he continued to attend children’s parties, spend weekends in the homes of parish families and, with the bishop’s permission, presided at a girl’s first communion, according to interviews and court documents. Despite a pledge by the diocese to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to law enforcement, Father Ratigan was not reported until May.”  In short, the series of events points to a willful refusal on the part of Finn to abide by the law and keep his word. Like police who do not think twice about overstepping their authority, the bishop’s behavior suggests that he knew that accountability within the church hierarchy was virtually nonexistence and furthermore that not even civil law could reach him.

Accountability must come from civil authorities, as it is doubtful that the church hierarchy will turn so dramatically from its ways. Even though I suspect the church hierarchy would not change as a result, it is significant that the bishop was “the highest ranking member of the clergy to be charged with a crime stemming from the sex abuse scandals.” There is indeed much value in bringing the impervious to justice, particularly if they feel they are above the law on the basis of what is only an organizational office.

The abuse and the steadfast refusal of the hierarchy to hold its clerics accountable instead of protecting them (exactly like a club of peers protects its own) caused “disappointment and anger” among Catholics in the Kansas City diocese. Rather it being wrong to criticize a cleric, the laity have a moral obligation to do so, particularly given the lack of accountability. “Obviously we’re not O.K. with this and we don’t like the way it was handled,” said Jason Krysl, whose wife was a teacher at a Catholic school and was holding their 7-month-old son. “But it’s frustrating because there’s not much you can do about it. It’s not like you can vote for bishop.” Maggie Nurrenbern, a high school Spanish teacher and a Catholic in the diocese, said the indictment was a step in the right direction. “Nobody is above the law,” she said. “The bishop should go to jail, I absolutely believe that. He was covering this up for months and the priest kept abusing girls in the meantime.” Maggie is spot on; Finn should go to jail. To his flock, he said “it is enough to be here with you, whom I love.” Of course, he can love and be forgiven while he is in jail. It is not at all disrespectful to his office to lead him to the slammer. Nor would jail be “Christian persecution,” even if the bishop’s denial leads him to view his punishment in such distorted terms.

My broader point is that the “high clericalism” trend then well underway in the Church played a role in there being both abuse and a lack of accountability. Finn, well within that trend, was already controversial in his diocese before the scandal because he was forcing the diocese to conform to his traditionalist views at the expense of Vatican II. For instance, he cancelled a program to train laypeople to be leaders (and I suspect he was not fond of lay Eucharistic Ministers even in distributing the Host) and hired more staff to recruit candidates for the priesthood. His attitude toward the laity can be seen in this pair of changes alone. Is it any wonder, therefore, that he would place the interest of a priest above those of even innocent little girls? Moreover, is it any wonder that his arrogance would be such as to dismiss even the reach of the civil law over him? As blameworthy as he was, the related issues of clerical abuse of children and accountability in the Church’s hierarchy can be placed in the wider context of the broader trend going on in the Church.

Firstly, the extent of sexual abuse of kids by celibate priests suggests that giving up such a vital part of oneself as one’s sexual nature—created by God, by the way—is not something that can be done without paying the price psychologically in terms of diverted repression “acting out” in dysfunctional and anti-social ways. In fact, denying such a basic and natural part of human nature could even be considered to be a sin—denying something that God created. Furthermore, to view sexuality as itself something squalid probably stems from psychological issues in need of being dealt with independently. The Church itself readily admits that clerical celibacy is merely a tradition and could be reversed at any time without breaching fidelity with the Gospel.

Secondly, as I intimate above, the anti-Vatican II trend of high clericalism is conducive to clerical abuse of laity (as well as hypocritical arrogance even as God is viewed as humility). I am not at all surprised that Finn cut the budget of a program on poverty and human rights while expanding an anti-abortion and anti-stem-cell office. While his action may not evince an abuse of his discretion, it certainly points to a particular slant and a willingness to use the power of one’s office to promote one’s own ideology under theological auspices. In other words, I discern in it the same attitude that is evinced by the priest who refuses to provide the cup to others even as he enjoys it himself and the priest who takes pictures of naked girls. It is ego, impure and simple, under the guise of serving. Lest it be forgotten, Jesus himself said that many of the first would be last.

