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Catholic “Dominoes” Falling?

dominos falling

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In 1968, I served at the funeral mass for someone who was killed in Vietnam. I knew him fairly well: He was the older brother of a classmate in the Catholic school I attended.

Though people said I was a “smart” kid I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what my classmate’s brother was doing in a country none of us would have heard of had young men like him not been sent there. I tried to understand the explanations I heard from adults in my family, school and church, and in the media. The word “domino” often came up: supposedly, Vietnam was one. According to that narrative, if the country fell to the Communists, others would follow.

I don’t have the expertise, or the inclination, to debate such a theory. What I am willing to say is that another “domino” phenomenon may be at work today, half a century later. And I must say that I am glad to see the fall of the “tiles” I’m about to describe.

For a millennium after Roman Empire disintegrated, the Roman Catholic Church exercised power that’s hard to imagine today if you’re not living in a theocracy. The monarchs of Europe “reported,” if you will, to the Pope, so a challenge to royal authority was, in essence, an attack on the Church. That is why Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the Church and the French Revolution were such cataclysmic events. Henry, in breaking away from the church and starting his own when the Pope wouldn’t grant him an annulment, effectively declared himself the Pope of England (to this day, the Queen or King is the Head of the Church of England, a.k.a. Anglican Church); when French revolutionaries lopped off the heads of their monarchs and nobles, they were effectively cutting themselves off from ecclesiastical authority, which was intertwined with their class system.

From there, the Church’s influenced weakened, however gradually: France and other countries passed laws that eliminated or limited religion from politics and other public discourse. In a few countries, however, the Church continued to exert its authority. Among those countries were Spain, Ireland and Poland, all of which were known, until recently, for their staunch Catholicism.

One could argue that in Spain, the unhooking of the Church from the nation’s culture and politics began in the late 1970s, after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who maintained nacionalcatolicismo as part of his dictatorial system. Today, while most Spaniards are at least nominally affiliated with the Church (it doesn’t let go of you easily!), they—especially the young—attend mass at rates on par with their peers in the Netherlands and Norway, which aren’t exactly known as ramparts of religiosity. (But, hey, they’re ahead of the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Estonia!)

Ione Belarra is the Spanish Minister of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda. Three weeks ago, she made her debut in Parliament. She wasted no time in expressing what too many of us have known and borne in silence. “It must be said that the Catholic Church has been and accomplice too many times in this country,” she pronounced. The Church has been “covering up sexual violence against children,” she elaborated. Such a denunciation of the Church would have been unthinkable a generation ago and possibly fatal a generation before that. Where it will lead, I don’t know, but I don’t think Spain will return to being the sort of country that got a special dispensation from the Pope Urban II for its role in the Crusades, or even the one whose “neutrality” in World War II was protected by Franco playing nice with Hitler and Mussolini.

In Ireland and Poland, Catholic domination of culture and politics endured a bit longer, in part because Catholicism served as a touchstone of identity as those countries were subsumed by colonial powers (England in Ireland and Prussia, Germany and the Soviet Union, among others, in Poland) that tried to erase all vestiges of their culture, including their language.

It’s been said that the first crack in the Berlin Wall opened when a shipyard electrician in Gdansk—guided, he claimed, by his Catholic faith—organized a strike that challenged the Communist regime in Poland.

Lech Walesa would later serve as the first President of his newly-independent country. In that post, and in his life afterward, he fought to liberalize the economy and protect human rights—of some humans, that is. While presiding over his country, he signed a law that sharply restricted abortion rights and said, of LGBT people, that he didn’t “wish for this minority,” which he “tolerates and understands” to “impose itself on the majority.” That’s the sort of language you hear from conservatives who don’t want to sound like bigots but who see equality as “special treatment.” Also under his presidency, publicly-funded catechism classes were introduced in the country’s state-run schools.

His expressed views on LGBT rights have moderated, which may reflect another change underway in Polish society, particularly among the young. In the most recent census, 96 percent of Poles were identified as Roman Catholics. While they attend church at higher rates than in other countries such as neighboring Czech Republic (which has one of the world’s lowest church attendance rates), if pressed, many—especially the young—find other things to do with their Sunday mornings and say they were “raised” Catholics but hedge, or give negative answers when asked about their current church affiliation. And, as in other countries, some claim to attend church more often than they actually do.

