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at the Vatican (c) J MacDonald 2011

Like many people, I’ve been following media reports about the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

On May 11, 2010, the Globe & Mail published a Reuter’s story entitled “Pope Says ‘Sin Within’ Is Church’s Greatest Threat.” There are two parallel threads in this report. The first thread is the Pope’s statement that “today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies but is born of sin with the Church.”

The second thread is encapsulated in this quote from the Pope: “We must admit that the Catholic faith . . . was often too individualistic. It too often left concrete things to the world and thought only of individual salvation and religious affairs without realising that there was a global responsibility (for economic decisions).”

Ya think?

Hmmm . . . maybe there’s a connection between the second thread and the first one. Maybe — just to go out on a limb here — maybe the Vatican’s own theological belief structure of sin and salvation is a major contributing factor to the abusive behaviour of some of its senior clergy.

I really, really hope that when Benedict says “the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies but is born of sin within the Church” that he isn’t trying to imply that the true source of this “sin” is Satan, a.k.a. the Devil. It would be typical of orthodox Christian thinkers to try to pass the buck to the Devil. Christians have been pulling that stunt since the apostle Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans. (In Romans, Paul made “sin” a sort of cosmic force, and many other Christian authors followed Paul’s lead.) Yet before Paul there was apocalyptic literature. Read that stuff (including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and you’ll hear all kinds of paranoid speculation about the cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Long before that, Plato was scaring the crap out of people with his Evil World Soul doing battle with the Good World Soul (see Plato’s Laws). Yup — there’s a time-honoured tradition amongst philosophers and theologians of blaming bad behaviour on the devil. (I’m old enough to remember comedian Flip Wilson’s famous line, “The Devil Made Me Do It.”)

Lest you think I’m being unfairly suspicious about the Pope’s beliefs, the honest truth is that Original Sin and the Devil are still very much a part of official Roman Catholic doctrine. If influential senior clerics didn’t still believe this stuff, they would take it off the books.

It’s too easy to blame bad choices on an imaginary Devil. We have enough difficulty trying to understand our relationship with God without making up stories about big bad scary evil beings. There are plenty of logical scientific explanations for abusive human behaviour — particularly the scientific observations related to brain physiology and mental illness.

Occam’s Razor: go with the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions. The simplest assumption in this instance is that the Roman Catholic church has not properly assessed its clerics for evidence of psychological dysfunction. No imaginary Devil is needed in order to explain the abusive behaviour of these men. It’s just plain old fashioned brain chemistry.

An even simpler assumption is to ask what happens to people’s brain chemistry when they’re told over and over, year after year, that human beings are a worthless, sin-ridden lot who may, if they’re lucky, be blessed with the gift of salvation, but could just as easily end up in the eternal torments of hell. I’m thinkin’ these teachings are probably as healthy for the brain as a dose of carbon monoxide.

The reason carbon monoxide is so deadly is that it bonds like crazy glue to hemoglobin in the bloodstream, and hogs the sites where oxygen molecules are supposed to catch a ride to your body’s cells and tissues. You end up asphyxiating invisibly from the inside out because you can’t get enough oxygen into your brain, organs, etc. — even though you may still look normal on the outside.

If the church fills up people’s brains with toxic “carbon monoxide” teachings, there’s less and less room available for the life-giving “oxygen” of Jesus’ teachings about divine love.

It’s well known that people who’ve been poisoned by heavy metals can show marked changes in behaviour. (The classic example is the Mad Hatter who, in former days, used mercury salts to craft gentlemen’s hats, and gave himself mercury poisoning).

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that some Roman Catholic clerics are behaving so badly. Many of them seem to be suffering from a case of self-induced “sin poisoning.”