In terms of organizational change, typically a step forward (in loosening) is followed by a step back (in fear), and then another step forward (once the fear has been overcome with hope). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic Church was unfortunately in the midst of a step back without any hint of the step to come. The Vatican was making sure that a step forward would not come any time soon. Accordingly, laity who loved the Church and its sacraments were beset with difficulty in having faith in those human beings who presumed worthy of authority, even if merely organizational. Sadly, we take our organizations and their offices much too seriously; we have lost perspective and power-hungry clerics have taken advantage of it.

In the grand scheme of things, it is important to remember that priests and even bishops are human beings, and thus stand in the same relation to God as do lay persons. Any distance between people in terms of sharing priesthoods with Christ pales in comparison to the distance between God and man. We are all subject to the abyss. Even the distance between the saint and Pharisee priest is like that between two adjacent roads as seen from a jet window at thirty thousand feet. For the priest who presumptively views his “clerical club” as being superior, even soteriologically, to the laity, he should know that his superiority is a self-vaunted illusion. He is still redeemable; he can still melt his pride and humbly return to his brothers and sisters above. Fortunately for clergy like Finn, the climb up from estrangement is not as great as the height (rather than depth) he imagines he himself occupies above the laity. Yet for clergy like Finn to want to make the climb—even to acknowledge it as a climb rather than a charitable descent—is like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. For such arrogance does not lose weight easily.


Laurie Goodstein, “Bishop in Missouri Waited Months to Report Priest, Stirring Parishioners’ Rage,” New York Times, August 15, 2011.

A. G. Sulzberger, “In Kansas City Churches, Tiptoeing Around the Latest Scandal,” The New York Times, October 17, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/us/in-kansas-city-sermons-avoid-mention-of-abuse-scandal.html


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According to the Wall Street Journal, “(s)ome 40% of Roman Catholic parishes in the Boston area can’t pay their bills, and only 16% of local Catholics attend weekly Mass.” So the Archdiocese of Boston announced an overhaul plan in late November 2011 to increase membership.The plan is to evangelize—meaning “knocking on doors” to get more people into the churches. William P. Fay, a monsignor and co-chairman of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission, said in an interview at the time, “what we’re saying is that we’ve got a responsibility to reach out to other people and get them engaged and involved. Once you’re baptized, you’re supposed to go preach the gospel to other people,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was on the front burner, but we are trying to bring it to the front burner.” In other words, Fay’s response to the decrease in church attendance was to stress an obligation of others—specifically, of the laity. His external orientation, moreover, evinces his view that the problem was “out there”—in the Catholics who were no longer attending Mass—rather than closer to home. In other words, his assumption that people need only be convinced to return ignores the very real possibility that the problem was not them, but, rather, the officials in the archdiocese. Pushing the remaining laity to go out and round people up would do nothing to correct the underlying problem, if indeed the church hierarchy had been the problem. Indeed, Fay’s approach bears all the earmarks of projecting the problem away from its source—a rather convenient albeit futile approach.

About a week before the archdiocese’s announcement of its evangelizing plan, Cardinal Bernard Law, who according to USA Today had “resigned in disgrace as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 after the priest sex abuse scandal exploded,” retired from “his subsequent job as head of a major Roman basilica”—archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica to be specific—at the Vatican. The low percentage of church attendance in 2011 can be attributed to 1) rapes of children by homosexual priests, 2) the failure of the archdiocese under Bernard Law to hold those pedophiles to account, and 3) Law’s own re-appointment at the Vatican after his resignation in disgrace. Just the seemingly ascetic priests manifesting as a new bird of prey would be enough to discredit the Catholic Church in Boston; Law’s handling of the rapists should have utterly discredited it.

According to USA Today, “(t)he abuse crisis erupted in Law’s Boston in 2002 after church records were made public showing that church officials had reports of priests molesting children, but kept the complaints secret and shuffled some priests from parish to parish rather than remove them or report them to police.” That the Pope went on to hire the rapists’ accomplice is consistent with the charge made by the prime minister of Ireland publically in parliament on July 20, 2011 that high-ranking Vatican officials had been uncooperative and even arrogant in regard to that government’s investigation of rapist papist priests in Ireland. The Prime Minister, a Catholic himself, was pained to have to acknowledge that he no longer trusted the Vatican.

Indeed, there is good reason to conclude that the Vatican’s hierarchy itself has been populated by men so arrogant as to be incapable of sufficient contrition to hold “their own” accountable. In other words, the entire organization may be infected. According to USA Today, “Law’s 2004 appointment as the archpriest of one of Rome’s most important basilicas had been harshly criticized by victims of priestly sex abuse, who charged that bishops who covered up for pedophile priests should be punished, not rewarded.” Lest it be thought that future bishops might be different, Law remained a member of a half-dozen important Vatican congregations, including the office that helps the pope select bishops, even after his resignation as archpriest.