Activists contend that many people are counted as “Catholic” because they tick the box without thinking or because other people, such as their parents, fill out the forms for them. Now the “Chce sie liczyc” (“I Want To Count”) campaign seeks to encourage Polish people to think about their identity and, if they are so inclined, choose other answers such as “Christian,” “Deist,” or “Atheist.” That previous census counts presented a “very monolithic and homogenous Poland,” in the words of campaign leader Oskar Zyndul. That gave governments since Walesa’s the rationale—however unjustified—for passing and enforcing laws that restrict abortion access, in vitro fertilization, and LGBT rights, in contrast to the wishes of increasing numbers of Poles.

Could Poland join other former Catholic bastions like France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland, which have legalized same-sex marriage and removed most or all restrictions against abortion? If we look at the Irish Republic, such a scenario in Poland may not seem so far-fetched. In 2015, the country James Joyce described as a “sow that eats its young” became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. (Other countries and US states had mandated marriage equality through executive decrees or votes by legislative chambers.) Three years later, it finally lifted its ban on abortions. That same year, Pope Francis’s visit wasn’t greeted with anything like John Paul’s visit some four decades earlier. And pundits, Catholic and secular alike, talk about the “waning influence” or even “demise” of the Church in Ireland.

Ireland, like Spain and Poland, has been convulsed by revelations of decades, or even centuries, of priests sexually abusing children and all sorts of other horrors in Catholic monasteries, orphanages and hospitals. And the young, with more formal education and access to information and contacts with people who look, speak, dress, eat and worship—or not—differently from themselves—simply have less use for the Church than their parents or grandparents had. Those countries might be the next Catholic “dominoes,” and any attempt to stop their “fall” will be as futile as the efforts—and lives, like that of my classmate’s brother— expended to keep Vietnam from becoming a “domino” in another game.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Praying — For What?

derek-chauvin

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I am praying for Derek Chauvin.

I overheard that pronouncement yesterday. Had I been inclined to butt into the conversation of the person who made it, I would have asked, “What, exactly, are you praying for?”

What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd is murder. It can’t be called anything else. Though Floyd had been arrested and served jail (not prison) time before his fatal encounter with now-former officer Chauvin, he was not, as Candace Owens and others claimed, a “violent criminal.” Even if he’d fit Owens’ label, how would Chauvin have known as much unless he did a background check on him? And, even if he were as much a menace to society as Owens tried to paint him, it wouldn’t have warranted Chauvin planting his knee into Floyd’s neck. Former police department colleagues and supervisors said as much in their testimonies.

So, I think it’s fair to say that, like anyone else who was murdered, George Floyd died unjustly. Therefore, I believe, justice is not possible, even if it were possible to return Floyd to his place among the living. (That, by the way, is one reason I have opposed capital punishment for as long as I’ve known what it is.) While Derek Chauvin will be punished, as I believe he should be, nothing that can be extracted from him—time, money, even his life itself—can compensate for what he took from George Floyd.

I would assume that anyone who would pray for Derek Chauvin, or anyone else, believes that the God to which they pray is at least just, and possibly merciful. Given what I’ve said before, I can’t understand how a just God would allow George Floyd to die as he did. Although I don’t think an unjust being can also be merciful, I imagine that some people who are praying might want mercy on Derek Chauvin. They’d trot out a seemingly all-purpose Bible verse like John 3:16 or, if they’ve actually read the Book, something like Matthew 5:7 or 7:12—or James 2:13. The problem is, of course, that it appealing to God for mercy on Chauvin turns him into the victim, or at least the person in need of succor.

This is the problem with the Christian notion of forgiveness–which, I would guess, some people would ask for Chauvin in their prayers. Some have had the audacity and arrogance to say that Floyd’s family should “forgive” Chauvin and “move on.” How anyone can see a murderer—especially one who has been entrusted by his community and country with the power of life and death over another human being and, more important, with the trust that he will use that power rarely, judiciously and with the utmost restraint—as a victim in need of “forgiveness” is beyond me. (I say that as a long-ago Army Reservist who, thankfully, never exercised lethal force, except against a rattlesnake.) And who has the right to tell Floyd’s family how they should deal with their loss? If they choose to “forgive” Chauvin, whatever that means to them, that should be their decision alone.

