Is the Pope a Catholic?

In the wake of Benedict XVI’s British visit, Robert Segal deconstructs the Pope’s protestations about the potency of religion

September 24, 2010

I am neither Catholic nor Protestant. I have no stake (unlike the Inquisition) in the success or failure of any branch of Christianity. Rather, I criticise the Pope’s characterisation of religion – any religion.

Religion and morality

The Pope is hardly the first to blame all social ills, from war to poverty, on the demise of religion. But I in turn am hardly the first to note that some of the fiercest wars have been fought over religion.

Whatever part the quest for land or for wealth played, defending or spreading the Christian faith was a not inconsiderable spur to the Crusades and to the conquest of the Americas. The continuing fight between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland may be more than religious, but it is at least religious.

Islamic terrorism is not called Islamic by accident. Most early Zionists were staunchly non-religious, but Zionism for almost all Jews has a religious element, which for some Jews is paramount. In short, religion scarcely means pacifism. Quakerism is a conspicuous exception.

And religion hardly means concern for the poor. Rebuking his followers for objecting to a woman’s pouring expensive ointment on his head rather than selling the ointment for money for the poor, Jesus famously declares: “The poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me.”

True, movements such as Methodism care about poverty, but Latin American Catholic priests forged Liberation Theology exactly to unite what had been opposed: a Marxist focus on the body in this life with a Catholic focus on the soul in the next. The Marxist criticism of religion has been that religion serves to sanction misery.

Religion is neither sufficient for morality nor necessary. Religious folk are no more moral than non-religious ones, just perhaps more hypocritical.

Religion as a force in the world

The Pope grants excessive clout to religion. People do not act religiously for exclusively, or even chiefly, religious reasons. They do so for secular ends simply expressed through religion.

To find out what makes a religious person tick, turn to the secular disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience. One learns more about religion from Freud than from Cardinal Newman.

Far from existing autonomously in the secular world, religion is the product of that world. The rampant secularism against which the Pope rails underpins religion. Even if everyone were religious, religion would still be the effect of secular causes.

Changes in beliefs and practices in all religions usually start from the secular world and then get embraced or rejected by religions. The ordination of female or gay clergy is a reaction to the rise of feminism and gay rights in the world “out there”.

In Judaism, where this same issue arises, the very concept of Orthodoxy arose only in reaction to those Reformers striving to make Judaism conform to modernity. The decision in early Christianity on which Gospels were to be canonical was as much political as theological.

Religion and truth

Concentrating on the truth of religion, as the Pope does, is nowadays quaint. Influenced by modern philosophy, religious studies concentrates instead on either the logical status or the rationality of religious beliefs. Truth comes later or not at all.

The modern study of religion seeks the similarities among religious claims as much as the differences. The Pope himself fluctuates between espousing religiosity generally and espousing Catholicism in particular.

The heart of religion is today taken to be practice, not belief. And practice means less morality, which is an outdated legacy of Victorian times, than ritual. The focus on ritual goes back over a century to the great son of Aberdeen, William Robertson Smith. What makes persons religious is what they do, not what they profess.

Secular religion

The Pope assumes a clear-cut divide between religion and the secular world. He labels Nazism the epitome of the secular world. But contemporary religious studies allows for secular religions. Nationalism and (“godless”) communism as well as Fascism are commonly deemed religions themselves – with their own metaphysics, ethics, holy days and deities.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim saw the worship of France during the Revolution as the successor to Catholicism. Science, psychoanalysis and even sport have frequently been called religions because of the commitment they garner.

In sum, the Pope relies on a simplistic understanding of religion to advocate the retention or revival of it.

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