“The color line is distinctly drawn by Jehovah himself; it is drawn in nature and in history in such a form as to make it a sin and a crime to undertake to obliterate it. “

– Rev. Benjamin Palmer, 1887

“It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture…”

Leander, Catholic Theologian, 1692

“Christianity confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship in plain language and by positive precept. []  But, while conferring on her these priceless blessings, it also enjoins the submission of the wife to the husband, and allots a subordinate position to the whole sex while here on earth. No woman calling herself a Christian, acknowledging her duties as such, can, therefore, consistently deny the obligation of a limited subordination laid upon her by her Lord and His Church.”

Susan F. Cooper, 1870

“According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. []  But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

In a speech to the Vatican Curia today, Pope Benedict made what is considered to be one of his strongest attacks yet on gay marriage. Over the past few years, the Pope has made known his opposition to homosexual conduct in no uncertain terms, previously describing it as an “objective disorder“. This view has been repeated by numerous representatives of his senior executive team throughout the world.

A few days before, the news came through of a major breakthrough in the Philippines. After years of opposition by the Catholic Church, women in this country are now one small step away from government subsidised contraception and the right to family planning choices previously only available to those who could afford it.

Around the same time, Catholic bishops in Ireland came out forcefully against government plans to introduce abortion legislation in 2013. Even though most commentators expect the legislation to be restrictive and limited – merely clarifying the conditions by which a termination can be conducted in a medical context – it didn’t stop some more hysterical bishops announcing the onset of a “culture of death” in Ireland.

The Church’s priority does not seem to be common human compassion, nor the alleviation of poverty, nor the highlighting of injustice, nor calling the powerful to account. No. Instead the Church is preoccupied by the imposition of an absolute, unbending version of morality. Having no regard to the inevitable complexities and contradictions at the extremes, the Catholic Church shows itself to lack compassion. Its moral stance has become an immoral one, imposing suffering where alleviation is possible. By choosing not to accept reality, it has lost touch with common humanity.

This is the Catholic Church leadership in the early 21st Century, holding fast to positions that are becoming less tenable with each passing year. Through the stories of people whose lives have been blighted by injurious Church attitudes, it finds itself on the wrong side of history, playing the wounded soldier as the demands for greater liberty and common respect rise ever stronger. The point is missed entirely when these demands are rejected as nothing more than rampant secularism in the ascendent.

We are witnessing, in real time, the demise of this once powerful organisation. Should it choose to adhere to the course it is on, it will cease to exist as a force for change within our own lifetimes. The stance of this church is one of defensiveness, elitism, and deafness to a growing public clamour for renewal. By choosing to ignore the real desires of women, the poor, homosexuals, transexuals and those who clamour for meaningful change within the organisation, it is consigning itself to terminal irrelevance.

I am an atheist, so I am under no illusions as to how this essay will be taken by many people of faith. I am unconvinced, however, that religion is, necessarily, a manifest force of evil. In a free society, people must be permitted their beliefs and the comfort that they may derive from them. Religion provides breathing space to millions of people across the world, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Through acts of selflessness, charity and compassion, many deeply religious people across the world deliver encouragement to the needy of this world with no expectation of compensation, material or otherwise.

For a religion to thrive in this century, it needs to accept and understand the real world, with all its conundrums, confusions and contradictions. It needs to reach out to people, listening to their stories, walking in their shoes before setting forth an opinion. Despite axiomatic differences, there are no good reasons why humanists and convinced Catholics cannot share many similar values and work together on common causes. Right now, however, by elevating moral absolutes over what is practical, fair and achievable, a gulf exists where it need not be. Like those religious people who used their holy scriptures to justify slavery, segregation and the subjugation of women, its only a matter of time before the harm caused by these stances will be plain for all to see.