Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Religion is Obscene

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is famous for his 1964 “definition” of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” What is true of obscenity in the movies (Potter’s challenge) is also true in religion. Case in point: the ruling of the Catholic Church in Brazil, backed by the Vatican, to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather and found to be pregnant with twins.

I know it when I see it: obscenity is forcing a 9-year-old to give birth; obscenity is ex-communicating (and hence in their minds condemning to Hell for all eternity) her mother and her doctors; obscenity is a religion of love made heartless by its own law.

Brazil is a strongly Catholic country, but the law allows for abortion in the case of rape, and the ruling of the Church raised the ire of many Brazilians including President Luiz Inaccio Lula da Siva. It raises mine as well, and I think it should raise the ire and outrage of any thoughtful, compassionate human being regardless of his or her theology. I know of course that it won’t, for so many of us have become legalists when it comes to abortion.

I find it painfully, sorrowfully, ironic that so many Christians whose God is a God of love, compassion, and forgiveness, and whose faith supposedly frees them from the letter of the law are so chained to the Church “law” prohibiting abortion that they cannot see the need for flexibility. Indeed, a Church that did not deny Communion to Adolf Hitler but will deny it to a mother whose concern for the welfare of her daughter (assuming of course she is not complicit in her daughter’s rape) trumps her loyalty to her church is a Church without a heart or a soul.

And make no mistake, it is loyalty to the church rather than fealty to God that is the issue here. The very same God that gave us the Vatican gave us rabbinic Judaism as well, and in the latter case abortion is allowed in certain circumstances. So to say we are violating God’s law when allowing for abortion in certain cases is pure arrogance, imposing a single theological stance on the world that does not want it or need it.

Those who worry about the souls of those unborn twins are denying the compassion of God. Can anyone imagine a loving God damning these unborn souls while forgiving their rapist father who most likely remains a “good Catholic”? Can anyone imagine a loving God condemning a loving mother for an act of love toward her daughter? Yes, they can! The so-called God of love that millions claim to worship is, in their hands, a screen behind which to proselytize heartlessness, injustice, and cruelty.

I am not speaking about abortion in general. I am talking about the obscenity of this case. There is room for honest and heartfelt debate on the larger issue of abortion, but there is no excuse for the heartless attack on the mother and doctor of this nine-year-old girl.

I applaud the people of Brazil who stand up to the madness of a Church blinded to love. I wish there were more people with that kind of moxie willing to take on the obscenity of religious excess.


dtedac said...

Rabbi Rami:

I agree with you about this whole situation. It has been quite the topic on various Catholic blogs. Here are some of my thoughts:
- This excommunication situation is complicated by the fact that the person guilty of making a 9 year old girl pregnant was not excommunicated for incest and rape. These are heinous offenses as well, but do not have the political heat that abortion has right now
- Even if one agrees with the idea of pronouncing excommunication (I think it's a bad idea all around) this situation was too complex and full of difficult questions to be a proper case for its application. The child was carrying twins and clearly in a serious medical condition. This is not a case of doctors and parents who knowingly, willingly and maliciously conspire to defy God and church.
- The Archbishop of Recife took the hard line on this case, but the fact is that many of his brother bishops in Brazil and yes, even at the Vatican, question this action. Not to mention Lula da Silva and many other priests and laity in Brazil and around the world.

Rabbi Rami, I am Catholic and I am not happy to say it but this is the church at its worst. The thing that keeps me going is that for every unjust and cruel clergyman or layperson that makes news, there are many who are truly loving and compassionate. That is the hope for the future.


Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks, David. I never thought to see what the Church reaction to the stepfather was. Adds insult to injury. I understand how painful this must be to thinking Catholics, but I am so happy that there are people like you who are pained by this. There are things done by rabbis in the name of Judaism that are horrifying to me. I would hope people in every religion have the courage to be outraged when their religions become obscene. Eventually I hope common sense would prevail, but I doubt it.

Karen said...

This must be the Catholic Church's moment in time to have their "dark night of the soul" (if I'm saying it correctly). I haven't heard too much "good news" about the church of late -- very few hands in the upper branches of the church in leadership roles are reaching out with love and compassion. This Brazil event is one; the proclamation from the Pope in Africa this week about condom usage and prevention of HIV is another; etc. and so forth. What is going on? Why is the Catholic Church trying to terrorize people in such a way? Maybe the Catholic Church is recognizing that its power and influence is quickly eroding and it's running scared! I hope those in leadership truly listen to those like David (see above). May the outrage of the Catholic congregation reach the ears of the Pope!

Patti said...

"obscenity is a religion of love made heartless by its own law."

This sentence (or clause) is extremely thought provoking and well written. Thank you

Having been an anti-abortion christian I can remember how it feels to put the law before people. It feels righteous, proud and indignant. As if you watch their sin and almost revel in your own supposed holiness.

It is sickening. I am trying to not feel the same now about those that oppose abortion and the other things I find abhorrent. Where do we find common ground in the midst of the hate without become haters or soul-judgers?

dtedac said...

Karen, in response to your comments, I believe that we are passing through the dark night of the soul. Certainly there is a struggle taking place between the application of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. In this case and in the case of the Pope's remarks about condoms and HIV, we see clearly that the letter of the law is being followed by the upper hierarchy. We are also seeing that these proclamations do not evoke blind obedience by the rest of the church (if that ever was the case.) I think that it's time for the hierarchy to remember the phrase "sensum fidelium", the sense of the faithful. Listen to the many voices throughout the community and try to see their points of view. John Henry Newman (who will be beatified this year) said "The voice of the whole Church will in time make itself heard." May it be so and soon.

Grégoire said...

Hey Karen,

This must be the Catholic Church's moment in time to have their "dark night of the soul" (if I'm saying it correctly).

You said it perfectly.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud had a deep friendship (possibly more intimate than usually imagined) which collapsed through misunderstanding. They reconciled late in life and used that term to describe the pain of separation.

In context the phrase usually implies a crisis which brings forth a new and previously impossible self-awareness. I'm hopeful that the Catholic Church might find the strength to restructure itself or at least come to a more comprehensive understanding of its place in the world at some point.

Not being a Catholic I don't criticize it, but I hope (as you seem to) that whatever troubles are plaguing any organization can be the catalyst for positive change rather than merely obstacles.



Peter Schogol said...

The phrase "dark night of the soul" originates with St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest. It need not indicate "a crisis which brings forth a new and previously impossible self-awareness." It can simply mean a nullity within one's soul which produces or admits no light. It is an inner experience of what Martin Buber called "the eclipse of God." It has led some people to madness.

I can't emphasize enough that a dark night of the soul does not always end happily ever after.