29 October 2009

Give us your misogynists and bigots...

There's a remarkable piece by Richard Dawkins over at the Washington Post's site, which is drawing a lot of fire from Catholics, largely because if he'd spoken this way of Judaism he'd have been quite rightly identified as a vicious anti-semite, and because if he'd written anything like this about Islam -- well, he'd probably feel he'd have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

The premise of the article is rather strange, given that it's a response to the following question:
'The Vatican is making it easier for Anglicans -- priests, members and parishes -- to convert to Catholicism. Some say this is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic and Anglican traditions; others see it as poaching that could further divide the Anglican Communion. What do you think?'
Professor Dawkins seems an odd person to direct such a question to, given that he's neither an expert in theology or the history of ecumenism, and and thinks all varieties of Christianity to be utter hogwash. Faced with such a question, you'd have thought he would have responded by saying that he didn't care, and that as far as he can it's just a classic case of two bald men fighting over an imaginary comb.

Sadly, while Professor Dawkins is an atheist, I think it's fair to say that he's a very conventional Anglican atheist, in that he's a product of England's semi-Protestant culture, and as such he's weighed down by the mass of anti-Catholic baggage that sadly burdens all too many English minds. Given an opportunity to shrug off recent developments as a complete irrelevance, he instead let loose a torrent of anti-Catholic bile.

By 'Evil' do you just mean 'Counter-Productive'?
His opening is dramatic, of course, rhetorically asking 'What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world?', and decreeing that 'In a field of stiff competition, the Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders.'

I'd like to see the other contenders on Professor Dawkins' shortlist, not least because I wonder what he ranks as major institutions and I wonder whether any of the other contenders on the shortlist are things other than institutions -- things such as greed, envy, fear, and human nature in general.

I'd hope so, though if so, I'd wonder why human nature didn't win hands down. Leaving that aside, though, it seems perverse to see the world's foremost private provider of healthcare and of education as being uniquely wicked. In fact, it seems especially strange given the emphasis on caring for the poorest of the poor especially in Africa.

Much of what Professor Dawkins says is simply too vague or too subjective to counter, but some things are worth addressing. Try this heap of hooey:
'The Anglican church does not cleave to the dotty idea that a priest, by blessing bread and wine, can transform it literally into a cannibal feast; nor to the nastier idea that possession of testicles is an essential qualification to perform the rite. It does not send its missionaries out to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, about the alleged ineffectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV.'
Granted, he doesn't actually say that the Catholic Church does the things he here specifically says the Anglican Communion doesn't do, but I think it's implied. It's worth considering for a minute whether these charges are fair.

Priesthood and the Eucharist
To begin with, Catholics don't believe that the Eucharist is a form of cannibalism, although non-Christians have misunderstood this from the start. This was a charge Christians faced from at least the second century, when they were persecuted and regularly accused of engaging in 'Thyestean banquets'. Rather, Catholics hold that at Communion they partake in the glorified body of Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine.

Secondly, it's true that the Anglican Communion doesn't accept transubstantiation as a matter of doctrine, and indeed that the 28th Article of the Church of England explicitly rejects transubstantiation as a concept, but High Church Anglicans have long believed in transubstantiation, and in 1971 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission issued an Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine which stated that they had 'reached substantial agreement on the doctrine of the Eucharist'.

I'm not sure why Professor Dawkins seems to regard sexism as nastier than cannibalism, but in any case it's of course nonsense to say that Catholics believe that the rite of Eucharistic consecration can't be performed by anyone without testicles. I'm not sure whether Professor Dawkins is being ignorant or simply crude here, because I'm fairly sure there are a few priests out there now who've received drastic treatment for testicular cancer, and who are still saying mass.

What Professor Dawkins is trying to get at, I presume, is that Catholics believe that only priests can celebrate the Eucharist, and only men can be priests. Now, you might think that's nonsense or unfair or outright misogynistic, but that's a debate for another day; what's significant here is that a significant minority of Anglicans share this belief. It seems that at least a part of the Anglican Communion cleaves to exactly the same 'dotty ideas' as the Catholic Church.

African Condoms
As for the idea that the Catholic Church sends missionaries to Africa to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, well, I'm afraid this is bosh. Yes, it's true that incredibly stupid things have been said by at least one cardinal, at least one archbishop, and a host of priests and nuns, but it seems to be tad on the defamatory side to be claiming, firstly, that these were deliberate lies rather than sincerely believed falsehoods, and also I'd wonder why Professor Dawkins seems to think this is a policy. Does the Church send missionaries to Africa to tell people about the ineffectiveness of condoms in combatting HIV and AIDS? Or does it send them there to tell them about, well, Jesus? If it's the former I'm sure there must be a directive to this effect somewhere. No? Oh, well, fancy that.

