Pell’s Quadrant essay is sooooo wrong
Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-09-05
The current (2007-09) issue of QuadRant has more pieces deserving challenge than usual, but Archbishop Pell’s encomium of Constantine I is a particularly dangerous essay, providing arguments for those who call for cataclysmic overthrow of the state and the introduction of a world-wide Caliphate.
His selective marshalling of facts and interpretation of history in "Constantine: The First Catholic Emperor" are barely less twisted than the holocaust-denying David Irving. Like Irving, Pell cannot fall back on the lame excuses of poor education or lack of intellectual capacity.
The essay really should be dissected line-by-line, but I don’t have the time.
It is unsurprising that a key member of the CDF, the rebadged Spanish Inquisition, would produce such a piece, desirous of the necessary and sufficient preconditions for a new Dark Ages, replacing liberal democracies with autocratic theocracies.
What is surprising is that QuadRant editors agreed to publish it, unless they see praise of Constantine as implying praise of Howard’s manipulative entangling of religion and politics.
First I’ll discuss the political aspects of the work, then it’s flaws regarding the history of moral philosophy and theology.
Apologist for terrorist literature:
Pell states (p55):
The cult of the "divine" emperor was also an explicit buttress for the unity of the empire, so that Christian refusal to offer sacrifice to the emperor and the traditional gods also brought undesirable political consequences and helps explain the persecutions. … Christians were not violent revolutionaries, like the Jewish Zealots not terrorists or anarchists, and repeated persecutions had not eliminated or radically diminished their numbers.
Persecution? More Christians died in the arena under emperors that were "Christian" rather than pagan. The worst emperors who persecuted Christians terrorized the entire population regardless of religion.
Pell knows that the more "important buttress for the unity of the empire" was the policy of religious tolerance, of anything but human sacrifice. Pell, like many Latin students, would have pored over the letters between Trajan and his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger. He would know of many reasons why Romans were deeply worried about Christians while Jews were readily accepted (even if considered "weird"):
- Christians refused to take a loyalty oath, a sprinkle of incense on an altar and a form of words little more than "God save the Queen", little less disrespectful of a single deity than the way modern Roman Catholics pray to saints.
- The secrecy about Christian rites did not stop hints of human sacrifice and cannibalism: blood mixed in wine, bodies mixed in bread. Combine this with worship of the "Christ Child" and we can see why rumors spread that Christians killed and ate babies, and why feeding Christians to the lions was considered poetic justice.
- Roman authorities, just like all biblical scholars, recognize that the Book of Revelation of St John of Patmos revels in the thought of the cataclysmic downfall of Rome thinly disguised as the "Whore of Babylon". Christians promoted this and similar works as scripture.
Any state is justified in prosecuting those who refuse to accept the rule of law, who are proselytes for literature that is frankly seditious. Ruddock’s censorship, in the name of "anti-terrorism", of far less inflammatory literature (such as that praising East Timor’s struggle for independence) is far more restrictive than the Roman intolerance of apocalytic texts.
Thus, Pell is an apologist for those who not only refuse loyalty oaths, but call for the violent overthrow of the state.
Pell, a critic of Islam because of a minority who hope for the overthrow of our system of government from unwarranted confidence in the wisdom of power-hungry clerics, praises exactly the same excesses of Christianity.
Apologist for a Caliphate:
Pell gives almost unalloyed praise of Constantine’s institutionalization of co-dependent political and religious power. This is the same political structure as the world caliphate desired by radical Islamists.
Constantine did not bring religious freedom, but promoted one religion, and manipulated it to achieve mastery of its doctrine and adherents, without explicit prohibition of other religions.
Constantine was not "disappointed by the lack of Christian doctrinal unity", but exploited it. He gave favors first to one group of clerics, then another, ensuring that none remained confident of patronage, keeping them all subservient, ensuring that all promoted doctrines served the political imperitives.
