The sound of two men missing the point


There’s an old Jewish joke about atheism that I’ve always liked. It centres around a young man in a shtetl in Poland who wants to be an atheist, but doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know any atheists, and there are none in the surrounding area, but he has heard of Mendel the Atheist, who lives far away in Vilna. So our hero makes the long trek to go and study with the famous Mendel.

On arriving, he presents himself and says, “I want to be an atheist.” “All right,” says Mendel, “let’s talk Lurianic Kabbalah.” “I’ve never studied Kabbalah,” says the young man. “Well then,” says Mendel, “we’ll work on a criticism of the Talmud.” “I’ve never really studied the Talmud,” says the young man.

“Oh come on,” says Mendel, “at least you know your basic Torah and Rashi.” “I’m not interested in any of that stuff,” says the young man. “I told you, I want to be an atheist.” “Young man,” says Mendel, “what you are is an ignoramus. To be an atheist you have to know religion very well.”

This sums up some of the problems I have with Dawkinsite evangelical atheists, and was brought to mind on coming across Johann Hari (aged 13¾) interviewing Mr Tony Blair. Although it isn’t quite fair to say that Johann knows nothing about religion. As a committed homosexualist, he knows one thing, which is that organised religion has historically been none too hot on gay rights. Therefore Johann concludes, with the zeal of a commissar, that it’s necessary to destroy religion in order to advance the gay cause.

Johann’s position is a bit weird – religions may oppress gays in passing, but that’s not the point of religion – but what you can say in favour of it is that what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in logical consistency. And he does have the advantage of being an equal-opportunity antireligious polemicist – he doesn’t like the Catholics much, but you’re equally likely to find him bashing the Muslims or Buddhists. The other thing his position has going for it is that he doesn’t expect organised religion to validate his lifestyle.

This sort of moral courage, of course, is too much for Mr Tony, who loves to be all things to all men. Although he’s only been a Catholic for five minutes, he now reckons that the Pope should get with the times and modernise, and his new club should change itself to fit in with progressive metrosexual mores. Not only that, he thinks all religions need to modernise:

“Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances,” he said.

“You can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say ‘Look let’s not break out because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least we’ve got what we’ve got so let’s keep it’. Or B: You say ‘let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out’.”

The trouble is that, as I’ve been pointing out, the Catholic Church is not the Labour Party – it is supposed to deal in moral certainties. It’s not even the C of E, which actually will have these debates in General Synod and decide that what was a sin yesterday is quite permissible today. But let’s say that Pope Benedict went on Channel 4 News and declared that fornication was no longer a sin (as long as you use a condom, of course.) It might win him some friends, given the overwhelming popularity of fornication, but he would be a pretty poor excuse for a Pope. His job description involves being tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin.

“There is a huge generational difference here,” he said. “There’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on [homosexuality], because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things.” He added: “If you went and asked the [ordinary Catholic] congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes.”

You know, I have my doubts about that. Perhaps it’s true of middle-class Catholic congregations in North London. Probably it’s less true in Spain or Poland or Brazil – or even in Ireland. But, and here’s my point, where does Mr Tony get off deciding that he’s going to rewrite Catholic doctrine? I don’t agree with the Pope on homosexuality any more than he does, but it seems an odd position to take for somebody who’s going around speaking about his faith all the time. If he regards Catholic moral teaching as so much Clause 4-style ideological baggage that can be comfortably jettisoned to win approving headlines, doesn’t that call into question the seriousness of his conversion?

Or, to put it another way, why did Benny let him join in the first place? If he wants to be a reforming moderniser – well, that sounds a bit Protestant to me.


  1. Martin Wisse said,

    April 10, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Of course the Catholic Church may deal in moral certainties, but funnily enough it has changed its mind over the years and centuries of what those certaincies are. It’s perfectly reasonable to demand the Church stops its bigotry against homosexuality or change its mind on the use of condoms just like kit changed its mind about the dangerous Jews or whether or not the Sun revolves around the Moon. Neither condom use nor homosexuality was ever discussed by Jesus after all. Other churces have changed, so can the Catholics. And since the church’s stance is important, as it will and does influence a hell of a lot of people around the world, it is not wrong for outsiders to press for change as well.

    The idea that you cannot be atheist without studying religion is of course aberrent nonsense, unfunny Jewish jokes or not. For a start: what religion?

  2. Phil said,

    April 10, 2009 at 9:44 am

    It’s pure Blair, and not at all unlike his approach to the Labour Party. He wants to believe, but without actually changing his mind about anything he already believes. So he ends up simultaneously proclaiming his belief and campaigning for everyone else to change the substance of their beliefs to match his – in the name of belief. Or, at least, in the name of his deeply-held sincerity as a believer. Solipsistic twit.

    But I did like the comment about Mandelson:

    “he’s attacked in certain quarters for being gay, and yet, at the same time, also, I don’t believe that has altered in any shape or form people’s opinion of him”

    Nor do I, and it’s an interesting point – it’s never occurred to me to hate him any less for being gay (or any more, indeed).

    Martin: well, what religion don’t you believe in? It’s a bit like defining folk music (which I’m currently trying to do, God help me, on a forum far away) – you can say that Buddhism is life-denying and Catholicism teaches submission to authority and Islam sees non-believers as a lower form of life, all of which may be good reasons to criticise those religions, but you’ll have a hard time identifying the essence of religion which they all share.

  3. Ray said,

    April 10, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Suppose our hero spends a year studying Talmud with Mendel, and at the end of it gets his official badge to say he has studied it in enough detail to be an atheist. So he gets on the train to go home, and Mohammed, sitting opposite him says “Hey, what’s that badge?”

    Atheists really can’t win. Either they don’t know enough about the spirits of the space clams to know that idea is crazy, or they’re obsessed by religion and atheism is practically just another religion.

  4. Simon said,

    April 10, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    God now has two representatives on earth.

  5. Phil said,

    April 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    and Mohammed, sitting opposite him says “Hey, what’s that badge?”

    I don’t see the problem – they could have a really interesting discussion, at the end of which our man would either be confirmed in his atheism or persuaded that he needed to find out more about Islam. Substitute Leninism and council communism for Judaism and Islam if that makes it any clearer.

  6. Chris Baldwin said,

    April 10, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    I don’t like the idea that being religious is the default situation and atheists are rebelling against it, that’s certainly not my experience. It’s like those evangelists who assume that everyone believes in God really and is just too stupid or lazy to actively worship Him, so they go around saying things like “I bet you think you don’t need God…”. If I believed in Him I’d damn well go to church every Sunday! We don’t need to come up with a clever reason for rejecting religion, the religious need to come up with a clever reason to convince us to adopt it. As it is, the last time someone tried to persuade me they suggested that maybe I was only an atheist because Satan was blinding me to the truth. Must do better!

  7. Ray said,

    April 11, 2009 at 8:46 am

    It is a problem if, in order to be an ‘intellectually responsible’ atheist, you have to study Judaism for a year, Hinduism for a year, Islam for a year, Catholicism for a year, etc etc etc
    It makes more sense the other way around – if you want to call yourself a Catholic, you have to spend a year studying the doctrine so that you understand exactly what it is you’re agreeing with. But an atheist is just saying that there probably isn’t an all powerful entity (or set of entities) somewhere that created the universe and has very strong ideas about how people should behave.
    (Besides, if the atheist has to study all of the arguments for God’s existence, why doesn’t the Catholic have to study Hindu theology enough to reject it, and vice versa?)

  8. Phil said,

    April 11, 2009 at 10:00 am

    an atheist is just saying that there probably isn’t an all powerful entity (or set of entities) somewhere that created the universe and has very strong ideas about how people should behave.

    Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, animists and believers in Shinto could happily agree with that statement, as could some Christians, some Jews and for all I know some Muslims. A critique of certain forms of religion which are subscribed to by lots of people in the West isn’t a critique of Religion.

    (Besides, if the atheist has to study all of the arguments for God’s existence, why doesn’t the Catholic have to study Hindu theology enough to reject it, and vice versa?)

    Very good idea if they did. Ditto Leninists and council communism.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 11, 2009 at 10:19 am

    There’s a lovely passage in The God Delusion where Dawkins says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he realises many if not most religions are not monotheistic, and quite a few aren’t even theistic, but for the sake of argument he’s going to stick with the big-beardy-bloke-on-a-cloud version. If you tried that with a scientific hypothesis, Ben Goldacre would have a stroke.

