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February 28, 2005

Cultural Sacrifice by Proxy

Religious believers and non-believers — whether or not they know in which camp they reside — will have irreconcilably different approaches to a given issue. For the example in point: to a non-believer, a religious organization such as the Roman Catholic Church, just like any organization of any type, is its members and what it does. If the people and/or the actions are seen as corrupt, then the organization is defined by corruption. Believers, on the other hand, add a layer of import such that the visible practicalities of the organization are not the whole story. That could be good or bad — depending on what the believer actually believes in — but there's another dimension of consideration required when assessing corruption.

Within the field of Christian belief, with its roots in the New Testament, scriptural incidents can help to frame that assessment, and if we take the twelve disciples' portrayal in the Gospels as an indication, then the manifold flaws in the history of the Church are neither inexplicable nor invalidating. As if to provide a crystallization of this point, both Matthew and Mark note the same action of those who were with Jesus at his arrest: with the violence escalating, with the initial seizure that would begin the Passion, Jesus declared that it all must happen so that scripture would be fulfilled, and the disciples "left him and fled."

If nothing else, the religion that God sent this troupe of doubters and deniers to establish is clearly not one requiring perfection among entrants. The Church in which Simon Peter — arguably the most conspicuous doubter and denier of the lot — is held to be the prototypical pope ought not be expected to be the perfect representative of Christ on Earth, inasmuch as even membership in its hierarchy is not synonymous with sainthood. Rather, it is a body through which all of humanity — sinners that we are — can find our way to God in spite of our failures. The crucial question is: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Not: "Peter can you be perfect?" Will you try... not will you succeed.

So to those who see a pattern encompassing, for example, both acquiescence to the fad of castrati and the horrid handling of sexual abuse cases in recent decades, I say that they are correct. The human beings who make up the institutional Church are susceptible to the evils of their times, and the lamentable reality is that those human beings will often fail or fall short in attempting to further explicit ends especially in the direction of cultural gravity. Castrating boys was an excommunicable offense, after all, and employment of the men who'd been subjected to the procedure was hardly unique to the Church. Castrati were so popular that composers sometimes felt compelled to write them into operas for their own sake. More to the point, as inclined as we may be, in the conceits of our less candidly brutal era, to set ourselves above our ancestors, the impulse remains familiar:

Elevated to the position of stars throughout the 18th Century, castrati raised the art of singing beyond human limits. History has recorded the names of a number of famous castrati, who have become legendary in Europe, for example: Caffarelli, Farinelli, Porporino, Senesino and Bernacchi. They attained a level of popularity similar to that of the rock stars of our time. 18th Century groupies went so far as to wear medallions bearing the portraits of their favorite castrati, a fashion not dissimilar to the pins and T shirts fans of rock stars wear today.

How many girls in the modern age have been starved, surgically manipulated, and all but tortured for the excuse of beauty? How many boys have been pushed to exhaustion and misery on the slim hope of athletic success? How many children have been ridden to nervous breakdowns by the constant push to succeed academically — ever younger and covering ever more ground?

I do not intend to deny the organizational Church's errors (evils) or to absolve it of the need for recompense. Indeed, dealing with the Scandal has become a matter of intra-Catholic dispute, and there is much that I would advise be done differently. But in a culture that abuses children relentlessly — almost as a matter of principle — in ways with superficially noble objectives and in ways that cannot be cast otherwise than as licentious, travesties among clerics and in the hierarchy too easily provide the illusion of a redemptive proxy.

Rewriting history to unravel the Church from the developing Western Culture with which it was intimately entwined for so many centuries does not allow us to discard the darkness with the former and keep the blessings with the latter. We cannot expiate our sins by sacrificing those charged with tending the Shepherd's sheep. Believers and non-believers alike do well to recall that hypocrisy isn't among the cardinal sins; consistency makes no virtue of vice, and seeing the sins of others does not diminish our responsibility for those that we share, much less absolve us of our own.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 28, 2005 2:18 PM