My fellow blogger, Veronica, has said that the Catholic church is the most corrupt institution in history. But, while I’m certainly not a fan of this Pope, or his priestly horde, I consider that an extraordinary claim.
First… what is the Catholic church? I know that may seem like a silly question, however, I think it is both relevant to the claim, and also the Catholic church’s claims about what it is.
The word ‘catholic‘ at it’s most basic, means universal…
The term has been incorporated into the name of the largest Christian communion, the Catholic Church (also called the Roman Catholic Church). However, many other Christians use the term “Catholic” (sometimes with a lower-case letter “c”) to refer more broadly to the whole Christian Church or to all believers in Jesus Christ regardless of denominational affiliation.
This was true of the early church. And ‘church’ although it is often used to refer to buildings or organizations, originally just referred go the ‘community of the faithful’.
The Roman Catholic Church, the modern organization, traces it’s history back The First Council of Nicaea and essentially lays claim to being the first, the original, the universal, congregation of Jesus Christ.
The First Council of Nicaea is the first ecumenical council of the catholic Church. Most significantly, it resulted in the first, extra-biblical, uniform Christian doctrine, called the Creed of Nicaea. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent local and regional councils of Bishops (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy— the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom.
But do they really have a right to make this claim?
The ancients were familiar with what can be referred to as the ‘problem of identity’. The classic example of this is the ‘Ship of Theseus’. Imagine for a minute that you build a ship, and sail it for 20 years. Over the course of 20 years, you perform the needed repairs to keep it sea-worthy and in good shape. By the end of the 20 years, you have quite literally replaced every single board, nail, and bit of rope. Is this still your original ship? And if not, at what point did it become a new ship?
Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering: what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. Which ship, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?
But I know, this is just silly irrelevant philosophy stuff, it has no real value to serious stuff… like science. So who cares?
Well, it is actually very important to…evolution.
I once had a similar philosophical discussion online with a random atheist. Someone had brought up the question of ‘Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?’, and with full atheist bluster, this atheist claimed science had already answered that. It was all about genes, you see. The egg came first, because a chicken is a chicken genetically. Anyone who knows anything about evolution knows that. Case closed.
I said he was wrong. You see, evolution actually works on the level of populations, not individuals, and I then provided a link to this about Ring species.
Ring species provide important evidence of evolution in that they illustrate what happens over time as populations genetically diverge, and are special because they represent in living populations what normally happens over time between long deceased ancestor populations and living populations, in which the intermediates have become extinct. Richard Dawkins observes that ring species “are only showing us in the spatial dimension something that must always happen in the time dimension.”
Chicken is a general category, and one that is always in flux, across different populations and in time. So there was no, one mutation, and then suddenly ‘chicken’.
Now one could argue that the first big evolutionary event in the universal church of Christ happened when it became the official religion of the Roman empire. But then, that Empire split, and so eventually did the universal church.
The East–West Schism of 1054, sometimes known as the Great Schism, formally divided the State church of the Roman Empire into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches, which later became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively. Relations between East and West had long been embittered by political and ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes.
Of course, this wasn’t the first schism, that happened earlier with the Oriental Orthodox Church
And… there is at least one other major ‘Universal’ church of Jesus. The Anglican’s are also catholic.
The Anglican Communion considers itself to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and to be both Catholic and Reformed. For some adherents it represents a non-papal Catholicism, for others a form of Protestantism though without a dominant guiding figure
This schism happened in 1538, during what would become the Protestant Reformation.
And of course, most modern sects and denominations claim that they are the true Christians. Somewhat strangely, Islam has done a similar thing. Even though, it did not exist as a religion before 600 CE, Muslims trace their tradition back to Abraham… so in a sense, Muslims see themselves as the true… Jews. And, just to confuse things, they include Jesus as a prophet.
OK, but let’s say we accept that history is a mess and stick to the relatively modern… so post-reformation, this is the (big C) Roman Catholic Church we are talking about.
But what the church is, is not the only problem, because until fairly recently there was no separation of church and state. So how does one differentiate between corruption in the church, and corruption in government?
Take for instance, the Spanish Inquisition. Atheists love the Spanish Inquisition, because it was so nasty and such a clear case of religion being bad. But… it wasn’t that simple.
Various motives have been proposed for the monarchs’ decision to fund the Inquisition such as increasing political authority, weakening opposition, suppressing conversos, profiting from confiscation of the property of convicted heretics, reducing social tensions and protecting the kingdom from the danger of a fifth column.
The body was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy. It was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II, after a period of declining influence in the previous century.
That’s right, it was the Spanish monarchy that instituted, funded and are ultimately responsible for the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to what occured in the McCarthy Era of American politics, an era that saw ‘In God We Trust’ placed on the US currency. This wasn’t because of the Pope. It was part of the propaganda against the Soviet Union… and godless Communism.
Often in history, religion has been used for purely geopolitical ends.
Another example are the Crusades. The original motivation for the Crusades wasn’t entirely Jesus. Although that was certainly part of the propaganda of the day. The Muslim Turks were gaining territory in the middle east, as the Byzantine Empire was slowly losing influence. The response from the west was to invade. But this wasn’t just about rescuing holy land, it was also about land generally, and control of trade routes. The Roman Empire fought a similar war with the Huns.
Now, having said all that. (And I thank you for making it this far) The Vatican is a citystate, and the centre of the modern Catholic church, but as with kings, Popes often have very different policies(e.g. Vatican II). So while I’m not saying every Pope equals a new church, every Pope can mean that quite a few planks in the ship of the church get replaced.
Ultimately, the further you move through time, and the more people and policy changes there are, the less an institution is what it used to be. And defining the scope of an organization, where its limits are, and who is allowed to speak for, and act in the name of that organization complicates matters quite a bit.
I do think the Roman Catholic Church as an institution has some serious problems with corruption, but so too with the British Empire, Dynastic China, modern corporations and even our Canadian government. How bad does the corruption get? Which is the worst? I don’t think we’ll ever have the information necessary to make that call.