Another Nail In Civilization’s Coffin
By Carolyn Baker
11 April, 2010
Western civilization has taught us many things including how not to look at the larger picture of any issue and keep separate, myriad dots that beg to be connected. Mainstream and even alternative media is replete with myopic statements like “Should the pope resign? Should there be a formal investigation by the Vatican of the global epidemic of priest abuse of children? What did Benedict know and when did he know it?”
A fundamental lack of historical perspective and an inability to place the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in the context of the inexorable collapse of industrial civilization leaves us asking meaningless and absurd questions. Therefore, if we are going to make sense of this latest crime against humanity perpetrated by organized religion, it is crucial that we explore both these issues.
Historical and Current Perspectives
First, even a cursory understanding of church history provides numerous clues regarding the inevitable outcome of the initial agenda of early church fathers. Of course the word fathers signals the birth of patriarchal religion in the West which even beyond male domination is synonymous with a way of life based on power and control. Shortly after the birth of Christianity and as the Christian church became an organized system in the Western world, the top priority in its agenda was to exterminate paganism and its indigenous roots and influence. The supreme irony, of course, is that Christianity had deep roots in paganism and could not have congealed into a viable religion without it.
The significance of the disavowal of paganism cannot be overemphasized. The word “pagan” originally meant, country dweller or rustic and implied that the pagan had an intimate relationship with the earth. It was that relationship, more than anything else about paganism, that made it so repugnant to the custodians of official church dogma. Moreover, the earth and the female gender were clearly associated in the minds of early church fathers with irrationality, defilement, chaos, and evil. St. Tertullian wrote to women: “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? With the sentence of god on this sex of your lives in this age, the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant to attack. You destroyed so easily god’s image, man. On account of your desertion even the son of man had to die.”
Researchers of the early Christian Gnostic sect, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in their book Jesus and The Lost Goddess, point out that in the early stages of Christianity, a protracted struggle between literal and symbolic interpretation of sacred texts continued until the literal interpretation triumphed in roughly the 5th century. In the earliest stages of Christianity, many pagan converts to the religion believed in a Christian goddess, and indeed this teaching became an integral part of Gnosticism. As the church became increasingly male dominated, church bishops “vigorously suppressed the idea that there was a Christian goddess.” Ironically, in 431 at Ephesus, which had previously been the site for worship of the pagan goddess, a church council met and “bestowed the title of the ousted goddess upon Mary, the mother of Jesus.” The larger significance of this action is that it “put an end to Gnostic ideas of equality between the sexes.” (44)
The Gnostic Christian sect struggled valiantly with the official church hierarchy to modify the church’s perceptions of women and nature, but ultimately, the church prevailed, and Gnosticism was declared heresy. The subsequent history of church leadership reveals a burgeoning pattern of male hierarchy distancing itself from the earth, from the feminine, and from matters of the heart, thoroughly preoccupied with intellect and domination. Medieval scholar, Lynn White comments on the Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis:
While many of the world’s mythologies provide stories of creation, Green-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world had had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as non-repetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image.
White’s analysis of the Christian doctrine of dominion over the earth illumines how it institutionalized an attitude of disconnection from nature and the fundamental philosophical underpinning of Western civilization, namely that humans were superior to other species and therefore had the inherent right to dominate them. Notable exceptions to this pattern were mystics such as St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich who wrote and taught prolifically about their own and humanity’s relationship with nature. Christian mystics always held a decidedly feminine perspective and were marginalized accordingly.
Two thousand years of church history reveals a progression from a small group of diverse Jewish and pagan adherents of disparate spiritual paths to an increasingly standardized hierarchy which exists today as both a government and one of the major religious organizations on the planet.
Enter the second perspective necessary for making sense of epidemic pedophilia in the institution: an understanding of large systems and their role in the collapse of industrial civilization. At every turn, organized religion throughout the world has supported corporate oligarchies and their pillaging of resources and people. “Infinite growth” has been the hallmark not only of industry but of proselytizing religious hierarchies-a model which is inherently unsustainable. Moreover, adherence to the model of infinite growth guarantees its ultimate dissolution. Add to this more than two millennia of suppression of women and nature, and you have a deadly recipe for implosion.
Organized Religion’s Monstrous Shadow
Like rape, pedophilia is not about sex, but rather about power. For this reason, it would not matter if priests were married. In fact, most sexual abuse of children is committed by heterosexual males. Thus, attempting to treat symptoms of institutionalized pedophilia by allowing priests to marry or by accusing abusing priests of homosexuality is pointless because it does not address the systemic nature of these criminal acts against children which has little to do with marital status or sexual orientation.
Incidentally, I have not failed to notice that millions of children are sexually abused in their homes in every country and that in some countries, the sexual abuse and mutilation of children is ubiquitous and virtually accepted as an integral part of the culture. In those places too, parents and pillars of the community often proclaim their impeccable morality and righteousness.
