Because I Care ~ HOLEY GHOST

FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the old Greek myth of Pandora's Box, I would like to briefly retell it here.

Long ago, a king fell in love with and married a beautiful girl named Pandora. He gave her everything she wished for, including a key to his treasury, so she could help herself to anything there. He also told her she could go everywhere except into a small room high up in a tower in the east wing; under no circumstances was she to go there.

The king, as kings must, spent a lot of time running his kingdom, and was often away from home, leaving Pandora to her own devices. She missed her husband greatly during his absences and so, to pass the time, took to exploring the palace; she enjoyed this, as every room contained something different. One day, however, after she’d been to all the other rooms, she climbed the tower in the east wing, and came to the room she had been forbidden to enter. Just as she was about to open the door, she recalled what her husband had said, turned and went down the stairs, but not without thinking about what the room might contain.

Curiosity finally overcame her, however, and a few days later, she went up into the tower again, and this time opened the door of the mysterious room, expecting to find wonderful things inside. But the room was empty except for an old oak chest, the likes of which were common in other rooms. As we can imagine, having come this far, she didn’t stop there, and went to the chest to lift the lid, but it was very heavy and the hinges were rusty, requiring great effort to raise it. She was unprepared for what happened. As she raised the lid out poured fearsome and horrible creatures— scaly, spiny, horned, slimy, furred and feathered— that crawled, flapped and slithered around the room and out of the open door, and though she was scared of the repulsive creatures, her fear of what her husband would say impelled her to try to catch and put them back into the box. No sooner did she lift the lid to get one of them in, however, than more escaped. At last, she understood why her husband had warned her to stay away from that room, but it was too late: she had released evil into the world, and it could not be recaptured; it was something that would trouble mankind forever!

Before Pope John Paul II made his November ‘99 state-visit to India, some right-wing Hindu organizations staged a protest, demanding he apologize for atrocities committed by Portuguese Catholics against Hindus in Goa over 400 years ago in the name of the ‘Holy Inquisition.’ Obviously unaware that the Pope represents only Catholics, and not the whole spectrum of Christian sects (as popes once did and would like to do again), they also asked him to denounce pressured conversions and pledge that no Christian missionary in India would ever undertake such in the future, claiming that "religious conversion is tantamount to rape." Another of their demands was that he should recognize and declare that Christianity was not the only way to salvation, and say "that all religions lead to God. If and when he says that, all disputes will be over and there will be world peace."

His refusal to do this, and in fact, to call his bishops to spread Christianity throughout Asia, caused India’s Prime Minister, Vajpayee, to say he was not concerned by the Pope’s call, but warned Christian missionaries against using unethical means to convert people. The secretary of one of the protesting Hindu groups said: "The Vatican cannot convert educated men and thus finds itself grazing the fields of poverty and illiteracy. The Pope is free to preach, but he has no right to preach for conversions. It is an unholy act. Had Jesus Christ been alive he would not have allowed that. The Hindu religion believes that all paths lead to God and if the Pope had declared that the Bible was not the only way, we would have supported him. But he thinks and says that the Bible is the answer. This is where he is wrong." (The Pope had said, during his address in New Delhi, that Christ is often perceived as ‘foreign’ in Asia, but that "the peoples of Asia need Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Asia is thirsting for the living water that Jesus alone can give.") The secretary accused the local church of using enticements to lure people to accept Christianity, and reiterated allegations that missionaries were behind insurgencies in India’s north-east.

Would those Hindus, I wonder, be somewhat placated with the Pope’s astounding announcement of March 12th March 2000, entitled: Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past? Although they did not get what they demanded, it is much more than many people— including myself— dreamed possible. Let us look at it somewhat. The Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, has confessed:

1. Faults committed in the service of truth: intolerance and violence against dissidents, wars of religion, violence and abuses of the crusades, coercive methods of the Inquisition.

2. Faults that have compromised the unity of the Body of Christ: excommunications, persecutions and divisions.

3. Faults committed in the area of relations with the people of the First Alliance, Israel: disdain, acts of hostility, silences.

4. Faults against love, peace, the rights of peoples, the respect of cultures and of other religions, committed in the course of evangelization.

5. Faults against human dignity and the unity of the human race: towards women, different races and ethnic groups.

6. Faults in the area of fundamental rights of individuals and against social justice: the downtrodden, the poor, the unborn, social and economic injustices, marginalization.

Usually, when Catholics confess their sins to a priest, they must be specific—what it was, how often they committed it, for example, and with what intention. They must show remorse and a determination not to commit the sin again. Only then may forgiveness and absolution come.

The Pope did not specify the historical sins of Catholics, however, but only generalized. He maintained that whatever evils done were done by Catholics, not by the Church, which remains unsullied. But what is this except a matter of semantics, a twisting of words? There is no organization, no Church apart from the people who compose it.

The Church is the most ruthless and cynical body in the world, and throughout its history, has committed untold crimes against humanity, on an enormous scale. And here you have it from the mouth of Vatican official, Bishop Piero Marini: "Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary."

How does the pope's apology— one of several he has made over the past few years, but the most daring so far— help the victims of the Church, who can know nothing about it? This is really about the Church’s need to assuage its own guilty conscience, acknowledge its errors and forgive itself— to put down the burdens of the past so as continue into the Third Millennium of its story. It takes courage and humility to do this, and I respect the pope for that; in my eyes, regardless of what I think of Christianity, it is his attempt to get the Church back on a viable course.

