Posts Tagged “europe”

Women condemned for witchcraft burned at the stake / Rudolf Cronau [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the (many) surprising things I learned about the Middle Ages, while I studied that period in college, was that for much of the period — despite common folk belief that witches were real and a threat to society — witch-hunts generally did not occur. The Church actually taught that witches did not exist — despite widespread folk belief they did, in many areas — and that to suggest they did, was heresy.

That’s not to say the Church was a collection of pansies; they certainly did go after heretics of various kinds, e.g. the Cathars, against whom they marched to war in the early 13th century, and the repression of the Knights Templars was predicated on charges of heresy and blasphemy, not of witchcraft (as is sometimes said).

But through the 15th century this attitude changed, and witch-hunts began to occur. From the middle of the 16th century through the middle of the 17th, witch-hunts reached their peak. By the close of the 17th century, witch-hunting mania had all but died out, both in Europe and in the New World (the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place in the early 1690s).

I’d always suspected this had been brought on by religious reform fervor which had been underway for some time already (e.g. in the case of Waldenses, Cathars, Lollards, Hussites, etc.). Especially in the wake of the Great Western Schism ending in 1417, religion was being rethought in many quarters. But that’s as far as my speculation went.

Recently two economists (of all people) have examined this mystery, and arrived at a possible explanation. The (UK) Guardian reports on their interesting findings (Archive.Is cached article):

But by 1550 Christian authorities had reversed their position [that witches didn’t exist], leading to a witch-hunt across Christendom. Many explanations have been advanced for what drove the phenomenon. Now new research suggests there is an economic explanation, one that has relevance to the modern day.

Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia argue that the trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share” [cached].

As competing Catholic and Protestant churches vied to win over or retain their followers, they needed to make an impact — and witch trials were the battleground they chose. Or, as the two academics put it in their paper, to be published in the new edition of the Economic Journal: “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

They reach their conclusion after drawing on analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft in 21 European countries.

It was about both sides each trying to one-up each other and prove their piety and sacred prowess. It’s an interesting idea, and makes a good deal of sense in the context of the time. Although the Guardian compares this to Stalin’s “show trials” of the mid-1930s, I see parallels elsewhere, such as with Islamist groups going after third-party (mostly occidental) victims in their efforts to impress the rest of the Islam world with their sanctity and to prove they have al-Lah’s favor.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hat tip: Secular Web News Wire.

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Cathedral in BruggeThe Roman Catholic clerical child abuse scandal, unfortunately, refuses to go away. Nor — given the nature of the crimes committed, compounded by the many long decades of time during which they happened — should it. A report by a pedophilia expert in Belgium makes clear how extensive and enduring the child abuse was, as reported by the (UK) Guardian (WebCite cached article):

Some of the most damning evidence of systematic child abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy to come to light was unveiled today by Belgium’s leading authority on paedophilia, who published hundreds of pages of harrowing victim testimony detailing their traumas and suffering.

The explosive report by Peter Adriaenssens in the town of Louvain, east of Brussels, lists evidence of 476 instances of child abuse by priests and bishops going back 50 years.

What’s truly remarkable here is that this report was not the product of a government investigation, nor was it done by victims’ advocates. It was, instead, the Catholic Church’s own doing:

Adriaenssens was appointed by the church last year to head an independent inquiry into the scandal. Since April, when Roger Vangheluwe, the bishop of Bruges, resigned after admitting persistently molesting a nephew, the Adriaenssens commission has been inundated with evidence, with hundreds of victims coming forward.

He has since documented cases of abuse occurring in almost every diocese in the country and in virtually every school run by the church. “We can say that no part of the country escapes sexual abuse of minors by one or several [church] members,” said Adriaenssens.

“This is the church’s Dutroux dossier,” he added in reference to the notorious Belgian paedophile serial killer, Marc Dutroux, who kidnapped, tortured, abused and murdered six girls in 1995-6.

The extent of the damage caused by this systemic abuse is apparent:

Speaking of the victims, Adriaenssens said that 13 had killed themselves, according to relatives, and another six had attempted suicide.

13 suicide victims and 6 attempted suicides may not sound like a lot, but any life ruined by, or lost to, the abuse, is one too many. This abuse is not of recent vintage, either:

The abuse went back to the 1950s, was most common in the 60s and was tailing off by the 1980s, Adriaenssens said.

“The exposed cases are old, of course,” he said. “Society has developed. But there’s nothing to indicate that the number of paedophiles has diminished. Where are they today?”

Adriaenssens asks a very good question: Where are the abusers within the ranks of Catholic clergy? No one knows. The Roman Catholic Church continues with “business as usual” and continues to resist being held accountable, either for the actions of the individual priest-abusers, or for the bishops and other hierarchs who covered for them, shielded them from prosecution and lawsuits, and held onto them in spite of the abuse they were guilty of.

Hat Tip: Peter at the Antibible Project Forum (on Delphi Forums)

Photo credit: 8ran.

