14 October 2015
The Pope is not a moral authority
Why Do People Take the Pope Seriously?
October 12, 2015
With tremendous fanfare, Pope Francis recently visited the United States. President Obama lavished him with praise, “Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. … You shake our conscience from slumber.” He became the first pope to address a joint session of the United States Congress. He spoke there because House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Catholic, invited him.
In his speech to Congress and other dignitaries, the Pope lectured Congress and the American people on immigration, poverty, capital punishment, and climate change. In particular, he lectured Congress on the need to keep the immigration floodgate open, especially with regard to Latin America. The Pope doesn’t give new, and sometimes not any, substantive arguments for his position. If his pronouncements deserve serious consideration, it is because he is a moral authority.
A moral authority is one who is an expert on what we ought to think and do. If a person’s beliefs are awash in metaphysical nonsense, then he’s probably not a moral authority. Metaphysical theories address the nature of the world, especially people. Morality depends on metaphysics because most theories of morality depend on issues such as whether people have free will, are essentially sinful, and have duties to God. It also depends on issues such as whether gay people are disordered. Metaphysical error often leads to moral error in the same way that, in the past, mistaken beliefs about the human body led to mistaken medical treatment.
When a person asks a country to adopt controversial moral positions on the basis of his moral authority, it is fair to ask whether he is such an authority. This is analogous to how a judge should consider whether someone is an expert prior to allowing him to give expert testimony in court. To see whether the Pope’s beliefs are awash in metaphysical nonsense, consider the following Catholic doctrines.
Consider the Trinity. The Pope and the Catholic Church believe that there are three people [Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit] who together are God and God is also a person. This is supposedly explained because the three are one substance, essence, or nature. It is unclear whether it is possible for multiple people to constitute another person, but even if it is possible, there is little reason to be think it occurs with regard to God, angels, or people. Nothing about substance and essence makes this position respectable.
The Pope and the Catholic Church believe that Jesus died for people’s sins. Because the Romans tortured and then killed Jesus, the Pope and the Catholic religion tell us that his suffering substitutes for the punishment or pays the debt of ordinary human beings, thus, in part, allowing them to avoid the wages of sin and go to heaven. This conflicts with a widely held principle in morality and law that one person does not cease to deserve punishment when someone else is punished. It also conflicts with the idea that one person can pay another’s debt without the latter’s permission.
Catholic Church services involve transubstantiation. This occurs when the bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ. The change occurs because the bread and wine get changed into the essence of Christ even though their properties remain the same. For example, the wine is still red and tastes like normal wine. What’s more, all of Christ is present in each piece of bread even though they are scattered around the globe. It is as if Barack Obama were campaigning in person in Manhattan, Washington DC, and San Francisco at the very same time.
Catholicism asserts that the Pope is infallible when he makes certain types of statements on faith and morality to be held by the whole church. It is not merely that he is not mistaken on these issues, the church claims, he cannot be mistaken. The Pope’s infallible pronouncements concern matters such as whether Mary was conceived in a way that made her free from original sin and whether she (body and soul) ascended into heaven. On some accounts, this infallibility includes Pope John Paul’s statement that men alone can be priests. On this picture, then, when someone is chosen to be the Pope, God confers infallibility on him with regard to some issues.
The Catholic Church claims that people get sent to hell for refusing to love God and hell involves eternal fiery suffering. On this picture, a loving creator imposes this treatment or, at least, does not mitigate it, even though he loves those going to hell much as a mother loves her child. The Catholic Church believes that even newborns have to be inoculated against their sinful natures through baptism, even though they have not yet committed any sins and, in fact, cannot do so.
These and other doctrines rival the strangest doctrines of Scientology or Mormonism and, in some cases, make no sense. A person whose belief system is awash in this sort of confusion is unlikely to be a moral authority.
Consider, for example, the Pope’s demand that Congress continue to accept the flood of immigrants from Latin America. The Pew Hispanic Center found that since the 1965 Immigration Act opened the immigration floodgates, the country has added 72 million immigrants and their descendants, but the Pope demands more. He adamantly opposes gay adoption despite the many children who would greatly benefit from being adopted by loving gay couples. He is strongly critical of capitalism, despite its incredible historical record. Congress shouldn’t take his recommendations seriously any more than it would take seriously the recommendations of Scientology’s leader. The same is true for the Pope’s views on the environment, capitalism, gay adoption, and capital punishment.
The emperor has no clothes.