What were the sins that this ‘apology’ was supposed to expiate? The most outstanding ones that John Paul II apparently meant were the Crusades, the Inquisition and a terrible inaction and silence during the Holocaust. He himself was not responsible for those dark episodes in the Church, but has inherited the guilt along with his mantle.

How can he blame ‘erring Catholics’ for the Crusades, when it was the Popes of that time who ordered military campaigns over a period of 200 years to restore the ‘Holy Land’ to Christian rule, promising absolution for those who died in the service of the Cross. These Unholy Wars resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians, apart from Catholic deaths. The ‘Holy Inquisition,’ too, was a fiend-child of the Vatican, which authorized torture as a means of extracting confessions from ‘heretics.’ The Church benefited tremendously from such persecutions, as the property of such ‘heretics’ was confiscated and became the Vatican’s; it was really big business.

John Paul II is a remarkable man, and when he dies will leave an impressive record. We may never fully know of the part he played in the collapse of Communism in Europe, but it was considerable, and the world has reason to be grateful for that. He has been planning this apology for years, and must have had to face great internal opposition; there are ruthless people in the Vatican who will stop at nothing to maintain their power; popes have been murdered by their own people for less than that.

How far would he have gone if he were younger and free enough to do it? Might he have rescinded the fanciful notion of papal infallibility pronounced by Pope Pius IX in 1864, which, for sheer arrogance and spiritual pride (a cardinal or major sin to Catholics) really wins the prize? As an educated man and the most widely-traveled pope in history, can he really believe that? It is a great obstacle in the way of good relations with other religions, and even of his standing as a world-leader; more and more people will question and reject this myth, which is totally out of sync with present times. To explain and justify it, the Vatican had to sift through the New Testament for things to support it. But the New Testament is the most tampered-with book in the world, and that is merely using one myth to support another, and is not at all convincing. Even so, because Christianity is a religion of belief, people will believe what they want to believe, and as Will Durant, the American historian wrote:

"History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations".

No matter what he would like to do, he is a victim of the past, and his hands are tied. When dogmas and creeds are established, it is hard to repeal them without flying in the face of the underlying claim that the pope is the representative— Vicar— of Christ on earth, which is where the idea of infallibility came from; Christ, as the Son of God, is considered perfect, despite the accounts in the Bible that clearly reveal his imperfection.

Until the 4th century, the Bishop of Rome (still one of his titles), was one among many, and recognized by none as ‘supreme’; only when he and his successors managed to gain the backing of Constantine and later ‘Christian’ emperors, did they proclaim themselves so. Bitter dispute about this title went on for centuries and led, eventually, to the irrevocable spilt between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western Churches (not to mention the Protestant branch), which continues until now. Another title— Pontifex Maximus— was appropriated from the Roman emperors, together with the imperial purple, when the Empire was no more; the pope became the most-powerful man in Europe, exacting tribute from princes and kings, and even deposing them at times; they had to bow to his commands, under fear of being excommunicated and thereby losing any chance of going to Heaven.

Another myth is that popes are appointed by God. Nonsense. They are chosen by a conclave of Cardinals, meeting and voting in a sealed room until they agree whom to elect; most of them hope to be the one. Such elections have been the result of intense wheeling and dealing, buying and selling, the ‘Throne of Peter’ often going to the highest bidder, and occupied by men who were in no way religious or spiritually-inclined. Knaves and rascals, murderers and rapists— like the incestuous Rodrigo Borgia— have sat on that hot seat. Many were murdered, some not lasting even a year in office. Yet still they scheme and strive for the position; the lure of power is so great.

I am happy that the Pope has made this stupendous acknowledgement; it is long overdue. But in fact, if the Catholic Church had not been founded on arrogance and ignorance, it might have had nothing to apologize for. Its fear, bigotry and intolerance caused it to do the terrible things that John Paul II now feels it necessary to somehow try to explain away. But it is a subterfuge, and will not work. Unless the Catholic Church changes its basic beliefs, there is no guarantee that it will not do similar things in the future, if and when conditions permit. As is well-known, history repeats itself, and the world is not yet so enlightened that it cannot slip back into the kind of darkness that the Church plunged Europe into for a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire; we should not confuse technology with wisdom or understanding.

The Pope, like Pandora, has opened a box with this Apology, but unlike the things that poured forth from hers, good things have come from the Pope’s, and cannot be recaptured. Whether this was his intention or not, it will open the eyes of some people to what has gone on, because although these matters were not secret, many people are ignorant of the past, and history’s lessons are wasted on them. This admission— ’direct from the horse’s mouth’— is just what the world needs to help it discern the true from the false.

According to my experience— for what it is worth to anyone else— if we are able to reject the Judeo-Christian idea of God, which is childishly anthropomorphic, we find a strength to deal with whatever life throws at us, in place of the drug-like dependence on a fairy-tale, as before. I am actually grateful to my Christian upbringing, as it gave me something to reject; it became like the platform from which to launch a rocket, without which the rocket could not take off. And, to extract something positive from it is like Michelangelo looking at the block of flawed marble that had long stood in a Florence square, unwanted and unused. He saw the flaw in it, but he also saw David, and, acquiring permission to use the block, drew David out by removing from the stone everything that was not-David. Another analogy: it is like someone prospecting for gold in a stream: he scoops his basin into the stream-bed, pours off the water, removes the pebbles, the twigs, the sand, the mud, and then, when everything that is not gold has been removed, he might find some tiny specks of gold remaining; he does not begin by taking out the specks of gold. Truth is not approached by starting with a set of preconceptions about it— with minds already made up— but by a process of negation: not this, not that.

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