March 2, 1997
When they were part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “in” group, Bill Moyers and George Ball were known as the “domesticated dissenters.” They opposed the escalation of the Vietnam War but were permitted to voice criticisms under two conditions: one, they didn’t discuss their views with outsiders; and two, they didn’t challenge the policy itself. They had to criticize around the edges or else find themselves on the outside looking in. In 1966, they resigned.
It didn’t matter that Ball and Moyers were right all along, or that Johnson’s Vietnam policy was irrational. The president and his inner circle had become prisoners of their policy. So much prestige, capital, and false hope had been invested in escalation that re-evaluation of the policy was not an option. Rocking the boat from the inside was also not an option. It’s hard to imagine that a group of such intelligent men could have persisted in such a blunder, but a group that feels the need to promote conformity at all costs will act irrationally and contrary to its own interest.
This degenerate decision-making process is commonly called “groupthink.” In groupthink, defence of the group and its members is paramount. Criticism from within, however valid, must be controlled, rationalized away or openly attacked. In the end, groupthink, not the North Vietnamese, defeated Johnson. Those of you too young to remember the Vietnam War can still see the effects of groupthink on a group defending itself against uncomfortable criticism—the Vatican.
This is not the best of times for Roman Catholic Christianity. The Jesus Seminar’s quest for the real, historical Jesus amid the interpolations of his biographers, and the International Q Project’s quest to factor out common literary traditions in the four gospels (Q stands for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”) pose challenges to the church’s divine authority. Official proscriptions on female or married priests, birth control and premarital or homosexual sex are alienating increasing numbers of followers.
Catholics of Vision is one group of reform-minded Christians trying to stem this tide of alienation. In a Jan. 26 sermon, Ottawa priest Rev. Herman Falke (an “undomesticated” dissenter) was censured for promoting the concept of married and female priests to his parishioners. “Somewhere, somehow, there has to be some change in the church,” he said in a Canadian Press story. “Otherwise, people in the pews are going to lose heart.”
On the surface, Falke’s position seems eminently rational and helpful; however, this is precisely why it cannot be permitted. The official response from the Vatican’s chief of orthodoxy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, is that Jesus wanted priests to be male. “The church does not have the power to modify the practice, uninterrupted for 2,000 years, of calling only men,” he told the American Press.
Notice how Ratzinger bases his answer on tradition not the Bible. This is noteworthy, since the bible has nothing to say about female or married clergy—nothing. All claims that Jesus forbade female clergy, homosexuality etc., must be read into the texts, not gleaned from them. In fact, the Bible is so vague, obtuse and cryptic, it is virtually impossible to say anything definitive about it. Nevertheless, the church sources its authority to Jesus and biblical teachings. Ratzinger sees the problem: defence of church tradition (groupthink) is paramount, even when a rational, honest reading of the bible turns up no justification for it.
Official antipathy toward female clergy predates Jesus by almost 1,400 years. In the 12th century BCE, Iron Age raids and migrations from the Balkans descended upon the Bronze Age cultures of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean (among others). The invaders brought with them a patriarchal god-based religion that they imposed on the dominant goddess-based Bronze Age peoples. The Dorians, for example, settled in Greece and were the progenitors of the Spartans. Others went on to Cyprus and the Levant and became Philistines.
As Michael Grant writes in The Greek Myths, the stories of Zeus, Poseidon and the other Hellenic gods allegorically describe the invaders’ conquest of the goddess cultures. The myth of Hera being born parthenogenetically from the head of Zeus symbolizes the conquest. (Hera was established in Greece long before Zeus, but it was necessary to present Zeus as her creator.
The writers of the Hebrew and Christian bibles consequently were products of the Iron Age and would have been steeped in god cultures with their antipathy toward women. Jerome, for example, despised women so much that he forbade consideration of reincarnation lest he be reborn as one.
The Vatican is an Iron Age institution as much as it is Christian. The masculine structure is so much a part of church history that its leaders cannot face up to its shortcomings lest they call their own legitimacy into question. Therefore, denials and proscriptions are the only weapons the Vatican has against conscientious reformers like Falke, who is closer to the compassionate “Christian” ideal the church claims to emulate.
Within a generation, two at the most, I predict that the Vatican will admit women priests, condone birth control—maybe also homosexuality—but it will have to wait until John Paul II leaves. On Tuesday he issued the absurd edict that divorced people who marry must abstain from sex because they live in sin.
It reminded me of what the first-century church father Tertullian said when challenged about the credibility of the Bible: Credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd.