Copyrighting God: celibacy, wealth, and the gluttony of the Catholic Church
Posted by E on March 2, 2008
I’ve had the privilege to visit the Vatican and its sprawling museum twice so far in my life: the first time, as a dusty student backpacker through Europe, sunburned and with skinned knees, accompanied by a girl I met at my cheap hostel – an exotic wavy-haired brunette I found so temptingly attractive that I agreed to have her tag along on my various expeditions through Rome. She wore a long tan sleeveless dress cinched around the waist with a gypsy shawl, and she was awfully bohemian – I’ve always had a soft spot for the artistic, bohemian type, though as much as I would like to pretend, I am far too reserved and self-conscious to carry on the same way. She was in town with a friend from back home, but when she heard that I was going to the Vatican, she insisted that she come with me, and I didn’t have the heart to say no.
We walked through the Vatican together and designated a spot just outside the St. Peter Basilica gates to meet up – then, the immense and unrelenting beauty of the place took over, and before I knew what happened, I had lost her. But I didn’t care anymore. The artist in me was transfixed, enraptured, transformed.
The expansive marble corridors and colourful frescos infused my senses with a fierce ache – whenever I see something so beautiful that the act of having been borne of human hands defies logic and reality itself, like when I was in Florence and saw Michelangelo statues half-emerging from their stone prisons, my breath stops suddenly and I feel a deep aching in my chest. That’s what it was like traversing the museum on that day, entering opulent room after room dissected by serpentine corridors of marble and granite.
Wondurous alabaster and granite sculptures by long-forgotten masters sat piled on top of one another, too crammed together to be truly appreciated, in the Animal room, the one I dubbed as the War spoils room – countless works of genius shoved in corners carelessly, too many of them to display carefully anymore.
To see the Catholic Church’s massive, mind-blowing conquest of all the riches of Europe for centuries – the see the magnificent silk tapestries, the gold sculptures, the jewels and alabaster carvings, even the mummies stolen from their Egyptian conquest – just took my breath away. Even the center of the Vatican state is adorned with a sky-piercing column brought back from Egypt by Caesar’s soldiers – a landmark that speaks wordlessly of the countless centuries of conquest, of murder, of barbarism that have stained the threshold of Christianity a deep red.
The second time I returned to Rome was four years later, now a little older and just slightly more sophisticated, accompanied by my partner who had wanted to experience my favourite places in Europe with me. We had just arrived from Paris via Barcelona, and I insisted that we could not leave Rome without a visit to the Vatican. “It is exhausting, I’m warning you,” I instructed her, “and it’s like a labyrinthine maze – unlike any other museum, once you enter, you can’t exit again until you run the entire course – this place is funny that way.”
I’m not sure if she thought I was joking until we were finally in there, and as exhausting as the trek through the museum was, there was no getting a break. Unlike the Louvre or any other museum I’ve ever visited in Europe, here were no places to meditate and quietly reflect. No, the Vatican museum would not permit its visitors to draw their eyes even momentarily away from its displays of luxury. No benches lined any of the corridors – you were forced to walk from one grandiose room to another, your vision exhausted by the gluttony of spoils and the sheer obscenity of riches. And I knew then as surely as anything that no matter how many times I would return to this museum and admire it’s war spoils and magnificent opulence, that at the end of the day I would have the same tacit reaction: a bitter taste in my mouth and a deep revulsion for the Catholic church.
I knew from my passionate readings of European history that so much of the Catholic church’s decisions were based solely on control of the masses and to keep all riches for themselves. Celibacy itself was never a matter of faith but of money. So many would like to advocate that it was based on Christ being celibate. The reality is that this decision was strategic and financially-motivated.
The first pope, St. Peter (after whom the Vatican basilica is named) and countless other clergy were in fact all married men who fathered plenty of children and led fairly normal lives. In the early Middle Ages, however, (11th-12th century) it became clear that priests who led their churches would come into possession of great riches and moneys, that instead of going back into the church upon their deaths, were inherited by their families.
The decision became, then, to ban priests from marrying and pass a rule to keep all the moneys and riches obtained from donations and confiscations (these were times when people were tortured and murdered by the Church, after all) within the Church. Celibacy and the obvious lack of priests’ descendents brought great prosperity to the church, and invigorated its powerful hold over the masses.
Celibacy never had to do with refraining from sex because it was bad or impure – why would God see physical love between people and/or procreation inherently as evil? Doesn’t a passage from the Bible say to be fruitful and procreate? No – this was simply about money.
You might ask why I am revisiting those memories from a few years ago and just writing about it now. The answer is, I haven’t been able to shake the disgusted feeling that has been creeping up over me since I read an article last year about how the Vatican region has decided to copyright all Papal speeches – in effect copyrighting the word of “God”. I have been asking myself since – if the Church believes that a Pope speaks for God itself, and therefore is His/Her voice – so if that voice is now copyrighted, so is God?
According to a Times article from 2006, the Vatican has decided that:
“Publishers will have to negotiate a levy of between 3 per cent and 5 per cent of the cover price of any book or publication “containing the Pope’s words”. Those who infringe the copyright face legal action and a higher levy of 15 per cent.
Officials said that newspapers would be free to publish extracts from papal documents without charge once they were officially released, but only by “prior agreement”.
If the Roman Catholic church believes that the words of the Pope are the very words of God, then they are not claiming to copyright the words of a mere man, but of God Himself. The implication is that by copyrighting what are claimed to be the words of God, the Vatican appears to be claiming that the Pope is God. Otherwise, why do those words need extraordinary protection as afforded by the copyright law?
I suppose these questions are a mute point since the Bible itself is a series of books channeled by various people hundreds of years after a series of supposed events took place – and as such, is marked by the societal, cultural historical filters and norms possessed by those people. How is it different than any other work “channeled” by New Age writers who invoke the spirits of Atlantis and ancient Mayan warriors? All the Bible has had on its side has been two thousand years of bloodshed and powerful forces intent on destroying any opposing or disagreeing factions. That’s one hell of a publicity campaign.
So how does the issue of celibacy tie in with that of copyright? It’s simple. Now that the numbers of seminary students has dropped so drastically because of the celibacy issue and pedophilia scandals that the Catholic Church is on its last legs and depends on foreign converts (Latin Americas, Africa and south Asia, i.e. Philippines being some of the fastest-growing regions for fervent Christianity) – and the number of religious people donating funds is dropping astronomically – they have to ensure that money is still coming in.
So how do they do that? Well, the Church’s best bet for fund-raising is to copyright God – hey, if the Dianetics guys have made millions of dollars from copyrighting and trademarking their products and getting celebrities on their side – why can’t the Vatican?
The spoils will continue, one way or the other.