The intellectual lacuna of the Catholic Church
by B S Harishankar on 03 Aug 2018 7 Comments

‘God is dead’ is a phrase that first appeared in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 collection, The Gay Science, and later in his philosophical novel, Thus Spake Zarathustra. To many Europeans, this phrase by Nietzsche summarizes the state of religion and culture in modern European society. One of Christendom’s most prominent atheist advocates is the Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera. In 2004, he delivered a series of lectures along with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that presented their shared view of the need to restore the fast diminishing Christian identity in Europe to counter both intellectual degeneration and Islamic fundamentalism.


On becoming Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Ratzinger penned a forward to Pera’s book, “Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies”, which promotes Benedict’s argument that Western civilisation can be saved if people live “as if God exists,” whether they believe that or not. The Pope’s arguments show the decline, atrophy and collapse of an intellectual tradition of Catholicism it claims to have contributed to Europe. What has Catholicism given to Europe that it could have passed down from generation to generation for two millennia? Has it convinced Europe that rationalism and science are only manifestations of spiritual wisdom and not contradictory? Has it developed and exported such a brilliant intellectual tradition towards the east?


The fundamental question is whether the Catholic Church can claim any such intellectual history. Even before he was elected Pope in April 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger spearheaded the Vatican effort to have the European Union’s new constitution recognise the continent’s Christian heritage. It met with grand failure. Europe never believed in a two millennia-old intellectual heritage from the Catholic Church, based on tolerance, confabulation, interlocution, debate and discussion of diverse epistemological schools and denominations. From early on, various creeds developed to counter and suppress heresies or beliefs that conflicted with established Catholic dogmas. Heresies were declared to be anathema by various ecumenical councils recognized by the Catholic Church.


Three classic creeds of Catholicism developed to suppress heresies and establish the church dogma with all its might. The Apostolic Creed is the oldest, which originated in the first century AD. The second is the Nicene Creed also known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that developed in the fourth century by the Bishops Council under the order of Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in Turkey. It was aimed at suppressing Arianism, developed by Arius, a priest of Alexandria who argued that Jesus was inferior to the Holy Father.  Arianism threatened the very stability of the Roman Empire. The third creed,  the Athanasian creed, was formulated to suppress all heresies that plagued the Catholic church such as Apollinarianism, developed  by Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in Turkey; Macedonianism after Macedonius, an Arian bishop of Constantinople; Nestorianism, after  Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople; and Sabellianism after theologian, Sabellius.


Towards the end of the second century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, perceived the dangers of different opinions questioning the catholic dogmas. He wrote a five volume work against heresies. After a preamble filled with passion and reproach, Emperor Constantine (306 and 337 AD) absolutely prohibited the assemblies of the heretics and confiscated their public property. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Emperor Justinian issued severe laws against heretics in AD 527 and 528. Those who dissented from Catholic doctrines were debarred from public office, forbidden to practice certain professions, prohibited from assembling and denied the civil rights of a Roman Citizen.


St Augustine (AD 354-430) taught that error has no rights. He cited biblical texts to justify the use of compulsion. St Thomas Aquinas thought it virtuous to burn heretics, and favored the option of burning them alive. Death penalty for heretics was the accepted norm for generations prior to Aquinas and was formalized in Canon Law during the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215. Open dialogues, debates and discussions with opponents were unheard of in Catholic tradition.


In AD 385, the first recorded executions for heresy were carried out under Emperor Maximus at the request of Spanish bishops. Priscillian, Bishop of Ávila, was charged with witchcraft, tried, tortured and executed. Priscillian and his followers, including Eucrotia, the widow of a Roman noble with estates at Elusa in southern France, was beheaded at Trier in either 385 or 386 A.D., the first Christians martyred by Catholics themselves.


Unable to include and incorporate compound ideas of cosmology and divine, early church classics such as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and The City of God (400-500 AD) have remained sacred texts confined only to Christian theology. Similarly, works such as Sermons and Treatises, Epistles, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, The Interior Castle and The Way of Christ have been ecclesiastical and doctrinal readings. There existed absolutely no space for intellectual discourses in Catholicism, which could promote their elucidation and interpretation beyond the Mediterranean.


The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of religious dogmas from the tenth century. Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) claimed that anyone who disagreed with the Apostolic See was a heretic. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to be high treason against God. In 1229, Pope Gregory IX declared that it is the duty of every Catholic to persecute heretics. He preached a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. An army of 40,000 was raised under the bishops of Ratzebourg, Lubeck, Osnabrück, Munster and Minden, and the whole population was exterminated. Similarly, a group of Christians at Goslar in Germany who declined to kill chickens were executed for heresy in 1051.


The situation continued in the Medieval and Late Medieval Period. A book by Jan Hus, a Bohemian Christian, titled De Ecclesia (The Church), cost him his life. He was declared a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415 A.D. A schoolmaster was hanged in Spain in 1826 for heresy – he had substituted the words ‘Praise be to God’ in place of ‘Ave Maria’ in school prayers.


Rationalism and Christianity were opposed to each other. Philosophers and scientists were declared heretics, persecuted and burnt alive. Hypatia, Michael Servetus, Patrick Hamilton, Henry Barrow, John Greenwood, Michael Sattler, and Giordano Bruno are some of the classical examples of martyrdom.


Intellectual giants were prohibited from writing and their works were placed in the list of prohibited books by the Papacy. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum or List of Prohibited Books was a list of publications deemed heretical, and thus Catholics were forbidden to read them. After Thomas Hobbes, regarded as the founder of modern western political philosophy, published the Leviathan in 1651, the English bishops demanded his execution. They used their influence in the House of Lords to sponsor a motion to have him burned as a heretic soon after the Restoration. But Leviathan was merely condemned by Parliament, and Hobbes was ordered to stop writing controversial books. René Descartes, another Modern Western Philosopher, was accused of harboring atheist beliefs. His Meditations upon First Philosophy (1641) offended the clergy and forced him to flee from The Netherlands. His philosophy was condemned in 1643 at the University of Utrecht. He was offered an asylum by Christina, Queen of Sweden, and died at Stockholm in 1650. In 1663, the Pope placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books.


Claude Adrien Helvétius’ work, On the Mind (1758) was condemned by Pope Clement XIII on January 31, 1759 and burnt by the order of the French Parliament on February 6, 1759. When Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, published his principal work, The System of Nature or The Laws of the Physical and Moral World, the Catholic Church threatened the French Crown with withdrawal of financial support unless it suppressed the book.


This intellectual intolerance was evident even in reading the Bible and its translations. The Church discouraged the populace from reading the Bible on their own - a policy that intensified through the Middle Ages and later. None had the right to possess the books of the Old and New Testaments and if anyone possessed them, the books had to be returned to the local bishop within eight days to prevent death, according to Ruling of the Council of Tarragona of 1234 C.E.


Translating the Bible into vernacular languages, or helping its printing was heresy according to the Catholic Church. Latin alone was the accepted tongue for scripture in translation. John Wycliffe (1330–1384), master of Balliol College at Oxford and known as the “flower of Oxford scholarship”, ventured the first translation of the Bible into English. This blasphemous act of venturing the Bible in English, not Latin, made him a criminal. Pope Gregory XI and Pope Urban VI condemned him for errors and heresies. Wycliffe, fortunately, had a natural death. But his Oxford colleagues were all burned alive. Even decades after his death, his bones were dug up, burned, and thrown into the River Swift. In 1535, William Tyndale, the first to produce an English version of the Bible in print, was burned at the stake, as was co-translator John Rogers. The translator of the first Dutch Bible, Jacob van Liesveldt, was beheaded. One printer in Paris was burned on a pyre of his own books.


Psychologist, Professor, and spiritual writer, Bernard Starr, in ‘Why Christians Were Denied Access to Their Bible for 1,000 Years’ (Huffington Post, July 20, 2013) said that the  potent motive for keeping the New Testament out of reach for Christians aimed to conceal the Jewish foundation of Christianity and Jesus’ lifelong dedication to Judaism and Jewish practices. In his work, Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, Bernard Starr draws on a wealth of sources, including a close reading of biblical texts, to portray Jesus’ lifelong commitment to Judaism, the synagogue, and the Torah. He also reveals that Paul, the founder of Christianity, never gave up his Jewish identity nor did he intend to launch a new religion.