The tame clerics were ordered to produce a canonical bible and creed, one that necessitated state-sponsored church intercession between god and human. Non-canonical scripture could then be treated as heresy, especially Gnostic scripture that allowed individuals to commune directly with their god.
If you held heretic views, you were (if lucky) exiled.
The shaping of convenient Christian doctrine under Constantine is one of the reasons why more remnants of early Christianity are found in Islam, inheritor of Christian traditions that moved south and east, out of Constantine’s domain and into less-prescriptive Persia’s.
Far from bringing religious "peace", Constantine implicitly incited violence between Christian sects in the same way Howard implicitly incites xenophobia and racism in modern Australia while keeping hollow deniability.
Indeed violence between Christian sects became so prevalent that Christians were angered when a later pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, created stiff penalties for religiously-motivated violence against persons and property, many Christians regarded this as persecution, a constraint on their religion.
While there was nominal religious freedom, Constantine had de facto power to channel the private religious belief of citizens using self-seeking clergy as proxies.
Pell’s praise for this system demonstrates his view that independent religious thought is invalid, and rejects the ideal of separation of church and state. This is consistent with the way Pell threatens parliamentarians with excommunication if they vote according to private conscience.
There is little difference between Pell’s ideal world and the world caliphate desired by radical Islamists other than his choice for one Abrahamist book over another, and his preference for one clerically-determined legal system (Canon Law) over another (Sharia).
A 21st Century Spanish Inquisitor, Pell has always sought authoritarian consolidation of religious and political power – providing he is a prince of the dominant clergy. Pell’s antipathy to democratic political structures developed before the Dark Ages or since the Renaissance is dangerously clear.
It’s OK to slaughter first, see a cleric later
For someone who has criticized "moral relativism", Pell’s recounting of the history of morality is particularly twisted.
"(With Christianity) … Humility became a virtue rather than un-Roman weakness."
Pell conveniently forgets nearly a thousand years of non-Christian philosophy that stressed duty to the common good rather than selfishness. Hubris, the antonym of humility, had been recognized since Homer as a major vice that would anger the gods. Even ignoring the Greeks, we can see strict morality in the many works of Cicero. We cannot read the journal of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Philosophus*) without sensing his deep humility, his desire to serve not rule.
Ever since Aristotle tutored Alexander, the classical world believed that rigorous training in ethics was a key element of any education, particularly for the ruling classes.
If humility is a virtue, it’s hard to praise Constantine, who introduced so much pomp into the imperial court, and wanted himself called "The Thirteenth Apostle".
Pell continues to rewrite the history of moral philosophy:
The capricious and disinterested gods, who never made any moral demands on their human subjects, were rejected and destroyed to be replaced by the one God who was rational, loving, and judge of everyone.
Even the peasants who held to the myths of the hellenic pantheon understood that Zeus/Jupiter imposed moral demands on humans. Homer’s Odyssey has as a major theme the moral duty to treat strangers with charity. The evolving nature of justice, from the unthinking revenge of the Furies to the more rational justice of Athens that took mitigating circumstances into account (justice in a Zeus-like mode) is the theme of the Orestian Trilogy… and that’s just the stories of the anthropomorphic pantheon!
The pantheist hellenist philosophies, whether of academy, lyceum, stoa or kennel, all described justice, charity and compassion to fellow humans as a duty owed by all mortals to a more numinous god, not anthropomorphic, but still given labels such as Zeus Pater, Jupiter, or Deus Pater.
Pell should admit these linguistic truths: it was the hellenist tradition, not the semitic, that gave rise to Deus Pater, God the Father. Pell should admit that anything of moral or intellectual rigor and subtlety in Christianity was not inherited via Jerusalem but via Athens. Pell knows this, as he has without doubt read early Christian thinkers such Augustine, Origin, Boethius, together with the works by victims of Christian intellectual parricide such as Porphyry and Plotinus.