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st vitus in hdrThe scandal of child abuse (including, but not limited to, sexual abuse) at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy has flashed around the globe since becoming an issue in the United States in the early 00s. Among the more recent countries where credible allegations are emerging, is Austria. At various points the complaint has been made that the Church’s celibacy requirement may be wholly or partially to blame for what has happened. To date the Church has generally denied that celibacy is an issue, although it has promised to do a better job of reviewing candidates for the priesthood to be sure they don’t have “problems” that might manifest after they are ordained. The New York Times Lede blog writes about some Austrian clergy suggesting that it might be more of a problem than the Church will admit (WebCite cached article):

Austrian Priests Suggest Celibacy May Be a Problem

On Thursday two senior Catholics in Austria, where reports of the sexual abuse of children by priests and nuns have been in the news, suggested that the role of priestly celibacy may need to be discussed as Catholics seek to understand and end scandals that have erupted across Europe and in the United States in recent years.

The Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, wrote in an article for a Catholic magazine that it was time for the Church to undertake an “unflinching examination” of what might be at the root of the problem of celibate clerics sexually abusing children.

As The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, Riazat Butt, explained on Thursday, Archbishop Schönborn wrote that the discussion should “include the issue of priest training, as well as the question of what happened in the so-called sexual revolution,” as well as “the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole.”

Note the attempt at deflection here; the Archbishop is suggesting it’s not merely celibacy that’s the problem, but celibacy within the context of “the sexual revolution.” He’s indirectly saying that even if celibacy contributes to the problem, it’s not the Catholic Church nor even the celibacy requirement that are at fault, it’s society as a whole, and the “sexual revolution” that are to blame. He’s not going as far as saying celibacy of Catholic clergy should be ended:

In fact Archbishop Schönborn said on Friday that he was not saying that celibacy caused pedophilia. “If celibacy were the reason for sexual abuse,” he said, “there wouldn’t be any abuse in the rest of society.”

Needless to say, since at least some of the allegations — such as in Ireland — date back to before the “sexual revolution,” it can safely be ruled out as either a cause of the problem or a contributor to it. So Archbishop Schönborn is wrong on that count.

That said, at the risk of appearing to defend the R.C. Church (which I am not actually doing, as you will see), I also do not think celibacy has much, if anything, to do with this problem. Allow me to explain.

First, the Archbishop is correct that, if celibacy were the only cause of sexual abuse, one would never find it outside the celibate … and this is not the case at all. Sex crimes of all sorts are committed by the non-celibate as well as the celibate.

Second, many people in the occidental world think of celibacy as “unusual” or “strange,” especially since there are a lot of churches and religious traditions which don’t require celibacy from their own clergy, leaving Catholicism as one of the few remaining holdouts on that score. The truth is that celibacy as a spiritual ideal, is not at all “strange.” It existed in the pre-Christian Hellenic world e.g. among the Pythagoreans; it existed in the Roman institution of the Vestal virgins; it existed in the Judaic world of Jesus’ own time among the Essenes; it was an ideal that at least some Christians aspired to right from the start of Christianity, persisted through the Middle Ages, and continues today; and it also existed — and still does — in other, non-occidental religious traditions (e.g. among Buddhist monks and many others). If celibacy caused people to be sexual abusers, we’d find it rampant in all of those traditions as well … and we would find it much more often in celibate organizations than we would from non-celibate groups within the same tradition. I’m not sure this is the case either.

Third, not all of the allegations being made about Catholic clerical abuse are sexual in nature; some of the reports are of beatings and other kinds of abuse, where sexual motives appear not to come into play. It’s the sexual allegations that seem to get the most press attention, but they’re not all there is to this scandal.

Fourth, scandals of abuse of children at the hands of clergy and religious institutions who were to care for them, are not even unique to the R.C. Church and its celibate clergy … the Canadian residential-school scandal, which involved Catholic as well as non-Catholic institutions, demonstrate this conclusively.

No, the real cause of this long-running scandal — which again is borne out by comparison to the Canadian residential schools scandal — is not celibacy. It’s something else entirely: Impunity. The sad truth is that the perpetrators of the crimes did what they did, because they knew they would be able to get away with it.

Within the Catholic Church itself, the chief culprit here is the secrecy with which it operates, as well as the principle, long held by the R.C. Church, that it generally does not allow its priesthood to be prosecuted by secular authorities. Yes, there have been times where abuser-priests were prosecuted; in the US one of the most famous examples is that of the late defrocked Fr John Geoghan. But these prosecutions usually happen in spite of the Church and its hierarchy, not because of them. In fact, the various dioceses involved in individual cases usually spend a great deal of legal effort in attempting to block and/or derail such prosecutions. (The order of Christian Brothers in Ireland, for example, sued in court to shut down that government’s lengthy and extensive investigation, and almost succeeded.) Generally speaking, the Catholic Church does not believe its clergy should be subject to secular criminal prosecution, no matter the priest’s crime.

But the impunity also exists independently of the Church’s own secrecy policy and assumption of clerical privilege. In the examples of both Canada and Ireland, one of the discoveries has been that the abuses were actually known by secular officials — and in some cases by society at large — but were allowed to happen anyway. In other words, secular authorities generally looked the other way, without regard to the Church’s efforts to prevent prosecutions.

The cold truth of all this is that celibacy is the least of the worries here. Even if the Church were to repeal its celibacy policy, its secrecy and demand of immunity to prosecution still would get in the way of secular authorities holding priests accountable for anything they do. This means priests would still have incentive to commit crimes — of whatever type, whether sexual or not, or abuse of children or other things — because they know the Church will at least attempt to shield them from prosecution. That is what must change … celibacy is largely insignificant by comparison.

Photo credit: james_clear.

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