Today many Italian-Americans celebrate their heritage. Bearing that in mind, let me say that you cannot hold Italian-Americans accountable for the crimes of the Mafia — even though that criminal organization has Italian roots. Allow me to explain why I bring that up.
There is the Catholic Church, and there are Catholics. The two should not be confused. Many Catholics are moral, upstanding people whose faith gives them guidance, optimism, and comfort. They are pillars of their local community. Raise their children to be contributing citizens. And by deed and money, support the Church's message of compassion and care for the disadvantaged.
Their local Priest wants his congregation to benefit from all the good the Church has to offer. He comforts those in grief, advises the unsure, and serves as an anchor for the community.
At the individual level, many Catholics have contributed much to the common good. On the flip side, there have been vile individuals who have done evil deeds and coincidentally happened to be Catholic. That is only to be expected, as immoral bastards exist in every community.
However, the Catholic Church, historically and today, is a morally bankrupt institution. Sometimes a man full of empathy and care for his fellow humans wins the papacy. The incumbent, Francis, is a good example. But if you take a step back and look at the actual difference he has made, you will see that for all his pretty words, nothing has changed in Catholic dogma and orthodoxy.
The institution has 2,000 years of echo chamber legacy. The upper management has been exclusively male, celibate*, and prone to fancy dress and ritual. The Vatican, run by men educated in group-think in Church seminaries, who have spent their entire career in the ministry, dictate its policy. Orthodoxy crushes free thought. And sticking to tradition, right or wrong, is its guiding principle.
And it has been wrong far more than it has been right.
Today many Americans celebrate Columbus Day. Many more celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. They see Columbus as a brutal expression of European colonialism — a euphemism for rape, plunder, infection, torture, mass murder, genocide, and cultural destruction. And the Catholic Church, and some ‘Most Catholic’ Majesties, financed the wealth grab in the Americas and forced their faith on those who had done nothing to deserve the insult.
In 1492, the most potent political force in Europe was the Catholic Church. Individual temporal rulers had their moment in the sun. But earthly empires come and go — while the Catholic Church grinds on. In the 16th century, the Reformation removed much of Northern Europe from Roman Catholic hegemony. And the Protestant Church was also not averse to empire-building.
But the dissidents lacked the cohesion of monolithic Catholicism — aka “the One True Church.”
The numbers today are stark. The world has 2.6 billion Christians. Of those. 1.3 billion are Catholic. Protestantism comes next with 900 million adherents. But that is a very imprecise term for a very diverse population — encompassing everyone from Anabaptists to Quakers. Within Protestantism, the largest denomination is Anglicanism, with 85 million followers — a drop in the Christian bucket. For every Anglican, there are 15 Catholics.
In the US, Protestanism runs the gamut from fundamentalism to mainstream - and no one sect gets to say what Protestantism is - although conservative evangelicals are the loud ones. But canon law in the American Catholic church is tightly controlled by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — which may be more conservative than the Vatican itself.
When Francis asked regional Catholic church management to consult their congregations to ascertain their views on various topics, American Catholics showed divisions. But the Bishops’ Conference did not care and stuck to orthodoxy. As a result, many young Catholics left the faith. Mainly because of the Church’s inflexibility on LGBTQ+ issues, the role of women in the Church, and even IVF. The Church says it increases the risk of cancer in women. Medical science shows it does not. But, like all political organizations, the Church clings to convenient old wives' tales.
In the secular world, child rape and sexual abuse are matters for the criminal justice system. But in the Catholic Church, bishops sent the sinners committing these depraved acts to HR for disposition. The result was a global coverup of the systemic rot of a monstrous institution.
I suppose we can be grateful the Church does not still burn people at the stake. In fairness, claims that the Inquisition killed millions are hyperbole. The total was “only” between thousands and tens of thousands. But the idea the Church ever thought it was justifiable to torture people to worship correctly — or to brutally murder someone because they chose not to change their mind, is an abomination.
I suspect some readers might think, have not fundamentalist Muslims done as bad or worse — and are still doing it? They are — but “two wrongs do not make a right.”
However, it is not the Inquisition, conquest, or religious wars that show the Catholic Church at its worst. It demonstrated its rapacity by strong-arming the poor to lard the collection plate and its sadism by scaring the crap out of parishioners with threats of hell. It provided an education that demanded subservience. It repeatedly abused native populations in reeducation camps. It brutalized unmarried mothers. And it portrayed itself as a moral example while its immoral management dismissed the aforementioned systemic pedophilia as a few bad apples.
Someone reading this may assume I am an inflexible anti-papist who reflexively despises all things Catholic. I am not. I am an atheist — or, more accurately, an ignostic. However, as I said in my introduction, I think many Catholics are admirable. And I even enrolled one daughter in an all-girls Catholic School because I thought the moral instruction would be useful.
I was wrong - and the experiment only lasted a month. I will not go into the details. However, anyone reading this who attended Catholic school probably understands my feelings.
In conclusion, let me say Happy Indigenous People’s Day to those who celebrate it. And if you are Italian, “trascorri un anno sano e prosper”.
*Celibacy is not a foundational tenet of the Catholic Church. It was not until 1139 that the Second Lateran Council declared priestly marriage invalid throughout the entire Catholic Church.