The Judgement of the Dead

There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.


Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.

Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.

I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”

Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.

Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.

With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.

So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.

Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.

Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.

The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.

The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.

If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”

The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:

“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”

The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.

The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.

The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.

Indulgence Certificate

The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.

The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.

The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.

And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.

Paradise, Persian

There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.

Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.


What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.

If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.

If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?

And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.

57 thoughts on “The Judgement of the Dead

  1. An easy critique for your colorful exegesis of such matters would be that “Ye protest too much”…you have lingering…

    If that is the case, do take some time to resolve them in our presence – such rare scholarship and sensibility is edifying despite the dangers…of the risque catechisms and catacombs. ;-).

  2. Love it, it flows, a beautifully incisive and necessary critique of what people ought to and generally don’t know. I tend to think, that a little education pointing out exactly what church dogma states and the historical evolution of that dogma, sometimes leads believers to a little healthy agnosticism and serious skepticism.

    It reminds me of a rather lengthy conversation over evening drinks at a biblical conference a few years ago in Oxford. A rather pale Australian colleague friend of mine, who lectures at Tyndale House where they must confess a frightfully archaic “statement of faith” which includes biblical inerrancy. You expect this in American seminaries but Tyndale House and Whitcliffe Hall are embarrassing exceptions in a British environment pleading higher academic repute. Encouraging the lubrication of my pale gentleman friend’s palate and spirit with tumblers of Scottish whisky, I began to question him intensely on the synoptic birth narratives, and the doctrine of the virgin birth. He has a Ph.D. He’s studied theories of the history of biblical tradition. He’s studied science. He understands biology, the laws of physics. Surely he didn’t believe in a literal VIRGIN BIRTH!!! And when it came down to it, he could not confess to my face that he did. In fact he blushed so vigorously I feared he might faint. He did say however, “aaaaah errrrr aaaahhh errrrrr well errrr I can’t really say, well I really don’t know.”

    I wish they didn’t have a statement of faith at Tyndale House. My blushing colleague friend knows the truth. When they force educated people to tell lies, the people who don’t already know, will never know the truth. With knowledge, at the very least, although they might still take their underwear when they die (like Woody Allen) they might be more agnostic about an afterlife while alive…


    • oh whoops – mentioning Thomas Whitfield and his son George Whitefield on the Don Cupitt post is still in my mind I think … I meant ‘Wycliffe Hall, Oxford’ not Whitcliffe Hall.

  3. Funny, v funny! Tyndale and Wycliffe will never probably be fully integrated as colleges for that reason. Alister McGrath tried when he was principal at W. Hall, and came very close, and then he left. Frankly, I like these old anomalies. There are a lot of conservatives at Regents Park (eg, now a full college) who aren’t inerrantists. But let us celebrate the ones that are. It keeps our wits sharp and our argumnents sharper.

    • I’m torn – I admit I agree, I like them too. They add a special sparkle, entertainment value, and it’s a little bit like preserving antique furniture. I like a bit – well alot – of old fashioned culture kept alive. Oxbridge is ancient: long may it survive. You’re right about it keeping our wits sharpened too, and alert to correct their mistakes. But I do get embarrassed when the statement of faith tradition is assumed by others to represent the whole discipline and it’s a bit of a concern that their influence might have a negative effect on education. Why is it that the new atheists and the Christian apologists, opposing heads, attract great cheering bands of fans hanging on every word? But my conference experiences, Oxford/Cambridge experiences, even reading and criticism experience wouldn’t be the same without them. Next time I’ll pour him more whisky and test him…

      … but I don’t know Regents Park…

  4. Regarding Steph’s comments about the Tyndale fellow, I tend to view such personages with fond appreciation as well. To me they define the boundary conditions, and are no more laughable than a good steamfitter, fitfully out of work.

    In some ways the Jesuits personify this small army if supposed inerrantists marching down a cul de sac. I see the dead end too, as do most of them, but I note their livery and colours, know that regiments’s reputation, and would hand them a few gold ducats at any time to take my side in the years to come.

    After all, the last chapter has not been written, and our species has immature governance. Swap out the books in the pews, and you could have Facebook in church next week, young people right there in the flesh. A flash mob that might persist.

