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Dominic Mhiripiri '12: Of scandals, religion and forbidden sex

It is somewhat very reluctantly that I find myself penning an article related to religion. Not that I consider it to be an unimportant issue unfit for community-level conversation at Brown, or that I lack interest in the tried, tested and yet still unexhausted "theories" and "proofs" that are replete in many a religious discourse in the college setting.  I have followed quite a number of these discussions and in fact, I do struggle with difficult questions and experiences of my own as a result of having particular religious beliefs in a culture different from mine.

Rather, I'm reluctant because newspaper commentary by itself is not a sufficient tool to address religious issues and bring the often-needed tolerance and understanding to very diverse communities like Brown. People, out of ignorance or sheer apathy, are often reluctant to engage discussion of religion and approach tolerance and compromise (the inflammatory graffiti left by a stranger on the door of my Keeney dorm room in response to a Christian sticker plausibly backs this assertion).

The ongoing worldwide controversy surrounding the Roman Catholic Church and the reaction it has provoked, however, leave me with no choice but to make a clarification that the papacy is independent and not representative of the entire Christian religion. Its failures, like its successes, should be treated in view of that distinction.

A strong wave of Catholic sex scandals has swept across Europe and the United States, drawing much controversy within both religious and non-religious circles worldwide. The scandal has assumed such enormous proportions that it clouded the worldwide Easter holiday mood and threatened the legacy of one of the most powerful and influential men in the world — Joseph Alois Ratzinger, otherwise known as Pope Benedict XVI.

I should address in passing the underpinning issue behind the controversy, namely the alleged cover-up of hundreds of sexual abuse cases over many years and the pontiff's shockingly indifferent stance in the scandal's aftermath. Sexual assault is no laughing matter. A global clerical sexual abuse epidemic is completely unconscionable, and both Ratzinger (as the figurehead of such an extremely powerful organization) and the entire bureaucracy below him should be held accountable.

However, within the ensuing anger and criticism directed at the Catholic establishment (and quite justifiably so), we should draw an important line between the Catholic Church and other Christian groups. Catholicism is easily approximated to the entire Christian religion; in fact, it has not been uncommon recently to hear people talking about losing respect for "the Christian faith" in the wake of recent problems engulfing the "Holy" See.

The Catholic Church is indeed the biggest religious body in the world; its history and heritage are equally enormous, spanning centuries, civilizations and empires since the first century. Its pontiffs have shaped history and commanded the adoration and reverence of both ordinary men and the most powerful leaders on the planet. Ratzinger's more charismatic predecessor, the famous John Paul II, stands in recent memory as a towering, modern epitome of the authority and universal influence that is the Pope of Rome.

Yet in spite of such commanding size and influence, the Catholic Church is neither the flag bearer for the Christian faith, nor the complete definition thereof. Understanding this distinction should be the first step towards attaining religious tolerance within diversity.

Catholicism is rooted in human tradition that has perpetuated over the centuries. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between it and other Christian groups lies in the tradition of the "infallible," global authority of a deified human figure — the pope. While common logic would dictate that churches based on Christian teachings should follow the Bible — the true authority of the religion — Catholicism establishes itself as an authority above the Bible, with the pope as its "unfailing" leader. The "Holy Father" is regarded as an equivalent of God on earth, as a representative or "vicar of Christ" — assertions for which there is absolutely no Biblical basis.

In fact, what makes Ratzinger's current scandals ridiculously logic-defying, yet somewhat very amusing, is his erstwhile portrayal as infallible and the inevitable consequential effect it had on revering faithful worldwide when the veneer of godliness encountered a rough brush with "sinful" reality.

The Catholic Church also stands apart from Christian groups as a religiopolitical organization. The sovereignty of the Vatican state, and the pope's assured place as a fixture of influence and an international diplomatic entity are consequences of the implicit statehood of the Vatican. No Protestant group is recognized as a political entity, nor do they have geopolitical influence on the same magnitude as the Catholic Church.

Christianity is very diverse and complex, and while Catholicism reigns supreme within it, many other Christian groups exist outside of it. Before we at Brown or those beyond assign blame or praise while discussing religious affairs, we should probably build an appreciation of such important distinctions first.

Dominic Mhiripiri '12 is an applied math-economics concentrator from Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. He can be reached at dominic_mhiripiri at brown.edu


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