    Greek Orthodox theology, which is what I know best, puts its main stress on the unknowability of the divine. So you have arguments for atheism that make perfect sense in an Anglo-French context, where science is supposed to prove or disprove religion, but are complete non-arguments in the Orthodox (and to a large extent Jewish and Muslim) contexts.

    Culture comes into this, you see. The post-religious culture that you find in London or Amsterdam or Stockholm isn’t necessarily normative for the rest of the world. Take the north of Ireland, and some of the stars of the DUP. You have Iris Robinson, chair of the Assembly health committee, who thinks gays can be turned straight by Christian-based psychiatry. You have Mervyn Storey, chair of the Assembly education committee, who wants to stop evolution being taught in schools. You have Sammy Wilson, minister of the environment, who reckons there’s no such thing as global warming. All these people hold power because lots and lots of punters vote for them.

    This is sort of my jumping off point. I’m not shocked at anything the Pope says. I’m shocked that people are shocked.

    And as for Blair, isn’t his whole shtick that he’s the great moderniser, and he can’t see an institution without wanting to reform it? If that’s the case, why did he join a reactionary church? Wouldn’t the Methodists or Unitarians be more to his taste?

  10. Niall said,

    April 11, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    “There’s a lovely passage in The God Delusion where Dawkins says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he realises many if not most religions are not monotheistic, and quite a few aren’t even theistic, but for the sake of argument he’s going to stick with the big-beardy-bloke-on-a-cloud version.”

    The God delusion is rife with this kind of rubbish. Dawkins actually has a section in the book that is supposed to be devoted to polytheism. Dawkins actually ends up talking about the tax status of monotheist religions in the UK, then takes the piss out of some chap called Oral Roberts before shrugging in the direction of Catholicism and finally takes a a little swipe at feminists. You’d have thought he might have at least mention Hindu dieties or some other polytheist systems but he doesn’t seem to have even enough knowledge of polytheism to take the piss out of it.

    Re Blair: After the invasion of Iraq, how could anybody be shocked to hear that Tony Blair doesn’t agree with certain Catholic teachings.

    As for the Catholic church changing its mind, while it is clear that Catholic teaching has changed over the centuries and those changes have been linked to outside cultural pressures, the changes in teaching, (or to be more percise, the changes in the interpretation of existing teachings) have always been offically based on theological arguments that are consistent with what has gone before.

    Last, atheists don’t need to learn about religion in order to be atheists. However, if they want to be taken seriously when they start talking about religion, then it helps if they show some sort of understanding of what religion is. Likewise Catholics or Buddhists don’t need to know about Islam in order to be Catholics or Buddhists, but if speak as though they were an authority on Islam, they should ensure that they know what they have a basic understanding of Islam, otherwise, they’ll just look like foolish bigots.

  11. Ray said,

    April 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    I could argue about the idea that there are Jews, Christians, and Muslims who don’t believe that God/Jehovah/Allah created the world, or has strong ideas about how people should behave, but what’s the point? This is getting silly already.
    If anything, this is getting back to my original argument. I say, “atheists don’t believe x”, and you say “oh, but lots of religious people believe y and z” – does that mean an atheist has to study y and z to make sure he doesn’t believe in those either? How many schools of theology do I have to be familiar with before I’m allowed describe myself as an atheist? What kind of nit-picking multi-claused pedantic formula must I use to express that idea, without someone saying “well, my god only exists on alternate Tuesdays and is responsible for the smell (but not the existence, per se) of the universe – I notice you haven’t come up with a coherent argument against Em!”

  12. Phil said,

    April 12, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I say, “atheists don’t believe x”, and you say “oh, but lots of religious people believe y and z”

    Actually you said “atheists are people who don’t believe x”, and I said “oh, but lots of religious people don’t believe x”.

  13. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 12, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Again, what religions believe and what supposed followers of those religions believe tend to be two rather different things, hence the cultural pressures on religions. As regards the supposed consistency of religions where changes are made by maintaining some underlying adherence to basic ideas got to say I’m hugely unconvinced. The religions may “say” that they’re being consistent but its hard to take seriously volte faces across a range of issues (not least because the premises upon which the original positions were based are mainly based on sand in the first place). Whatever the faddishness of European norms I’m unconvinced that simply because DUP voters vote in Wilson et al in that this also speaks of – say – their (the voters) support for climate change denial or even (at a stretch) a particularly bigoted approach to gays and lesbians. It might, or it might not. But it doesn’t seem to me to follow logically that these things are all of apiece and nor does it indicate any greater validity for those propositions. And I’d wonder at a comparison of attitudes towards these issues across the last twenty or thirty years. None of these things are set in stone.