    • Although Dwight, for me at least, it’s that quaint old charm, peculiar to Oxbridge that appeals to me. There is no inherent danger in nurturing these darlings on the peripherals of scholarship with their sweet lisping and inability to sound their r’s. There is no harm in encouraging their hosting of posh 3 course breakfast lunches and dinners, selections of wines and ports, crystal glasses and white linen, all provided with silver service, such as is distinctive of the Oxford conferences. I don’t want to be denied the privilege of being treated like a queen with my special requirements of fruit, resulting in curled oranges for entree to rose shaped melons sprinkled with berries for desert… and even my menu changed each day. It’s all part of their ‘grace of God’, attendees of Tyndale and Wycliffe are a treasured aspect of that ‘grace’. They don’t have a major influence on society. And significantly, the debate and conversation that Tyndale and Wycliffe scholarship inspires at these affairs, is intellectual and well informed. Ultimately therefore, there is an inexplicable pleasure in making an intelligent grown man blush.

      On the other hand I cannot feel sentimental about the American fundamentalists, who are anti science and a menace to civilisation. They do affect the political and social structure of society. Therefore the likes of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Seminary, which harbour pseudo scholars such as Witherington and Mohler, lead me to despair…

  5. Buy ‘em books and buy ‘em books, and they don’t learn nothin’. Of course, the Catholic church is a multi-billion dollar empire, with lots at stake if it came unraveled. It is, after all, the Wal-Mart of religious dogma.

    In my humble opinion the Church is morally, philosophically, and politically corrupt. I really don’t expect it to scratch and claw its way to the mountaintop of rationality, look back at where they came from and say, “OMG, what have we done?”

    As to what I see as its conflicted and somewhat absurd eschatological vision, and considering that the current pope is the past and present “Grand Inquisitor,” (a title borrowed by the Ku Klux Klan along with the associated duties of office,) the Church is highly unlikely to change its ways any time soon, much less climb into the 21st century, where it would doubtless fall victim to culture shock.

    In any case, I think Sarah Silverman has the right idea. Close the Vatican, sell the art and artifacts, and use the money to feed the world. See

    • I don’t think that’s very helpful. Sarah Silverman will just increase conflict and increase the church heirarchy’s confidence in itself. However if you happen to know ordinary Catholics you just might get somewhere if you can help convince them to change practise of their religion. For example when social surveys began in the 1960s we became aware that Dutch Catholics use contraceptives as much as Dutch Protestants. Many Catholics don’t follow the whole of church dogma, (for example I know several practising homosexual Catholics and have written a paper on homosexuals which included discussions with groups associated with the Catholic church) and if you can persuade them to diverge a little more… For example many Anglicans have persuaded some of the heirarchy to change direction in teaching of homosexuality, same sex marriage etc. This has resulted in divisions within the church but inspired debate – and debate is positive and constructive. But blatantly demonising the whole church as corrupt, is not.

      • Steph, to every rule there is, quite often, an exception. And the exceptional Catholics you describe are worthy of respect and admiration for their courage. But, they are not representative of the Catholic church, anymore than the pedophile priests or the priests in Southern Africa who tell their parishioners that condoms are laced with HIV, are representative. Nor are those Catholics in Northern Ireland who tortured and executed Irish Protestants, or the slavery condoned by the Catholics in the Sudan and Uganda, or the absolute prohibition in every country against abortion even if it means the mother would die without it.

        But history is pretty clear. The Catholic leadership has directed its flock (or “sheepole,” as a friend of mine calls them) to carry out crimes against humanity going back many centuries. “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” saith Voltaire. So, what do the Catholics have to show for all this bloodshed? Has their positive contribution to humankind been worth all the pain and suffering? I think not.

        I fully support Sarah Silverman’s proposal as a way for Catholics to be brought to account and to atone for their criminal behavior, which continues even up to the present day. Of course, there is virtually a zero possibility of that ever happening.

  6. well we disagree greatly. I would never hold ordinary Catholics, most of whom are born into the faith, nor all Catholic priests responsible for what you describe, any more than I’d hold you responsible for your government. The Catholics I know or have met are hardly exceptional. And obviously demonising the entire church doesn’t offer anything constructive at all and certainly offers nothing to Catholics in place of their faith.

