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Whose History? Catholics, Protestants, and waterboarding as baptism

May 3, 2014

In Kurk’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s equation of baptism with water torture, he pointed out that there were medieval precedents in ecclesial discourse for such juxtapositions and even equivalences. I commented,

most of the examples you cite that conflate or juxtapose the symbolism of baptism with water-based torture are from the medieval era. Yet, my impression from various reading and conversation is that the ecclesial self-understandings of most Reformation or post-Reformation era churches, and their members, don’t own those actions: they ascribe them to the bad old corrupt Roman church which had abandoned the faith of the apostles. In many cases, the ecclesial narrative of these communities weaves their history smoothly from the apostolic or subapostolic or patristic generation directly to the Reformation generation.

In his responding comment, he confirmed my general impression of these narratives, but associated them with scapegoating and hypocrisy, which surprised me a bit, because it’s not quite to the point I was making about ecclesial identity. So let me elaborate on that.

(Content note: torture, killing, ethnic cleansing)

It is as true of communities as it is of persons, that if you do not own up to your past failures, then you will be likely to repeat them. This is because you cannot learn from your failures if you do not acknowledge them and really own them as something that you did.

The Roman Catholic church cannot escape from the historical evidence that it has engaged in horrific practices that perpetrated evil, and that it did so in the name of God.

That is not an easy thing to think about. We don’t like to think about it. We don’t dwell on it. We believe that we have learned better now; that we would not, today, perpetrate a crusade or a pogrom or an inquisition. That we would not, today, torture accused heretics in order to force them to confess or coerce them to conversion. That we would not, today, burn people alive and rationalize that we were doing so in order to save their souls from eternal hellfire. That we would not, today, expel a minority population from a nation unless they converted; and even after they converted, treat them and their descendents as second class civil and ecclesiastical citizens. That we would not, today, kill people because they didn’t believe what we believe about God.

There is no escaping that the Roman Catholic church has done all those things in the past, and that the Roman Catholic church today exists in continuity with the church that did those things: it is the same historical institution. All these things are part of our story, our history. They are things that we now confess as sins and ask forgiveness for, but we cannot pretend that they didn’t happen, and that we didn’t do them.

This forces us to come to grips with the reality that good Christians, good Catholics, people who are doing their best to be good Christians and good Catholics, can be so utterly misled as to commit such evil acts in the mistaken belief that these acts are pleasing to the God of Jesus Christ. It means that we have access to an awareness of how profoundly we can be misled in our discernment of good and evil. And, perhaps, it gives us a particular horror of the identification of water torture intended to coerce confession with water baptism: because we know this is not mere rhetoric. We know, it is part of our history, our ecclesial self-understanding, that we have done such things, and that they are profoundly wrong.

It is not popularly well known that a Catholic reformation movement had already begun and had made some progress by the time the Protestant Reformation was undersay. Some historians argue that the reason the Protestant Reformation did not take hold in still-Catholic Spain is that some of the worst excesses of the Catholic church had occurred in Spain (think “the Spanish Inquisition”), and had already provoked a reforming movement, which had already begun to curb and correct the worst excesses. The Catholic ecclesial self-understanding includes a chapter in which we did these things, which were wrong; we realized they were wrong; and we stopped doing them.

The Protestant ecclesial self-understanding, because it is woven from the apostolic, subapostolic, or patristic era directly to the Reformation era, omits that chapter. Protestants define the Reformation church in ecclesial continuity with the pure, good church of those earlier times. Such a history defines the ecclesial identity so as to exclude the crusades, pogroms, and inquisitions. Protestants don’t own those things, and so have not had to come to terms with them in the same way that Catholics have.

I see exactly the same dynamic at work in the less morally fraught domain of science and religion. Protestants don’t own the Galileo affair. Catholics do, and it embarrasses the hell out of us. The Roman Catholic church clearly, clearly ended up on the wrong side of history when it rejected Copernican cosmology as inconsistent with the Bible and therefore to be condemned. It took us 400 years to make a formal, institutional apology for that error, and it makes us very, very cautious about rejecting science on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the Bible or with any other church teaching. We have learned our lesson. Protestants can indulge in a bit of smug self-righteousness over not having made that mistake; but because they didn’t make the mistake, they didn’t learn the lesson, either. The mistake that Catholics made 400 years ago with heliocentric astronomy is being made today by many Protestant ecclesial communities with respect to evolution and cosmology.

I do not claim that the Roman Catholic church has been perfectly reformed as a result of this experience, nor that it no longer perpetrates acts which are evil in the mistaken belief that these acts are pleasing to God. But we know that we can, because we know that we have.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2014 1:36 pm

    Thanks for the elaboration, Vicky. Yours is an important post as an apology for the apologies made by the Roman Catholic Church.

    Nonetheless, it’s painting with too broad a brush to say, “Protestants can indulge in a bit of smug self-righteousness over not having made that mistake; but because they didn’t make the mistake, they didn’t learn the lesson, either.” The German church has had to own the Holocaust. The USA Southern Baptist church has has to own slavery. I’m rushed for time at the moment, but shall we go on and on? And won’t the Protestant church evangelical church own up to homophobic abuses and sexual abuses of children and women by male leaders? Shall we speak of genocides of indigenous peoples by Protestant missionaries? Let’s not give the Christians outside of Catholicism a pass too quickly.

  2. May 3, 2014 2:22 pm

    It is, indeed, a broad brush I’m painting with, and I did not mean use it to wash all non-Catholic Christians clean of all ecclesial sins that can bring about awareness of past sins; you’re quite right to call that out. (And some of those actions I described were perpetrated by Protestants and Catholics on each other, which is another thing that needs to be dealt with someday in ecumenical dialogues on remembering rightly for reconciliation.)

    I was wielding that broad brush primarily in support of the issue of medieval precedent for modern Protestant equivalence of baptism with water tortures used by the Inquisition, which I don’t think I quite tied off. There’s a particular, localized Catholic sensitivity to that issue, exactly because of the historical precedents that you cited.

    More generally, though, I think the fact that the ecclesial self-understanding of the Protestant churches not only elides, but explicitly disowns, about a thousand years of history creates some blind spots. (And I wonder whether it creates a precedent that might subtly incline Protestant church communities today to cope with those post-Reformation evils that you reference by a similar elision and disowning.)

  3. May 3, 2014 2:26 pm

    It’s always bothered me to hear so many Protestants skip from Nicaea to Wittenberg and pretend there’s nothing in between in their history. Not only do they miss out on some figures that they really ought to embrace (John Wycliffe, for example), but sometimes they skip even further ahead, as if their faith was handed to them in 1930-something when their sect started.

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