In brief, although I don’t know what someone might pray for when praying for Derek Chauvin, I can only conclude it most likely has to do with making it easier for him to bear his guilt, and not to ease the pain of George Floyd’s family and loved ones, let alone to afford his life the meaning it had and thus to truly acknowledge the tragedy and horror his death really is.

So why didn’t I butt into the conversation of that stranger who offered a prayer for Derek Chauvin? For one thing, I’m a New Yorker, and we have a reputation for minding our business, or at least pretending to. For another, asking what the stranger meant by that comment would have been pointless, really: If that person’s God were truly merciful and forgiving, Chauvin wouldn’t have murdered George Floyd, whether or not he was aware of Floyd’s mostly-petty crimes—which, of course negates the need to pray for mercy or forgiveness, or anything else. Oh, and I have long since stopped believing in that person’s God, or any other, especially one who allows such injustices as Derek Chauvin using the power entrusted to him to murder George Floyd.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Robert Aaron Long Is A Symptom

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Even after the Trump (mis)administration and a seemingly endless string of mass shootings, Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree shocked me. But it also stirred up other reactions that I’m just now sorting out.

On one hand, I felt disgust at Long because he attacked members of an ethnic group that is under siege. Within a few days, within a few miles of my apartment, Chinese and other Asian people—including a woman in her 70s—were brutally beaten. Moreover, his victims were also further marginalized and stigmatized because they were sex workers. Very few people actually choose to make a living that way: More often, they are paying off a debt to a smuggler, drug dealer or pimp, or simply find themselves cast adrift with no other skills or means of survival. I think now of the young queer people in the LGBT youth group I co-facilitated for two years. Some were kicked out of their homes when they “came out,” or ran away from home because they were bullied. A few, I knew, were turning “tricks” minutes after our group sessions ended.

So, perhaps, I could say that I took Long’s actions personally, not only because of those young people, but also because my status is not much greater than theirs, at least in the eyes of some people. As a transgender woman, I have been falsely accused of all manner of sexual misconduct by people who knew they could invoke stereotypes and caricatures to exact revenge against, or simply bully, me.

At the same time, while I do not condone what Long did, what I feel about him is more complicated than what I felt about, say, Dylan Roof. I had an easier time condemning and—dare I say it?—hating Roof because he seemed to act on a purer kind of hatred and bigotry: He admitted he killed nine African Americans because he wanted to start a race war. And, quite honestly, from what I learned about him—not much, I admit—he and I seemed to have little in common.

In contrast, I can find some points of comparison, if not identification, between myself and Mr. Long. While I don’t think I’m a sex addict, whatever that means, I can understand, at least somewhat his anxiety over his sexual desires and impulses. Though mine, I imagine, are and were very different from his, I think we share this: Our desires (and, in my case, my identity) were seen as “sinful” by the religious communities in which we participated, as well as by the secular authorities (his, via his family and community; mine, products of the time and places in which I grew up) that ruled our lives.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic half a century ago. Later, I would “answer” what I thought was a “calling” from “the Lord” (which I now realize was a kind of breakdown) by “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” and becoming with an Evangelical church and organization. In reality, what I needed were a good therapist and a support group. The particulars of Long’s religious life were surely different from mine, but I believe we shared this: Inculcation with an intense belief in an implacable being that caused us no end of anxiety.

As someone who was sexually abused by a priest, I can attest that one of the ways the church gets its “hooks” into young people is by filling them with guilt about their biological and psychological impulses, however common they may be. Those impulses conflict with their fealty to the Divine, according to the teachings of the Church, and must therefore be extinguished (via celibacy) or sublimated into a sanctioned relationship that leads to the production of more future church members. But whether you celibate (I know, you’re not supposed to verb adjectives) or procreate, your faith can never be enough.

I suspect that something like what I’ve described is at work in other Christian churches. Certainly, it was in the Evangelical church in which I was involved, and from which known and suspected homosexuals, smokers and other “sinners” were expelled. The fear of losing one’s community (and possibly family) compounds the anxieties someone might have about not being “saved” and being thus consigned to eternal torment.