  7. Your comment really upset me Herb. In fact it made me cry yesterday. Haven’t you heard the famous Irish joke? ‘Are you Catholic or Protestant.’ ‘I’m atheist’. ‘Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist.’ People are born into the faith. You cannot hold people and priests responsible for crimes of some of the heirarchy let alone past crimes of the church. There is absolutely nothing good about it and it just increases conflict. There are far more constructive approaches like persuading Catholics to diverge from traditional teachings and rebel more against their leaders.

    • Steph, I sincerely apologize for having caused you so much upset. But my beef is not with the lay Catholics per se, it’s with the Catholic leadership. And, yes, I can hold the church hierarchy responsible for their criminal misdeeds in the same way I can hold George W Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld responsible for the crimes against humanity they commented in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Gitmo and other “rendition” sites around the world.

      The fact that nobody in power has the temerity to pursue charges does not absolve them of their crimes. Now, I suppose I could move to Canada (or New Zealand?) as a protest. On the other hand, I could join a few friends, have a few drinks, and laughs, and just bitch about the fact that this country has not too subtly replaced the rule of law with “Good Ol’ Boy” politics.

      And, that, I believe, is a good analog for what’s going on at the Holy See. I also think that my take on the Catholics, as compared to that of Christopher Hitchens, is certainly mild, at least by half. In any case, all this is simply my opinion and has no force or effect; just noise in the vacuum of cyberspace. Please don’t take it as any more than that.

  8. If I may: I think the reticence to criticize religion is a little like the reticence to criticize a grandparent who was a bruiser of a tyrant in his day but has mellowed with frailty. He doesn’t bang on heads anymore. He smiles and supplicates: ah! the appeal of antiquity!

    No one wants to put a Pope against a wall and shoot him for the sins of the fathers. At least I don’t. I have no desire to humiliate the church for global crimes against humanity, which is what I think Hitchens proposed on the Pope’s visit to the UK. In a real sense, he didn’t do it, and who can say that a man or woman of our day retrojected into the “then” of an inquisition would have done it–in the same way, I mean?

    We are guilty of a huge anachronism if we don’t see the symmetry between medieval gullibility and papal/church opportunism. Given human nature and power, I don’t think it could have been otherwise. And it useless to speculate that it might have been.

    My gripe is with a church that seeks relevance in the Now by addressing issues, and not just uterine issues, though that would be enough, about which it has no authority to speak–at any level–and says they are mandated to take this position in the basis of doctrines that are rooted in “tradition” or a divine command to defend life, a mandate rooted in grandpapa’s past. In other words, we have to let grandpas’ past be what it it. And forgiveness depends on grandpa’s saying he was a rotter–not trying to say that his legacy has binding moral authority.

    This moral delict must be pointed out. It is a moral obligation to point it out. To let it go, for some odd cost/benefit reason (ah! but the church has done so much good!) makes us complicit in the moral hypocrisy that lets grandpapa die with his sins defended.

    Besides, the number of old people who have the hearts of vipers but show only their saintly faces framed by lovely white hair–well…

    • rjosephhoffmann, I suppose nobody outside of the Vatican knows how many billions of dollars have been spent as hush money for the victims of the Church’s pedophilia scandal (which, by the way, is still ongoing.) Another moral dilemma for the church; embezzle church funds and you’re out on your ear, fondle a choirboy and, well, who doesn’t. And you would think the laity would want to know the percentage of their tithing that goes to ameliorating criminal behavior. And a pox on the houses of those parents who took hush money in lieu of exposing the criminals who caused their children’s pain.

      Consider this from John Cory’s “A Personal Issue, The Catholic Church Scandal,” on

      “I can tell you that abuse smells like Old Spice and Vaseline Hair Tonic wafting in the air with each blow. I can tell you that abuse tastes like oatmeal on a dishrag in my mouth to keep me from screaming. I can tell you that abuse burns like a tub of scalding water boiling away my sins and it stings like the slice of a knife to bleed out that evil blood inside of me. I can tell you that the sound of abuse is an icy echo: I’m only doing this because I love you. If you were good, you wouldn’t make me do this.

      “The perpetrators stole innocence and purity, trust and love, and beautiful childhood souls like they were nothing more than trinkets of idol pleasure.

      “But the greatest theft came from the Cardinals and Bishops and authorities. They stole in silence just like a thief in the night. They were soundless accomplices to the murder of souls.

