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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
Contributor •

Something to Think About on Ash Wednesday

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Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day that kicks off the season of Lent and it is a time to commemorate, according to Catholic dogma, the forty days Jesus spent in the desert where he endured the temptation of Satan.

Catholics across the world typically celebrate Lent by giving up a vice (i.e. eating red meat, drinking, smoking, etc.). Some Lent participants do this daily throughout the forty days before Easter (up until Holy Saturday), some pick a particular day, typically the Sabbath, to give up their vices for a 24-hour period.

The title "Lent" wasn’t adopted (or used to re-brand this holiday) until the Middle Ages when it started to become fashionable (and profitable) to orate sermons in Old English instead of Latin. The word originally meant "spring" and it derives from the Germanic root for long because, for obvious reasons, the days during the spring are much longer than the preceding season.

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was doing more than just re-branding holidays, it was re-branding itself. Its obsession with demons and celibacy, two major themes related to the holiday Lent, hit a crescendo, when Pope Innocent VIII declared, in his famous bull of 1484:

It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women [as well as generate numerous other calamities].

With this Bull, "Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture, and execution of countless ‘witches’ all over Europe," (Carl Sagan). Despite the Pope mentioning "members of both sexes" in his Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.

Witchcraft, based on actions taken by Pope Innocent VIII and the Catholic church, merited torture and burning at the stake. If you were accused, you were certain to die. You could admit to it and be put to death, or you could deny it and let the zealots decide a likely greater horrific fate before being put to death.

Heresy was a still more serious crime, and both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the temerity to contemplate translating the New Testament into English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own language instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, independent religious views. They might conceive of their own private unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tries to publish his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over Europe. Eventually he was captured, garroted, and then, for good measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite King James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house by armed posses–Christians piously defending Christianity by preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence that knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely to help those accused of witchcraft.

However, today, when a young person’s been sexually abused by a clergy member, and that person makes the accusation to another member of the church, the common procedure is to deny the sexual transgression took place, to move the alleged pedophile or suppress any evidence of the act(s) being committed. No torturing the accused criminal, no public outing (unless other victims come forward), and no public hangings or stake burnings.

If Lent is the holiday of prayer, pentinance, almsgiving and self-denial, why is it that some clergy members, for hundreds and hundreds of years — like the pedophile priests Cardinal Mahony moved from parish to parish after said priests were accused and sometimes admitted to sexually abusing children (in the priests’ own words; some church pedophiles would write to their victims justifying the grotesque acts commited) — are unable to practice what they preach?

The evolved mentality of Catholic church leaders, like Cardinal Mahony, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries may be seemingly different (suppressing evidence of sexual abuse) than the mentality of those who enacted Pope Innocent VIII’s vision of eradicating and torturing helpless women and female children (witch trials), but the church has not changed: It continues to allow the same absurd and wicked acts to be committed.