One new bishop, David Kagan, who was ordained as bishop in North Dakota a week after Law’s resignation as archpriest, had such a reputation for arrogant coldness among parishioners at his former parish in Illinois that the resulting steady decline in membership compromised the parish’s finances. As a pastor, Kagan had regularly refused to meet with parishioners who sought to make appointments, and one of his most proud homiletic lines was, “Don’t worry if you don’t understand the Marian miracles; just obey.”  Doubtless Law had a similar “law and order” line. The obvious question is how such men ever got to become priests in the first place, much less bishops.

What is surprising about the 15% attendance rate in the Boston archdiocese in 2011 is that it was so high. It is utterly emetic to witness a loyal parishioner make excuses for clerics who enabled other clerics to continue to rape boys. It is sad that any parishioners effectively reward a corrupt organization by continuing to frequent it, as if tacitly doing its bidding. It is a sad commentary on religion itself, moreover, that the Boston archdiocese was still afloat years after Law’s resignation in disgrace, while he was able nonetheless to enjoy the pomp of ceremonial office in the Vatican.

As for Boston, presuming that the remaining beguiled herd animals have an obligation to knock on doors to bring people back (while presumably nothing has changed internally) adds insult to injury and demonstrates that the infection was indeed in denial of its own nature and in control of the patient. The only viable solution to enabling arrogance that cannot be wrong is to relieve that arrogance of any office, for such a nature is completely averse to facing itself, not to mention holding itself (and those “of its own”) accountable. It is particularly sad to witness this arrogant “can’t be wrong” attitude among the pets of the hypocrites. By the laws of nature, arrogance should not even be able to exist, as it is by definition excess beyond its underlying substance. Even so, it presumes the right to rule on stilts. If only it were as easy as simply watching those ruled walk away, freed from the hypocrisy and deceit in the name of religion. Then perhaps the old order could collapse and be replaced by another. Yet as it is, the old hangs on, even though discredited societally, forestalling any nascent rebirth.  It is as if the sordid bishops carry their crosses publicly but resist being crucified for fear that they would lose the earthly power they love. Consequently, they do not see resurrection, which is vindication of a power the world knows not.


USA Today, “Disgraced Former Boston Archbishop Leaves Rome Job,” November 21, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-11-21/vatican-cardinal-law/51328536/1

Jennifer Levitz, “Archdiocese Turns to Evangelizing,” The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204397704577072760933178218.html



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Irony fuels a good story, at least in terms of culling interest in order to draw in the unsuspecting reader or viewer. When the irony strains the bounds of good measure or even sanity, however, one can be left staring at the absurd, with no hero in sight. I suppose that given the quotidian pretensions of the “religious” (i.e., pretentiousness regarding an assumed, unhindered access to revelation via objective—and neutral, by the way—interpretation), one can expect more than a trove full of irony in religious institutions. Unfortunately, even the absurd, which is to say, sick, can also be found there, in the most unlikely of places.

A rather obvious example of the absurd in religion is the pedophile priest who preaches family values while extolling celibacy as a virtue. No divine decree can theologically justify raping kids, so the immorality (and criminality) has nothing to fall back on except sickness. Of course, a pedophile can be either heterosexual or homosexual, so I don’t mean to relegate the latter as a sickness. Replace “preaching for celibacy” with “preaching  against homosexuality” and specify the pedophilia as being of the gay variety, and we have the alleged case of Bishop Eddie L. Long, an evangelical protestant minister. Here, the absurd takes the form: Thee protest too much, for the demon specified lies within. In this case of alleged misdeeds, the demon is on several levels: preying on the least of mine (in religious terms) and pedophilia (in sexual, moral and psychological terms).

According to the New York Times, “(a)t the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta. With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of [America’s] most powerful religious leaders. He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.” By powerful can also be understood, popular. According to Timothy McDonald, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, Long could pack in 8,000 on a weekend. That’s reaching a lot of people. With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to Voltaire, and yet the inevitable temptation is also in the mix. I will briefly address that of greed, before moving on to the main thrust of this essay—on lust.

