Honest and Decent Humans Should Oppose This Pope

September 30, 2010

For the past couple of months, a number of prominent secularists – including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – have lead public protests of Pope Benedict XVI, even exploring the possibility of his arrest, for his involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse. I have, for the most part, considered their campaign a distraction from more important issues, and more divisive than not.

No longer. I have changed my mind. That the public sees these protests as unimportant or divisive is not necessarily a problem with the protesters. Rather, it is a problem of lack of general appreciation of just how damning the evidence is for the claim that the Pope has acted immorally and illegally.

There are three main reasons for this change of mind on my part. The first is a deeper and fuller consideration of what the Pope has said and done. There is ever-mounting, yet already crystal clear, evidence that the Pope played a role in covering up sexual abuse of young boys within the Catholic Church. Initially I thought, “well, sexual abuse happens elsewhere.” Well, maybe. But rarely is its cover-up so systematic and calculated. Johann Hari has written one of the better recent commentaries on this situation. In his essay, he outlines a few cases where we know the Pope was directly involved. Here is an extensive quote:

“In Germany in the early 1980s, Father Peter Hullermann was moved to a diocese run by Ratzinger. He had already been accused of raping three boys. Ratzinger didn't go to the police, instead Hullermann was referred for ‘counseling.’ The psychiatrist who saw him, Werner Huth, told the Church unequivocally that he was ‘untreatable [and] must never be allowed to work with children again.’ Yet he kept being moved from parish to parish, even after a sex crime conviction in 1986. He was last accused of sexual abuse in 1998.

In the U.S. in 1985, a group of American bishops wrote to Ratzinger begging him to defrock a priest called Father Stephen Kiesle, who had tied up and molested two young boys in a rectory. Ratzinger refused for years, explaining that he was thinking of the ‘good of the universal Church’ and of the ‘detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke among the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age of the priest involved. He was 38. He went on to rape many more children. Think about what Ratzinger's statement reveals. Ratzinger thinks the ‘good of the universal Church’ – your church – lies not in protecting your children from being raped, but in protecting the rapists from punishment.

In 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee appealed to Ratzinger to defrock Father Lawrence C. Murphy, who had raped and tortured up to 200 deaf and mute children at a Catholic boarding school. His rapes often began in the confessional. Ratzinger never replied. Eight months later, there was a secret canonical ‘trial’ – but Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he was ill, so it was cancelled. Ratzinger advised him to take a ‘spiritual retreat.’ He died years later, unpunished.”

These episodes should disgust you. It should further disgust you that these are but a few examples. It should absolutely enrage you that the Pope and his “administration,” who knowingly covered up sexual abuse, have blamed everyone but themselves (to name a few supposed culprits: secularism , homosexuality , and The New York Times ). And it should confound you that the Vatican does not respect the law and justice , as evidenced by their keeping the entire process in-house, evading investigators at all turns.

But the outrage does not end with the actions taken in the sexual abuse cover-up. Consider the Pope’s public statements and positions on an array of topics.

There's his position not just that condom use is immoral, but that it actually make AIDS worse . Or, take his statements that gay marriage is an “insidious and dangerous” threat, or the Vatican’s position that homosexuality ought not be decriminalized . Or, recall the case of the nine-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather. Doctors predicted that she would die during childbirth, so they performed an abortion. Brazil’s Catholic Church excommunicated the girl’s mother and the doctors – but not the stepfather. The Vatican supported the decision.

The Pope has also stated that atheism has led to “the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" and has blamed atheists for the destruction of the environment . During his recent tour of Britain, he continued this line of thought, both warning against secularism, calling it a “dictatorship of relativism” (that's obviously false, but one must wonder if a dictatorship of the Pope’s sort of morality would be better); and claiming Nazism was a result of atheism (full transcript here ). Richard Dawkins has handled this well, and P.Z. Myers has done us all a service by posting a list of Hitler quotes that show the Nazi leader was anything but an atheist. Again, these are just a few bits of information. If you can stomach it, I urge you to use Google to search for more.

Now consider, as the second reason for changing my mind, that the Pope is not just any ordinary man. He is the religious and spiritual leader, and more importantly public representative, of one billion people on this Earth. He is the face and voice of Catholicism. The combination of his powerful role and the aforementioned evidence makes the entire situation even more disturbing. Thus, it is extremely important to have critical public discussion about his actions and views, more than any other Catholic we can think of. This is similar to the reasoning I have used in an article about Glenn Beck and his arguments.

The third reason for my change of mind is that many people still have not come around to the above facts – especially Catholics, who in America still support the Pope at relatively high levels. I know many Catholics, and when pushed, they do not support any of the above – from sexual abuse cover-up, to backwards policy on condoms and gays, to the painting of non-Catholics as immoral and evil. It would seem, then, that the challenge for those who already agree with the arguments above is to help the one billion Catholics in the world realize that the Pope, currently a revered public figure, is in fact an appalling excuse for their public leader. The combination of the evidence mentioned and the Pope’s powerful role is enough to to cause concern among secularists. But it should be even more reason for Catholics to care. Of course, the Pope is not the only person responsible for immorality or corruption within the Catholic Church. But he was directly involved in much of the recent immorality and corruption. Catholics should care because, at bottom, the man and those he is protecting should face both social and legal scrutiny for their actions.

Perhaps this is why it is so confusing and maddening to find people, including Catholics, who are apathetic to the situation. It is not just that they have sidestepped the facts; they seem not to understand what the facts say about Catholicism and its public image. Say what you will about Dawkins and Hitchens, and the approach they've taken, but the fact that many atheists criticize their method as unnecessarily aggressive – even if wrong – means they care about the public face of atheism. One ought to expect the same care from Catholics about their religious tradition.

Some Catholics have told me that protesting the Pope is but a waste of time, for the Pope will not step down. Probably not. Yet he is 83, and is likely to die soon. Catholic voices can influence the next pick. More importantly, opposition sends a general message that you do not stand with corruption and lies, but with decency, honesty, and humanity. Consider, for example, the following statement by Barbara Blaine (transcribed here by Ophelia Benson) at recent protests during the Pope’s visit to Britain. Blaine is a survivor of priestly sexual abuse:

“When we were children, and the priests were raping us, and sodomizing us, and sexually abusing us, we thought we were all alone – and we felt very alone, guilty, and ashamed. And over these past years, and even more recently over these past months, many of us as victims have found each other, and we have learned that we’re not alone. And I must tell each and every one of you: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all the victims, because today we recognize that you too care about the victims.”

Opposing the protests of the Pope is not about defending Catholicism from anti-Catholic attacks, as the Vatican and other Catholics have framed the debate. It is about defending Catholicism from ruin from within its own ranks. More importantly, it is about standing up for basic human goodness regardless of one’s ideological allegiance. There is no dogma requiring Catholics to follow their Pope to all ends. Theologians often state in debates with philosophers that God would not demand people to do immoral acts. Why does this rule not apply now?

This is not a situation where the facts are unclear and one can shrug his or her shoulders and say “I don’t know where I stand.” The mountain of evidence does not look different from different angles. It looks enormous and hideous from all angles. You need only look to admit that. Caring – and opposition – should follow naturally.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking


#1 Tea (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 3:02pm

Good for you, Michael!

#2 uzza on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 9:41pm

Wow, great roundup. I thought I was pretty well up on all this, but there’s stuff here I didn’t even know about.

#3 liberalartist on Friday October 01, 2010 at 11:59am

My mother, a dedicated Catholic, believes that the church will change of its own accord, so she remains silent in the face of all these atrocities. I think she is typical. I don’t believe it will change. She grew up during Vatican II and thinks that will happen again. I am skeptical, many of those changes have already been scaled back. The Vatican is an authoritarian organization which is entrenched in holding on to its own power. It is also losing moderates and what remains is ever-increasing conservatism. And it will cling to that conservative ideology as a life-preserver in a sea of secularization.

#4 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Friday October 01, 2010 at 12:45pm

Great article.  The pope and all connected with all of these crimes should stand trial.

#5 Ben Finney (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 1:01am

Yes! This is how it’s done.

Change your mind for specific, well-supported reasons.

If you choose to tell others, be prepared to show what the specific, well-supported reasons for your new position are, to ensure that the support is independently verifiable; and especially to show how your new position is *better* supported by the evidence.

Congratulations, Michael, and thank you very much for showing us your work.

#6 Deen (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 3:19am

Powerful article. You’ll make a great angry atheist yet . Nice too see someone publicly change their mind. It also shows that speaking up is not futile.

Now it’s up to the Catholics. Will they continue to fund their church and their pope? Or will they demand the guilty church leaders be brought to justice? Or at the very very least demand a radical change of policy? So far I’ve not been too impressed with the Catholic response.

#7 drollere on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:34am

the key issue here is that legal action provides legal authority to obtain internal church communications and to depose church leaders under oath to god.

the canard that the vatican represents a “state” and therefore enjoys “state” privileges and immunities is worth negating legally as well.

finally—society proceeds primarily by imitation of behavior. protests create the precedent for protests, the example of protests, and the justification of protests. atheists need to stand up and be heard, forcefully and clearly.

it’s the only way to turn back the rising tide of religious propaganda, deception and cynicism, and put this superstition down like a rapid dog.

#8 Ophelia Benson on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 10:42am

I take it you removed my comment, Michael? All I said was that I see you’ve been reading Butterflies and Wheels. That’s because most of your links are there, and I know you read it sometimes, so I think you probably did get some of your current views on this issue from B&W.

I’m pretty sure you got that quotation from Barbara Blaine from there, because your link is to YouTube, not something written. I transcribed that quotation and posted it at B&W. It would have been polite at least to credit me.

(I say this because you’re irritated by things I’ve written lately about John Shook’s Huffington Post article among others. I think you shouldn’t let that irritation prompt you to help yourself to a huge amount of links and even a transcription without a hat tip or any other acknowledgement.)

#9 Michael De Dora (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 11:45am


No, I did not remove your comment. Bloggers here don’t have that sort of power. Are you thinking about the comment you left over on Rationally Speaking?

Yes, I got the Blaine link and comment from your site. That is the only thing I pulled from B&W. Apologies for for not crediting your efforts to transcribe her remark, and thank you for doing so.

#10 Ophelia Benson on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 4:54pm

Michael - oh, sorry, that must be what I was thinking of. I’d forgotten that this first appeared there *and* that it was there that I’d commented. I do apologize. Thanks for the ack.

If you haven’t actually watched and listened to Barbara Blaine, I recommend it - it’s very powerful.

#11 steve oberski (Guest) on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 6:35am


I’ve been critical of you in earlier columns so let me say good for you, not for agreeing with my viewpoint, but for being willing to publicly change your stance in the face of new evidence.

#12 HappyHeretic (Guest) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 at 11:10am

A beautiful article, especially with all the relevant links pointing at the foibles of this man and his institution.

#13 Xenia (Guest) on Thursday October 07, 2010 at 1:36am

Yes, a very powerful article indeed.

What is even more horrible is that he did not become pope in spite of his views and actions and all his blatant absence of action ... he became pope BECAUSE of it. Putting the Church first, regardless how many innocent kids may suffer and die proves them that you are obviously made of the right stuff to become a pope.

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