Overview:

A Pope makes a series of confessions to the Confessor concerning doubts about the faith, and afterwords the Pope dreams about it all.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

And the Pope said to the Confessor:

It is done, you know. Popes do slip away into the night and dine at friends’ homes. I had a most exquisite dinner with Salvatore Marino and guests earlier tonight. Oh, the wine! The wine! The rain nearly conspired against us, but we got there. Sal is a gifted storyteller with a golden heart and a red-rusted liver! Vittorio and Shari were there. Mary and Ingrid too. We spoke of many things, in many languages—morality among them. This, I think, is my cue for tonight’s confession. I’m a bit practiced, now. So, let’s have at it. Sit in your normal chair. I’ll pace.

Bless me, my dear Confessor, for I have not sinned. It has been seventeen days since my last confession.

I think I could list at least twenty doubts about our Christian moral scheme. This is going to be harsh, but here it is …

One. We have a God who either causes or permits severe, gratuitous suffering and pain for people and animals, which no decent human being would do. Therefore, we have a God with a lower moral standard than we humans have.

Two. We have a God who reveals life-giving information late in world history and only to a few people. That is, the revelation from God to the Hebrew prophets arrived late to the world stage, at least three thousand years after the dawn of human writing and advanced civilizations; furthermore, the revealed message was given only to a few nomads in ancient Canaan, not the wide world.

Three. We have a God who imputes guilt to all humanity based on the supposed offenses of Eve—and Adam.

Four. We have a God who punishes children for the offenses of parents. See Exodus Chapter 20. And then there’s the second of the Ten Commandments.

Five. We have a God who, though humans are born sinners, commands humans to be good, faults them for not being so, punishes them for not being so, and tortures them everlastingly for not being so. Yes, we have a God who will keep billions of people alive in torture forever in hell.

Where was I? Six. We have a God who developed a method of salvation wherein an innocent person suffers for the guilty, which no other system of jurisprudence would allow.

Seven. We have a God who devised a method of salvation that only manages to save a tiny fraction of the human race—barely a squad.

Eight. We have a God who does not accept the saving efficacy of moral virtue and therefore condemns morally eminent people to hell—Socrates, Cicero, Gandhi, and so on—while the vilest man in the Americas inherits eternal life for mere mental assent to the phrase ‘Jesus Saves.’

Nine. We have a history of violence toward, and coercion of, and expulsion of, and persecution of, and execution of, hundreds of thousands of people—pagans, apostates, heretics, Jews, Muslims, infidels, ‘witches,’ and ‘savages.’

Ten. We have the belittling of women through patriarchy and the male God.

Eleven. We have the defamation of sexuality. The virgin and celibate ideal. The ever-virgin Mary. The contagion of original sin via libido. Rigid sexual rules. Prudishness.

Twelve. We have a revealed morality (thus supposing moral rules were formerly concealed) while people all over the world abided by similar rules without the Bible for thousands of years before and after the revelation of the bible.

Thirteen. We have a morality that creates false crimes: unbelief, suicide, various sexual acts, and the supposed sin of ‘playing God’ by manipulating the material world or interrupting the course of physical disease.

Fourteen. We have a morality that invites frivolous merits: we have imagined that dietary rules, fasting, clothing, bodily mutilations, church attendance, performance of rituals, and so on, merit God’s favor.

Fifteen. We have a morality that, for most of its existence, countenanced slavery; even priests and ministers owned slaves. The biblical God and the biblical Jesus never prohibit slavery.

Sixteen. We have a morality founded upon the existence of God. But it is imprudent to base one’s morality on the existence of God because the proofs of God’s existence are not persuasive to all!

Seventeen. We have ‘It’s-wrong-because-God-said-so.’ Our theism says murder, incest, and torture are wrong because an invisible being said they are. Meanwhile, non-theists say murder, incest, and torture are wrong because wise, civilized people have agreed they are. As long as both the theist and the non-theist concur on what’s wrong, there seems little worth debating. But what if the theist were to press his case and claim an invisible being said the following: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” You will recognize this as God’s words from Leviticus 20, verse 10.  Or from verse 13 of this same chapter:  “If a man has sex with another man as with a woman, both shall be put to death.”  Well, well. Wise, civilized non-theists may not agree with these godly rules.