In promising prosperity, Long preached that God rewards those having true belief with earthly treasure. Lest this seem to be mixing the sacred with the profane, one need only recall Jesus’ saying about the rich man getting in to heaven  being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle (i.e., it isn’t going to happen). Long’s  greed may have been extant in his use of church members as means (rather than as ends in themselves) for his own enrichment. According to the New York Times, “ten former members who attended church investment seminars [were] suing him [in 2011], claiming he [had] coerced them into investment deals that cost them their retirement savings. He [had] recently reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a $2 million bank loan, much of which went unpaid after a real estate deal that went bad.” It is not surprising that the insipid mix of the sacred and profane in the label “church investment seminars” alone would function as a gateway from greed and the related misordered concupiscence—putting a lower good above a higher one. If Long used his “seminars” to cull additional dollars in order to “play in the big league,” then he would have evinced the operative assumption of the “camel-needle” anti-wealth stance: that holding wealth is tantamount to being motivated by greed. From this perspective, the pro-wealth paradigm is inherently compromised. To the extent that it is the dominant economic paradigm in Christianity, the ability of churches (and their functionaries) to restrain greed is necessarily compromised.

Turning from greed to lust brings in the added element of hypocrisy with respect to Bishop Long. Even as he was preaching against homosexuality, the charismatic bishop settled in May 2011 with five young men who accused him of sexual coercion. According to the New York Times, the “young men claimed that the pastor offered gifts, trips, and emotional and spiritual guidance that eventually led to sexual relations. One of the young men, Maurice Robinson, said in court records that his relationship with Bishop Long began when he was 15 and that on a trip to New Zealand the two engaged in sexual acts.” A conservative Biblical hermeneutic going “down under” with a boy would have to know that the mix of hypocrisy, pedophilia, and homosexuality would be far beyond the sin of homosexuality alone, and yet Long’s alleged involvement with five boys suggests a long-standing practice. To understate the obvious, there is a huge red (not rainbow) flag waving wildly over the psychology that must undergird the sustained hypocrisy, pedophilia, and self-hatred. While it is only natural to sympathize with such suffering, that of the boys should not be slighted. Incredibly, Long’s flock did not fly away en masse amid the revelations. I want to make the less obvious point that a red flag also applies to those members of his church who stayed. Even after Long announced in December 2011 that he was temporarily stepping away from the pulpit to try to save his marriage, some members were glad the bishop’s absence would be temporary.

Frank Cook, a contract administrator who has been a member for 20 years, is not going anywhere. “It’s all about restoring, forgiving and loving,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “We love Bishop Long and we’re going to keep coming.” Even though attendance at Long’s church had dropped to 4,000 from about 8,000 at one point in 2011, according to McDonald, Long remained a powerful force. “Even on his bad days, if he gets 4,000 or 5,000, he’s still larger than 94 or 95 percent of most churches.” At the very least, 4,000 people willing to keep coming is enabling. Far more nefarious is the psychology that looks the other way, effectively relegating abuse even when it is the rape of a boy.

To grasp the severity of the personality disorder that refuses to reject child-rapists, even and especially under religious auspices, it is necessary to have a better picture of the abuser. In the case of Sandusky, a football coach at Penn State, a grand jury report made public days after Long announced his temporary leave indicated that one of the alleged victims “testified that on at least one occasion he screamed for help, knowing that Sandusky’s wife was upstairs, but no one ever came to help him.” Besides picturing the nature of a man who continues forcing himself into a kid unabated even though the boy is screaming presumably in pain and to for help, we can liken the enabling wife upstairs to the people who continued to attend Bishop Long’s services and even empathize with the rapist. “He needs to be with his family,” said Marilyn Arnold, a business manager. “It’s hard on his family. When he comes back, we’ll be here.” Lest this be taken as evincing the virtue of loyalty, one need only think of that of Sandusky’s wife amid a kid’s screams from the basement. I contend that the same twisted psychology applies to church members and clerics who enable child-rapists in the pulpit. The apparent virtue of attending church should not obfuscate this similarity.

Of course, it must also be pointed out that not every member of Long’s megachurch stayed after the rape charges were made against the pastor. Valencia Miller, a property manager in Lithonia, said she left the church after the young men who accused the bishop of sexual impropriety came forward. “A lot of us left. I mean, a lot,” she said in an interview in early December 2011. “The church needs a cleansing,” she said. “I’m real disappointed. He was a man we all looked up to.” That he should be the person to do the cleansing is like having the rapist council the rape victim from prison, or having the politicians who refused to have derivative securities regulated (e.g., Larry Summers) write the financial regulation reform after the crisis of 2008. In Long’s church, part of the cleansing should have included confronting the church members who did not leave. To be cleansed, in other words, the megachurch would no longer exist. Sadly, the members remaining were like Sandusky’s wife—hardly of a psychology healthy enough to cleanse anything, least of all themselves.


