Scandal and Judgment:
The Crisis in the Catholic Church
and the Scandal of Presumptive Authority
A sermon by F. Jay Deacon
Preached at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence December 15, 2002

Last Tuesday, the Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts addressed themselves to the current crisis of hypocrisy in the Roman Catholic Church in a scathing Boston Globe op-ed piece. This same week, also in the Globe, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association declined comment, saying he didn't wish to cast stones in judgment.

When is it right to judge? Should we be tastefully quiet, or should we be saying something? Is the Catholic Church right when it argues that to be critical of it is to be anti-Catholic and bigoted? In an op-ed piece in the New York Times last March, Bill Keller, a Times Editor, wrote:

The church has long enjoyed reverential treatment from legislators, prosecutors, judges and sometimes the press. It has a robust lobbying apparatus in Washington and in state capitals, . . . it has been quick to cow inquisitive reporters with threats of advertising boycotts and charges of anti-Catholic bias.1

I am aware that such a topic two weeks before Christmas might seem a bit like a dead mouse in the holiday punch. It isn't fun. I don't like doing it. But today a multitude of people are shattered and confused and the religious world is convulsed, and it would be wrong to say nothing. Ours is a movement of religious dissent and now is as good a time as any to state our case.

I venture into perilous ground. And we are witnessing a tragedy of gigantic proportions. There have been manifold forms of abuse. But none of it's understandable without going considerably farther back.

Back to the fourth century, where a event entered the stream of history and gained an almost inexplicable hold: — The fourth century, when adherents of the Jesus movement still held many different views about their founder, when one large segment of the Jesus movement, aligned with the bishop Arius, believed so strongly in monotheism that they were very sceptical indeed about the idea that Jesus was God. But that was just one of many points of view in the ancient church. Anyway, the church represented maybe ten percent of the ancient peoples, more or less. I say more or less because many people drew, for their own religious life, from several religious traditions and blended them. And more and more, pagans had begun to sound like monotheists, too, summing up the Divine in a single deity associated with the sun. Oh, and there were Jews, living in freedom, practicing their religion freely.

And the Empire was no longer doing terrible things to Christians: that had ended when Diocletian died in 303. The Empire had been convulsed by civil war, barbarian invasions, and general social breakdown. Cultural life seemed nearly extinct; Roman life was pretty much about the military now.

Diocletian had left the Empire under the control of a tetrarchy of two supreme Augusti and two secondary Caesars. But when one of those lesser Caesars died in York, in Britain, his son, who was with him, got it into his head that God had chosen him, the young Constantine, to rule the world, every bit of it, absolutely.

This was one of history's turning points. All of his rivals claimed the patronage and protection of the pagan gods. But Constantine had been noticing the growing strength of the Church. He'd already befriended an powerful bishop and he knew that whatever intellectual life remained in the empire was pretty much confined to Christian theologians. Shrewdly, he understood that he could find no stronger allies.

So one day in 312, after killing off one of his chief rivals, and on the eve of the battle in which he will kill his next rival2 — he gathers his troops and tells them he has seen a vision. "By this, conquer," the voice had said, and he'd looked at the midday sun and seen a cross. Chances are that if, at midday, you look right at the sun, you, too, will see a cross, but that is beside the point. He says he told his army about that vision, that now they went forth in the name, and by the sanction, of the Christian God. They formed crosses with swords as the vertical piece and marched forth to battle, and soon Constantine was the undisputed ruler of the world.

But if he was going to continue conquering by the sign of the cross, this diversity and pluralism in the church would have to stop. The year after he defeated his last serious enemy he summonsed all the bishops together at Nicæa, in 325, and personally presiding, told the bishops they must now define Christian orthodoxy so that it would be possible to distinguish between those who are orthodox and those who are heretics, so that he could rule the church absolutely, too. And that's where Unitarians became Heretics. Dissenting bishops were sent into exile. Dissenting scriptures were burned.

And so was born in the Church the reign of presumptive authority — that is, the authority that cannot be questioned, the authority of Bibles and Popes and nuns and clergy, the authority thatgfs takes the place of thinking and reflecting and soul-searching and deciding for yourself, and taking personal responsibility for it.

The Nicæan Creed, after all, made it clear. The last section consisted of a number of phrases that began with "These, the Catholic Church anathematizes" — and then lists the heretics, like the Arians, forerunners of the Unitarians, prominently among them. The Cross became the new symbol of Christianity, and the Cross became the symbol of blame that would now be placed on another minority in the Empire, those who would henceforth be held responsible for Jesus' death. Not the Roman Empire, not its masochistic governor Pontius Pilate who actually executed him, but the Jews, were responsible for Jesus' death. The assaults on synagogues, the exclusion of Jews from public office, the expulsions, and ultimately, the Holocaust, followed. All in the name of God and Church.


Now — at just about the same time, maybe a decade before the fateful Council of Nicea consummated the marriage of church and state and military — the bishops had held another conference, the Synod of Elvira, in southern Spain. And this is the other fateful step that I want you to notice and remember.

Sometime around 309 — just before Constantine seized power — the bishops had convened in Elvira to try to reënforce their own authority within the church itself. Sometimes, it seemed, nobody was listening to them. So they had a cunning plan.

It seems that, following St. Paul, the theology of the church had been taking a distinctly negative view of sexuality. So now the bishops and presbyters traveled Roman roads to assert their authority over the churches in eighty-one "canons," thirty-seven of which (45.7 percent) were about sex. The historian Samuel Laeuchli thinks they had two purposes for doing this: 1) to provide an inner cohesion by controlling the sexual behavior of the masses through an exertion of clergy power, and 2) to create a clerical image to strengthen that hold: a class of clerics who are so much more righteous than thou — that is, the laity — as to have the right to demand the privileges of authority.3 The bishops had not come to the synod intending to deliberate sex; but apparently there was something exhilarating about passing new canons that defined themselves as holier than the general public, and thus deserving of obedience.4 The clerics voted that free sexual expression was a serious moral evil. They voted for themselves a life without sex, even if they were already married. And the faithful were in such crisis that they welcomed this near-absolute clerical control.5

Samuel Laeuchli goes on to say:

The cleric saw himself in the role of the powerful father, alternatively punishing and forgiving . . . The faithful looked up, or was conditioned to look up to him as his paternal authority figure, his "papa," as the major bishops since the third century were called. Such a vertical relationship, elsewhere expressed as lord-servant, teacher-student, undergirds the entire patristic and medieval authority structure of Christianity as one of the two components in the mother-father substitute presented to man by the ancient church. While the church offered itself to the believer as the spiritual mother who comforts and nourishes her children, the elite of the church acted as the father, distributing wrath and clemency in the gratuitous, manipulative technique of aristocratic power.6

Nothing about this contradicts Nietzsche's attack upon "Christian morality" in which he attacks the priesthood as — his words — "that parasitical type of man . . . which has used morality to raise itself mendaciously to the position of determining human values — finding in Christian morality the means to come to power."7

But there is something about that place of power that is very dangerous, something about the way those faithful reverence you. Especially if you are trying to live without something that most people regard as essential. And how they admire you and trust you!


It wasn't very many years after Elvira and Nicæa that Augustine8 would be consecrated consecrated as a Bishop, and would argue that every sexual act is sinful, sinful because it is lustful. Every child is tainted with original sin, which is transmitted through the sexual act. If sex within marriage is intended solely to produce children, it is forgiven, but it is still a sin; if anything is done to prevent conception, the act is equivalent to fornication.9 Sex within marriage is justified if the purpose is the begetting of children "because it makes good use of the evil of lust. . . . But the action is not performed without evil."10 Christian Schizophrenia about sex and the body was now in full forward.


The handy thing about the world that was thereby created was that it came with easy and clearcut answers. Christians were good; Jews were bad, and so were Unitarians. Sex was always a sin and in some cases so severe a sin that it brought a penalty of death. And everybody knew what the place of women was.


I could go on about that, about the the churchly treatment of theological and sexual heretics. But the point of it all was to establish and maintain power. The benefit of all this was that it absolved everyone of having to think and judge for themselves.


I wrote to Bill Sinkford, our president, that there is a certain grace about not wanting to cast stones. There is a tricky line between that and the prophetic burden we also carry. We seem to know to speak when it's our unelected president rewarding the rich and oppressing the poor or cranking up a war for bravado's sake. So far, I'm convinced, we've missed a cue on this front. We ought to be heard now: what seems obvious to us, internally, must be said. The Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts have shown the way, as has James Carroll, in Monday's Globe.

Long ages of dishonesty and irrationality about sexuality and gender, coupled with a corrupted bulwark of ecclesiastical power and presumptive authority, have created a monster that is hurting a lot of people. This is not less wrong, not less serious, than the objects of our many General Assembly resolutions and denominational declarations. Nor is it about a disgraced Cardinal, who is not less shattered and confused, not less heartbroken, than the others. The titanic fall of Bernard Cardinal Law, who only operated in the tradition of Constantine and the present Pope, is a tragedy.


It is too easy and too shallow to attack individuals, who are themselves caught up in a system that has come into devastating collision with the realities of life and the human soul. It is something larger than a few bishops and priests | that has broken a million hearts, anguished leaders, embittered victims. Within that system is a multitude of good people, clergy, religious, and laity, many doing magnificent work, sometimes greatly shaming us with their works of mercy and justice. From that system have come great figures: who can forget, or dismiss, Archbishop Romero, Philip Berrigan? And a throng of mystics whose words I repeat so often, and activists known to all of us. And the crisis has produced its own heroes, like Rev. Walter Cuenin, a priest in Newton.


So I turn first to William Blake's vision. William Blake related a dream of his in 1793. In it, he had a friend, a righteous angel, who wanted to show him his eternal fate on accounta his impious life. So the angel, so sure of his righteousness, took him down a treacherous pathway to the edge of an immense horror, and they hung over it by the roots of trees looking down at a dark tempest of hell and smoke and cataracts and blood and fire and vast swimming spiders and the scaly folds of a monstrous serpent whose eyes appeared as two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke. Pretty awful. Whoa. The angel got scared and fled.

But Blake dreamed that he stayed down in the forbidden place for awhile—just curious—wanted to see if the Divine might dwell here also. And darned if he didn't soon find this place actually to be a place of grace and beauty and delight.

After awhile he climbed back up to where his frightened angel waited. The angel was stunned—couldn't understand how Blake had actually survive the blood and fire and serpents and all. So Blake told him.

He said: All that you saw was owing to your metaphysics, your religion. When you ran away and took your scary metaphysics with you, I found myself on a pleasant river bank by moonlight hearing a harpist play.


At the soul of this society is the righteous angel who looks at beauty and sees instead a hellish prospect of brimstone and monstrous serpents; views human passions like sexuality with fear and loathing. And the righteous angels of the world have set out to slay what appears to them as the monstrous serpents — among them, some of us. Ever since Constantine, they expect to be obeyed. But that human energy — you can't slay it; you can only twist and distort it.


So I turn, finally, to another tradition on the subject of religious authority. It is our own. In 1865, the greatest of our own Transcendentalist thinkers, Rev. Samuel Johnson of Lynn, Massachusetts, published a piece called "Real and Imaginary Authority," in a little journal he was fond of, called The Radical. He said:

The traditionalist may imagine that he has taken his belief on the "divine authority of the Bible or the Church." He has really been decided by that point of discernment at which his Spiritual Consciousness has arrived. He has obeyed his own undeveloped religious senses. And because he does not know that his attempt to escape the necessity of judging according to his spiritual state, is a failure, he suffers that Consciousness which is the light or the darkness of all that is in him, to remain crude, inert, enslaved, instead of quickening and unfolding it by present light and duty. And so it lies gazing at a dead Bible and a dead creed, self-condemned to inflict its own death on that from which it is seeking life.

Much as Christians have insisted that they rest on an infallible Bible, they have never really shaped their creeds by the Bible, whether fallible or infallible; but always primarily by the actual condition of things within and without themselves . . , and making the Bible mean essentially what this demanded.

The traditional Theology of Christendom is not explicable from the Bible. . . . It originated in the speculations of bishops and presbyters, . . . It appealed to the State to lend it the sanction of physical force. . . .11

No, no: We cannot escape the human necessity of judging, and judging for ourselves. If we try, we will wind up in one of perhaps two predicaments.

Either: we will delude ourselves that we are actually living by some divinely-ordained authority outside ourselves, blaming our worst fears and hatreds and misdeeds on St. Paul or God and refusing to recognize them as our fear or hate and violence; or we will pretend that all things are equally true or valuable. We will strive never to offend anyone, never to make a judgment.

But the noblest of our forebears did not shirk the human responsibility. And right now I want to invoke one of them, Margaret Fuller.

Not because she, or Channing, or Emerson, are any more incapable of error than the bishops, but because we have exemplars who lived out the vision we cherish; they sought the sources of religious authority in their own minds and souls and took responsibility for doing so. Here are exemplars whom we can question and with whom we can argue. But they are our compansions: we are not alone on this daunting journey. And so Margaret Fuller set sail for Rome in 1847.

She went as a correspondent for the Tribune, the New York newspaper published by the Universalist, Horace Greeley. In recent years the Pope had reimposed princely rule over central Italy. Italians had suffered under ferocious papal rule: povery had increased with illiteracy; censorship was severe; and there was police terrorism and sudden arrests for suspected dissidents.

Recently a new and more liberal pope had come to power, but the system was unchanged, and his liberality seemed to buckle under pressure from the other bishops. In the Fall of 1849 the reformers forced the Pope out of his Palace, and out of Rome, along with his Cardinals and Princes. Rome proceeded to elect a Constituent Assembly, though the Pope threatened to excommunicate anybody who voted against him. The Assembly opened in February 1850 and declared the Roman Republic, and it seemed to function well, even without recognition from the United States. The great Mazzini instituted democratic reforms. But the Pope had persuaded the French army to help him regain his palace and power, and soon enough there was a fierce battle. Margaret ran a hospital for the wounded. But the battle was lost, and the Pope regained his palace and his temporal sovereignty; and Margaret, and her revolutionary companion Giovani Ossoli, and their child Angelino, escaped and sailed for America, only to perish in a violent storm within sight of Fire Island, New York. Our saint Margaret's last endeavour was the struggle to end the abuse of this religious-political-military complex. She didn't choose easy battles.

Margaret Fuller's history of the Roman Revolution was lost in the shipwreck but her earlier work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, had already made her famous. She had already challenged that boundary of the mind. She had already opened up intellectual opportunities for women in Boston and Concord that they'd never had, and now she was the first woman in any such position in an American newspaper. She is gone, but the all-male priesthood survives, in nearly the only institution in our society that gets away with massive sex discrimination. Oh! but it's our religion, it's what we believe, it's what St. Paul teaches, it's in Leviticus.

So was slavery. And the historical equation of heresy and homosexuality is a tradition of the church, too, and it meant the death penalty, right up to the Massachusetts Bay Colony Body of Laws and Liberties. But it isn't good enough for today, nor has it been for a long, long time.


The conclusion of William Blake's vision contains a truth as important as any in the dream. In one penetrating line, William Blake puts it in devastatingly clear terms, to that angel:

But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I show you yours?

The presumptive authority that presumed to judge the world now reels under the judgment of history.

No, the monster is not a few Cardinals or priests, and you won't find a lot of evil people among them. It is presumptive authority, that I mean to judge today, and condemn — whether it is the presumptive authority of a bible, or a pope, or an ayatollah, or a mullah, or a dictator, or just tradition or habit. Or a preacher. You don't have to believe the speaker.

The message is utterly simple. The day of such authority is long past. Now, there can be no escape from the human responsibility to think, to reflect, to search one's soul, to seek truth, and to decide and make judgments. You cannot blame your prejudices or your outdated ideas on God, or any alleged representative of God. No one should even try. Every one of us is responsible for what we affirm and deny, what we hate and what we love, what we say and what we do.


So I turn again to Emerson, and leave us with these words, unsurpassed in all the religious rhetoric of passing ages:

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every [one]'s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.12

The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? . . . The remedy . . . is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.13

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? . . . Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new [humans], new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.14



1 Bill Keller. "Let us prey." New York Times, March 9, 2002.

2 He kills Maximium at Marseilles; Max's son Maxentius then faces Constantine at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber and falls into the river and dies.

3 Samuel Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972), pp. 90, 96.

4 Ibid., pp. 26f.

5 Ibid., p. 107.

6 Ibid., p. 121.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (1908), trans. Walter Kaufmann. From "Why I am a Destiny," Sec. 7.

8 354-430.

9 Augustine, On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin., II.41; and On Marriage and Concupiscence, I.4, 6-7, 33.

10 Augustine, Against Julian, III.7.15.

11 Samuel Johnson, "Real and imaginary authority," The Radical, November 1865, reproduced in Samuel Longfellow, editor, Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson. Edited and with an Introduction by Roger C. Mueller. Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977. ISBN 0-8201-1305-0

11 The Over-Soul.

11 The Divinity School Address.

11 Nature.


From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, 1793

An Angel came to me and said: "O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! Consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such a career."

I said: "Perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot. We will contemplate together upon it, and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable."

So he took me thro' a stable and thro' a church and down into the church vault, at the end of which was a mill: thro' the mill we went, and came to a cave: down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way, till a void boundless as a nether sky appear'd beneath us, and we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity; but I said, "If you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also: if you will not, I will;" but he answer'd: "Do not presume, O young man, but as we here remain, behold thy lot which will soon appear."

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv'd vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; and the air was full of them, and seem'd composed of them: these are Devils. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot: he said: "between the black and white spiders."

But now, from between the black and white spider, a cloud of fire burst and rolled thro' the deep, black'ning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew dark as a sea, and rolled with a terrible noise; beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a dark tempest, till looking east between the clouds and the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones' throw from us appear'd and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent; at last, appear'd a fiery crest above the waves; slowly it reared like two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke; and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan; his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple: soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam, tinging the dark deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.

My friend the Angel climb'd up from his station into the mill: I remain'd alone; and then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant banks beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung to the harp; and his theme was: "The one who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind."

But I arose and sought for the mill, and there I found my Angel, who, surprised, asked me how I escaped?

I answered: "All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics; for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper. But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I show you yours?"

And from Vaçlav Havel:

We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their 'private' exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. We must be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience.*

* Prague, February 1984: Vaclav Havel, "Politics and Conscience." In Living in Truth. Ed. Jan Vladislav. London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986, 153-54.