In Trier (Germany) in 1231, the local Archbishop, a significant temporal power in his own right, convened a Synod to consider how to implement a particular papal order - Pope Gregory IX's institution of an Inquisition to crush heresy. His concern was with dissident or aberrant religious views - that meant people who did not conform to a system of thought imposed by authority from above.
The local Church answerable to Rome
had discovered that in a prosperous part of Germany (Trier, Mainz and
Cologne) a counter-Church was developing with its own hierarchy of
authority very similar to that of the Catholic Church itself. We know little of their true beliefs. The dissidents may have
been close to the Cathars or derivative from them, or not connected at all, but what we do know is
that they were (literally) 'demonised', positioned publicly as
'Luciferian' or 'Satanic'.
Key figures were isolated and burned at the stake over the next
three years. Women were noted as part of the cult and accusations of
sexual perversity were made.
Whatever the truth of the matter, in 1231 in Germany, the Church
crushed a group whose only crimes were almost certainly limited to not accepting the authority of
Rome and flouting norms dictated by that Church and perhaps, though
not proven, to have developed a sexual code different from the standards
of a sterile priesthood.
But, of course, you might believe the Church. The Papal Bull of 1233 was to advise us that the Luciferians kissed the back side of a cat and that
Lucifer appeared in the form of a cat. The accusation was much the same as
that against the Cathars a century earlier. It is perhaps why, even
today, black cats are regarded as unlucky and as the familars of
Yet there is an intelligent argument that the Inquisition was a relatively progressive
organisation. It bureaucratised mob rule. In the long run of history, Catholic areas under the Inquisition were generally less murderous in the Early Modern era than Protestant areas. It replaced lynch mobs with
some form of due process, albeit one with scant justice in it. More mercy than we think perhaps but one only granted from above without any voice for the judged.
Most killings of dissidents in primitive societies are folk-based. Old women and gay men are certainly safer today in the modern West than they would
be in any rural past or present and the Church has played a relatively civilising role in that respect. The Inquisition may square up better than we might think. Catholic justice was undoubtedly to be preferred to the brute volkish moral enforcements of Indo-European paganism. But this incident in Trier strikes us differently. This is not a central police force coming in to clean up an area but a local churchlord dictating terms. It smacks of an
opportunity to deal with a rival faction through selective murder, commanding the heights of propaganda in a deliberate and calculated
This was, in short, gangsterdom covered by religion. It is the cover given by religion to moral warlordism that interests us here because it shows only one case amongst very many of special interests making use of the cover of the whole to do their dirty deeds.
There is nothing spiritual going on in Trier - it was murder and oppression and
there's an end of it.
When the Catholic Church looks into its own soul
and recognises that what it has done over the centuries to ensure its
own institutional survival and to preserve its ideology and vows never to do such things again, then and only then should it have the right to be consulted as a moral force in a modern liberal democracy. This has not yet happened even under the latest in a long line of charismatic hero figures for different Catholic factions.
The fashion today is for the Left to fall at the feet of Pope Francis because he speaks of the rights of the poor as once Las Casas spoke against the exploitation of the indigenous Indians of the Americas but we should not be too easily seduced by this. This is still the Church whose most significant philosophical father Augustine introduced persecution of rivals as an act of policy (in the case of the Donatists). There are no signs of such persecution policies in place today - quite the contrary, it is Christians who are persecuted in the Middle East - but that is merely a function of powerlessness: what happens when power is restored to the Vatican is another matter.
The Church is an organisation whose primary purpose (once the saving of souls is taken as a given) is to establish its 'auctoritas' over the human universe, pragmatically expanding and withdrawing with the resources at its disposal but always seeking total control of the human condition - literally, it is totalitarian in instinct and it becomes more liberal only when it is on the defensive.
Two thousand years onwards from Christ, it was not the Church that exposed endemic child abuse in society and within its own ranks. Instead it tried to close ranks and then quietly and inadequately reform itself without further external scrutiny - not because it believed something was fundamentally and existentially wrong but because society, secular and liberal society, had developed the ability to point out that it was wrong and the Church was eventually forced to respond.
Within the doctrine of 'hate the sin but not the sinner', ironically, human judgements on complex evil cannot be made easily but must often be left to God. Coercing a child into sex acts is a question of coercion as much it is one of sex yet coercion is the lifeblood of the historical Church. The problem for the Church is that it had got use to condemning sexual acts but had only a limited vocabulary for dealing with coercion - its approach to coercion was deived from a medieval moderation and mollification of warlord abuse rather than one involving a fundamental critique of the very fact of coercion as an intrument of policy.
The Church was accidentally complicit in the mental map of the adult who saw a child as the subject of his authority. The adult's claims on the child could even be seen as a sort of delegated power from God, the simple matter of taking ancient pagan Roman attitudes to children and absorbing them into a new and apparently more compassionate religious order directed at helping women and the adult masses. The child got abandoned in the process.
The first instinct of the Church was thus, like the State, to protect itself (as guardian of higher values in its own eyes) and not the child. This defensive and self-protective way of thinking, in both Church and State and elsewhere in society, needs to be called out. The central doctrines of the Church are 'taught', from above to below. The essence of the Church lies in Authority and the protection of the claims of Authority becomes axiomatically good. It is certainly not a question of consent for and by the governed.
It is above all not a question of encouraging consent or at least some balance in social, let alone economic, power relations. The only claim Pope Francis is making now is that Authority can be switched in a new direction, towards selective support for the aspirations of the poor, towards a shift in economic power relations, but there is no awareness here that all power relations are worthy of the same critical position. There is no critique, in other words, of the very fact of Authority. What can be switched in one direction can be switched back again in a puff of white smoke.
The Church is a complex creature with many genuinely decent and good people within it but one suspects that the Communist Party and even the National Socialist Party in Germany had some good and kind people within it. The Church can be selectively compassionate to people who obey its value commands but it is imbued with a model of 'the greater and the lesser evil' where what is higher and what is lesser is dictated by a very few whose traditionalism is based on institutional loyalty within a closed ideology. But it is Authority itself which must be challenged and at every opportunity - above all, the Church should not claim to speak for the poor and abused, it should be engaged with the poor and the abused in enabling them to speak for themselves.