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General Audience with Pope FrancisAfter being tossed from the Vatican’s priestly-pedophilia review panel, abuse victim Peter Saunders has a bit to say about that project. And what he said, in his interview with AFP, isn’t good at all (WebCite cached article):

“Of course Pope Francis has established he is part of the problem,” Peter Saunders said in an interview with AFPTV, during which he insisted he had not resigned and that only the pontiff himself could force him to quit the Vatican commission.

“That breaks my heart because when I met him 18 months ago I thought there was a sincerity and a willingness to make things happen, and I am afraid that has been dashed now.”…

But Saunders now says he realises the commission was always going to be about “smoke and mirrors” and that he is convinced the Church will never act alone to cure the “cancer” in its midst.

Saunders confirmed my suspicion that his removal from the panel was caused by something more recent than his criticism of Cardinal George Pell some eight months ago:

Saunders said the move was triggered by tensions that arose after a fellow commission member told him about being approached by two priests from an Italian diocese who had discovered a colleague was a serial abuser of children.

He also tackled something I’ve been talking about for years:

Saunders said the notion that clerical sex abuse was a problem of past decades — an argument Vatican officials have assiduously promoted — had to be challenged.

“This is not in any sense a historical issue or problem,” he said. “It has to be tackled now. The Pope could do so much more and he is doing next to nothing.

“This is a societal problem — but if the Church, the so-called moral leadership of the world, does not take a lead in this area it would quite rightly be considered morally bankrupt in every other area.”

Saunders is 100% correct. The Church has, in fact, repeatedly insisted that priestly pedophilia is a “historical problem” (and using that very phrase), yet as we all know, it’s not “historical,” it’s “ongoing.” As long as the Church refuses to admit that, it will remain possible for abusive clergy to go on abusing kids.

So much for the notion that Pope Francis might deal with this scandal better than his predecessors. All he managed to do, by creating this commission, was to come up with yet another way of deflecting it. How disappointing. The little bit of respect I’d had for Pope Francis is now gone.

Photo credit: Catholic Church England & Wales, via Flickr.

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Crepuscular Rays at Noon in Saint Peters Basilica, Vatican City (5939069865)When Pope Francis ascended to the papacy, he was hailed as a reformer, and many expected he’d handle the worldwide Catholic clerical child-abuse scandal much better than either Benedict or John Paul had. As I’ve blogged many times, Francis has in fact gone his own way, many times and over many issues.

Whether he’s been able to make a real difference, though, is another matter. And the clerical child-abuse scandal appears to be one in which he’s gotten nowhere. It’s not as though he’s done nothing at all … back in late 2013 he announced the creation of an advisory panel on the matter, which included abuse survivors (WebCite cached article). Unfortunately, that commission hasn’t done much. Its meetings have been infrequent, and its impact has been minimal.

And now, as CNN reports, it seems someone in the Vatican has decided to kick one of the abuse survivors off the panel (cached):

One of two sex abuse survivors on Pope Francis’ commission on the abuse of minors by the clergy has taken a leave of absence, the Vatican announced Saturday.

But Peter Saunders, an outspoken critic of the papal commission, responded: “I have not left and I’m not leaving.”

Founder of the London-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, Saunders told reporters, “I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will only talk to him about my position.”

A Vatican statement said the “direction and purpose” of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was discussed at a Saturday meeting.

“It was decided that Mr. Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission’s work,” the statement said.…

At a news conference after the Vatican’s announcement, Saunders said he was blindsided by the decision.

“I was asked to consider my role or what my role should be with the commission,” he said.

“I did not make a decision to take or accept any decision on a leave of absence. I said I would reflect on what I would do.”

Saunders said he learned about his supposed leave after the statement’s release.

The CNN article implies Saunders was thrown off the panel because of his harsh criticism of Australian Cardinal George Pell, but that happened eight months ago (cached). In most cases, that passage of time would suggest the two events aren’t linked. Then again, this is the Vatican we’re talking about, and it’s a proverbially slow-moving institution. Still, I’m not sure there’s a lockstep association here. It’s possible that Saunders has been causing internal problems for them during the intervening months, leading to this decision. That’s not to say any problems Saunders may have created for them are undeserved, or that he’s been unreasonable: The robed denizens of the Vatican probably just don’t like an abuse survivor calling them out on what they — and the rest of the hierarchy — did, and possibly are still doing.

That the Vatican didn’t even have the decency to tell Saunders he’d been dismissed before announcing his forced departure, is just another example of their moral deficiency and their sense of entitlement.

Was Pope Francis behind this low maneuver? Maybe … but maybe not. It’s hard to say how the Vatican operates these days. It’s true the Popes are nearly absolute monarchs, and technically in charge of everything that happens there. But there are times — both historically and now — when the machinery of the Vatican moves on its own, responding to its internal bureaucratic momentum. We’ll have to see what Francis does about this … but we’ll also have to keep in mind that, whatever we do hear, will have been filtered through that same machinery, since the Vatican is the Pope’s public-relations engine.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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President Obama greeted families in an overflow room after speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque. / Drew Angerer for the New York TimesFor years now I’ve blogged about what I call “the Great Neocrusade.” In the wake of Islamist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the Neocrusade has gone from a rhetorical effort to a physical and violent one.

President Obama took note of this, it seems. Taking a page from his predecessor, as the New York Times reports, he knocked the Neocrusade when he visited a Baltimore mosque (WebCite cached article):

President Obama on Wednesday embraced Muslims in the United States as part of “one American family” and implicitly criticized the Republican presidential candidates in a warning to citizens to not be “bystanders to bigotry.”

In a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first to a mosque in the United States as president, Mr. Obama recited phrases from the Quran and praised American Muslims as a crucial part of America’s history and vital to the nation’s future.

“And so if we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” Mr. Obama said.

The Right is, as one would expect, outraged over this. A lot of them still think he’s a “secret Muslim” (cached), and this visit will — for them — only confirm that delusion.

Look, I get it. These folk are angry. They hear about Islamist attacks and want all Muslims to be gone. The problem is, not all Muslims are terrorists. Being violent right back at Muslims who aren’t, themselves, violent Islamists is a form of “two wrongs make a right” thinking, and is fallacious.

Another problem is, Islamists aren’t the only terrorists who prey on Americans. Something else I’ve blogged about is the phenomenon of domestic Right-wing terror, which — despite our aversion to admitting it — exists, is real, and is at least as dangerous for Americans as Islamist terror.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / New York Times.

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Patriarch Kirill, pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed he was not surprised that 'honest' Muslims are flocking to Isis' quasi-religious state / Getty Images, via The IndependentRussia — once the majority component of a superpower that collapsed under its own weight — has become a backward country in more ways than one. In particular, the Russian government under Vlad “the Impaler” Putin has become repressive in several ways, and has been particularly harsh toward gays. Russia faces many issues, which are hard for Putin and his buddies to solve, so instead of doing that, he’s going after dissidents, critics, and LGBT folks, as if they’re the architects of Russia’s misery. (To be clear, they’re not.)

Now that Russia has inserted itself in the Syrian Civil War, it’s facing an enemy it hadn’t had to deal with before, i.e. ISIS/ISIL/IS/whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-that-savage-brood. That’s put them on the radar of Russian society.

It’s no wonder, then, that one of Vlad’s friends, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided to toss some of Russia’s bogeymen into the same basket with ISIS/IS/ISIL/whatever. As the (UK) Independent reports, the Patriarch blamed the rise of ISIS, and its ability to recruit, on gays and “godless civlilization” (WebCite cached article):

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has partially blamed an increased acceptance of homosexuality for the rise of Isis.

Patriarch Kirill claimed he was not surprised that some Muslims are flocking to Isis’ quasi-religious state as a way of escaping the “godless civilization” that celebrates events such as Gay Pride.

In an interview published on the Church’s official website [cached], Kirill said: “[Isis] is creating a civilization that is new by comparison to the established one that is godless, secular and even radical in its secularism.”…

Kiril [sic] said because the “godless civilization is reaching maturity”, it should come as no surprise that those who are opposed to liberal, secular ideas end up joining terror organisations.

Kirill’s description of the dangers posed by “secularism” are very similar to what one often hears from the Religious Right, here in the US:

“If you call non-traditional relationships a sin, as the Bible teaches and you are a priest or pastor, then you risk not only your ability to serve but you may be sent to prison,” he said.

There is no such effort underway anywhere I know of — especially in Russia — but as with the American R.R., that reality didn’t prevent Kirill from saying it exists.

Also, the Patriarch characterized ISIS recruits as “honest” and “truly religious.” I’m not sure how well that will go over with the majority of the Muslim world, which opposes ISIS.

In general, I love when puritanical people open their mouths. Almost universally they can’t keep their rotten, stinking, scum-coated feet out of them.

Photo credit: Getty Images, via The Independent.

Hat tip: Religion Dispatches.

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Shams ud-Din Tabriz 1502-1504 BNF ParisI bet you had no idea the game of chess … you know, the ancient game played with special pieces on a checkerboard … was profane in the eyes of the Almighty. Yeah, I know, it was news to me too. It took an Islamic scholar to figure that out. As the New York Times explains, that scholar is no less than Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric (WebCite cached article):

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players.