      “They stole truth from those who needed its protection most. They stole the right to be heard and to be believed. They stole love and hope and the sanctity of the church.

      “They stole God.”

      Those who don’t feel the pain of Mr. Cory from these lines are an embarrassment to the human race. For here is proof positive that the Inquisition has not ended, that denial and obfuscation sets morality on its pointy hatted head, that stealing the soul is the worst corruption of all. If grampa was the Catholic church, I would be calling 911 post haste.

  9. The ascendancy of the Christian church over the past millenium+ does instruct us in one thing – that humanity did and does accept, even craves, the cohesiveness it provided.

    As I like to claim, swap out the books in the pews, and we could pick up where we left off just a generation or two ago, with a humanistic franchise this time.

    That said, forgiving the church wholesale is like forgiving the SS. Paedophilia and torture are quite similar, and responsibility and justice, like mortal sin, must get their due. No triaging out the “I was just following orders” types.

    • I still don’t think it’s about condemning or forgiving – it’s more about persuading change in the future church. And there are alot of varied young people, if not already persuaded, persuadable, and they don’t have the same mindsets as their grandparents. For others, it is a purely social experience, maybe spiced with spiritual satisfaction too, but they too might be persuaded to encourage change. And then, old men die and so do crabby old ladies too…

  10. Exactly: and that is the issue, Dwight, spot on. The Church’s preaching of “forgiveness” has had its effect on the laity (remember them?). That is why the “Holy Mother Church” imagery or the Pope-as-Holy Father imagery is so effective. Honour thy father and thy mother. Sure they looked the other way when abuse was happening in the bedroom, but (quoting Edward Albee now) “what family doesn’t have its little problems,” and surely the mark of a good christian is…to forgive, not to harp on the mistakes. Perhaps the priests in question were so stupid they misunderstood the mode of the verb in Jesus’ instruction to “Suffer the little children….’?

    • I withdraw the first clause of my first sentence to you Dwight. I agree with Joe. But I still feel dutybound to continue to encourage change in the church through my work and personal contact with Catholics too.

      • Yes, of course. I have consistently admired the Catholic intellectual tradition, especially Christopher Dawson within limits. I was trained by George MacRae and Joe Fitzmyer for God’s sake, never more honest scholars, both Jesuits. We are talking about something bigger, and something that can’t happen because the Church has foolishly decided as in the 16th century that it will not be reformed, only rejected.

  11. So we must decide if we are “forgiving” individuals, the institution, or both. I say neither.

    When you join the Jesuits or the SS, you forswear the Self, as a condition of membership. You sold your soul – and now you want credit?

    • Huh? The people I mentioned were the top biblical scholars of a generation and taught at Harvard, which did not discriminate on the basis of genius.

  12. “Huh? The people I mentioned were the top biblical scholars of a generation and taught at Harvard, which did not discriminate on the basis of genius.”

    Goebbels was a genius. So was Pizarro. Both were butchers.

    I realize that you weren’t a Jesuit, RJoe, but you are a genius so I paint you with the same brush..;-)

    It’s OK to respect the officer corps within certain parameters, but for Humanists responsibility underpins all justification of character. Our lives teach us who we are – Rushdie.

    • All true: lovely quote, Dwight. And ex-Jesuits (e.g. Loisy) made the best atheists. The church trained them to be without realizing…

    • I agree Dwight: Joe is a genius. But I wouldn’t associate George MacRae and Joe Fitzmyer, two of the finest, most honest scholars, born Catholic, with the crimes of Pizarro and Goebbels – although I wish they had used their influence to be critical of the current heirarchy. And then Thomas Thompson, a breath of fresh air in OT scholarship, although maybe not in same league as MacRae or Fitzmyer, is a pretty liberal Catholic. These Catholic scholars would have nothing to do with the crimes of the heirarchy (R.I.P. MacRae).

  13. A comment on the comments: as a soulless antagonist, I still feel like Steph’s position that Catholics shouldn’t be judged for the sins of the institution or other Catholics holds a great deal of water. The same is true of American Christian Fundamentalists who hold a position that infuriates me. People are raised to believe nonsense and it’s not exactly a choice to be raised with such nonsense and then agree to join the group when you’re 18. And I would parallel that to SS soldiers.

