Commenting on the Obvious
As many of you know I troll the religious radio shows because I am always looking for good blog fodder, and have a curiousity about what is riling up, enraging or captivating Christians. Such radio is almost always evangelical, Baptist, anti-science, and anti-reason. I recently found a local Catholic radio station that managed to convince me that my earlier opinion of Catholics, that they were a more progressive sect of Christianity was wholly mistaken or, failing that, more mistaken than I had originally thought. This really shouldn't have come as a surprise to me, I did attend Catholic School as a kid, and nothing that happened there ever made me think of the Roman Catholic Church was any kind of bastion of free inquiry or rationalism. Oh well, at least I didn't get raped by the priest or beaten by nuns. Though the only nun I ever knew, Sister Annette (a Catholic cyborg I think whose emotion chips were set to off), lamented, and seriously, that she could no longer hit us with rulers. She was only a fixture at Seton Catholic School for one year when I was there. Which was too bad because she was such a class act.
But I digress......
While listening to Catholic radio, some kind of call in show, a caller wonders if the Pope has ever said that the Church's behavior, specifically the burning of heretics, witches and Protestants among others was wrong. The host hemmed and hawed about, didn't really offer a clear answer and then said that Pope John Paul II had apologized for any sin the Church had committed, and hoped people who had been offended and wronged by that sin would forgive the Church. The host, and apparently the Pope, had some trouble saying that burning people with whom you disagree is the wrong way to go.
Caller: So the Pope hasn't said that burning people was wrong, and hasn't apologized for trying to supress differing opinion? [paraphrase by me]
Host: The pope has apologized for any sin the Church has committed. [paraphrase by me]
Caller: So no it hasn't said those actions were wrong and hasn't apologized for them. Then I have to ask what has the Pope specifically said about the burning of Wycliffe? [more paraphrase by me]
A little backstory is probably in order. Wycliffe, who was strong opponent of Papal authority, translated the bible (or he and his acolytes did it together) into vernacular English, and for this and other crimes he was burned. Well his exhumed bones were burned. He had died 31 years before being branded a heretic by the Council of Constance. I think you will agree, they sure showed him. back to the call already in progress....
The host of the show didn't seem to know if the Pope has said anything specific about the bizarre case of Wycliffe's pointless rapid oxidation. And the caller never mentioned why it was a big deal to him that the Council had a dead man burned 31 years after his death. Wycliffe though is important to students of Protestant history so it makes sense to me now that I have done a bit more reading. Burning long dead people matters a lot less to me than burning living heretics. So to me in the annals of religiously inspired batshit crazy this is really pretty mild.
What really blew my mind though was the way the host attempted to get the Church off the hook for its tawdry and bizarre desecration of Wycliffe's remains. First he began to suggest that Wycliffe wasn't really all that great a scholar, and his translation was absolutely horrible. "So there is a lot you maybe don't know about Wycliffe that sheds light on why the Church did what it did." I'm not making this up. The logic of the host seemed to suggest Wycliffe published a shabby translation of the bible (according to later scholars) so whatever the Church did was probably okay. I've heard Catholic scholars make similar noises when you bring up the Church's behavior toward Galileo. Of Galileo these scholars and lay defenders of Rome will say that the science of the day was on the Pope's side so they were right to oppose Galileo's hypothesis, as if Galileo's interrogators were simply journal referees sending his paper back for revision and correction, and not presenting him with a false choice (torture or recantation).
This is an old dodge by the Roman Catholic Church. It is loath to state specifically which actions in the past it has done were wrong (at least in many of the halls of leadership), and simply attempts to diffuse the legitimate accusations, charges with this soft non-admission, non-apology:
The Church apologizes for any sins it has in the past committed, and hope that anyone who has been offended by them will kindly forgive the one true Church, sincerely yours
-The Vicar of Christ on Earth, Pope Benedict
I think this maneuver is performed because ultimately the Church fathers don't really think that the Roman Catholic Church has done much wrong and that it probably views any admission of wrong doing damaging to its claims of ultimate authority. The Pope after all is infallible.