One might interpret the Pope's comments on this matter as a policy statement, of course, because you may remember how back in March the Pope said that AIDS could not be overcome by the distribution of condoms. You'll probably remember quite a few people throwing a fit over this, not least President Sarkozy, but you may not recall the reaction of Edward C. Greene, who heads the AIDS Prevention Center at the Harvard Center for Population and Developmental Studies, who said 'the best evidence we have supports the Pope's comments'.

Needless to say, people got huffy about this too, citing instances where people have multiple partners, but I think it's pretty obvious that in a situation where AIDS is rife, the nhaving more than one sexual partner, whether or not you use a condom, isn't exactly a good idea. After all, they sometimes break, for starters. It seems, as it happens, that in areas with the biggest AIDS problems, people often use condoms

For what it's worth, more than half of all projects in Africa that combat AIDS are run by the Catholic Church, and more than a quarter of all HIV care in Africa is provided by Catholic agencies -- yes, agencies of that same Catholic Church that Professor Dawkins sees as a contender for the the title of 'the greatest force for evil in the world'. In terms of educating people in order to limit and prevent the spread of AIDS, sure, they teach abstinence and faithfulness, which seems to work, if the Ugandan figures mean anything, which they might not.

Where do condoms fit into this? We all know the Church is opposed to them, of course, but doesn't it seem somewhat paradoxical that someone merrily disregarding the Church's precepts on sex outside marriage should feel obliged to abide by its teaching on contraception? Besides, contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church doesn't teach anything at all about the use of condoms outside of marriage. No really, it doesn't. Sex outside of marriage is simply forbidden, and as a rule, the Church generally doesn't advise its flock on how best to sin.

Do we 'belong' to a Church or do we 'have' a Religion?
On Professor Dawkins goes, then, spluttering 'Poaching? Of course it is poaching. What else could you call it?' Let's see. A hefty minority of Anglican clergy, many of whom regard themselves as Catholic, have been unhappy in the Anglican Communion for some time. Many of these have been seeking some kind of reunion with the See of Peter for a long time, and had hoped to do so while retaining their Anglican identity. They've been knocking at Rome's door for ages, and the Pope having finally opened it, has said that if they want to come in, they're more than welcome, and indeed, they can keep their coats on if they insist.

They don't have to become Catholics if they don't want to. It's up to them. They can think for themselves, after all. I'm not sure Professor Dawkins realises this.

The Argument from Personal Incredulity
Why would they want to do this? Well, here Professor Dawkins can envisage only two possible explanations, being misogyny and homophobia. I'm not sure why he sees these as the only possible explanations -- it may be that he's not looked at any evidence, whether statistical or anecdotal, or it may be that he just can't imagine any other possibilities, and so assumes that his prejudices must explain everything.

I'm afraid his explanations are a bit subtle for me anyway. He seems to be saying that some of the Anglicans who'll swim the Tiber are homophobes who are joining a homophobic institution that's a refuge for homosexuals, while others believe the forgiveness of sins and the consecration of bread and wine so that it becomes the glorified body and blood of Christ are humble and unexacting duties. Paradoxes again, eh?

Statistically Informed Science?
On he goes, with a smirk, declaring,
'Turning to the motives of the poachers, here we find cause for real encouragement. The Roman Catholic Church is fast running out of priests. In Ireland in 2007, 160 Catholic priests died, while only nine new recruits were ordained. To say the least, those figures don't point towards sustainability. No wonder that disgusting institution, the Roman Catholic Church, is dragging its flowing skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp.'
Leaving aside how I'm not sure if Professor Dawkins understands what a pimp is -- they don't wear skirts, to my knowledge, though maybe he's more familiar with them than I am -- it's simply not true to say that the Church is running out of priests.

Sure, in Ireland the number of priests is indeed dropping, but so too are the numbers in the pews, unfortunately, and there were probably far too many priests anyway, even leaving aside the bad ones. Professor Dawkins's figures seem a bit out of date, anyway, given that it looks as though vocations may be on the rise in Ireland, where 38 seminarians started studying for the priesthood last month. As for England, two friends of mine have entered seminaries in the last year or so, so I think things may be healthier here than meets the eye too. Of course, the claim that the Roman Catholic Church is fast running out of priests is hopelessly Eurocentric anyway. Far from being in decline, the number of priests around the world is -- just about -- on the rise, as it has been for the last decade.

I know. You can prove anything with facts, can't you?

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