    If your country raises you to be a racist, or a terrorist, or a catholic and you grow up and join the racist Catholic terrorist groups, I shall not judge you the individual because the systemic force of your upbringing is the true cause of your actions. So you are innocent but your system is not. And this can lead to a situation where there isn’t really a good person to blame for horrible situations, in my opinion.

  14. Seth sed: “If your country raises you to be a racist, or a terrorist, or a catholic and you grow up and join the racist Catholic terrorist groups, I shall not judge you the individual because the systemic force of your upbringing is the true cause of your actions.”

    Good point, I guess we should distinguish between the various tiers. To simply be catholic or an SS foot soldier may be forgivable per se.

    Although, if said catholic heads out on a crusade and slaughters Arabs in the name of the Lord, same with the SS guy “following orders”, sorry, no deal. Responsibility. Your actions are distinct from the organization, always.

    Finally, if you are in the priesthood, a prelate, the Pope or Heinrich Himmler, you are the progenitor and agent of that institution, and always culpable, just as the Directors of a company are liable for its actions.

    Otherwise it would be far too easy to join the SS or Al Queda or the US Marines and just indulge yourself in the name of ________ . Which too many do.

    • Right the more education, the more intelligence, the more power, and the more hypocrisy an individual partakes of, the more they earn their guilt by association. But in the cases of the child soldiers of some African countries I have a hard time even blaming the horrible dictators because I’m having a hard time identifying the point where the child soldier gets promoted and has the safe self-awareness to go “we should do something safer for our people.”

      That’s entirely different from the well connected educated Catholic patriarch who is not putting life and limb on the line on a regular basis and has more time to reflect on values and such.

  15. If there is a teachable moment here, maybe it should be the lessons learned from the Nuremberg (and Tokyo) trials. These were the genesis of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent additions to the Geneva Conventions, as well as numerous treaties, as well as the International Criminal Court. These, collectively, purport to be, or are generally acknowledged as, the civilized world’s moral compass.

    Now, Vatican City is a country, the smallest actually, but it is not a member of the UN, and therefore is not a signatory on any human rights treaties. It apparently believes that its moral standards are at least independent of, if not superior to, the rest of the world. So, the question is, how would the Holy See, including the church’s hierarchy, fare if their actions were pitted against the various human rights treaties now in place and the theory of justice that came from Nuremberg?

    Consider this excerpt from Justice Robert Jackson’s summation speech at the end of the Nuremberg trials:

    “ . . . these defendants now ask this Tribunal to say that they are not guilty of planning, executing, or conspiring to commit this long list of crimes and wrongs. They stand before the record of this Trial as bloodstained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain king. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: ‘Say I slew them not.’ And the Queen replied, ‘Then say they were not slain. But dead they are…’ If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say that there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.”

    • What you’re identifying is the point at which tragedy begins to exist. We were right to stop the Nazis, but individual Nazis weren’t necessarily given a right option to pick at all. Also, I’m of the opinion that the lowest level Nazis were not the defendants in the trial.

      Another way to slice the continuum is to say that the Nazis who defended the beach of Normandy were not as guilty as the Nazis who ran Auschwitz. Storming another country to take land or defending your own territory isn’t the same sort of personal crime as a soldier as systematically dehumanizing and killing your own fellow citizens. Yet, the lowest soldiers may not have had choices to fight the hands history dealt them.

  16. Herb sed “If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say that there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.”

    Indeed, the murdered are watching all through the progression of justice. If there is no justice, and the guilty walk free, then another crime has been committed.

    • I could care less about justice for justice’s sake. Justice for the purpose of removing criminals (determined by a transparent legal system) who are more trouble than society thinks they are worth makes sense especially in the case of serial killers. And justice for the purpose of rehabilitating criminals so that they can be transformed into standard citizens is also sensible to me.

      Punishment as a deterrent is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of although it’s often repeated. The reason I feel that way is because in every case of justice for that reason, the crime has already been committed.

      My perspective is of course consistent with my belief that the foot soldiers of a war are not simply guilty for crimes their flag may represent. That’s too simplistic. I expect policies that follow that way of thinking to simply continue vicious cycles of retaliation.

      But then, justice isn’t something I’m entirely knowledgeable about. So I welcome other ways of viewing this subject.

  17. Speoh sed “My perspective is of course consistent with my belief that the foot soldiers of a war are not simply guilty for crimes their flag may represent. That’s too simplistic.”

