I recently watched Joseph Losey’s film version of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo. First performed in 1943, and revised in 1955, Losey’s production was filmed in 1975. One of Brecht’s best-known dramas, The Life of Galileo addresses the oppressive nature of religion both in terms of its control of thought and its collusion with power in maintaining the status quo. It is as if within knowledge resides damnation, as if any human even has foreknowledge of such a fate should it exist. Indeed, there is a reason the tree in the Garden of Eden is called the Tree of Knowledge, with that knowledge being the source of all subsequent evil.
Brecht’s dramas remain perhaps the greatest investigations of the human condition written in the past one hundred years. From the travails of Pirate Jenny in The Threepenny Opera (Der Dreigroschen Oper) to his condemnation of the profiteers of war in Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder), no playwright has given the spirit of the common man and woman more credence or provided it with more depth. Nor has any recent dramatist been as direct and unforgiving in portraying the forces that conspire to deny that spirit.
Galileo challenged the dogma of the Church on matters of science and hoped the Church would accept his revolutionary conclusions or at the least consider them. For his efforts he was branded a heretic, threatened with torture and forced to recant. He was then sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Today’s heretics are less likely to challenge scientific precepts held by the Catholic Church, given that the church has accepted most of the precepts out there. Of course, the fact that evolution is still denied by many other Christian sects proves such acceptance is not always the case when it comes to other churches. No, the heretics of today would be those of the Church who question or challenge the Vatican’s teachings on women. Foremost among that segment are those Catholics who believe women are equal and should be ordained once they have completed the course of study required by the Church.
It is questions of gender, sexuality and personal morality that cause the greatest debate within the modern church. That is the premise of Peter McDonough’s recent book examining the doctrinal and political debates currently occupying modern Catholics. That book, titled The Catholic Labyrinth, provides a recent history of the church, and the individuals and political organizations on both sides of the issues that divide it. Written for members (current or former) and non-Catholics alike, McDonough’s text takes a detailed look at the alliances between conservative Catholics and like-minded Protestant groups in their battle against modernism. He presents the organizations involved that have made themselves players in the debate and delves into their histories and political connections. In doing so, he describes the lay and clerical alliances within the Church determined to keep the Church’s positions on women, same sex unions, contraception and celibate priests unchanged. Simultaneously, he discusses those within the Church dedicated to liberalizing its positions on these issues.
Although the Vatican is no longer the political power it was in Galileo’s time, it continues to exercise considerable influence in temporal matters around the world. It goes without saying that this influence is of a political nature. Unfortunately, despite its pronouncements decrying war and the poverty caused by neoliberal capitalism, its primary energies seem to be spent fighting the rights of women. This begs the question to defenders of the faith: why is this so? After all, if the Church spent the same amount of resources and time opposing imperial war and the evils of capital up to and including forbidding those Catholics who profit from these transgressions from receiving the sacraments (as has occurred with politicians that support the current US abortion laws), wouldn’t that opposition change the nature of the debate?
McDonough uses the metaphor of human development to describe the recent history of the Catholic Church. In doing so he asks, if the changes begun after the council known as Vatican Two were the end of the church’s childhood and adolescence, then is the future its maturation toward adulthood? If so, then the debates within the Church will decide whether it will be an adulthood that rejects most of what it has learned in favor of an order lifted from a medieval past or one that learns from its recent mistakes. As any reader knows, those mistakes range from denying and making excuses for pedophile priests to rejecting change in favor of a status quo often rejected by many in its flock. Galileo was denied his freedom because of the Vatican’s fear of scientific truth being made known to its parishioners around the world. One wonders how long women in the Church will be denied theirs while that same church denies the truth of their equality.