The Catholic Church has rightly been described as one of the largest corporations in the world. Under the guise of religion and charitable works, it is one of the richest organisations around. There’s nothing new in this. Even before official recognition by Constantine, its leading figures were busy accumulating wealth. Some of it went to charity but most went into lavish and ostentatious lifestyles that aped those of the Roman ruling class. They were among the original lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Once derided as the work of the Devil, overnight the Roman Empire became God’s will on Earth. The Church turned its ability for organisation to the service of the empire. That was why Constantine granted official sanction to the Church, not some burning cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Christians were already numerous, especially in Italy. Moreover, the Church was organised into dioceses modelled on the Roman state. They gave Constantine a ready-made state organisation to replace the old one based on the tetrarchy established by Diocletian.
With the fall of the empire and the establishment of feudalism, the rule of the nobility now became God’s will. The Church modelled itself on the feudal nobility around it. The Church leaders even styled themselves as Princes of the Church. Most of those leaders were drawn from the secular nobility so the conception was an apt one.
From there, it was but a short step to the Catholic Church becoming one of the biggest—if not the biggest—cults ever known.
That seems like a gross exaggeration but let’s look at the hallmarks of a cult.
All decision-making rests in the hands of a select few.
You have to be a member of the clergy to have any real say in how the Church is run. In recent decades, advisory bodies with lay people on them have been introduced to Church councils. However, implementation of their recommendations remains in the hands of the upper clergy.
Who decides who will be appointed to positions within the Church hierarchy? Not the congregation. There are no elections. Appointments are made by and from within the clergy. There is no transparency and no accountability.
On another level, the Church is run by a select few. Only men can be ordained as priests. It is true that women can enter convents but the most they can aspire to is becoming a Mother Superior. The central function of the Church—communion and the saying of the Mass—is denied to them for no other reason than their gender.
Ritual is conducted in a way that excludes the majority of the cult’s membership.
This one has diminished following the reforms of the second half of the 20th century. However, up until then, it was certainly the case. All Church ceremonies were conducted in Latin. It was the language of the educated and formed the lingua franca of Western Christendom but it was still only read and spoken by a small minority of the population. During the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate and spoke only their local language.
Even the design of churches and the way the ritual of the Mass was conducted were formulated to separate the clergy from the congregation. The priest stood with his back to the congregation, facing the altar, so everything he did was hidden from view.
Between the priest and the congregation was a rood screen that further impeded sight. Even if you could understand what the priest was saying, the rood screen muffled his words.
Interpretation and implementation of the Church’s rules and dogma are in the hands of the select few.
Let us take interpretation first. The Bible was written in Latin. As I’ve said, only a small minority could read the language. Only that small minority knew what the Bible actually said so only they could interpret its messages. The rest had to rely on what was handed down to them from on high or on the Bible stories illustrated on the church walls.
To this day, people refer to male homosexuals as sodomites and the act of anal sex as sodomy. The words derive from the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as related in the Book of Genesis. God supposedly destroyed them with an everlasting pillar of fire for their sinfulness. Let us set aside the fact that no-one has ever found this never-ending pillar. Here, I want to raise a different point. Nowhere in the tale is mentioned the actual sin, or sins, of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that brought God’s wrath down on the cities’ inhabitants. Ezekiel comes closest when, centuries later, he wrote that it was the sin of the rich to have an excess of wealth and not share it with the poor.
If that were the case, the pillar of inexhaustible fire would be hovering over Vatican City.
Sodomy became a byword for male homosexuality because that is how the Church chose to interpret the story and those who heard it knew no better.
But, it was not just a matter of insisting that the Bible only be in Latin. The Church enforced the rule ruthlessly. Any attempt to translate the Bible into the vernacular—the language, or languages, of the common people—was met with bloody persecution. To take just one example, John Wycliffe was an English dissenter in the 14th century. His points of disagreement with the Catholic Church were many. However, he did not confine himself to criticism. Among other acts, he translated the Bible into Middle English. For that, among other things, he was condemned as a heretic.
Implementation and, for that matter, enforcement of the Church’s rules lay in the hands of the Church. In the Middle Ages, the Church was a law unto itself. Clergy were tried before ecclesiastical—Church—courts. Punishments, if any were handed down, were carried out by members of the Church.
In university towns like Oxford and Cambridge, there was repeated street fighting and riots between “town and gown”. The “town” was the townsfolk; the “gown” was the students, all of whom were studying for Holy Orders. Most of the rioting was over students being drunk and disorderly or abusive towards townsfolk whom they saw as being inferior. If a complaint was lodged against a student—even one as serious as theft or murder—it was heard in an ecclesiastical court. It was very rare that a charge was proven. That only led to further resentment.
Do not think that this practice lies only in the past. The Church protects its own to this day. We have seen how the Church deals with pederasts. The priest is merely shuffled to another parish where he can continue his abhorrent practice. Meanwhile, the complainant is vilified and castigated for bringing the Church into disrepute. It was the pederast who brought the Church into disrepute, not his victim.
Wealth and power are accumulated in the hands of a small minority.
The Catholic Church has always been good at accumulating both. You only have to look at the extravagant, jewel-encrusted, cloth-of-gold robes owned by the Church. These days, the Church hierarchy likes to portray itself as being more in touch with the modern world by being more moderate in its choice of attire. But the vestments remain in the possession of the Church. They lie in Church museums and Church vaults, not on display in public museums. It claims that they keep the treasures for the greater glory of God. That rings about as true as claims by supporters of the British monarchy that the Queen and Kate Middleton and all the other parasites have to dress extravagantly because it enhances the stature of the monarchy and that is good for the British economy. According to this piece of sycophancy, tourists come to Britain to see the palaces and the Trooping of the Colour and other such fripperies. Without it, the tourists wouldn’t come.
Then, there’s the churches and cathedrals and other Church buildings. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest landowners in the world.
The Church no longer wields the power that it once did. At its highest point, during the reign of Innocent III, the Church successfully claimed that the pope exercised precedence over all rulers, both spiritual and temporal—secular—ones. Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, was forced to stand barefoot in the snow, wearing a hair shirt, in front of Pope Gregory VII in penance for his sins. Those glory days are long behind the Church but the media still publishes papal pronouncements on secular matters like war and climate change. The media doesn’t even blink at papal calls for an end to poverty when selling off its treasures could go a long way towards that aim.
Gregory could wield such power because he had a mighty weapon—excommunication—at his disposal. He could declare a person to be outside the Church community. We often hear stories of modern-day cults that threaten members who want to leave with never seeing their family and friends again. Excommunication carried much the same threat because the excommunication was, quite literally, a persona non grata. It meant that the person could no longer be part of Church ceremonies like the Mass or have their sins absolved. If you died while excommunicated, you could forget about going to Heaven. You were outside the faithful so Heaven was denied to you. In the deeply superstitious Middle Ages, that was a dire threat indeed.
More importantly, for someone like Henry, it meant that his nobles no longer had to swear fealty to him. They were no longer his vassals so they could act as they pleased. With Henry no longer their liege lord, they could—and did—revolt. The Holy Roman Empire lost substantial territory as nobles threw off their feudal chains. Only when Henry recanted and bowed down to Gregory did the pope lift the ban of excommunication.
Nonetheless, the Church continues to try to meddle in secular matters. New York State recently passed legislation allowing for composting of human remains. The bones, which take longer to break down, are pulverized and added to the end product. It is then put to whatever use the dead person’s descendants deem appropriate. The Church opposed the legislation on the basis that it disrespected the human body which is the vessel of the immortal soul.
Such an argument ignores the fact that, in normal burial, the body rots to no useful purpose. In cremation, the body is reduced to ashes and then they are routinely scattered. Presumably, both procedures disrespect the vessel of the immortal soul.
Cult leaders dictate how members will live their lives.
The Church has had a disgusting aversion to sex since its earliest days. Indeed, the religion could better be described as Paulian rather than Christian. Paul was a misogynist of the first order. His attitude towards women—and his repeated insistence on their subservience to men—is appalling. His Epistles are full of exhortations of abstinence.
Little has changed. The Church is totally opposed to abortion at any time and for any reason. It prohibits contraception. For centuries it tried to proscribe what days it was permissible for couples to have sex. They weren’t many. And sex was only within the bonds of Holy Matrimony and then only for the purpose of reproduction. It was definitely not to be enjoyed. That was sinful. It was only to be conducted in the missionary position. Any other position was sinful. If the woman was on top, the man was considered to be emasculated because he had adopted the woman’s subservient role. Oral sex was most definitely forbidden as was homosexuality.
Of course, it’s hard to enforce a ban on actions carried out in the privacy of one’s home but the Church did its best. The threat of eternal fire and brimstone goes a long way towards keeping Church members in line.
There are many other arguments that could be made. The ones I have presented here merely scratch the surface. They are, though, sufficient to support the contention that the Catholic Church was one of the largest—if not the largest—cults ever. Recent reforms have done little to change that.
Cults allow no deviation from cult beliefs and practices.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Christianity died out in Britain, Gaul and Hispania. It was Irish missionaries like Columba who reintroduced it. They brought their own rites of worship with them. However, Rome claimed authority over all of Christendom. The pope insisted that he was head of the universal (that is what catholic means) church and that the Roman rite was the only legitimate one. Celtic rites were stamped out.
The Church has carried on in that vein ever since. I mentioned priests in olden times standing in front of the altar with their backs to the congregation. A rood screen separated congregation from priest. The priest now stands behind the altar, facing the congregation. Rood screens are a thing of the past. So too, for that matter, are altar rails. Mass is now said in the vernacular.
However, when the Church introduced these returns following the Second Vatican Council, the rite that had preceded them, the Tridentine Mass, was immediately banned. Church members who refused to accept the new ways and wanted a return to the old rite had to do so in secret.
We no longer have inquisitions but more people have been slaughtered in the name of the Prince of Peace than any other justification. The Friars Preachers were founded by Dominic Guzman to engage Muslims, Jews and heretics in debate and to thus show them the error of their ways. Such a course did not last long. They soon became known as the Domini Canes—the Hounds of God— for their ruthless use of repression, torture and the stake to combat dissent.