    All that aside, splintered raises a most interesting point as to why one T. Blair thought he should join the RCC.

  14. yourcousin said,

    April 13, 2009 at 2:48 am

    As far as atheism is concerned, we should note the difference between atheists versus Atheists. One simply stops believing and leaves well enough alone, good for them. The other constantly seeks to undermine and show the fallacy of religion through numerous actions and arguments. Though it is odd that in and of itself Atheism has built up a cult of faith in non belief. I tend to find atheists enjoyable to be around while Atheists tend to be assholes who are just as liable to proslytize as evangelicals.

    I don’t think TB’s remarks were that off of the wall but maybe new converts should keep their mouths shut. For those actually in the Church who wish to dissent from official teachings, there are multiple dissident sub grouping such as women priests and married priests who do their own thing (I was *this* close to being married by a married priest). To me, that’s how dissent is done within the Church, if one is that interested in “reform” then one should join a Protestant church that is tailor made to a buffet style faith.

    On another side point about faith in congregations. After Pope John Paul II died there was a great deal of rumor going around about who would be the next Pope. There was an Italian candidate who was seen as the reformer and then there was the hardline Latin American candidate (who should not be ruled out the next time around though I forget his name off the top of my head) that would be seen as a recognition of the fact that it is really in Latin America and to a lesser degree Africa that Catholicism is really withstanding the assault of secularization that is being seen in Europe and in America (though America is more of a mixed bag). The current occupant who had odds of 27/1 of becoming Pope was very much a dark horse in more ways than one. Not only is he seen as a stop gap for the next Pope who would put his brand on the Church like John Paul but he has also consolidated the conservative positions.

    This is definitely a worrying sign for those within the church who had hoped that a new Pope would bring the Catholic church into the 20th century, now that we are firmly entrenched in the 21st

  15. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 13, 2009 at 8:07 am

    And to follow on from that thought yourcousin, also subgroupings of dissident priests and laity organised or not depending on taste. Indeed Rome can seem very far away from the typical parish whatever the liturgical commonality. I dislike seeing the RCC as an engine of reaction, it’s too vast and too complex for that, but despite being pretty damn sympathetic to it I do see it as a significant bastion of social conservatism across many axes… particularly in its most institutional forms. Although that said as well I’ve met more than a few of the activist laity who scare the hell out of me for their intrinsic conservatism which makes most priests seem like raving liberals.

  16. Andy Newman said,

    April 13, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    i think the question of what sort of atheist you are is important; it is relevant which cultural/religious background you come from, and what your terms of reference are.

    I always think of myself as a protestant atheist, because my familly background was both socialist and Methodist (on the more non-conformist wing of Methodism).

    But for me the real problem is naive secularism that proselytises against religion, based upon often childish and foolish arguments. So in a sense I think that what Tony Blair is saying here makes some sense.

    Within a religion there is always a tension between the orthodox conservative attempt to stick to historical interpretation of the teachings, and the more liberal attempts to seperate out what is fundamental and divivne, from those parts of the beliefs that are contingent and the product of historical and cultural factors.

    The step by Blair from being a Catholic high-church Anglican to being a Roman catholic is a small one, and more to do – i suspect – with ecumenicalism as any specific adherence to Roman doctrine.

  17. Andy Newman said,

    April 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    “All that aside, splintered raises a most interesting point as to why one T. Blair thought he should join the RCC.”

    This needs to be undurstood within the context of the dynamic within episcopaleanism, where the debate between the liberals and conservatives is a very uncomfortable one if you are a socially liberal politician like Blair. His instinctive theological sympathy is with the conservatives, but this is out of step with his own social and political positions. Joining the church of Rome means that he can opt out of the whole dilema.

  18. charliemarks said,

    April 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I like the fact that papal infallibility was introduced not as a means of empowering the pope, but limiting his authority. In other words, you can’t contradict what other popes have said… they’re infallible. So if Benny turns up one day and says he’s changed his mind about gay people the issue won’t be, do we follow this new doctrine, but rather, what gives with this guy contradicting the other popes?

