Preposterous Universe

Friday, April 22, 2005
Halting the march of secularization

The Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests, bishops, cardinals, or Pope. Precisely because this fact is so familiar, it's easy to lose sight of how bizarre and retrograde it really is. Only two countries in the world prohibit women from voting and holding office -- Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- and that might be changing. The only reason the Church can even imagine getting away with its overt sexism is that it's a religion, and gets instructions from God. (In particular, the Holy Spirit, who seems to be the messenger in these matters.) This is why the factual incorrectness of the religious view of the universe is not simply a matter of empty metaphysics: it leads directly to a warrant for nonsensical ethical claims.

It's taken hundreds of years of struggle, but Western society has been gradually improving its stance toward women and sexuality ever since the Enlightenment. It's on these issues -- women priests, abortion, birth control, homosexuality -- where the differences between the Church and secular Europeans and Americans are most pronounced. And if anyone doesn't believe that these differences aren't a major factor in the decline in the numbers (and activity) of Catholics in Europe and North America, they're fooling themselves.

So what does the Church do? Elects it's most visible advocate of hard-line retrenchment on these issues as Pope. There could be some logic there; if the cardinals think that compromise on issues of sexuality is simply morally wrong, they could think it wise to make their position as explicit as possible. But then you get things like this (via Crooked Timber):
These sessions were also covered by an oath of secrecy. But several cardinals made clear on Wednesday that the march of secularization across Western Europe was the number one problem on their minds, and that Ratzinger seemed to be part of the solution.

The new pope, said George, the Chicago archbishop, "understands Western society" and "is very well prepared" for the task of revitalizing Christianity in affluent, secular cultures.
That seems to be the exact opposite of the truth. Charging forward with condemnations of homosexuality and abortion will not -- I'm going out on a limb here -- revitalize Christianity in affluent, secular cultures. If that's what Pope Benedict thinks, his understanding of Western society needs an upgrade.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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