Kim Severson and Robbie Brown, “Charismatic Church Leader, Dogged by Scandal, to Stop Preaching for Now, The New York Times, Dec 5, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/us/eddie-long-beleaguered-church-leader-to-stop-preaching.html

Chris Greenberg, “Dottie Sandusky Issues Statement Supporting Husband, Jerry, Over Child Abuse Allegations,” The Huffington Post, December 8, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/08/dottie-sandusky-issues-statement-penn-state-scandal-jerry_n_1137595.html



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Nailing down the boundaries of religion can be difficult. Complicating the task is the propensity of vested interests to distend or even break through the limits on what counts as a religious function or organization. The case of whether Catholic-affiliated organizations that “do” education and health-care should be exempted from federal regulations requiring employers to pay for birth-control in their health-insurance plans for employees (and) illustrates the problem. I don’t think the issue is constitutional because the matter of birth control is not religious, even in Catholic terms. I contend that the real issue is one of partisan politics going back to “Obamacare,” and ultimately of anger under the subterfuge of religion.

On January 20, 2012, the Obama administration announced that employers with a religious affiliation having “moral objections to birth control” would have to provide all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration without co-payments or deductibles for health-insurance policy-holders. Churches and other houses of worship would still be exempted, but not hospitals, schools, and charities. Catholic-affiliated hospitals, schools and charities had petitioned the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to recognize them as religious groups. Had they been recognized as religious in nature, the implication would have been that giving shots, operating on patients, and teaching non-religious subjects are somehow “religious” in nature. Potentially, virtually any function could be deemed religious in nature and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution would mean that anyone could declare oneself exempted from any given law on religious grounds. David Boie, who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore (2000) said that “free exercise” does not mean that a religious organization can be exempted from a law that covers everyone. Rather, such an organization can sue the U.S. Government should it pass a law tailored to the organization—to stop it from engaging in a religious expression. Some “free exercise” advocates, however, presume that religious organizations have a blank check regarding laws that cover everyone and thus do not discriminate against a religion. Constitutional law does not support that position.

I contend, moreover, that the constitutional question does not properly arise in this case, for the moral objection is not in itself religious. Archbishop Dolan referred to even Obama’s compromise that the insurance companies pick up the tab as calling on the Catholic Church “to subsidize something we find morally illicit” (italics added). Yet he went on to characterize it as a “religious practice,” essentially treating morality itself as a religious practice like prayer or taking the Eucharist in a religious ritual. In other words, even as Catholic hospital and university organizations came out in support of the president’s compromise, the Catholic bishops were opposing it without a clear notion of how the practice of birth control relates to religion.

If wearing a condom or taking “the pill” interferes with a religious practice, then having unprotected sex is the equivalent to praying or attending Mass (e.g., taking communion). I don’t know of any Catholic official who would argue this with a straight face—as if Catholics could legitimately (i.e., on religious grounds) sleep in on Sunday mornings as long as they have a little sex and this would count as a religious practice. The distinction between a moral and religious doctrine takes a bit more explanation.

Historically, it was thought in the Christian West that one could not be moral without being religious. This assumption involves a category mistake. Were religion essentially morality, the Book of Job would be a tough nut to crack, for Job is not treated ethically though God allows the devil to abuse the righteous man. Moreover, God could not be all-powerful (omnipotent) were religion subject to our moral systems. Were religion oriented to morality, or should applied to conduct in this world, the transcendent aspect of religion would either be eclipsed or relegated. A moral position is therefore not a religious practice.

In using birth control, the vast majority (98%) of Catholic women in a position to use birth control (e.g. sexually active) use it. A New York Times/CBS poll issued soon after Obama announced the compromise found that 57% of Catholic voters supported the requirement for religiously affiliated employers, like hospitals and universities, to cover the full cost of birth control for their employees, while 36% opposed it. There was almost no difference between Catholic and other voters on the question. Presumably the percentage in support of the president’s compromise (i.e., insurance companies pay) was higher. Were having sex unprotected every time a religious doctrine or practice, the bishops would not have been so upended by their own flock.