    Now, I like those theologians from the european Christian tradition who accept the unknowability of the divine – the “atheist vicars” – and I can accept myself as a catholic on these terms. What interests me about Blair is why he didn’t become a Catholic sooner? All those years married to a Catholic, bringing the kids up Catholic…. what gives?

  19. Ray said,

    April 13, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Yeah, the idea that God created the universe and wants us to behave in certain ways is just some fringe thing, like believing that Obama is the antichrist. It’s totally insulting to the mainstream of Christian believers, who are much more relaxed about the whole “existence” thing.

  20. Phil said,

    April 13, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    His instinctive theological sympathy is with the conservatives, but this is out of step with his own social and political positions.

    Not sure what you mean here. Theologically, Rowan Williams is very conservative – um-ing and er-ing about the Incarnation is pretty mainstream within the CoE (radical is denying it outright), and he’s having none of that.

  21. Phil said,

    April 13, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Yeah, the idea that God created the universe and wants us to behave in certain ways is just some fringe thing

    Firstly, it’s a uniquely Abrahamic thing, so the idea that it’s a quality of “religion” is just wrong. Secondly, there are lots of believers in the Abrahamic religions who don’t believe anything as simplistic. You can tell them that really, when you get right down to it, that is what they believe, but they’ll probably tell you they’re the best judge of that.

  22. Wednesday said,

    April 14, 2009 at 6:55 am

    In other words, you can’t contradict what other popes have said… they’re infallible.

    Erm, that’s not what papal infallibility means at all. They’re only “infallible” when speaking ex cathedra, which is something popes almost never do … and when they do it’s always on matters of much more relevance to Catholic doctrine. The only times it’s happened in the last couple centuries the subjects were the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary.

    It’s a silly enough idea anyway of course, but if we’re going to be criticising the Church (as I’m always happy to do) we may as well get our criticisms right…

  23. skidmarx said,

    April 14, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    10. “You’d have thought he might have at least mention Hindu dieties”.

    Where’s the beef? I think you may mean deities.

    Caspar Melville’s article for the Guardian pulling apart a Madeleine Bunting assault on the New Atheists makes for good reading, and I think correctly points at religious believers as being the dogmatists.

    18. One reason Tiny Blur might not have converted earlier is that he might have thought it might have undermined his legacy in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

    9. “If you tried that with a scientific hypothesis, Ben Goldacre would have a stroke.”

    I’ve just been reading Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science” on and off. Perhaps you should ask him before you make assumptions about his reaction.It is a while since I read that particular Dawkins book, isn’t it possible to think that monotheism is where the anti-scientific certainties are concentrated and so it’s reasonable for him to direct his fire there. I think he may compare polytheism to Deism as being less strident, but as I say it’s been a while. He doesn’t call the book “The Gods Delusion”.

    7. It’s Flying Spaghetti Monsterism you should really study:

  24. April 16, 2009 at 6:36 am

    […] by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, Religion, Uncategorized. trackback In an echo of Splintered Sunrise’s post on the latest unlikely recruit to the Catholic Church, one T. Blair (presumably faced with the […]

  25. charliemarks said,

    April 17, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Ah, you are correct. But, you can see the kind of message it sends out to new popes, eh?

  26. Michael Allan said,

    April 17, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    As a lapsed Catholic (is there any other kind?) who has experienced a liberal take on Catholicism (through a rebellious priest who advocated women becoming priests, priests marrying etc.; and my family) and an old-school take on Catholicism (rural Ireland), I found this article poignant and thought provoking. As with any faith you can adhere to some parts of its teaching whilst ignoring other parts – cherrypicking its ideology so to speak. I have a more socialist interpretation of Christian teachings than say, redneck Christians for example – I prefer to focus on the core message of helping those who are less fortunate, treating others like you yourself would wish to be treated, tolerance of all people no matter what race, nationality, religion etc. If you believe the Bible, then that’s what Jesus actually talked about! I hate all the fire-and-brimstone rubbish which gets thrown in by others, because that isn’t the core teaching, it’s just a load of pomp and circumstance which has no relevance at all. But you don’t need to be religious to have a good set of strong moral values, occasionally religion just helps some people define them a bit better.

