by Taylor Leonard
The Roman Catholic Church is an ancient religious syndicate with a rich history tied deeply into Western civilization. Throughout the centuries, especially recent ones, the Church has provided a pillar of support for the poor and the sick. As noble these works are, the Catholic Church is not without its demons and detrimental dogma. These practices and traditions are, for the most part, behind us, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling, as the following examples show:
An iconic aspect of Catholicism and Christianity in general, the practice of driving evil spirits from the body probably predates all known faiths. What makes a Catholic exorcism unique is the empirical approach taken by the Church in combating demonic possession.
Famously depicted in the 1973 motion picture The Exorcist, the process of undergoing a Catholic exorcism is a procedural and somewhat bureaucratic journey, which attempts to rule out all earthly causes for symptoms of possession. The Vatican, the administrative capital of the Church, will even get involved if all signs point to a true evil spirit manifesting itself inside a person.
Enforcing Roman Catholic doctrine by any means necessary was historically key to securing the power and influence of the Church across multiple kingdoms and nation states. Central to this enforcement was the rooting out of all doubt and denial among Catholics, referred to as heresy by Church officials.
This culminated in the development of Church-sponsored prosecutorial protocol known as the Inquisition, which would be used repeatedly in varying degrees for nearly 700 years to combat suspected heresy. While anyone openly expressing doubt over religious doctrine was subject to prosecution, Inquisitors were inclined to target Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity under the suspicion they secretly stayed true to their original faiths. Often times tortured into confessing, convicted heretics were handed over to local authorities and burned alive at the stake.
Indulgences and Purgatory
Purgatory, a netherworld for souls to be spiritually cleansed for entry into Heaven, has been a component of Roman Catholic doctrine since the Church’s founding. Starting in the third century it became common for priests to grant Christians an opportunity to help reduce the amount of time spent in Purgatory by doing good works, fasting, or saying prayers.
By the 11th century, however, these “indulgences” had evolved into tools to achieve evildoing and corruption with premeditated zeal. The ruling classes were promised remission of all sins in exchange for committing atrocities abroad, meanwhile peasants were pressured by “pardoners” to expedite their dead relatives’ journey through Purgatory by giving money to the local diocese.
The widespread abuse of indulgences would become a precipitating factor in the splintering of Christianity during the 16th century.
Veneration of Relics
Utilizing the physical remains of holy persons for worship is not unique to Catholicism. However few religious institutions have devoted as much time and effort to procuring and preserving relics as the Roman Catholic Church of the middle ages.
Whether it be a mummified finger, yellowing skull, or just a tooth, body parts alleged to have belonged to saints or Christ himself were the centerpieces of churches across Christendom drawing pilgrims from hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. Typically these remains were said to be the sources of miracles and mysterious healing, but to priests and bishops they were the source of steady income from travelers wishing to be closer to God.
Mortification of the Flesh
Self-harm may seem like a relatively new cultural phenomenon, but the Catholic Church has been endorsing it for over a thousand years. These days it doesn’t amount to much more than fasting or wearing weighed-down clothing, but traditional “mortification of the flesh” as it’s called makes cutting look like fingernail biting.
For instance, flagellation and lashings were often self-imposed by men and women in the middle ages who would eventually go on to become saints. This in turn inspired Catholics of all kinds to engage in similar behavior in an effort to atone for sins and prove their devotion to God over their own flesh. The Catholic organization known as Opus Dei, founded in 1928, is a modern day proponent of mortification of the flesh as a means of getting closer to Christ. The group publicly denies engaging in anything which inflicts pain or induces bleeding, yet former members claim otherwise.
The modern Roman Catholic Church provides healthcare and other much needed resources to men and women around the world. These good works of Catholics are nothing new, yet the Church will always have skeletons in the altar to confront. Institutions as sprawling and ancient as Catholicism are never without eccentricities and wrongdoing, no matter how much they attempt to bridge the gap between humanity and God.