Undoubtedly most Catholics simply concluded that their bishops had over-extended themselves into a non-religious domain (e.g., a moral question, or a health issue for women). Put another way, the fact that the bishops were not being followed by most of their flock undercuts the bishops’ credibility (or legitimacy) even in their own domain—that of religion. By presuming to over-extend one’s influence, one undercuts even one’s viability in one’s own backyard. The real story behind the story is the bishops’ irrelevance even to Catholics.

Following Dolan (someone apparently needs to) on birth control being “morally illicit,” I would argue that people have moral objections to government policy all the time; giving religious officials a pass simply because of their religious roles (e.g., in worship) is not fair to other citizens who have other moral objections. The First Amendment does not guarantee the free exercise of morality, even if the person having the moral scruples happens to be religious. Even if one’s moral view is informed by one’s theology, the moral stance is not itself religious. So I do not view the constitutional question as properly arising in this case. Rather, I view it as a good old-fashioned political fight of partisans.

The salience of political ideology can be seen even in how the various parts of the Catholic Church reacted to Obama’s compromise. According to the New York Times, the “leaders of several large Catholic organizations that work directly on poverty, health care and education reacted positively,” whereas the bishops continued to object—even arguing that Catholics who own businesses should not be required to provide birth control to their employees in their health insurance coverage. In other words, the personal moral view of a non-religious business owner should somehow exempt the business from the law that every other business in the U.S. must follow. Besides vastly over-extending the importance of the moral issue even within Catholicism (effectively making it a single-issue religion), the argument involves religion at best only tenuously next to business and constitutional law. Perhaps so many Catholics are unconsciously not following their bishops because of a natural aversion to such unabashed over-reaching (i.e., greed). Again, this could well be the story within the story, with the bishops so intransigent because they sense they had already undercut their own credibility from within. In other words, political ideological partisanship does not do well as the basis of a religious role.

For example, Archbishop Dolan gave a lecture on contraceptives at Fordham law school. At Fordham, birth control is covered by the student health plan, though none of the medical practitioners at the university clinic prescribe them; students must go to private clinics for prescriptions. During his lecture, Dolan criticized people who postpone conception with “chemicals and latex” as part of “the culture of death.” Is postponing a pregnancy synonymous with death? It is not as if a fertilized egg were killed. Moreover, is delaying a biological process in the religious domain? If so, then virtually anything could be classified as religious and the domain of religion become a meaningless tautology. The transcendent aspect is nugatory because by Dolan’s own admission the topic is biological reproduction—which Augustine wrote of as being so worldly, and thus tainted by original sin, that the act itself is not even to be enjoyed. Treating the worldly as definitive for religion risks making God in one’s own image, incurring pride as self-idolatry in the guise of piety. This is why most Catholics were not following their bishops on the issue.

Does Jesus even say anything about birth control in the Gospels? The Catholic Church would doubtless point to the magisterium (i.e., its teaching authority), though the argument that a teaching on which Jesus is silent is nonetheless central (even binding) seems to be a stretch. Dolan may have been kept unaware of these points, at least at Fordham, for the moderator screened the written questions that expressed or implied another opinion. As in a one-party state, Dolan got to hear what he wanted to hear; he could thus safely lecture as if he were preaching to the choir (which was actually doing the opposite—essentially voting with their conduct).



Bridgette Dunlap organizing an off-campus  birth-control clinic at Fordham      NYT


The partisan (even totalitarian) rather than religious nature of Dolan’s talk and its topic is evident just from the moderator’s statement to the audience, “If I don’t ask your question, I either apologize or I don’t care.” I suspect that the latter is the attitude residing just below the surface when partisans of the opposing view when they attend Mass. In other words, the “I don’t care” alone sends the message that Catholicism is for socially-conservative Republicans only. The attitude reflects a rather extreme degree of partisanship that admits up front to not having any concern whatsoever about being unfair, or even civil, to those with whom one disagrees. If you expected a fair shot at getting your question read—you know what—I really don’t care how you feel about being shut out. The dismissiveness alone indicates a belief that the persons do not even deserve customary politeness on account of their view. Such is the arrogance of I can’t be wrong. Raised to the level of truth, such arrogant partisan zeal functions like a knife, even if it haughtily claims in still more passive aggression to be in the name of compassion. The truth, as it were, is in the partisan pudding. Essentially, what is being worshipped is pride, which Augustine viewed as the chief sin of all.