Now, I won’t pretend to know the exact nature of Mr. Long’s sexual desires. He says he was an “addict.” His claim begs this question: Was he always so? Was he—or anyone—born to be a “sex addict?” Or did suppressing his desires in the name of faith cause him to occasionally “binge” like students on Spring Break in South Beach after being cooped up all winter? Could William Blake have had someone like Mr. Long in mind when he wrote, “Prisons are built from stones of law/Brothels from bricks of religion”?

One thing I know: Having to deal with suppressed desire, and anxiety over a seemingly implacable God and church, makes quite a load to bear. Especially if you are young. (Modern neuroscience shows us that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25.) Especially if you have been surrounded people and institutions that inculcated you with anxiety about your destiny and shame about your desires.

As I mentioned earlier, I neither condone nor excuse what Robert Aaron Long did. But he is not the only villain in that tragedy. He must be held to account but he also needs help as much as–again, dare I say it?—I needed it when I was abused. As I needed counseling and therapy (which, to be fair, almost nobody in that place and time knew how to do), Robert Aaron Long needs some serious de-programming, not only from a belief in the need to please an unpleasable imaginary being, but also from the notions about gender roles and racial hierarchy that enforces. So do many other young people; so did many of us: We got the same kinds of indoctrination, reinforced in similar ways. Unless those are dismantled, indicting and punishing Robert Aaron Long will serve no other purpose than to indict and punish Robert Aaron Long.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

If the Snow Doesn’t Melt

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Years ago, I did a solo bicycle tour from France into Spain and back. Along the way, I stopped in Lourdes. I didn’t expect its waters to heal any of my psychological wounds (of which I had many) or even physical ones (of which I was, at the time, almost entirely free). Rather, I was simply curious.

Having attended Catholic school, I’d heard and read about the supposed Marian apparition. I didn’t expect to see anything of the sort or, really, anything fit for an X Files script. To tell you the truth, even when I was a believing, observant Catholic—or, later, when I conflated something I now realize as a psychological near-breakdown with “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour” and threw myself into an Evangelical Church and organization—I didn’t believe in divine or Marian apparitions, or anything else that could be called “miraculous” or “supernatural.” Some might argue that on that basis, I never was a “true” Christian, and I won’t argue with that assessment mainly because today, as an atheist, it really doesn’t matter to me. I guess that, if anything, I wondered whether there was some rock formation or something that might’ve looked like the figure of Mary, just as some mirage in the desert might’ve caused someone to think that Jesus or somebody was turning stones into bread or water into wine.

I did have two other reasons for stopping in Lourdes. One, it was along my way and, being a fairly large town in a rural area, I figured I could get something to eat and refill my water bottles, if not with the “holy” stuff. Second, I wanted to get a gift for my mother. I accomplished both: She was happy to receive the Sainte Bernadette medal I bought.

Even if my mother had been indifferent to it, I would have been happy I went to Lourdes. It’s actually a lovely place, in part because of its location in the Pyrenees foothills. (But I must warn any potential traveler: “It ain’t Paris.” When I was there, the cafes and everything else in the town slammed shut at 9pm.) And I continued a correspondence with the man from whom I bought the medal until he passed away. Turns out, he had no more religious belief than I had!

Ironically, my brief stay among thousands of pilgrims, some of whom had saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, may have been a nail in the coffin of whatever belief I still may have had. I wasn’t quite a full-blown atheist, but by that time I had dissociated myself from organized religion and knew that I didn’t—trending toward couldn’t—harbor any faith in a supernatural being. Still, I kept my eyes open for someone who might hobble up to the grotto, take of the water, throw off his or her crutches and skip away, singing praises to the Lord. I’m not sure that such a spectacle would have ignited any kind of faith in me, but I didn’t see anything of the sort.

I am sure other people hoped, or even expected, to see a “cure” or “miracle”—or to be the beneficiary of one themselves. They probably would have had a greater chance of winning the jackpot in the Francaise des Jeuxeven the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that only 69 miraculous cures have occurred at the site since Bernadette Soubrious had her vision in 1858.

What brought all of this back to mind? A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a news item that, even after the Trump Presidency, makes an episode of The X Files seem like The Financial Times.