In March 2000, from the altar of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope John Paul II sought pardon for 2,000 years of violence and persecution committed by the Church across the world. It included seven categories of sin such as general sins, sins in the service of truth, sins against Orthodox Protestants, Jews, gypsies and native people, against respect for love, peace and cultures, against the dignity of women and minorities and against human rights. The Pope also acknowledged that church followers had “violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions” (New York Times, March 13, 2000). The Papacy also indirectly admitted the absence of any debate, discussion and intellectual dialogues within the church for 2000 years.


From Holy Roman and Byzantine empires that led to bloody Crusades and Papal Bulls that certified colonialism that looted Asia, massive wealth accumulated, which has sown unbridled consumerism in European societies. It has virtually gripped western societies, which the Catholic Church cannot weed out or offer an intellectual and spiritual alternative. As early as 2002, the Pontifical Council for the Family and its head Cardinal Alfonzo Lopez Trujillo admitted that the Church looks with great concern on the difficult situation of the family and the challenges to human dignity and even human life in Europe.


In 2009, the BBC broadcast a two-part documentary called The Death of Respect in Britain which showed deteriorating ethics and moral values in society, that the Church was unable to reinstate. According to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, British teenagers are among the most badly behaved in Europe. The documentary paints a picture of adolescents immersed in consumerism, due to a collapse in family and community life. The church remains a silent spectator, helpless. British author, Theodore Dalrymple, pronounced, “God is dead in Europe, and I do not see much chance of revival except in the wake of catastrophe” (March 2010).


The Christian roots of Europe are not only fast declining but decaying, causing cultural fatigue and exhaustion. A Study by Pew Research Centre (April 2017), titled ‘Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe’, finds that the decrease in Europe’s aging Christian population was unique compared with Christians in other parts of the world and other religious groups.


Naftali Bendavid mentioned empty churches in Europe that entrepreneurs and city officials have repurposed as skateboard parks, gymnastic training arenas, museums, supermarkets, gyms, and even bars: “The closing of Europe’s churches reflects the rapid weakening of the faith in Europe, a phenomenon that is painful to both worshipers and others who see religion as a unifying factor in a disparate society” (The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2015).


The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary predicts that in another five years the number of Christians in Western Europe will have fallen by almost 23 percent from 1970. Actual attendance is abysmal, with less than 2 percent of the population darkening the door of a church on a regular basis in Britain, France, or Germany.


Empty Churches


The Decline of Cultural Christianity in the West (2013, Kyle R. Beshears) discusses a post- (Cultural) Christian Europe and the multiple factors behind it. In 2017, the National Centre for Social Research released a major new survey which documented the continuing decline of Christianity in the UK: “Non-believers outnumber the faithful by widest margin yet.”


Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, argues that the civilisation we know as Europe is in the process of committing suicide and no western European country can avert this fate. Murray questions whether Europe is still Christian. Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London, notes a dramatic decline of Christianity in Europe (Chicago Times, April 2018). Jonah Goldberg’s best seller, Suicide of the West, synthesizes the research and theories of dozens of sociologists, historians, and economists regarding this condition that has also gripped America.


In the United States, which has more Christians than any other country in the world, the population of believers is fast declining and the number of US adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center in May 2015 titled, America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The drop in Christians has been due to the decline among mainline Protestants and Catholics. In March 2016, the American Journal of Sociology published research by David Voas and Mark Chaves, which showed how religiosity has been steadily declining in the United States for decades.


New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, in his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, observes that many suburban priests embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. There is virtually no space for intellectual dialogue.


The Decline of Established Christianity in the Western World, ed. Paul Silas Peterson, deals with the officially established churches in Europe and mainline denominations in America, such as the Methodists and Presbyterians. Mary Eberstadt’s magisterial work, How the West Really Lost God, narrates that family decline and religious decline have gone hand in hand.


While the Papacy apologized for “violating the rights of ethnic groups and peoples” and for showing “contempt for their cultures and religious traditions”, its Indian envoys use new intimidation tactics against this ancient nation and its civilisation. Delhi Archbishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto, famous for his pastoral letters during elections, has launched a campaign against ongoing “Hindu intolerance and persecution” against the Catholic Church and demanded respect for diversity (Frontline, July 6, 2018). Can the Catholic church which has 2,000 years of violence and persecution behind it, honestly demand respect for diversity from a nation which has practiced inclusion, harmony, cordiality, fraternity and enjoyed a vibrant intellectual tradition for millennia?

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