The Papacy: Authority and Obedience

Paul Kurtz

The recent grand tour of the eastern United States by Pope Benedict XVI was a carefully choreographed propaganda event. Its purpose was, apparently, to rescue America’s Roman Catholic Church and perhaps restore it to its former power—which has been hemorrhaging with church closings and the long decline in recruitment of priests and nuns.

The obscene scandal of child sex-abuse concerned the pope, as well it should. Roughly 1,000 lawsuits have been filed against the Boston archdiocese alone. This may be only the tip of an iceberg: despite all the publicity the sex-abuse scandal has occasioned, it still seems likely that there remain in the shadows tens and tens of thousands of other innocent children sexually abused by pederast priests—victims too embarrassed to step forth.

With all of his regal pomp, the pope appears beneficent, yet his kindly façade belies the terrible historical record of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its continuing authoritarian posture. Not one woman was represented among the American Cardinals who greeted him; the College of Cardinals, like the priesthood itself, is all male.

The pope convened an ecumenical audience of representatives of a wide range of Christian sects at St. Joseph’s Church in New York City—from prelates of the Eastern Orthodox Church to ministers from numerous Protestant denominations. While in New York, the pope visited the Park East Synagogue. This surface ecumenism is at odds with Benedict’s unswerving insistence that his Church represents the one true Church established on earth by God. Richard John Neuhaus, chief American sycophant to Benedict’s papal court, has said that the Roman Catholic Church is justified as the “one Church” because Jesus allegedly said “. . . that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16: 18–19). According to Roman Catholic legend, Peter as Bishop of Rome solidified the apostolic succession in Rome, which has been the lineage of the popes ever since. The historical authenticity of this claim is highly suspect, as it is without empirical corroboration. Yet it is on the basis of this passage that the great political and social power of the papacy has been justified. Surely, it is preposterous to maintain that God has selected every pope since Peter when the political skullduggery that has so often surrounded the deposition and election of popes is so well known. Indeed, Joseph Ratzinger’s own election to the papacy was the product of his intense political jockeying. The Roman Catholic Church remains what it has always been: an inherently totalitarian institution.

The paradox of Roman Catholicism in the United States is clearly apparent in Benedict’s insistence on “the authority” of the Church and his demand of the “obedience” of its flock to Church rulings. Yet he also observed during his homily (delivered at the Mass at Yankee Stadium) that authority and obedience are not “easy words to speak nowadays . . . especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom.”

Benedict is correct. There is a basic contradiction between American democracy—which emphasizes freedom of conscience—and a medieval church that still insists upon a code of celibacy; rejects reproductive freedom of choice for women, divorce, and stem cell research; condemns gay and transgendered people; and has the temerity to insist that it alone represents Jesus Christ on earth, as a result of a mythological theory of apostolic succession.

And to close the case, Benedict maintains his claim for the moral superiority of his church despite the prominence of pederasty within it. What gall!

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


The recent grand tour of the eastern United States by Pope Benedict XVI was a carefully choreographed propaganda event. Its purpose was, apparently, to rescue America’s Roman Catholic Church and perhaps restore it to its former power—which has been hemorrhaging with church closings and the long decline in recruitment of priests and nuns. The obscene …

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