    Soldiers returning from any war know that they are all guilty, on all sides. It keeps them quiet.

    • As a bit detail, I was a soldier and I spent a year in Iraq for the uniform… which was for college money which was for my future. I totally chose to put the Iraqi people into governmental chaos.

      I don’t take much responsibility for the war. My ability to avoid going to war at that stage would also constitute a choice to go to jail. Not that it happened, but if I had to choose between being ethical and being free, there is no wrong choice. We can all hope I look to the ethics, but I’m not wrong to survive. No individual is wrong to try doing that. And the opposing forces aren’t wrong to test my efforts. There is no right at all in such a situation but conversely, there’s no guilt either.

    • I beg your pardon, Dwight, I didn’t say that, Seth did.

      Nazis? I can only think of the young Catholic lad, who like so many others, grows up learning about his faith and experiencing spiritual fulfillment in his church, and then as he matures, like so many others, feels a ‘calling’ to commit his life to the Church … and become celebate (oh dear, we’ve got to convince them to marry and be happy). So he chooses to become ordained and begins to preach, like so many others, in his local Catholic church. How on earth can you blame him and those like him, for the crimes of other individuals within that same broad Church? Was he supposed to decide to become a less spiritually fulfilling Baptist minister instead when he discovered the evils of the heirarchy? He wasn’t born Baptist, he was Catholic. What happens when he finds out about all those evil Baptists? And what ‘justice’ do you propose? I still believe it’s better to punish those who commit paedophilia like any ordinary citizen, and convince more Catholics to rebel against the church teachings on contraception, celebacy of the priesthood and the rest … and approach a future oriented around humanist ideas. I don’t want to participate in a humanist police force. I’ve always been an advocate for restorative justice and education anyway … so let’s all have a groupy huggy (HA HA).

      • I don’t really want to defend Nazi’s but somehow Nuremberg got involved. I think we’re on a similar page all of us. I’d like to add that I’m not advocating that guilty people get away with their crime. I think the punishment has a goal of serving the people. If punishing the criminal doesn’t provide the greatest service to the people, I’m against blind justice. And that’s a more legalistic parallel to the idea that the average people of blind faiths need to be led from their positions compassionately because the only other tool is some form of war which does in fact make victims (and criminals if all victims of humanity must have a guilty party).

        I often waver between the idea that American Atheists must fight the encroachment of religion versus the idea that since atheists or anybody worth their salt is smarter by virtue of having been educated in an objectively superior manner, that we should all fight for higher standards of education and let the democratic chips fall where they may.

  18. “I beg your pardon, Dwight, I didn’t say that, Seth did.”

    The dog ate my keyboard – apologies. I think I’m going to try Disqus on my own WP site, if only for the edit button it offers.. 😉

    Re: your example of the poor supplicant who becomes a priest, and encounters the Baptists…reminds me of the little boy who set up a lemonade stand, and then grew up to be a stock promoter.

    At some point, he became a man, and he could continue as a man of character or as a psychopath. It’s not the calling, it’s the call he makes about who he really is.

    I’m not sure if either variant is born or morphed by life, but I do agree that baseline catholics are certainly not guilty by any count. There are many styles for a wolf’s clothing, we all start as sheep.

  19. oh well my cat, Delilah, tends to encroach upon my keyboard – she made me spell celibate wrong.

    Soldiers coming back from war do not all think they’re guilty…

    When I worked at the the-A-ter in Auckland down under, I rented the ground floor flat of a flash house in the suburbs. I rolled out my french doors onto a patio and fell into a great big long pool. Very convenient although I had the beach across the road as well. Next door, lived ‘Father James’ as I called him. We became good friends and I took him to the the-A-ter a few times as he was pretty excited about that sort of thing. In fact we were such good friends he often used to invite me round for evening drinkies, you know, a nice stiff gin, or we’d share a bottle of wine. He was an interesting gentleman, very sweet, honest, humble and kind and laughed at all my jokes which made me like him even more…. He also had very intriguing ideas about theology. Somehow, even though he was quite middle aged, I could never think him guilty of the sins committed by others employed by his same God. His church was the local suburban Catholic church.