It happened in the wake of the Texas snowstorm, which itself seems almost surreal. Some folks picked up balls of the white stuff, lit a cigarette lighter or match—or turned on a blow dryer–and, upon seeing that the snow “didn’t melt,” decided that it was fake. Oh, but it gets even better: The “fake” snow is, they believe, part of a “government conspiracy” initiated by, depending on whom you listen to, Bill Gates or Joe Biden himself.

The science behind the “snow that doesn’t melt” is so simple that I—who last took a science class when Jimmy Carter was President—could understand it. You don’t even need my outdated, rudimentary knowledge: If you’ve ever ordered a snow cone on a boardwalk or at a state fair, you’ve seen it: The snow cone remains, well, a snow cone because the water from snow that melts on the surface is absorbed by the remaining snow. (If you’ve ever watched piles of snow disappear over a period of days after a storm, you’ll notice that the snow ever-so-gradually collapses inward and the water seeps out from underneath.) That is how snow cones hold onto their sugary flavor (and why they taste so good)—and why “fake” snow “doesn’t melt.” And the black marks you see in some of the videos are chemical burns from the butane lighters.

The folks who believe in “fake snow” sent by “government conspiracies” are certifiably mentally ill—or they also believe that the “stolen election” was a way “God is testing us” in preparation for Donald Trump inheriting the mantle of the Kingdom of God on Earth. (Did I repeat myself?) Such irrational beliefs are the only possible foundation for a faith or philosophy based on little more than, well, one’s belief in the divinely inherent superiority of one’s race, gender, country, way of life—or beliefs. I grew up in a church that taught us that in putting a wafer in our mouths, we were “partaking” of the “flesh” of Christ, and the sweet wine in the priest’s chalice was Christ’s blood. The Evangelical Church of which I would later be a part told us that “allowing the Lord to speak through you” (Frankly, even then, I thought it was gibberish!) would “save” or “transform” you and, according to some, would cure you of your ills and bring you prosperity. If you were poor or unwell, well, it meant that you needed to pray and believe more.

In brief, the news about “fake snow” and the other lunatic ideas promulgated by the likes of Paula White, Marjorie Scott Taylor, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias, and their ilk are magical thinking, as are the hopes and wishes that motivated the pilgrims I saw in Lourdes. The main difference is that those folks, making what might be their one and only major trip, paid for the experience. So, probably, did the ones who tithed to the churches whose preachers and pastors told them to vote for Trump. On the other hand, Trump, White, Scott Taylor, Graham, Zacharias, et al. are making rather nice bank from the conspiracy theories, dogmas, and flat-out lies.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Black Death of the Church

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A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

It sickened and killed its first victims in China. Italy was the stage for its European arrival; from there, it spread to Spain, France, Germany, England, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Urban dwellers of means fled to their countryside manses. In the meantime, leaders insisted that things were normal, blamed their enemies and racial groups who were already experiencing suspicion and scorn, and, perhaps worst of all, recommended “treatments,” “cures” and other courses of action that, they claimed, had remedial powers but, in fact, had no empirical foundation.

So far, this sounds like an outline of the COVID-19 trajectory and the response to the pandemic, doesn’t it? Would that we were living in such interesting times, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese (!) curse. Instead, this recounting of a pandemic feels, if anything, more like the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The chronology I outlined in the first paragraph is, in fact, a rough sketch of the Black Death’s trajectory—with a slight variation. Nearly everyone who has studied the 14th Century spread of the plague agrees that it started, or at least was first noticed, in east-central Asia: somewhere in what is now Mongolia or, perhaps, westernmost China. Those same scholars say that it spread along the “Silk Road” and maritime trade routes while the current pandemic most likely spread in planes, trains, cars and buses.

What is all-too-depressingly-familiar, though, is the response of rulers—and said leaders’ relation to a “higher” authority. In late-medieval Europe, the church was all but inseparable from monarchies and the noble classes. Likewise, the heads of state in the United States, Russia, Brazil and other countries glean much of their support from vocal religious groups who, in many cases, deny the findings of scientists, ignore the recommendations of health care professionals and eschew intellectual inquiry. Thus are we advised that COVID-19 is “just a flu” that will “pass” with warm weather or the re-election of the leader making the claim. The US President bellows his prescription of injecting one’s self with cleaning products over the warnings of one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts, much as medieval authorities prescribed chopping up snakes and rubbing the pieces on one’s body (the snake, associated with Satan, was supposed to attract and draw away the “evil” of the disease) or drinking potions made from a unicorn’s horn. The President also insists that religious fundamentalists, vital to his re-election, can congregate, sing, dance, hug, kiss and share meals with hundreds of other fellow worshipers, just as the medieval Church continued to encourage mass gatherings, a source of its power.