Listen, acts are deemed wrong because experience and reason tell us they are. Morality, as you know my gentle friend, is based on reasoning, and even God must have reasons for God’s commands. But if God’s rules are based on reasoning, then anyone with reasoning may discover the rules without God, as has occurred among every other “godless” people in every other culture.

Moving on. Eighteen, was it?  Yes, eighteen. We have purported moral absolutes that are actually relative moral rules, since all the rules admit exceptions, and extenuating circumstances make the prohibited act the right thing to do. Can we think of any circumstance wherein lying or stealing would be the right thing to do? Yes, of course!  Then the rules are not absolute, but relative; that is to say, the rules are relative to the contexts in which a person finds him or herself.

Nineteen. We have a promise-and-threat morality, a morality based on the promise of reward and the threat of punishment: heaven and hell. This is juvenile. Being moral means doing what is right because it’s right, not because a prize awaits us. And being moral means avoiding what is wrong because it’s wrong, not because we might get caught and punished and tortured everlastingly.

Twenty. Twenty.  What’s twenty? Hmm. Well, I can’t think of a twentieth critique right now …

In the Pope’s dream a huge monument sat at the center of St. Peter’s Square, replacing the ancient obelisk. Deeply etched around the top of the memorial were the following words: ‘As Perpetrators We Mourn Our Victims.’

The Pope stood staring at the ceiling. The Confessor sat staring at the Pope. Minutes passed, and then the Pope continued …

Can a pope speak such blasphemies? But if it’s true, is it blasphemy?

Really, though, has our Christian system been superior to non-theistic moral systems devised by people like Aristotle, Buddha, or Confucius?

Our moral theology is all akimbo.

Here is my humble opinion on the direction moral theology should take:

First, start with the sheer unlikelihood of the simultaneity of existence in a multi-billion-year-old universe. It is utterly remarkable that I and you and billions of other people and animals are alive at this moment; it’s stunning that we exist at the same time. How rare! 

All these living entities are the objects of my moral concern, from the newborn to the dying.  All are my people, even the animals. All are my ‘graduation class,’ if you will. And every one of us craves existence and would love to continue existing unmolested by the others.First moral rule: Let us not molest.

Second, continue from here with the fact that living generations always lament the moral lapses of dead generations. We ourselves do this when we ask how otherwise moral people in the past could have permitted slavery or the mutilation of criminals, or infanticide, or gender inequalities, or other acts we now deem barbaric. Otherwise moral people in the past permitted these practices because the practices seemed absolutely natural to the practitioners and therefore beyond moral critique.

Isn’t it probable that we in the present moment also act in a similar moral fog concerning some pattern of thinking or behaving? In a thousand years, people will look back at us and marvel at our moral lapses. But about what? We would be surprised at the actions they will indict us for, because these acts seem utterly natural to us and therefore beyond moral criticism.

Next, remember that, in times past, a tiny minority of people arose to critique the mindless immoralities of the majority, and they did this until an entire civilization improved its thinking and its conduct.

We should be willing to entertain the notion that there are among us tiny minorities of people who are critiquing the mindless immoralities of the rest of us.

Morality should be present-time. Therefore, and this is the second moral rule: Be alert to the vocal, moral minority.

Third, what every generation needs is an Ethics of Urgency. This would be a reverse of that old utilitarian maxim that says: what is good is what causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number. In other words, an Ethics of Urgency says: that which is bad is that which causes the greatest unhappiness to the greatest number. 

An Ethics of Urgency will engage in moral triage, an assessment of moral concern based on a hierarchy of needs—from basic needs to the higher needs. Needs of humans and nonhumans. Wouldn’t this revolutionize morality? Third moral rule: Urgent needs come first.

That’s enough.

That’s my confession for tonight. I’m afraid I got a bit worked up! You can see the weight of my subject matter? Yes?

And the Pope rose and bowed for a blessing.

The Confessor, conspicuously peaceful, pronounced absolution and then withdrew to leave the Pope alone.