  20. Yikes! Me thinks some doth not understandeth my point…eth.

    First and foremost, there is no equivalency between a soldier in a foxhole dodging bullets and bombs, and a parishioner dressed in her Sunday best listening to the choir. And, my bad for assuming you folks knew more about the Nuremberg trials. It was, in fact, the generals who were in the dock, not the soldiers. The soldiers may or may not be fighting for the cause, but whether they were or not, they were doing their soldierly duty. In the end it was the generals who were hanged; not for following orders but for using their positions of authority to commit unconscionable, horrific, crimes against humanity for no other reason than they could. The Gloucester defense won’t work. Ever.

    Parishioners, on the other hand, occupy the pews pretty much of their own volition. There is no gun pointed to their heads, except perhaps metaphorically, and they are free to leave their church and their faith at any time. Now, in this country, and, as far as know, most industrialized countries, those who have knowledge of a crime and wittingly, or not, contribute to criminal activity (or activities) are called “accessories.” Depending on the circumstances, an accessory to a crime is an indictable offence, and therefore a crime in and of itself. Now, I doubt that the sheriff is going to start arresting people in the church for such offenses. The parishioners themselves will have to live with their own consciences. Then, again, Christianity is all about guilt anyway, so adding a bit more probably won’t even be noticed.

    I would also point out that the Mother Church is not a democracy, white smoke notwithstanding. It is the contrary, an autocratic dictatorship, but one that, admittedly, these days is a bit more benign that in past centuries. Like virtually all religions, there is no accountability except what those in power wish to share. And the press, like the courts, are rarely allowed in. The only consequence to the institution for its bad acts is the loss of parishioners, and, of course, the clergy. In fairness, the Catholic Church is now having to deal with its decline because of the mischief it has caused (and continues to.) So, maybe eating fish on Friday and using condoms, albeit in a limited way, are OK after all.

  21. I’m afraid that you scare me now. Of course I understood you very well. And quite clearly, I thought, I disagreed with you. You haven’t understood my point about being born into a social group. To say “Christianity is all about guilt” sounds very biased to me, and fails to take into account normal decent Christians who are not homophobic, misogynist, theocratic, or tyrannical.

    While I have never in my life believed in any God, I think I can no longer call myself an atheist. It’s just too aggressive for me. But I am not agnostic, nor am I theist, deist or religious in any sense at all. The only thing I believe in, and I believe in it passionately, is humanism.

  22. The real evil is that the worst punishment available to the Church canonically is the laicization of a priest. It happened last week when B XVII laicized a few miscreants whose deeds ( all but one) were done in the 1970’s when the Church was sexually out of control after Vat II. I happen to think the Church should try these men publicly, record their trials, and impose ritual humiliation on them. At the very least rip off their cassocks (they were good at that with altar boys), extinguish a candle on their crotch and send them them packing draped in a cheap hotel towel.

    Putting them aside, or leaving them to the civil authority, acknowledges the criminality of what they have done. It does not do justice to the gravity of their sins against the Church. [Please don’t get glib about the Church’s sins: this is meant to be a serious proposal, except for the towel-bit) not a chance for someone to chime in about the sinners trying the sinful] I can’t imagine why no one has suggested canonical trials for offenders, complete with accusers, witnesses, defenses, the whole papal ball of wax. The Church excelled at this kind of thing until it became irrelevant. Now it’s all handled in offices. Even Luther got his trials. Think I feel a blog coming on…

    • “.. Even Luther got his trials.”

      Not too many priests demanding their day in a canonical court, I do agree. And the trials of the Inquisition, in particular, were hardly held in camera. Perhaps we can round up a few believers who might agitate for a legit show trial.

      Still, like the militarists, take away their funding, then you have hit them in the crotch for good. Reprimands don’t last.

  23. Steph sed: “While I have never in my life believed in any God, I think I can no longer call myself an atheist. It’s just too aggressive for me. But I am not agnostic, nor am I theist, deist or religious in any sense at all. The only thing I believe in, and I believe in it passionately, is humanism.”

    I think you have found the seam between religion and Humanism, Steph, which should be like phrenology IMHO. Humanism is there on your skull like your motor functions, you are born with its legacy and promise as a member of our species. Your religious beliefs are mapped out over another part of your head, and are private. There is just no reason to mix the two a priori.

    Humanism is about responsibility, character, and opportunity within our own kind. As a credo it is destined to become our species Constitution.

