Are Religious Dictatorships a Good Idea?

Adored holy heroes can be too full of themselves

By David Madison | 2 February 2024
Debunking Christianity

(Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How well I remember, as a teenager, my mother’s annoyance at seeing Billy Graham on TV, theatrically waving the Bible above his head, and urging folks to come forward to accept Jesus. She was especially upset when she saw coverage of Vatican ceremonies—all the extravagant costumes, and the pope being carried on an ornate chair. “What has all that got to do with Christianity?” she would declare. She was a devout Methodist, and didn’t care for the hype. And let’s face it: the Vatican shows a keen awareness of the value of show business. The annual budget of the Vatican costume department could provide food for many thousands of poor people. What are these guys playing at?

But the costuming and parading are not the major problem. The addiction to religious fantasy and delusion in Catholicism—which erupt in worship and ritual—is alarming. There is remarkable damage done to humans who are victimized by the fantasy and delusion from an early age. A good case study is provided by John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.

Catholicism has promoted a female goddess cult for a long time, namely, that of the Virgin Mary. There is precious little in the gospels on which to base the adoration of Mary—Luke 1 probably is the original source—but a kindly mother figure helps to modify the severe side of god presented in the gospels, as represented in the Last Judgement scene painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Are there any devout Protestant theologians who would agree that this Catholic goddess has a legitimate place in Christian theology?

In 1854 Pope Pius IX announced the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which declared that Mary herself had not been tainted with original sin when she was conceived—thus guaranteeing that it not been passed on to Jesus. In 1950, Pope Pius XII added the dogma of Mary’s bodily ascension to heaven. “The dogma was doing something spectacular for Mary; it had the power to inspire and revitalize mass loyalty to her cult. At the same time, it inspired loyalty to the Pope and his unique power to bind or loose in Heaven and on earth.” (Cornwell, p. 354)

Natural question, of course: What was the reliable, verifiable, objective evidence for either of the dogmas? The Assumption of Mary to heaven is especially daft: in the 1920’s astronomers (thanks especially to the discoveries of Edwin Hubble) determined that there are billions of galaxies beyond our own. The biblical concept of heaven existing above the clouds had been destroyed for good. There was nowhere for Mary to ascend to, just as the story of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1 is also total fantasy. Of course, in 1950, probably not even one percent of Catholic laity was aware that “heaven up there” had been falsified.

But early indoctrination is the key. Eugenio Pacelli, who was to become Pope Pius XII, was born in 1876. His mother Virginia

“…led her children several times a day to pray before a shrine to the Virgin in their apartment, and the whole family said the Rosary each evening before supper… On his way home from school he regularly visited the picture of the Virgin, known as Madonna della Strada, close to the tomb of Ignatius Loyola in the Gesù Church. Here, sometimes twice daily, he poured out his heart to the Madonna, ‘telling her everything.’” (Cornwell, p. 17)

At the end of Pacelli’s first year at university, because of stomach problems, arrangements were made for him to live at home while attending classes. “The effect of the new arrangement was that Pacelli returned to motherly protection, escaping the peer-group rough-and-tumble, the rigorous disciplines of seminary training as well as the fellowship of community life.” (Cornwell, p. 22)

It’s no surprise that the mind of a man who became pope was totally locked into Catholic theology—or to put it less kindly—into Catholic delusion and fantasy. One of the major problems that Cornwell tries to explain is why Pius XII failed to vigorously condemn Hitler and his policy of murdering Jews by the millions. He was not Hitler’s pope because he approved of Hitler. In fact, according to one of Pacelli’s nephews, “…the Pope was in the habit during the war of conducting a form of exorcism to cast out the devil that he assumed inhabited the soul of Hitler—which he did in the dead of night in his private chapel in the papal apartments.” (Cornwell, p. 273) More delusion and fantasy: belief in demons, devils, and magic spells to get rid of them. Yet even the Vicar of Christ on earth failed to rid Hitler’s soul of the devil.

But that didn’t sink in.

There appear to have been several factors that contributed to Pius XII’s reticence to speak out vigorously against the Final Solution. For twelve years he had been the papal nuncio in Germany, and his primary concern had been to protect the Catholic church in Germany during the Weimar years, and then as the Nazis were gaining momentum. As pope he was committed to protecting Catholics from persecution—and from being deprived of their access to salvation, especially via the Eucharist. The banning of Catholic worship was a dreaded possibility.

Moreover, one of Christianity’s greatest sins—based on the New Testament itself—is anti-Semitism.

“Christian antipathy toward the Jews was born out of the belief, dating from the early Christian Church, that the Jews had murdered Christ—indeed, that they had murdered God. The Early Fathers of the Church, the great Christian writers of the first six centuries of Christianity, showed striking evidence of anti-Judaism.” (Cornwell, p. 24)

“The Middle Ages was an era of unprecedented persecution of the Jews, punctuated by occasional calls for restraint on the part of enlightened popes. The Crusaders made it part of their mission to torment and kill Jews on their way to and from the Holy Land; the practice of enforced conversions and baptisms, especially of Jewish boys, became widespread.” (Cornwell, p. 25)

“On Via Monte Giordano, the street in which Pacelli was born, it had been the custom over many centuries for new popes to perform an anti-Jewish ceremony on their way to the basilica of St. John Lateran. Here the Pontiff would halt his procession to receive a copy of the Pentateuch from the hand of Rome’s rabbi, with his people in attendance. The Pope then returned the text upside down with twenty pieces of gold, proclaiming that, while he respected the Law of Moses, he disapproved of the hard hearts of the Jewish race.” (Cornwell, p. 27)

One of the most shocking examples of Pius XII’s indifference was the fate of the Jews in Rome when the Germans occupied the city in 1943, after Mussolini had been deposed. The Germans rounded up Jews for exportation to concentration camps.

“This spiritual and moral silence in the face of an atrocity committed at the heart of Christendom, in the shadow of the shrine of the first apostle, persists to this day, and implicates all Catholics…Pacelli had no genuine spiritual fellow feeling for the Jews of Rome who had been his neighbors from childhood.” (Cornwell, p. 316-317)

The only woman who survived the ordeal was Settimia Spizzichino, who said this in a BBC interview in 1995:

“I came back from Auschwitz on my own. I lost my mother, two sisters, a niece, and one brother. Pius XII could have warned us about what was going to happen. We might have escaped from Rome and joined the partisans. He played right into the Germans’ hands. It all happened right under his nose. But he was an anti-Semitic Pope, a pro-German Pope. He didn’t take a single risk. And when they say the Pope is like Jesus Christ, it is not true. He did not save a single child. Nothing.” (Cornwell, pp. 317-318)

Pius XII has his defenders, especially in the campaign to declare him a saint, but there is substantial resistance, and John Cornwell himself is blunt: “To his everlasting shame, and to the shame of the Catholic Church, Pacelli disdained to recognize the Jews of Rome as members of his Roman flock.” (p. 318)

Another disturbing bit of information: As Allied troops were advancing on Rome—and the Germans were fleeing—the pontiff, through his Secretary of State, sent a request to London: “…the Pope hoped that no Allied coloured troops would be among the small number that might be garrisoned at Rome after the occupation.” (Cornwell, p. 319) His fear was that the “coloured troops” were more likely to be rapists.

After the end of the war in 1945, the papacy of Pius XII continued until his death in 1958—and his focus was increasingly on the consolidation of papal power:

“…Pacelli was arguably the most exalted autocrat in the world, and yet his style of life remained simple, monklike, rigidly regulated. If he showed signs of grandiosity it was in his tendency to expatiate on an ever-expanding range of topics. So numerous and so beyond his competence were these specialized talks, or ‘allocutions,’ that the practice seemed symptomatic of ripening delusions of omniscience.” (Cornwell, p. 348)

Ripening delusions of omniscience. That’s what I mean by adored religious heroes being too full of themselves: “I am more in tune with God that anyone else on earth.” With their minds frozen in dogma and confident of their moral certainties, they are perfectly positioned to do so much damage.

Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II brought to the Vatican—and their positions of power—virulent homophobia, as well as opposition to contraceptives, birth control, and abortion. These beliefs/policies have caused so much suffering and anguish. “But we know that God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary are on our side. Case closed.” Pius XII’s legacy included support for this level of arrogance/ignorance.

John Cornwell’s conclusion: “Having come to the end of my own journey through the life and times of Pacelli, I am convinced that the cumulative verdict of history shows him to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret.” (p. 384)

Reprinted with permission from the author.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.

His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.

Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught (with author Dr. David Madison)

Vatican documents show secret back channel between Pope Pius XII and Adolf Hitler

Vatican: Pope Francis to open WWII-era archives to scrutiny

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