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The Catholic Church: Why Richard Dawkins Was Right and I Was Wrong

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I was born in 1940 in England. There is, therefore, not much surprise that I grew up with a prejudice against Roman Catholicism. It was not just the bells and smells and all of that stuff about the Virgin Mary -- although that was bad enough -- but that the Church was run by foreigners. The Archbishop of Canterbury may not have been that impressive, but at least he was one of ours. He was British.

As it happens, I moved to Canada in 1962 and then on to the States in 2000. So I have spent most of my life as a foreigner. I feel quite alien now when I go back to England and don't much care for the beer. I'd like to think that I have grown up in many ways since those early days and that one way I have matured is with respect to institutions that seem to me strange because they are outside my immediate cultural ken. I confess that I still have trouble with the Mormons, but with respect to Catholicism, I have come a long way.

In part, this is because I am a professional philosopher. You cannot do my job without coming to respect the work of the great Catholic theologians-philosophers. I read something in Saint Augustine and think, "No you're wrong. You missed this point." Then I turn the page and he says, "Oh, by the way, you may think I've missed this point. Here's how I explain it." He is simply a superior mind and makes me proud to be a philosopher and humble about what I can do. I feel the same way about others, including Aquinas, even though there is much with which I disagree.

I work a lot on nineteenth-century thought, and a particular favorite of mine is John Henry Newman, the great theologian who began life as an Evangelical, moved on to lead the Anglican High Church movement, and then crossed over to Rome, ending his life as a cardinal. I'm drawn to him in part because I taught for over thirty years in Canada in a society that was in respects as much Catholic as Protestant. My university was in a small town in Southern Ontario, with a population that was about one third Italian -- most of them post-war immigrants, or their children and grandchildren -- and that is before you start to count the Dutch and the Poles and the Ukrainians and so many others. My classes were filled with kids whose last names contained more cees and vees and zees than seemed possible. And I loved them. Bringing together so many people of such diverse backgrounds, including religions, made my classes so vital and worthwhile. The thought of teaching in a monoculture of Presbyterianism -- the predominant Protestant religion in that part of the world -- made me shudder.

I say all of this as a prolegomenon to the sex scandal that engulfs the Church and that seems to get worse daily. One saw from the beginning that it was truly dreadful, but at the same time one wanted -- I very much wanted -- to keep it in perspective and not to let it negate the very great accomplishments, both intellectual and social, of the Catholic Church. Now that I live in America, I think of the very great worth of Catholic institutions of higher education. One of my outstanding grad students at the moment was an undergrad at a small Jesuit school in Connecticut -- and he is not alone. Also, I am sure that because I had been prejudiced, I wanted to cut the Church some slack. Let others with cleaner hands than I do the judging.

But not anymore. In Canada at the moment there is a huge scandal over the way in which a prominent priest, a good friend of John Paul the Second, no less, and a known sexual predator from way back when, was protected and shielded by the hierarchy. Do not take my word for it: a letter about this man -- written in 1993 by a bishop in the Pope's envoy to Canada -- has just emerged. A letter of greater moral depravity would be hard to imagine. Read it yourself.

Go over the contents. It is admitted that this man, a priest, had molested at least four or five boys: "Recently it has been brought to our attention that there was not one but four or five victims in all." No one was disputing this. He was therefore not merely immoral; he was, in the eyes of the law, a criminal. (He is now actually serving a prison sentence in Canada.) He had to be got rid of. Ship him off to Rome! The letter continues: "I would not object to his being given another chance since it would remove him from the Canadian scene." Why was he not simply going to be moved around Canada? Because all of the other bishops knew about him, too, and didn't want him on their patch. But they didn't mind Rome taking him on.

However, here is the catch: as a chum of the Pope, he was likely to get some kind of promotion. This would upset the victims. But they are dumb Pollacks and not about to kick up, thank goodness, even though their councilors are urging that they do just this: "One redeeming [redeeming!] factor is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest." However, the victims are already tense because they hear that the man is traveling freely around the world without supervision -- to Thailand, no less -- and if he gets a promotion, especially if he gets made a bishop, then they are going to go ballistic. More worrying, they are going to go public, and that will be awful for the diocese and the Church generally. We've already had to stamp on another priest who found out about everything and talked to one of the victim's mothers. He expressed his concerns to the Vicar General and for his pains had to be "cautioned."

There is no concern whatsoever for the victims, simply fear of the story getting out and advice for how to prevent it happening. And that is it. The letter ends: "With respectful and prayerful good wishes, I remain, Your Excellency, Faithfully yours in Christ, J. R. Windle, Bishop of Pembroke."

I have long been involved in the fight against creationism and its successor, intelligent design theory. To this end, I have embraced strongly the philosophy that science and religion speak of different things -- a philosophy sometimes known as neo-orthodoxy or the independence position. This means that although I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, it does not follow that I cannot respect those who do. Together, believers and non-believers can join in fighting what we both see as travesties of science properly understood and religion properly understood. For this reason I have opposed the so-called New Atheists in their scorn for all and any religious beliefs. And I might add, somewhat proudly, that I, too, had their scorn poured down on my head.

Recently, the New Atheists' most prominent representative, Richard Dawkins, wrote a highly emotive piece for the Washington Post, in which he derided the present pope and expressed glee and satisfaction that such a person was now leading the Catholic Church. In Dawkins's judgment, not only was this no less than the Church deserved, but such leadership could only hasten the Church's demise. I thought at the time that Dawkins was over the top and wrong. I now think that he was right and that it was I who was wrong. Let me say at once that, unlike Dawkins, I don't necessarily want to see this as the end of religion or even of the Catholic Church in some form. I stress that although I cannot share the beliefs of Christians, I respect them and applaud the good that is done in the name of their founder. But I do now think that as presently constituted, the Catholic Church is corrupt and should be eradicated.

You might argue that this is to go too far. But what is the alternative? Vatican Three, perhaps? The Church could open its doors to married priests, give women a proper role (if we can appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, why cannot a woman become a member of the College of Cardinals?), make a place within for gays and other minorities. It could recognize birth control for the blessing that it is and stop insisting that the moment the sperm gets to the ovum, nothing else matters but to preserve this entity, even though such a stand causes unnumbered cases of pain and sadness (and certainly does little to reduce the abortion rate) and leads the Catholic bishops to oppose universal health care, quite apart from the fact that it all flies in the face of the official philosophy of the Church, Thomism. And I could continue.

This will not happen. This last week, the Pope appointed an archbishop for Los Angeles. The appointee is a member of Opus Dei, for goodness's sake. You don't have to subscribe to the nuttiness of The Da Vinci Code to know what this means: he belongs to an organization that throve under Generalissimo Franco, about as right-wing as it is possible to get. Far from trying to reform, the Church is digging in and digging in.

Dawkins is right. The moral mess gets worse and worse. Hope of change is illusory. Götterdämmerung beckons. Although we have different motives and undoubtedly hope for different outcomes, I join Dawkins in welcoming the prospect.