Yet the church leaders are right about one thing: there is often a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole — and that is unfair.

It may be easy at a New York cocktail party to sniff derisively at a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS. But what about Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis? I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.

…It’s because of brave souls like these that I honor the Catholic Church. I understand why many Americans disdain a church whose leaders are linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms — but the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican.

And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

Nick Kristof

Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope?
Do you think he’s a fool?

— Black Sabbath

Yes, and yes. How’s that for “sniffing derisively”? And I’ve never even been to New York or a cocktail party!

I wish I could work up the indignation to tell Kristof to go fuck himself, but if you look at religious belief with a critical eye for any substantial length of time, you can’t help but become familiar to the point of boredom with this gambit: define the religion by the individual believers you admire; ignoring, if necessary, the people with all the power and decision-making capabilities. Hey, I understand some Nazis were vegetarian animal-lovers, too…

Let’s make it simple. I can respect people who have done some intense introspection and decided that working in poor villages in Africa to marginally improve the lives of their inhabitants is what they really want to do with their lives. I have no problem with people who are moved to action by their perception of suffering and injustice. However. If their main inspiration for doing so is a book of Bronze Age mythology and a belief that a nonexistent god-man commands them to act this way; if they would, in fact, act much differently should they happen to lose their faith, well, then, I don’t respect them that much, gasp! If you need to lie to yourself in order to rise above narcissism, hedonism, fatalism, and whatever other -ism you want to name, then I don’t consider that to be noble. I respect individuals and direct actions, not labels, organizations and ideologies. Compassion and altruism are universal human values. Subordinating them to one particular cult or another, as if metaphysical rationalizations are the source from which spontaneous empathy flows, is completely ass-backwards. Some people see immense suffering and immediately look for a way to relieve it. Others wait to see if the voices in their heads tell them it’s justified to do so. I know which one I would trust.

If anything, I would ask the humanitarian priests and nuns why they aren’t appalled enough by the actions of their leadership to leave the church and follow the dictates of their own consciences. Why would they feel a need to bow to an obviously corrupt hierarchy when it comes to questions of morality? What could you possibly feel you have to learn from them?