After reading the Lawrence Wright Scientology article that Linus posted, I was struck by Paul Haggis describing his growing realization that his church had been a scam. More troubling were the descriptions of people who had joined Scientology and given up everything — family, friends, job — that didn’t belong to the organization itself. Still, though, I found the pile-on of Scientology more than a little unfair (similar to Linus’s misgivings about labeling Scientology a “cult”), and I couldn’t figure out why until I read this recent NYTimes piece about the Catholic Church in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal in Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, the sex-abuse scandal has disturbed a country whose very existence is closely related to the Church. Most schools and many hospitals are Church-run, even though they are publicly funded. But what struck me about the story was how similar to Scientology the responses were from Church leaders.
When these horrific events were exposed, the Pope, instead of questioning any existing dogma, sent out a quite insulting official letter, scolding the whole nation of Ireland for embracing secularization and feminism, without proposing any mechanisms for removing and prosecuting priests. (As we know, no priest ever molested or abused any children before feminism. FACT.) This is the same denialist credo as the Scientologists, with total disregard for the truth or accountability. When confronted with the fact that the original Hubbard texts have negative references to homosexuality, the Scientology spokesman responds that the words must have been the insertion of some random bigot trying to undermine Scientology. It’s never the Church’s fault, in either case.
The saddest part, though, is the plight of those who want to walk away from the Church. In Scientology, many have given up their past lives and have surrounded themselves only with other Scientologists. In Ireland, the Church’s pervasive nature means that it’s difficult to leave, particularly after you’ve invested so much of your life (and your savings) in the Church:
A televised panel discussion on the abuse crisis last summer ended with a reporter asking a woman who was voicing her anger if she was ready to leave the Catholic Church. She paused, as if befuddled, then said, “Where would I go?”
In my mind, she sounded exactly like the troubled souls who latch onto Scientology, only to find no way out. As Haggis puts it, “They leave, they’re ashamed of what they’ve done, they’ve got no money, no job history, they’re lost, they just disappear.”
The Catholic Church has now gone out of its way to remove the last canonically-accepted way of formal defection from the Church. Now, walking away means essentially walking straight towards eternal damnation. Now, the Church hierarchy doesn’t have “blow drills” in which priests hunt down and drag back former members, but why would they have to? They’ve been entangled in every aspect of Irish public life for hundreds of years.
Matt Lauer has no problem going after Tom Cruise for his Scientology claptrap, but I doubt he could get away with going after an archbishop or cardinal, let alone the Pope.
When any organization has limitless power over its adherents and no accountability to anyone but God, bad things will happen. To return to Linus’ point about labeling something a “cult,” then, maybe the only difference between a cult and a religion is a couple thousand years of success.
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