I do not believe that religion was motivating the bishops in opposing Obama’s decisions. The New York Times reports that to many Catholic leaders, the controversy sounds like “a replay of the fight over the healthcare overhaul passed in 2010.” Even though Catholic bishops had been advocating universal health care since 1919, the bishops in 2010 “nearly blocked the passage of the health care bill” because they said it “did not go far enough to ensure that federal money would not be used to pay for abortions.” At the very least, the bishops’ motive in early 2012 should have been questioned, as they had opposed the law itself. It sounds more like sour grapes than anything religious.

Behind the “I can’t be wrong” may be an abstinent partisanship on the right that has a thinly veiled hatred of progressives. I suspect that the bishops had been working to remake their “universal” Church as a place for Republican Catholics to worship the God of moral issues. In other words, the bishops were blind to the dogmatism in the arbitrariness that is involved in limiting a religious practice to people of a particular political ideology. Such arbitrariness is enforced by power and intimidation.

I can just imagine Dolan’s seething hatred for Sister Anne Curtis, a leader of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, who supported Obama’s compromise in line with making health care available to all. Similarly, Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, also supported the compromise, saying “My special interest is that in 2014, the32 or so million people who do not now have health insurance will get access to health care.” Such compassion was notably missing from Dolan’s reaction to Obama’s compromise. I suspect he had little compassion for the sisters either.

Meanwhile, Democrats could feel at home in Unitarian Universalism, which is perhaps even more ideologically partisan, but at least up front about it: “religion” there being about instituting specific social structures that are deemed (by the Unitarians) to be moral. This “left-wing” partisanship can be seen in a letter sent by clergy on “the left” (including a few Unitarian ministers) to the White House.

The following sentence from the letter is telling: “As clergy, we are committed to upholding the important goals of reproductive justice and health, empowering women and men to make decisions about whether and when to have and bear children within their own moral and religious tradition, and assuring them the means and ability to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment. Access to reproductive health services recognizes a moral value embraced across the religious spectrum. We thank you for your decision supporting the fundamental value of reproductive health to women and families.” The only reference to anything explicitly religious are “clergy” and “religious spectrum.” It is as if the authors were political activists who just happened to be clergy.

I suppose what amazes me is that we in the general society are so willing to ignore obvious instances in which partisan sticks its ugly head out to toss a lit match on a pool of gasoline under the subterfuge of religion. Besides distending and contorting religion itself such that the rest of us would hardly recognize it if it hit us on the head, the practice of partisan fighting under the subterfuge of religion gives what is actually a political faction undue stature and influence, not to mention airtime. Essentially, anger is anger. I suspect that for the bishops it has become a habit.


Louise Radnofsky, “Catholic Leaders Blast Rule on Contraception Coverage,” The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204624204577181413393315258.html

Denise Grady, “Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges,” The New York Times, January 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/30/health/policy/law-fuels-contraception-controversy-on-catholic-campuses.html

Amanda Terkel, “President Obama’s Pro-Choice Birth Control Decision Draws Praise From Religious Leaders,” The Huffington Post, January 30, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/obama-birth-control-religious_n_1242680.html

Laurie Goodstein, “Obama Shift on Providing Contraception Splits Critics,” The New York Times, February 15, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/us/obama-shift-on-contraception-splits-catholics.html

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It is my contention that the cocktail of religion and human nature can be so dangerous precisely because of the propensity that a person has to presume that one cannot be wrong in religious matters. It is too easy for the denial of human fallibility to eclipse compassion even in a religion of love. In other words, the tendency to think that one cannot be wrong renders much invisible. In fact, efforts to make the lapses transparent are regarded typically as an affront to be justifiably attacked. I am reminded of M. Scott Peck’s theory of malignant narcissism in religion. The narcissism is actually the defenses that can be observed in a person’s conduct. They in turn surround a sense of emptiness that is felt by the narcissistic person at his or her core being. Of course, the emptiness is psychological rather than physical. It is in reaction to the felt-emptiness that the narcissist in religion refuses to confront even the possibility of fallibility—that one can be wrong.

According to the Huffington Post, a “Catholic priest who was pulled from ministry after a furor over denying Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral insists he did the right thing and criticized the Washington archdiocese for disciplining him. . . . Guarnizo said he learned moments before the funeral at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., that Johnson was a lesbian and was attending the Mass with her partner. Guarnizo refused Johnson Communion when she approached the altar during the liturgy. The Archdiocese of Washington said the priest’s action was a violation of church policy because he had not spoken in detail with Johnson beforehand to be able to make a proper determination of her status. The archdiocese later placed Guarnizo on administrative leave, citing ‘intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry’ in unrelated incidents.” In other words, Guarnizo should have taken Johnson aside before the Funeral Mass, rather than confront her as she was approaching him to receive communion. At the very least, Guarnizo’s so obvious lack of compassion for a grieving daughter at her mother’s funeral should be a huge red flag. The priest’s pathology may even affect his cognitive functions.

The Huffington Post also reports Guarnizo as asserting that he “denied Communion to Johnson— a baptized Catholic—on the same basis that he would have denied it to a ‘Quaker, a Lutheran or a Buddhist,’ or someone who ‘had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or high on drugs.’” However, according to the Catholic Church, membership is a very significant factor in whether someone can receive communion. Furthermore, to liken a woman living with a woman to being drunk or on heroin in church represents still another category mistake. The priest was confusing having sinned from being mentally and physically able to receive communion at the Mass. In other words, he was not thinking with all his ducks in a row.

Moreover, Guarnizo’s refusal, being based on his belief that Johnson had sinned, would mean that any member of the Catholic Church who has sinned after having gone to confession should be denied communion. How many Catholics attending Mass on a given weekend are in a state of grace? Moreover, is one human being able to judge whether another is in a state of grace? Who is to say that Guarnizo was in a state of grace in acting without compassion to Johnson?

Reacting to Guarnizo’s attempt to justify his conduct, Johnson’s brother Larry wrote that the statement was “arrogant, repugnant, deceitful. . . . My family had finally hoped some sense of peace regarding my mother’s funeral had been achieved and we could finally grieve her loss . . . (b)ut the reprehensible Fr. Guarnizo has reinforced and confirmed how egregious his conduct was and how repugnant a person he is.” Doubtlessly dismissing Larry and even the archdiocese’s reaction, Guarnizo continued nonetheless to stolidly believe that he could not have been wrong in the matter.

To be sure, even though the archdiocese suspended Guarnizo on “unrelated matters” and referred to Johnson only indirectly as “others,” after citing parish staff who were ill-treated by the priest, an apology was issued to Johnson for Guarnizo’s “lack of pastoral sensitivity.”  It can be argued, however, that the archdiocese could not apologize for Guarnizo. Not only is it not possible for one person or group to apologize for another person’s attitude, such an apology is nullified if that person refuses to repent and apologize himself. In other words, the adding insult to injury of the offending party (which was Guarnizo rather than the archdiocese) nullifies any apology the archdiocese might want to provide as a sort of vicarious substitute.

The fact is, Guarnizo firmly believes that he cannot be wrong with regard to his aggression against Johnson. No amount of punishment or external pressure more generally can force him to change his attitude. Even the Catholic Church is powerless to make a dent in his halo of presumed infallibility. This is one reason why religion can be so dangerous: the presumption that one cannot be wrong cannot be checked internally and even external pressure may not make a dent in the arrogance. As a result, a lack of compassion resulting in harm can be inflicted as though by a sociopath. Society seems to have a blind spot with respect to the sociopathy that can find cover under the auspices of a religious calling or mission.

The “loop hole” for aggression that Guarnizo used but refuses to see is not limited to traditionalist Catholic priests whose hatred of “liberals” can simmer just below the surface. Such anger can erupt in passive and even active aggression under the subterfuge of a greater compassion as per some privileged religious dogma. Human nature itself seems to mix with the religious domain in such a way that presumptuousness and arrogance are emitted as though noxious poisonous gases. Indeed, David Hume theorized that human beings are inherently inclined to orient religions to human characteristics (i.e., anthropomorphism). The culprit, Augustine would readily admit, is self-idolatrous pride. It is the refusal of such pride to admit anything not of its liking that makes religion so dangerous when mixed with human nature. At the very least, we ought to be very skeptical about what we can know or even believe in matters that transcend the limits of our cognition and perception by definition. Such an attitude is two degrees of separation from Guarnizo’s attitude—the intervening abyss being almost unfathomable.


David Gibson, “Marcel Guarnizo, Catholic Priest, In Letter Defends Denying Communion to Lesbian Woman,” The Huffington Post, March 15, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/marcel-guarnizo-lesbian-communion-barbara-johnson_n_1349388.html?ref=religion

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