On a recent visit to the devout Ireland I found the best example yet of the rotten commercialism of the Catholic Church. Inside The Irish Times there was a leaflet sent with goodwill from the friars of St Anthony’s Basilica. On the first page was written:
‘Send a petition to the world’s best-loved Saint today and ask the friars of Saint Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, Italy to pray for you.’
Now it’s not clear whether the £17 a year the friars were asking for is to pay for their praying time, or for the magazine subscription that comes with it. Perhaps the prayers are just a bribe? No matter anyway. The strangest part of this leaflet was to be found inside:
‘In return for your £17 subscription, we would like to send you this exquisite medallion, made by master Italian craftsmen. The cloth in the back of the medallion has been blessed through physical contact with Saint Anthony’s tongue at his Basilica in Padua.’
Obviously, this gift is not available in the shops.
Now you could argue that this leaflet in itself is a benign manifestation of a wider evil trademarked to the Catholic Church. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg launching the Protestant Reformation, it was largely in protest and response to the Church’s position on ‘indulgences’. The basic idea behind indulgences is that the accumulated deeds of all the saints throughout history are stored in The Treasure House of Merit. This balance of saintliness can be withdrawn by any sinful and repentant believer, thus shortening their time in purgatory; God’s waiting room. I might mention that like medallions with saintly saliva, indulgences come at a cost. In Luther’s time, the money was required to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Nowadays, it is presumably used to maintain the Vatican’s grandiose buildings and to fund their proselytizing in the third world. Luther nobly, in my opinion, objected to the papal commissioner who toured the houses of the poor as well as the rich to squeeze out what little money they had. Probably by invoking another Catholic trademark – guilt.
This leaflet in principle is no different. It’s asking believers for money by promising them spiritual salvation that it alone knows how to achieve. This is exploitation. But I bet that if you surveyed each individual that purchased their magazine subscription and accompanying medallion, they wouldn’t take kindly to the charge they were being exploited. They’d say their actions were made in full autonomy without any need for bribery. And if you interviewed them, I bet you’d agree. So what’s the problem?
Time to remind ourselves of what the kind Italians are offering. For £17 they will wipe a cloth across the dry preserved tongue of an 815 year old corpse in order to imbue it with magic redemptive powers. The first fifty to respond were awarded a mystery prize. I dread to think what it was. More than an example of immorality, this is just weird. I take this to be nothing more than a harmless example of the strange things religion can lead to. There is, for the theist, a perfect logical pathway from believing in God, to believing that a medallion will bring you luck. If you begin with the paradigm that God exists and that he has revealed himself to us through holy scripture, it’s not any more illogical to think that he might grant certain individuals his divine grace. Why wouldn’t you want their relics and persona around you?
What’s more is that the pervasiveness of religion in our society means that we treat such nonsense as normal. This leaflet was mainstream enough to be found as a separate insert in an advanced Western European nation’s national newspaper with a circulation of over 100,000. Any scrupulously neutral observer must admit that the claims and offers of the leaflet are by no means ordinary. Even more so consider a symbol that you probably see every day – the cross. Hundreds of millions of Christians (and many non-believers too) wear a cross around their neck to symbolise the sacrifice of their messiah. The cross being a horrific instrument of torture for centuries. I forgot who’s example it is, but imagine if, in a millennium, a large portion of the global population wore electric chairs around their neck. The idea is at heart simply ludicrous, but we’ve all been conditioned to accept it as normal. When performed on a large scale by a large enough section of society, it seems that any act can pass from the bizarre to the banal. This all brings to mind a quote of Sam Harris’:
‘We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called “mad,” “psychotic,” or “delusional.”’