COLM MEANEY: Casta Meretrix

“Casta Meretrix” is an interesting couplet, perhaps not for delicate ears, because it means “chaste whore”;  but, surprise, surprise, it is used in connection with the church, and by esteemed churchmen at that.

It seems to go back at least to St Ambrose, 4th century AD, so it is of veritable vintage. The “chaste” part is based on many instances in the New Testament where the church is hinted at as the “immaculate bride of Christ” (Ephesians 5:27), or as the New Jerusalem, prepared to meet her husband (Revelation 21:2). And simply said, the “whore” part refers to the church’s many human imperfections, frailties and failings.

The expression encapsulates the belief that, from the very beginning, the church has been compromised, just because human nature is not perfect. In fact, one interpretation of the line in Genesis (1:26) where God says “Let us make humankind in our image”, is that, because the plural is used, it means that the angels were involved in human creation – hence the imperfect outcome. But to be created “in God’s image” (whatever that may mean) points to an altogether noble and lofty status. And so to fail in living up to that exalted calling is something of a tragedy. And these remarks, and the phrase “casta meretrix”, can legitimately be extended to include all of humanity in such a fallen condition.

Even in the company of Jesus, the apostles were less than exemplary. He lambasted them for their lack of comprehension, as if their minds were closed (Mark: 8:17); the brothers James and John wanted to fire-bomb a Samaritan village, simply because its inhabitants had refused Jews accommodation (Luke: 9:54); even as late as the last supper, the apostles were discussing about swords available for fighting (Luke: 22:35)!

Yes, the foibles of the church are easily catalogued down the centuries, and openly recorded in official documents (how more official can you get than a gospel?). I think that, since the Christian faith became the official “faith” of the Roman Empire at the time of Emperor Constantine and when later, the church became a respectable pillar of society, its ability to accept its weaknesses and even crimes, let alone admit them to the world, has been hampered. That’s partly why we had, for example, the disastrous scandal of church personnel, who were definitely known to have sexually abused children and adults, being covered up, or simply transferred to another location – and then for the same cycle of abuse to continue.

Still, it ought to be clarified that any such sexual abuse perpetrated by church personnel is not at all unique to the church, or specific to any creed or nation or tribe. It simply represents one of the more reprehensible actions and attitudes unworthy of our lofty human calling. And it should not even need noting that the perpetrators represent a tiny minority.

Since the beginning, whether our ancestors slouched out of some primaeval swamp, or came forth from a man’s rib – whatever the history, the “religious” in us has been a force both for good and for evil. From sacrificing children to placate the “gods”, or a Catholic chaplain blessing the Enola Gay (the plane that carried the atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima), to men and women devoting their lives to caring for the sick and the dying, the legacy of religion has been a mixed one. After all, “religion” can be harnessed to support any cause – some noble, some definitely questionable.

And it is worth remembering that horrors committed in the name of God or religion don’t impugn the essentially good reality of either: they merely serve as reminders that we truly inhabit a fallen human nature. Just as the horrors perpetrated by atheist regimes don’t negate the nobility of what can often be a principled rejection of a Providence upholding all of reality. The often terrible miseries of life prevent many people from any facile, optimistic belief in a good God. Evils committed by humans are just that, reminders of our unquenchable ability to do wrong; and to claim their doing in the name of religion is especially odious. The bible knows about human weakness from page one, with the vicissitudes of Adam & Eve. And even after the Flood, God says “the malice of the human heart has been there since infancy” (Gen 8:21).

During our covid times, we have witnessed many examples of how religion has been harnessed for most definitely questionable ends. We had the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul (a Catholic), encouraging people to get the “jab” because it was God’s will that they take the vaccine.

What perspicacity, to be so able to decipher the divine mind. Then we had Pope Francis who, in August of 2021 said that, to take the experimental mRNA therapy was an “act of love”; to his saying in January of 2022 that taking the jab was a “moral obligation”. Is he entirely unaware of the many adverse reactions to the various injections? In fact he said that being vaccinated with vaccines authorised by the competent authorities is an act of love. Did he not pause to ponder the word “competent”? To whom did it refer? The board of directors of Pfizer? Did pope Francis’ advisers not know of Pfizer’s historic legal fine (in 2009) of 2.3 billion dollars?  Or did the “competence” refer to the head of the WHO? Or the various entirely unelected “health” officials? I’m actually surprised that Francis didn’t say that we should “trust the science” (one of the most disturbing and dishonest slogans of the past three years). Justin Welby, head of the Church of England said: “To love one another as Jesus said: get vaccinated, get boosted”. All reading from the same prepared script, no surprises there.

Against such voices, I would invoke the words of the letter to the Ephesians: 4:29,30. “Do not use harmful words in talking, only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed”. What is not needed is bludgeoning rhetoric from people of some standing (political, ecclesiastical, or whatever), but voices searching for the truth, willing to listen to all sides, but hopefully having a bias against the Goliaths in the discussion, and giving more credence to the tiny voices of the Davids.

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