In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued in response to a question from a caller to a Saudi television show, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said that the game was “the work of Satan,” like alcohol and gambling, despite its long history in the Middle East. Chess is played across the Arab world.…

In his statement on the show, the grand mufti equated chess with gambling, which is forbidden in Islam.

“It makes the rich man poor, and makes the poor man rich,” he said. “It causes hostility and wastes time where it should not be spent.”

I suppose people can bet on chess matches, but as a game, chess doesn’t involve any gambling. So I’m not sure what Al-Shiekh’s beef is really about. It seems nonsensical.

Ironically, it was Arabs’ embrace of chess — which had originated in India, then moved on into Persia — which carried the game to the western world. As the Times reports, it remains popular in the Arab world, and this fatwa isn’t likely to accomplish much of anything, since people will continue playing chess in spite of it.

The lesson here is that religionism leads to all sorts of adsurdity. It grants undeserved authority and influence to dolts and clowns with the power to promulgate rulings and doctrines based on ignorance and idiocy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hat tip: Rational Wiki.

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Jesus with a gun, via Counterlight's Peculiars / Jesus Kicks Ass!I’ve blogged occasionally over the last few years about a ridiculous movement — primarily among evangelicals — that angles to get more guns into churches. For some reason, guns are sacred to Jesus. I guess. I mean, it’s not as though I’ve ever understood this notion. After all, wasn’t Jesus — who supposedly founded their religion — the one who told Christians to “turn the other cheek” and “hand over one’s shirt with one’s cloak”, and “whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword” and all of that? I guess the sacred nature of guns must escape me, cynical, cold-hearted, godless agnostic heathen that I am. I’m just not special enough to be gifted with such holy insights. Or something.

Anyway, this “bring guns to church for Jesus” trope has wandered into Catholicism, in a very public way. After his state enacted an “open-carry” law, the bishop of Dallas declared that guns aren’t allowed in any Catholic facilities in his diocese, and penned a missive on his blog announcing his opposition to “open carry.” Well, as you can imagine, this being Texas and all, that didn’t go over well. The Dallas Morning News reports on the backlash, which will include Catholics marching into churches armed to the teeth (WebCite cached article):

Plenty of Texas gun rights advocates celebrated 2016 as the year open carry finally arrived. But for some conservative Catholics, it’s another reason to clash with Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell.

The Dallas Diocese forbids parishioners from bringing guns – openly carried or concealed – to their churches. A recent online column by Farrell [cached] – described by some as “strident” – has made the Bishop’s critics even more vocal.…

The column said the ban was a reflection of the church as a place of sanctuary.

The column also praised President Barack Obama’s new executive order attempting to crack down on gun sales that hadn’t previously required background checks.…

“It is absurd that terrorists, criminals, and mentally unbalanced people can freely and openly buy weapons not intended for sport, but designed to kill people,” Farrell wrote.

It goes without saying a lot of Texans are incensed over what Farrell said. Much of that has more to do with the bishop’s expression of support for President Obama’s recent actions, than it does with his forbidding guns in Dallas-diocese churches.

At least one sanctimoniously-enraged Catholic quoted in the story plans to disobey Farrell:

[Catholic gun-toter Charles] Cleaver said he’ll continue carrying a gun to Mass, no matter what Farrell decides.

Remembering a friend’s warning, Cleaver said: “What good would that [gun] do for you if you’re not carrying?”

That last sentence points to the flaw in the gun-lovers’ arguments about how great it would be if everyone ran around with guns. They love guns; they think they’re useful; because they’re useful, that means they’re always needed; so if you don’t have one with you at all times, you may as well not even own one in the first place; but you do, so you have to take it everywhere. Yes, that’s the kind of “logic” we’re dealing with, in this sort of person.

P.S. Yes, in spite of the new law, private entities in Texas still have the right to forbid guns on their property. So Farrell’s ban of guns on diocesan property will stand.

P.P.S. I really love how Farrell’s critics called his ban on guns on diocesan properties and statement of support for Obama “strident,” as though stomping around armed to the teeth somehow isn’t also “strident.” Hmm.

Photo credit: Counterlight’s Peculiars.

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Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP) / via Washington PostChristianity’s history is dotted with controversies, rifts and schisms. They range in severity from differences over heresy (with each side calling the other “heretical”) in which different Christian congregations existed side-by-side for a time, such as the Donatist schism, to conflicts over doctrines and dogma that occasionally erupted in violence (either in the short term, e.g. the Nestorian heresy, or longer term, e.g. as the Iconoclast controversies), as well as schisms that ended up creating entirely-separate churches (e.g. the Great Eastern Schism or the Reformation).