That same symbiotic relationship between political and ecumenical authorities is a reason why the former can so easily blame people who are not part of the dominant culture or religion for the pestilence spreading across the land—or for any number of actual or imagined evils and tragedies. In a world where Jews were said to poison wells, kidnap and kill Christian children and perform all manner of evil rites, it wasn’t hard for the Church and Court to promulgate the belief that Jews caused the plague—and to justify murdering them. Likewise could, and did, the President marshal the xenophobic resentments of his supporters to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu,” just as leaders of other countries could, and did, blame the epidemic on religious and racial minorities or LGBTQ and other “deviant” people. The “Leader of the Free World” also fuels (or at least does nothing to tamp down) rumors that members of those same groups—or his political enemies—run pedophilia rings that—you guessed it—kidnap innocent white children and force them into unspeakable acts .

(In my admittedly-amateur reading of history, I’ve noticed this: When deranged minds and empty hearts fill clerical robes, gaudy uniforms or expensive suits, they use—or encourage others to use—the need to protect the supposed innocence of their children or purity of their women to rationalize all sorts of thuggery.)

If the parallels I’ve drawn, so far, are grim, I can offer a more hopeful comparison. While the Black Death brought the worst kinds of religious bigots out of the woodwork—as the COVID-19 pandemic is doing in the US—it also was, arguably, the first event to cause some people to question the authority of the church, and even the power of their god. It’s almost impossible for anyone in a secular Western country to imagine just how deeply monarchs and secular officials were in thrall to Church authority. (The closest analogues we have today are probably countries such as Saudi Arabia that are ruled by one interpretation or another of Sharia law.) While religious authorities held sway over secular ones at least until the Enlightenment, their influence lessened, however gradually, beginning with the Black Death.

One reason the church lost some of its authority was attrition: Priests and bishops were no more immune than illiterate field laborers to the ravages of the bubonic plague; soon, there weren’t enough prelates to conduct masses or other rites. Nearly all religious institutions act from a premise they dare not articulate: It’s harder to keep people in the fold when you can’t gather them. That, I believe, is why some religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christian and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations, are pressuring or even defying local officials who have banned or restricted large gatherings.

Oh, and in some places, there weren’t enough attendees to keep churches open—even though the Catholic church, like most Christian churches today, doesn’t have a requirement equivalent to that of the minyan. And, even though the social pressure to attend mass was much greater than it is today (save in some conservative homogenous communities), some people stayed away. Although they knew nothing about how the plague was transmitted, much less of epidemiology in general, they noticed that, most often, people got sick when they gathered in large groups. (That, of course, is the reason why affluent urbanites fled to more pastoral settings.)

There is also evidence that some might have stayed away from church—or simply waned in their commitment to it—because they wondered, if only to themselves, about a God who visited such suffering on people who did nothing to deserve it:

For God is deaf and deigneth us not to hear That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.

William Langland embedded those lines in Piers Plowman, his epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life—or, if you like, a thinly-veiled critique of a medieval Catholic church that, too often, exploited the Black Death to stoke smoldering hatred of Jews, gypsies and other “infidels.”

Similar developments are unfolding today. While the most extreme congregations of Christianity and Judaism have shown that they are willing to disregard the health and safety of others in the name of “religious freedom,” the pandemic seems to be accelerating a trend, particularly among the young, away from organized worship and religious institutions. They don’t expect prayer or other rituals to protect them from COVID-19 any more than they believe that it’s “God’s will” for them or anyone else to suffer and die from it. If the churches and synagogues never open again, Gen X-ers and Millennials probably won’t miss them. They—and their more educated and rational elders—are leaning in so they can listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci or Deborah Birx over the bellowing of self-appointed (or selected-by-the-Electoral College) messiahs.

During the past few months, all sorts of parallels have been drawn between the 14th Century Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Some should serve as warnings, but others—such as the erosion of faith in religious institutions—might offer some hope for the future, as long as we allow ourselves to get there.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Bruce Gerencser