    So when we review the people you have cited as well-meaning catholics, I avidly see Humanism in them as well. It’s that simple (except to the BHA and American Humanists=atheists).

    But hey, I’ve had a good day.

    Paul Kurtz asked to be my friend on Facebook. It doesn’t get any better than this, for an old philosophy major and amateur Humanist.

  24. RJoe sed: “The real evil is that the worst punishment available to the Church canonically is the laicization of a priest. It happened last week when B XVII laicized a few miscreants whose deeds ( all but one) were done in the 1970′s when the Church was sexually out of control after Vat II. I happen to think the Church should try these men publicly, record their trials, and impose ritual humiliation on them.”

    I like the idea of him becoming a B17. But seriously, Humanism does need a Waffen-SS arm to deal with the competition, while us Positive Humanism types dawdle over theories of Venus terraforming. 🙂

    Ever notice how nobody asserts “I’m positive!” anymore?

  25. I thought the villains should be tried for their crimes against humanity like ordinary criminals. I know nothing about the justice system. Stage one criminology decades ago and a bit of stuff on restorative justice. I thought it was a matter for the courts not the church. Maybe both, but I don’t trust the church to get it right. They’re not very good at Law. I don’t know…

    But as for this: “I think you have found the seam between religion and Humanism, Steph, which should be like phrenology IMHO. Humanism is there on your skull like your motor functions, you are born with its legacy and promise as a member of our species. Your religious beliefs are mapped out over another part of your head, and are private. There is just no reason to mix the two a priori.”

    Ick. Waffle. Religious beliefs indeed. Just a bit patronising too. ‘But heh’, I feel a bit sick now – just undergone an autopsy. I asked him and ‘friended’ when I first joined FB. Lucky you, eh.

  26. Pingback: The Judgement of the Dead (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  27. Its very simple really: everybody goes to hell for the exact duration of torment that fits the sum total of their sins proportionally. Then once that’s over, God keeps the ones he wants to keep around, and throws he rest into oblivion.

    • The hidden appeal of “everybody goes to hell for the exact duration of torment that fits the sum total of their sins proportionally.” is the notion that humans have destiny.

      Not “a” destiny – just the species involved in some cosmic accounting system that warns of suffering, yet sneakily promises a de facto immortality. People take from that what they want. Which is immortality, which like eugenics is not a big subject at cocktail hour.

      When it ‘comes around on the guitar’, as the great philosopher Arlo instructed, it could underpin the rapture of humanism.

      • But he was singing about some garbage and a dump that was closed on thanksgiving. And Alice’s Restaurant where you could get anything you want and Alice who didn’t live there but lived in the belltower of a church without any pews with her husband and dog called Fasha. And he sang about singing loud in Alice’s Restaurant’s anti massacre movement to end all wars. Which says alot about the human condition. So George Bernard Shaw was even wiser to reflect that “death is for many of us the gate of hell; but we are inside on the way out, not outside on the way in.” But always look on the bright side of life, for life is quite absurd and death is the final word…

      • Steph sed:
        “But always look on the bright side of life, for life is quite absurd and death is the final word…”

        Does humanism have to be hermetically sealed, on both ends, even against the preternatural – have you no intimations, Steph?

        If life is absurd (we finished up with Kafka in the 70’s I hope) and death the final word, it does not exalt us/it one scintilla to preclude our possible persistence. So let’s look at our cards.

        During my lifetime I have seen the discovery of DNA by Watson/Crick, through to the its full modeling as the human genome. We do have powers, and can recreate ourselves, truth be told.

        I do maintain that our identity is based on our genotype (DNA) and not our phenotype (body) which is just one ‘printout’ of that pattern. We have really big powers – who can instruct us?

        Slap me if you must, but I do admire the legacy and modus operandi of the Jesuits, for the way they stood guard for centuries over a concept and mission, no matter how flawed we view their loyalty now. If a new Jesuitical order emerged with whom I could entrust my own DNA, my life of quiet desperation would be quieted as I approach its conventional conclusion. That’s all.

        I am perhaps as sad as an old widow clutching her little prayerbook as she kneels at mass, but I warrant that both of us may leave this earth more gently than most.

      • Monty Python, Dwight. Who instructs… me? In the end, me. And, “Does humanism have to be…”: my humanism is inclusive, that’s all.

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