Vanity thought #1520. Judging History

Next in the animated short summary of the debate on the merits of the Catholic Church was Anne Widdecombe’s attack on the atheist historical perspective. I won’t go through all the accusations hurled the Catholics way, there was Inquisition, there were Crusades, there was destruction of Constantinople etc etc. Hitchens read the long list of these past crimes and it was a blood boiling stuff that the Church can’t deny, in fact it publicly apologized for it, as Hitchens noted. That is not the end of the story, though.

As I said a couple of days ago, bringing up past transgressions for which the guilty party has apologized is too vindictive to my taste. Hitchens could have said that the apology was not accepted so he is free to raise this subject again and again but these crimes weren’t committed against him, the apology wasn’t directed at him. Afaik, no one blames the current Church for the sins of their predecessors, most of the world realized that it’s time to move on.

Hitchens then would say that if we want to judge the overall merits of the Church then we have to consider history as well, it’s not like the Church has always been good until recent child abuse scandals came out. Fine, let’s look at history then, and that’s what Widdecombe’s argument was all about:

“If you are going to judge the Catholic Church at any given stage in history then you have to judge it against the standards that were prevailing at the time, and condemning the Inquisition, which was a horrible thing [condemning or Inquisition was horrible?]… Condemning the Inquisition in isolation from condemning just about the whole, in fact the whole of European society, which at that time rejoiced in punishment and torture as a means of dealing with criminality, and with treason, and with wrongdoing, to try and divorce the Catholic Church from that and say that it was uniquely guilty, under the inquisition, is simply trying to look back at centuries gone past and apply a standard that nobody applied at the time.”

Nice, even though somewhat imperfect. There was a little ambiguity in the middle and the end wasn’t as powerful as the build up suggested but it’s still a solid argument. I don’t know how to improve it, perhaps just add that we don’t apply laws retroactively, it something wasn’t a crime at the time it happened it can’t be judged as crime now. If we now think that torture was wrong but at the time of the Inquisition it wasn’t, then the Catholic contribution to the society wasn’t evil by that society’s standards. At the time it could have been seen as a force for good while still torturing the heretics, no one minded.

Or, put it another way, if contemporary society didn’t think that Inquisition was bad and rather thought that the Church was undeniably good, then that’s what we have to accept as evidence from history. Hitchens could have found some testimonies condemning the church but he didn’t and so we can assume everyone went along with the Inquisition just fine.

As an argument it was solid but as a means to win the debate it wasn’t, because by that time it was all about rhetoric and emotional appeals. Hitchens’ cries for justice were more appealing even if there were groundless so they counted while Widdecombe’s argument didn’t.

Fry also jumped in, and the animation editors made it sound as if he was directly addressing Widdecombe but he went precisely nowhere. No matter, he did in style, with audience drooling at every turn of his thought, so he “won”.

“Now all this is in the past and it’s irrelevant and I acceede to Anne Widdecombe how irrelevant it is, except in one thing. This Church is founded on the principle of intercession. Only through the apostolic succession, only through the laying on of hands, from this Galilean carpenter, who we can all admire, only from the laying on of hands from his apostles, to Saint Peter, to the other bishops, all the way down to everyone consecrated in this room [consecrated in THIS room?], anyone ordained here [here?] will know they are… they have this extraordinary power to change the molecules of wine into blood, literally, to change the molecules of paste bread into flesh, literally, and to forgive the sins of the peasants and the poor whom they routinely exploited around the planet. Only this Church has this extraordinary principle that it is through these male priests, and only male priests, that this is given. It is a doctrinal fact, it is more than a doctrinal fact, it is a dogma, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”, outside the Church there’s no salvation.”

What has it got to do with history and Widdecombe’s argument against judging it my modern standards? Nothing whatsoever, the conclusion is an entirely different subject. I can’t be bothered to mark every word Fry stressed there with capitals, and despite a little ambiguity in the middle as well, the overall effect was in Fry’s favor because he is simply a better speaker with a better voice, and a better command of his voice.

Next time you hear atheists claim that they win with logic and reason remember that it’s not true, they are as reliant on flourish and rhetoric as any politician out there and logic and reason are often completely missing from their presentations, no matter how convincing they sound.

The animation moved on but there’s one more thing I think needs to be said about history. In the full version of the debate Widdecombe continued with the defense of child abuse, too – if judged from the perspective of that era, which wasn’t a long time ago but is still in the past. She was referring to the activities of Pedophile Information Exchange, a group that was disbanded only in 1984 and which was affiliated with UK’s Council for Civil Liberties and printed booklets on pedophilia sponsored by public funds. It wasn’t a big deal then, Widdecombe argued, we made it into a big deal much later. Respectable people who no one would ever accuse of child abuse supported that group and everyone was simply acting out the ignorance of that time.

She then also added that when they, the Church, learned of the abusive behavior they weren’t taught, because no one knew it at the time, that there’s no way that someone who abused would simply stop. I suppose she implied that punishing the priests was enough and there was no need to remove them from their positions. Punishment in those days was also light, it appears from her speech. The realization that sex offenders need to be registered and watched permanently didn’t occur to anyone until mid-nineties. In retrospect, she said, the Church should have acted differently, but so should have the magistrates, the courts, the Council for Civil Liberties etc etc.

This is the argument I heard from one ISKCON leader as well. At the time no one knew what to do and what the real dangers were, ISKCON acted as it would have been expected at the time, and it was only until much later that the world has realized it wasn’t enough. Neither we, nor the Catholic Church, had any unique insights into sex-offenders psychology at the time.

Could we have turned to Śrīla Prabhupāda or to śāstra on this? Nope, child abuse is such a low grade behavior that it goes beneath śāstra’s radar, and it didn’t even occur to Śrīla Prabhupāda.

Personally, I think the same argument can be made in defense of rape in our books. I don’t think Prabhupāda ever meant forcing oneself on a woman while she is screaming and fighting back with all her might. I don’t think “rape” in our books ever means sex without consent but a testament to the power of man’s persuasion. Some men are hard to refuse, like Rāvaṇa. He could have “raped” Sīta in the modern sense of the word but sex without consent didn’t occur to even demons like him, it’s such a low grade behavior and Rāvaṇa was an exemplary king in many respects, he wouldn’t have stooped so low.

This needs further investigation, though.

Edit:  Rāvana did rape a woman, though, and was cursed that he’d die if he ever tried it again. My bad. “Even Rāvana” part of the argument doesn’t hold.

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