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The headline pretty much says it all: “Priest Walks Out of Funeral Service Over Deceased's Lesbian Daughter”. Having denied her communion during the funeral service, the priest left the altar when the daughter of the deceased gave a eulogy, and used a weak excuse to weasel out of the gravesite part of the service.

Comments are predictable.

  • Obviously, this man need a few more courses in Theology/ Scripture and pastoral Practices.
  • I find it a shame that people who call themselves "religious leaders" behave like this.
  • The sad thing is that many people will not only stop attending that Parish but will stop going to Mass. They will say that all Catholics are bigoted holier- than- thou Christians. We are living in such troublesome times that we need Our Lord and Our Lady as constant companions.

—And so on.

What these comments and others like them all seem to miss is that the priest actually didn’t make a poor moral judgement. He did something morally awful, but in fact he didn’t make a moral judgement at all. He followed the rules—the rules of the Catholic Church that say here’s this god, here’s what he’s said, here’s what others have said to whom that god delegated some authority. He didn’t deny this woman communion because he personally decided that she didn’t deserve it: He did it because the rules said he should. He didn’t invent the notion that she’s a sinner for being homosexual; it’s right there in the “good book”. (Yes it’s true that Leviticus condemns eating shellfish and mixed-fibre clothing as well as male homosexuality, but that doesn’t excuse and annul the latter: it only makes the book ludicrous as well as vile.)

This priest believes that, as a matter of fact rather than personal judgement, this is precisely what his god wants him to do. He doesn’t think it’s his idea; it’s “the Lord’s”. He subscribes, in addition, to a faith tradition that condemns humans as “sinful”, so that his god’s morality by definition trumps his own: Even if he personally felt that this condemnation of homosexuality were evil, his faith and dogma inform him that he is in the wrong.

Does this mean I think his behaviour is pardonable? Of course not. The moral outcome is atrocious, so clearly there was an error. I only differ in my view of where the error lay; and to me, the error lay in accepting the premises that quite soundly lead to the terrible conclusion: He believes that there is a god who wants this. My point is that the error is factual rather than one of moral judgement. If you honestly believe what he believes, then his moral conclusion is inevitable. The observation that he’s a douchebag is notable, but tangential.

And here is the core problem: Belief drives action and moral conclusions, and false beliefs can drive even the well-intentioned to commit bad actions and reach poor moral conclusions. The only way someone like this priest could arrive anywhere but where he did is by either re-examining his beliefs or ignoring what he believes his god, the all-perfect creator of the Universe wants him to do. Frankly, the latter seems like a bad idea.

A lot of people seem to take the view that it is proper, in the light of such situations, to re-examine beliefs and modify them according to what they want. Though rarely stated so baldly, the argument seems to go something like this hypothetical: I don’t think that homosexuality is wrong; therefore God must not think so either, and anyone who thinks that God condemns it is wrong. I don’t give much for this kind of argument; it’s pure wishful thinking, a notion that what you want to be true necessarily must be true. (I suppose it helps that the Bible contains a lot of contradictions where you can cite one verse to denounce another.)

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to take a moral qualm with this as an impetus for re-examining these beliefs. To go thence to I don’t like this particular conclusion, ergo that biblical dogma must be wrong whereas all the dogma I personally like must be true is utterly irrational. If “Are homosexuals sinful?” is up for grabs, why not “Was Jesus God?”, or “Is there a god at all?” Why not any claim derived from scripture lacking empirical backing? Rather, one should ask one’s self what premises can be reasonably assumed or deduced, and what conclusions flow therefrom. If the conclusions seem acceptable, then either your premises or reasoning is at fault, or you’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that reality isn’t what you’d like it to be.

A common reaction to these situation seems to be to turn to a milder, more tolerant faith. On one level, of course, I applaud it—the world is full of people who are good people in spite of being Christian, because they prioritise their own judgement over that of their dogma, cherry-picking the parts they (with their good moral judgement) approve and rejecting the parts they do not. On another level, I recognise that it’s intellectually even more bankrupt than dogmatic blind faith because it’s ad hoc and inconsistent: Blindly believe some dogma because…the Bible says so?, but at the same time reject other dogma from the same source. Why believe the former if the latter proves the source unreliable?

If you have occasion to question some of religion’s teachings, perhaps it’s a good idea to start at first principles and ask how you can know that any of it is true. Once you apply reason and standards of evidence, we atheists will welcome you to our ranks, with open arms—after all you’re already a nice person.

If you choose not to question, then I suppose you face the choice of an ad hoc muddle, or taking up the entirely consistent position of the aforementioned priest.

Date: 2012-02-29 05:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Leviticus also condemns eating owls.

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Petter Häggholm

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