Why the Sins of the Catholic Church Have a Silver Lining

By Charles Onyango-Obbo
East African
October 11, 2010

The Catholic Church has got a lot of press in the past few years.

Unfortunately, it has been very bad press, about shocking abuse of boys by priests in the West, and Vatican officials' complicity in covering up such crimes.

In recent days, it has been hit by more scandal, after it was revealed that Italian prosecutors were investigating the Vatican Bank over money-laundering allegations.

However, these excesses are not new. The ancient Church was far worse and more corrupt than the modern one.

Ironically, though, without these sins, we wouldn't have modern democracy.

Fareed Zakaria, of CNN's GPS fame, has this interesting book, The Future of Freedom.

The bad habits of the early Catholic Church included what Zakaria calls the "most scandalous" practice of selling indulgences — papal certificates forgiving the buyer his or her sins, even those not yet committed.

The extravagance and excesses of the Catholic Church led Martin Luther to break away.

However, Zakaria observes, Luther was actually not the reformist or moderniser many people think he was.

He was the first Christian Taliban. He wanted the Catholic Church to go back to its old rigid ways to rediscover its soul. When the Church didn't listen, he broke away.

Luther's break had unintended consequences. It gave birth to the ideas of religious diversity and freedom of worship (not what he wanted).

Also, those were the days when the Church ruled not only the religious world, but the political world too.

Luther's revolt opened opportunities for ambitious kings and princes to grab power from an all-powerful Church — and thus was born the idea of the separation of church and state.

If the old Catholic Church hadn't behaved badly, the world would probably be less free today.

Furthermore, in light of the scandals, the Catholic Church has to do something to win back its moral authority and renew its credibility.

There are those who argue, unimaginatively, that ending the celibacy rule and allowing Catholic priests to marry would end priestly abuse of little boys. Nonsense.

As the figures show, 75 per cent of abuse of boys happens in families, at the hands of fathers, uncles, and friends.

Catholic priests don't contribute even 1 per cent of the global abuse total. It is a morally bankrupt prescription, because it suggests that the spectre of a fornicating Catholic priest is better than that of one who defiles altar boys.

The easier route for the Church would be to end the prohibition of the ordination of women as priests.

That would win very many new friends, and lead to a lot of amnesia about its recent failings.

These scandals could profit the Church further, because it encourages lazy Catholics to stay because the standards are fairly low.

It is probably the only church where pious lay followers can rightly feel that they are better than their priests and bishops.

The sins of the church leaders bring them to the same — or even lower — level as their flock, and that must give a few Catholics a pleasantly egalitarian feeling, the shame of the scandals notwithstanding.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail:

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