    I don’t think an absolute abolition of religion is going to solve the world’s problems though. Having said that, in light of the Catholic church saying to Aids ravaged countries that “condoms are evil” etc, perhaps that isn’t such a bad idea…

  27. Ed said,

    April 17, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Yeah, I think people are being both fair and unfair to Dawkins. He’s simplistic and irritating in lots of ways. But he is pretty clear that the kind of religion he’s directing his fire at is the type that things God created the universe. He even has sections where he allows a different meaning of ‘God’ (the type you get at in Einstein, for instance) as being inoffensive.

    My problem with him is that he makes no effort, really, to understand either the social or psychological reasons people might be religious, and just treats belief as kind of bewilderingly silly.

    Hitchens, incidentally, is much more ecumenical in his targets. His book has chapters on Buddhism, etc.

  28. April 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    […] let me flag up this exceptional post on Blair, Catholicism and homosexuality, written by the Irish Trot who goes by the soubriquet […]

  29. james said,

    April 17, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Have you never heard of the Jesuits, man?

    Dear Tony is a natural.

  30. vengeanceandfashion said,

    April 17, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Can Tony be tried for heresy?

  31. Red Maria said,

    April 18, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Ahem, I neglected to answer Worldbystorm’s comment a few threads ago, luckily I see that he has ventured much the same point again further up this thread, namely, that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have changed.

    Before I go on, I must correct his mistaken notion, dare I call it a caricature of me as perceiving the Church as timeless and changeless, simply because I pointed out that +Vincent’s pronouncements can only be described as Catholic.

    As anyone who has attracted the perjorative, indult Catholic will tell you, the Church has evolved from its earliest days; disciplines have been modified, customs discarded and saints removed from the calendar. Or to quote that notable philosopher, theologian and statesman, His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Church is always old and always young.

    Vatican II represented an evolution in ecclesiology – that much is a commonplace – but this is often overlooked, so, arguably, did Vatican I. To give another example, the infallible declaration of the Assumption was yet another, doctrinal evolution..

    However – and this is where so much confusion arises – there is a critical distinction between evolution which builds on and is consistent with revealed truth and tradition and complete contradiction or denial. All too often, the more uninformed commentators say that the Church’s teachings have changed in such a way as to suggest a complete contradiction of required teachings. This is not the case. The required teachings of the Church as expressed in the Creed have never been contradicted or denied, nor such vital matters as the nature of the Mass (notwithstanding the crazier Lefebrvist claims) or the Apostolic succession (notwithstanding the barmier Sedevacantist pronouncements) or the the primacy of the Petrine See, or the Magisterium. And neither have the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics.

    At this point I will myself repeat a Jewish joke. Moses returns from Mount Sinai having received the tablets of stone and addresses the assembled Israelites: “There’s good news and there’s bad news.” The people gasp and clutch each other. Moses continues, “the good news is that I bargained him down to ten.” The people exhale with relief. “The bad news is that adultery is still in there.”

    People who make a fuss about the Church’s teachings on sex don’t realise how ascetic Christianity is, nor how important chastity has always been to the Church. To get a grasp of this one has to start from the beginning, that is Genesis, which is full of the lush verdant imagery of creation and appreciate that the very commandment God gives to man is to go forth and multiply, whereas Onan is cursed for spilling his seed. Then Leviticus, then the Gospels; Jesus who, note enjoins people to obey the pharisees since they “occupy the chair of Moses” defines a sexual morality which is at once more egalitarian and, I hope Martin Wisse is paying attention, far stricter (Matt 19:3-6). Then St Paul who extols chastity and writes with lyrical beauty of love – agape, that is, not eros and the Church Fathers, see especially Tertullian and Jerome on chastity.

    Quite rightly, popes will say that they don’t have the authority to alter the Church’s teachings on sexual morality any more than they have the authority to deny the Virgin Birth.

    I hope Martin Wisse, who exhibits an unfortunate tendency to repeating the counter-factual rubbish typically found in the more vulgar kind of literature, is still paying attention because as any fule kno, there is nothing in the New Testament which repeals the injuction against same-sex acts. By comparison, certain Levitical dietary laws are repealed (Acts 10:10-15). Neither, unfortunately, is there anything in Tradition indicating to the contrary as a cursory glance at the writings of saints Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom and Catherine of Siena show.

    Similarly, the notion that “outsiders” especially those languishing in miserable ignorance should have any influence on the Magisterium is too barmy to be entertained. Extra ecclesiam nulla sallus etc.

    Back to Worldbystorm who speaks mysteriously of “dissident subgroupings of priests and laity”. Seeing as he doesn’t mention any names it’s difficult to get a grasp of who or what he’s talking about or if he does so with any meaningful accuracy. To be sure “dissident priests and laity” are much beloved by secular commentators, however, frequently the – it must be said miniscule – fringe individuals or groupuscules they cite turn out to be either excommunicated, censured by local bishops and/or mentally incompetent (cf Matthew Fox). Unlike the poor old Anglican Communion, there is a definite limit to the “dissent” a Roman Catholic can do while remaining in communion with the Bishop of Rome. This has its advantages; at least we only get minor squabbles about the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms and don’t have to worry about church services involving people rolling around having fits and other liturgical abuses.

    At which juncture I come to Andy Newman. He has in the past made the most extraordinary factual error on his blog, describing a pornography industry-funded anti-Catholic population-control front group as Catholic. The mind reels.

    Other than that, I note that terms borrowed from political discourse such as conservative and liberal are inappropriate at best, misleading at worst when applied to Christianity. If we were to use such language consistently, Jesus Christ would be described as an unyielding rigid hard right-wing ideologue. As it is, he is more likely to be claimed for the revolution.

  32. Red Maria said,

    April 18, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Have you never heard of the Jesuits ..?

    Ohhh yes. I pray while I’m smoking.

  33. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I’m not convinced Red Maria. The idea that dissent is is limited in the RCC (and that’s not a very nice jibe about ‘mentally incompetent’ BTW) does not stand up to the evidence. Rome has often taken the more sensible line of an essentially Philistine approach of accepting outward expressions of piety (to then prevaling norms, and are you entirely serious in your idea that there has been this fantastic adherence to ‘revealed truth’ on matters sexual across millenia?) and on the ground expressions of divergence.

  34. johng said,

    April 18, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    my understanding is that, whilst chastity always was considered a virtue, it was only imposed on priests because otherwise they passed on wealth to off-spring, and given the close relationship between wealth and power in medieval europe this was seen as threatening by the central organs of the church.

  35. Ken MacLeod said,

    April 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    johng, I think you mean celibacy, not chastity. Priest were always expected to be chaste, in exactly the same way as the laity, even when married. Chastity means ‘no sex outside marriage’. Celibacy means that plus a commitment to not marrying. So an unmarried but sexually abstinent person is chaste but may or may not be celibate.

  36. Neprimerimye said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    ‘Red’ Maria wrote “Jesus Christ would be described as an unyielding rigid hard right-wing ideologue. As it is, he is more likely to be claimed for the revolution.”

    Only by fools. I dread any revolution that your co-thinkers would impose on poor suffering humanity. We have enough problems but more than adequate opportunities to deal with them. We do not need additional problems born of imaginary deities.

  37. Doloras said,

    April 19, 2009 at 7:22 am

    I find it amazing that socialists are debating religion without serious discussion of the way in which sectarian socialism is, in social function, a religion in itself. An atheist religion, to be sure, but a body of ritual meant to cohere a community devoted to an undying faith. Instead of praying in the mosque on Friday, or taking Holy Communion on Sunday, many of us sell papers on Saturday – not because we really think it’s part of a serious political project, but because that’s what our people do.

    But then the hard-core around here are likely to scoff at anything that the person who’s been running a blog explaining the parallels between Marxism, Sufi Islam and the work of Aleister Crowley has to say.

  38. johng said,

    April 19, 2009 at 8:56 am

    yes ken your right. i was relating it to red marias wider argument which seemed to root the one in the other.

  39. Red Maria said,

    April 20, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Worldbystorm, I admit it, it may have been a bit er, um, off-key to call Matthew Fox unhinged but, y’know, I plead fair comment. He did say he took spiritual advice from his dog. Similarly the meeja’s favourite Katholische dissenter, Hans Kung. Have you seen his pronouncements recently? I swear he’s in an advanced stage of senile megalomania. The last interview he gave to The Tablet was an embarrasment. He couldn’t make up his mind whether he thought there were too many people in the world or too few.

    And again, I plead fair comment when I point out that “dissent,” or as it’s more properly known, fatuous attention-seeking bullshit, is decidedly limited in scope, effect and support in the RC Church. And that goes the whole gamut from Lefebrvism at one end to delusional heterodoxy at the other – both could be described as “dissenting”, or rampantly disobediant to Rome. How many people do you know who attend PXie Masses, or plug in to the latest from CTA? Do any members of the hierarchy even realise that Christian Order magazine exists, or care about what Lala Winkley has to say? Do they fuck. The fact is that while the meeja, ever hungry for an exciting story, big up these fringe nutters no end, in terms of measurable indicators of commitment, they are irrelevant.

    I’ll answer your other question with another question: are you seriously suggesting that the RC Church ever taught any differently on matters sexuelle?

    Johng asked about clerical celibacy. Ken Macleod cleared up the chastity/celibacy issue admirably. As to celibacy itself, its superior virtues were extolled by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7: “Yes it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman …to the unmarried and widows I say it is good for them to stay as they are, like me. But if they cannot exercise self-control let them marry for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

    Incidentally, like all St Paul’s letters that one fairly crackles with inspired brilliance and repays a rereading; one is freshly struck by the romance of this sentence: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and in the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

    But I digress. Sacerdotal celibacy is a discipline not a doctrine of the Church. It was widely recognised in the Latin Church by the fourth century and became mandatory in the eleventh. There’s a pretty comprehensive account of clerical celibacy here which notes that, “Justinian’s Code of Civil Law would not allow anyone who had children or even nephews to be consecrated bishop for fear that natural affection should warp his judgment.”

    The introduction of mandatory priestly celibacy is often described in faintly disobliging terms as having been motivated by a resistance to passing on property to priests’ offspring. A kinder way of looking at it would be to say that it militated against worldliness in the clergy. Compare it for example with canon 284: ” Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”, canon 286: “Clerics are prohibited from conducting business or trade personally or through others, for their own advantage or that of others, except with the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority,” and canon 287: “They are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

    For myself I can’t think of anything more likely to foster ambition and avarice than the begetting of children.

  40. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Celibacy for bishops is an interesting point. The still standard practice in the Greek Church is that parish priests usually are married, but in accordance with Justinian bishops are required to be celibate, therefore are recruited from the monasteries. Although in a few of the Eastern jurisdictions monastic numbers have declined to the point where the consecration of widowers is now on the agenda.

    So yes, worldliness in the clergy is a key issue here. Especially in the higher clergy.

  41. Neprimerimye said,

    April 21, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Not so Red Maria wrote “The introduction of mandatory priestly celibacy is often described in faintly disobliging terms as having been motivated by a resistance to passing on property to priests’ offspring. A kinder way of looking at it would be to say that it militated against worldliness in the clergy.”

    In light of which it cannot be seen as a dismal failure then. or am I much mistaken is spying some very worldly habits amongst the clergy both now and historically? Do they not pursue careers, seek to accumulate wealth (which they can pass on to relatives), attempt to influence the opinions of others in realms beyond the purely spiritual, etc.

    “Compare it for example with canon 284: ” Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”

    Which rule has not prevented many clerics from doing exactly that of course. All they need do is resign those offices they hold in the church in order to hold civil office. But had they not been clerics would these characters have won office? Hardly for most it was a good career move and that is all.

    “canon 287: “They are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

    Sadly too many clerics have infested labor unions and in the process have emasculated those unions. Or are we to forget that the yellow anti-strike unions of Germany and the Mediteraean countries were allied to the church?

    Oh yes there are rules to prevent clerics being worldy but unless they remove themselves from the world such ruleshave little value if the clerics in question wish to engage in the world. And indeed it is the higher clerics, drawn more often than not from the sons of the ruling strata in society, who can best benefit from what you call worldiness. And why not for is it not written that the church demands that poor give unto Ceasar that which is Ceasars? Regardless that Ceasar stole it in the first instance from the rest of us. In plain terms the church has always served the interests of the bosses and has inhibited any struggle for humanities liberation from exploitation and oppression.

    “For myself I can’t think of anything more likely to foster ambition and avarice than the begetting of children.”

    For some a child is good reason to struggle against avarice and greed and for an egalitarian society.

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