What is more, whenever any individual, community, or organization declares itself a healing agent in service to the world, it must be aware of its shadow self, which if not consciously addressed will erupt in behavior unimaginably antithetical to its explicit mission. The shadow is simply all parts of self that we have disowned as the “not me” which takes up residence in the unconscious mind, i.e., We are the church; we are moral, upright, and here to save your soul from sin and eternal damnation. Our intentions and behavior are above reproach.
In a remarkable anthology on the shadow entitled Meeting The Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, the Buddhist-oriented Benedictine monk, David Stendl-Rast, in an article on “The Shadow In Christianity” notes that when we “try to live up to the standards of a God that is purely light…we can’t handle the darkness within us. And because we can’t handle it, we suppress it.” (132) Indeed, Catholicism is not the only religion or spiritual path where the shadow exists. It abides in every person, group, and institution. Rather than something to be feared, however, it is something to be worked with, understood, and its energy utilized in service of living consciously and compassionately in the world.
Connecting All The Dots
Every institution in industrial civilization is in the process of collapsing. One has only to observe education, healthcare, finance, media, transportation, government, and yes, religion, to observe institutions, not merely in a state of crisis, but in a profound process of dissolution. Moreover, the collapse of one institution does not occur in isolation but is rather connected with the collapse of all the others. And each institution is inextricably linked to the “Three E’s” of industrial civilization’s demise: energy, environment, and econmics.
Religion is but one institution, and the Catholic faith is but one religion in a web of faiths rapidly unraveling as “something greater” in the psyche of human beings attempts to make sense of things like financial collapse [TRANSLATION: the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world]; increasing healthcare costs [TRANSLATION: money-driven medicine devoid of one shred of compassion]; public school closings [TRANSLATION: the abject failure of standardized testing and the triumph of the public school to prison pipeline]; energy depletion [TRANSLATION: the permanent end of cheap and abundant fossil fuels]; climate change [TRANSLATION: the abject destruction of the ecosystem]; and the war on terror [TRANSLATION: infinite global conflicts sparked by industrial civilization's desperate attempts to secure the last remaining drops of oil on earth.]
The problem with the Catholic Church is not the pope or pedophile priests; the problem with the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church-one of the most toxic systems in human history which has unflinchingly colluded with corporate capitalism and the worst of humanity’s repressive regimes for gargantuan profit and the standardization of power and domination as a way of life.
As organized religion continues to unravel, human beings who have been seduced by it will be tempted to abandon their innate tendency to attempt to make sense of disappointment and loss. In the worst case scenario, they will become bitter, enraged, violent, depressed, and maybe even suicidal. Others may opt for a “new atheism” which while currently quite fashionable is not producing much more than what journalist Madeline Bunting calls “a lot of sore heads.” In her most recent piece she asks “;Are The New Atheists Doing Anything To Stop The Ills of Religion?” Bunting argues that the new atheism has sold a great deal of books but that in fact, “The paradox of New Atheism is that in its bid to make religion unacceptable, it has contributed to making it a subject that is considered worth talking about again.” Perhaps that is because as she also notes, “When someone is killed in a car accident, western rationality is good at analyzing how the brakes failed and the road curved, but has nothing to say about why, on that particular day, the brakes failed when it was you in the car: the sequence of random events that kill. This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit.”
It is precisely this search for meaning in the face of the collapse of civilization that I have attempted to address in depth in my 2009 book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. One of the opportunities collapse may offer is a return to the application of indigenous, earth-based wisdom disavowed two thousand years ago by patriarchal Christian theologians. In my opinion, this knowledge must sculpt the new paradigm that begs to be created by and for the earth community in which neither children, animals, soil, seas, forests, mountains, and rivers are exploited.
What is needed is not more priests or more religions. One Catholic priest who fully grasped his intimate connection with the earth chose to call himself not a theologian, but a geologian. That remarkable human being was none other than the late Thomas Berry who lamented that “Unfortunately, Western religious traditions have been so occupied with redemptive healing of a flawed world that they tend to ignore creation as it is experienced in our times.”
In 1999 Berry published his landmark book The Great Work-the great work, of course, being the lifelong process of understanding and knowing ourselves in relation to the earth. In The Great Work, Berry quotes a devout Catholic educator, Maria Montessori who believed that “only when the child is able to identify its own center with the center of the universe does education really begin.” Institutionalized pedophilia is the inevitable, systemic outcome of an entity which glorifies masculinity, disavows the feminine, repudiates nature and the human body, revels in the profits of global corporate capitalism, and makes domination and exploitation its implicit canon. I celebrate the collapse of organized religions, but I mourn the casualties of that collapse-the countless innocent children who never had the opportunity to identify their own center with the center of the universe.