The result of this long history is that Christianity isn’t a single entity, but rather, a collection of many different institutions whose only point in common is that they revere the figure known as Jesus Christ and ostensibly follow his putative teachings. (As it turns out, going all the way back to its origins, Christianity has always been a collection of varied movements. At no point in its history was it ever a single group following a single set of doctrines.) When Westerners think of religious schisms and conflicts, this history is what they tend to think of.

Even so, Christianity isn’t unique in this regard. All major religions have had their rifts, conflicts, “heresies,” and variant teachings.

Perhaps the most famous of these outside of Christianity is the Islamic schism; dividing that religion into Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims (with around 85% of the world’s Muslims belonging to the former sect).

This schism has its origins with the aftermath of the prophet Mohammad’s death in 632 CE. The two men who were his most likely successors as leaders of Islam were his first male convert, Abu Bakr, and his son-in-law Ali. Abu Bakr ended up being chosen, over the protests of Ali and his followers (the Shi’atu Ali or “partisans of Ali,” hence the name of their sect). The degree to which Ali himself conceded this choice isn’t entirely clear; aside from hard feelings over it, not much happened during Abu Bakr’s rule (which only lasted a couple of years), and Ali acted as an advisor to Abu Bakr’s successor Umar, so there was some comity at that point, although resentments undoubtedly lingered. Ali finally was named caliph, or leader of Islam, only in 656 (almost 25 years after Mohammad’s death) during the chaos that erupted after Umar’s successor Uthman was killed by rioters.

That Ali wouldn’t order the execution of those rioters caused the low simmering resentments between Uthman’s and Ali’s supporters to break out in the open, launching a civil war within Islam now called “the First Fitna.” Ali was assassinated and his son succeeded him, but within months abdicated in favor of Muawiyah, a leader of Uthman’s faction, thus ending the Fitna.

The conflict erupted anew in 680 when Muawiyah died and Husayn, another son of Ali, refused to accept Yazid, Muawiyah’s son, as the next caliph. Husayn was killed during the Battle of Karbala that very year.

This turned out to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back; at several points during the preceding decades, both sects had at least tried to get along, and the one war that had broken out in full fury had been settled; but Husayn’s death at Karbala proved to be too much for the Shi’ites to take. There would never again be any meaningful attempted accord. What’s more, there were rifts within each side; Ali’s assassin had belonged to a group within his own faction who’d rebelled against Ali’s efforts to negotiate an end to the First Fitna. And Yazid and his immediate successors ended up dealing with rebels that broke away from their original faction, as well.

In other words, the whole thing ended up being one monstrous clusterfuck.

The tensions and differences opened up by these 7th century conflicts — which at that time could have been ameliorated, had cooler heads prevailed back in 680 — still reverberate today. An example of this was made evident this weekend in Teheran, where — as the Washington Post reports — the Sunni state of Saudi Arabia’s execution of a famous Shi’ite triggered massive protests (WebCite cached article):

Iran’s Supreme Leader warned on Sunday that there would be divine retribution for Saudi Arabia’s rulers after the execution of a renowned Shiite cleric, sustaining the soaring regional tensions that erupted in the wake of the killing.

The warning came hours after crowds of protesters stormed and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran to vent their anger at the execution of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was among 47 people put to death in the kingdom on Saturday.

In a posting on his website, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the execution “will cause serious troubles for the politicians of this [Saudi] regime in a very short time….The hands of divine vengeance will surely snatch — by their necks — those cruel individuals who took his life.”

The execution of Nimr, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, has ignited sectarian tensions across the already inflamed region and jeopardized U.S. diplomacy aimed at tamping down conflicts in the Middle East.…

The Saudi consulate in the Iranian city of Mashad was also set on fire during the protests that erupted after Nimr’s execution was announced.

As WaPo explains, the Saudi executions were hardly some kind of Shi’ite purge:

Most of the 47 executed on Saturday were Sunnis accused of participating in Al Qaeda attacks.

As a side note, it looks as though Iranians have some kind of obsession with attacking embassies.

This outburst of violence isn’t actually the worst of the Sunni-vs-Shia conflict going on in the world. The Syrian Civil War has been, among other things, a proxy war between the (Sunni) Saudis and the (Shi’ite) Iranians, both making use of their own partisans in the region (such as Hezbollah, which is patronized by Teheran). Compared to the carnage there, setting an embassy ablaze might seem like small potatoes. But such are the tensions between Islam’s two main sects that violence can break out over virtually anything at all, almost anywhere there are Muslims.

And the worst part of it is, there’s no stopping it. No Sunni-Shia accord is on the horizon and there’s no chance of any reconciliation. It’s not going to happen. Just goes to show what can result from people obsessing over metaphysics — i.e. nothing good.

Photo credit: Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA, via AP, via Washington Post.

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