Pell also makes the following amazing statement:
After Constantine, one did not have to be a moral hero to follow Christ, and this is a blessing for most of us; indeed for all Christians.
This is not a minor quote, but a sentence printed in double-sized letters. In my opinion, heroism is not defined by what you achieve, but what you try to achieve. Unless you make a serious attempt at what Thomas à Kempis called "The Imitation of Christ", you have no right to call yourself a Christian without adding "hypocrite".
I’d perhaps go further than Pell: moral heroism can be an impediment to following Pell’s Christianity, and vice versa.
Pell goes on to say how wonderful it was the priests became able to absolve even the murder of innocent sons and family members, something very convenient for Contantine and the rest of his dynasty apart from Julian. Personally, I see much more merit in earlier positions: these barbarities were punished by the Furies in Greek tradition (even if you killed your mother because she killed your father), and in Christianity before Constantine, no earthly representative, but only God in heaven, could provide absolution of acts that contravene such fundamental human values.
I can see why Pell would follow this logic of allowing bureaucratic mortals to inherit divine powers of absolution. It becomes possible for two pederast priests to absolve each other under seal of the confessional. How convenient! Pell has found his way of reconciling Papal Infallibility with the ability of a Borgia pope to screw both a mother and her pubescent daughter in the same bed, moving from one to the other without missing a stroke.
But then, Pell was a supporter of John Paul II, advocate of "Millenial Indulgences", forgiveness of sins past or future by paying money to the Church. Pell probably thinks imams should not promise heaven to suicide bombers unless they first sign all their money over to the mosque!
Bringing on the Dark Ages
Pell over-simplifies Gibbon’s analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire as due merely to Christianity, and then rejects this hollow thesis. Pell forgets that Gibbon also blamed other mystery religions for intellectual decline, the problems when soldiers support individual politicians, increased military expenditure at the expense of infrastructure … the list goes on.
Meanwhile, Pell praises Constantine as the saviour of empire because of short-term fiscal and monetary reforms that gave the appearance of economic probity while running down infrastructure. The treasury may have been full (a budget surplus), but the empire bled silver to Parthia and on to China in continuing trade and current account deficits. Such practices ensured the economic ruin of the empire. Again, there are similarities to Howard.
Gibbon may have been unaware of the effect of plague on the economy, but Gibbons analysis of the intellectual stultification demanded by Constantine’s form of Christianity is spot on when we think not of the fall of the political entity that was Rome, but the fall of classical civilization.
Athens, Sparta, Alexander, Pontus, Ptolemaic Egypt: all rose and fell without causing western civilization to fall. It is probable that without Constantine’s version of Christianity, Rome would have fallen, but civilization would have continued without a Dark Age.
Pell asserts Constantine is the enabler and progenitor of the Roman Catholic Church, and that both are praiseworthy. I’d agree about the relationship between the two, but consider them equally odious.
Pell points out the relevance of Gibbon’s subject matter, and I’d agree, but add we are ignoring Gibbon’s lessons and risk another fall.
While we can enjoy the similarities between the cynical manipulation of religion and politics by Constantine and Howard, the similarities between short-term appearance of economic probity that destroyed the long-term viability of the economy, the danger from this essay is Pell’s metaphor that is as transparent as the "Whore of Babylon".
Hellenic, rational, scientific, religiously-tolerant pre-Constantine Rome represents secular, rational, scientific, pluralist liberal democracies. Pell is happy to see such polities destroyed, replaced by a co-dependency of temporal and spiritual power that can constrain the development of moral philosophy and metaphysics, make the population and intellectual elite subservient, twist religion for political gain, and lay the groundwork for another Dark Age where religion, not science, holds sway.
What can you expect from the Sydney Inquisition: Fear, surprise, a fanatical devotion to the pope, and a relaxing and comfy chair?
- Bruce at Thinker’s Podium (2007-09-03) gave this post high praise, and extended my thinking to not merely include Howard, but wonder about Rudd.