Tired. Exhausted. Is this how every night must end from now on? And what would come of such confessions?  Already the backaches, the neck stiffens.

Come, death’s second self.

And the Pope slept and the Pope dreamed … of New Saints.

In the Pope’s dream, a huge monument sat at the center of St. Peter’s Square, replacing the ancient obelisk. Deeply etched around the top of the memorial were the following words:

As Perpetrators, We Mourn Our Victims

Beneath these words were the names of the known casualties of Christian violence.

These were those who were killed or were maimed in body or in spirit by the ferocity of Christian certainty:  the “heretics,” the “pagans,” the “heathen,” the “infidels,” the “witches,” the “savages,” the “unbelievers,” the “servants of Satan.” These were those who never felt the touch of human decency from the pitiless piety of holy madmen. These were those whose tongues were cut out, whose heads were dashed, whose limbs were burned by wax and fire; those who agonized upon strappado and rack; those who suffered libels and lies.

Names that were readable included Bishop Pricillian, Geoffrey Valle, Domenico Scandella, Christine Boffgen, Pietro Pompanazzi, Lucilio Vanini, Munzmeister Lippold, Noel Journet, Francius Cuperus, Aluise Capuano, Girolamo Cardano, Pierre Charron, Pomponino Rustico, Johann Pfefferkorn, Giordano Bruno, Charles Blout, Thomas Aikenhead, Michael Servetus, and many, many more.

And beneath these names were symbols signifying the thousands more of nameless victims of theistic violence.

And finally, beneath all else were symbols for the unknown children, spouses, and loved ones of those killed or targeted, for these lives too had been devastated.

All these were The New Saints.

A silent crowd pressed into the Square, among whom were leaders and followers of all Christian denominations.

In the window above the basilica the Pope intoned the solemn litany:

“We do penance for the murder of Bishop Pricillian.”

The people beat their chests and replied, “We are heartily sorry.”

“We do penance for the murder of Geoffrey Valle.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

“We do penance for the murder of Domenico Scandella.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

“We do penance for the murder of Christine Boffgen.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

“We do penance for the murder of Pietro Pompanazzi.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

 “We do penance for the murder of Lucilio Vanini.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

“We do penance for the murder of Munzmeister Lippold.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

We do penance for the murder of Noel Journet.”

“We are heartily sorry.

And so on—of the known names.

And then to the unknown: “We do penance for the unknown killed in Christ’s name.”

“We are heartily sorry.”

And this was repeated over and over and over again.

After the litany, which lasted forty days and forty nights, the Pope addressed the Christian world with these words:

“Laced among the lofty admonitions to love in our sacred scriptures lie passages that recommend intolerance and even violence toward those who do not think or act like us.

It is a credit to the decency of most Christians—in each generation of Christianity—that they have not acted on these passages. In this sense, we can say that most Christians are better than their religion. Human goodness is stronger than any creed.

Unfortunately a minority of Christians (in every age of Christianity)—let us call them the rare and the deviant—allowed such passages to fuel religious ferocity.

To restrain this indecent minority in our own day, and forevermore, we ask that the decent majority of Christians make explicit what they accept tacitly; namely, that parts of our sacred scriptures are not sacred, are not revelatory, and are indeed sub-ethical and immoral by present-day standards.

If we Christians admit this and our leaders preach it, then perhaps religious violence will cease.

And now, our penance:

Our atonement for the Centuries of Violence will be a Century of Silence.

Churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, LDS) will be draped in black, their lights dimmed. Devotees may enter the sanctuaries, but no speech is to be uttered. No words of liturgy. No services. No whispered prayers. No hymns. There will be no published works. No theology. No encyclicals. Not a word from the Churches for one hundred years. All this in penance for the murder and the honor of the martyred New Saints.

For all those who live in this Century of Silence, consider yourselves fortunate to contribute to the atonement.”

And all the people in all the denominations, and all the leaders of all the denominations, sobbed, beat their chests, and bowed in agreement with the penance.

Then the Pope awoke, sat upright, gasped in shocked certainty, and said: “Omnis qui odit fratrem suum homicida est.” [“Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” from St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation of 1 John 3:15)]

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of atheism and other classes since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA...