Anyone who consciously and wantonly attacks known truth, who arms himself with falsehood in his speech, his writings, or his conduct in order to attract and win over less learned men and to shape the inexperienced and impressionable minds of the young to his own way of thinking, takes advantage of the inexperience and innocence of others and engages in an altogether despicable business.
–Pope John XXIII (Ad Petri Cathedram)

I am aware that when even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition.
–Mark Twain, American thinker and humorist.

……….

When thinking about thinking, there are two contrasting approaches we can bear in mind: Authoritarian and Sovereign.

The Authoritarian approach is all about someone else doing your thinking for you.

That’s where THEY say: Do what you are told! Trust us. We know what is best for you. We are the chosen ones. We are right and you are wrong. You wouldn’t understand. Do not question our authority. When we want your opinion we’ll give it to you. And so on.

The Sovereign approach is all about you doing your own thinking for yourself.

That’s where YOU say: Why? Why should I do as you say? Where do you get your authority? Why is this so? Why? Why? Why? What have you not told me? What bits have you left out? What proof do you have to offer? I’ll think about your proposition and I’ll let you know what I have decided. I reject your claim to authority over my mind. I abhor your attempt to bully me. I assert my individual sovereignty as a thinker. And so on.

On Sovereign Thinkers, Religions, Belief Systems and PTV

It is important to emphasise here that it is the right of a sovereign thinker to think what s/he likes and to believe what s/he wishes as long as they do not prevent other sovereign thinkers from doing the same for themselves.

A thinker respects the right of individuals to believe in any of the wide variety of human belief systems. This religio-diversity is a testimony to the richness and imagination of human thinking. In Australia, for example, there are 270 distinct religious groups.

Many people derive benefits from believing in UFOs, angels, gods and goddesses, supreme beings, trinities, earthly incarnations or heavenly reincarnations, stars, fortune-tellers, dreams, scientific discoveries, miracles, snake-handling and so on.

One respects these believers in the way Voltaire found he could respect others without having to agree with them.

For example, one respects the sovereign right of a Christian to believe in Jesus or a Muslim to believe in Allah or an Atheist to believe in nothing. One does not respect an authoritarian Christian or Muslim or Atheist infected with PTV who feels that their belief is ‘The Truth’ and others should be made to ‘toe the line or else’! A truth may be right enough for the person who uses it but not right enough to force another person to use it.

In the past few chapters we’ve been looking at some of the consequences of the authoritarian approach to thinking proceeding from the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. But the richness of human thinking has produced other alternatives and now we can examine the ideas of some who have given their support to the sovereign approach to thinking.

There are many, of course, but let’s meet one of my personal heroes. This man, like Thomas Aquinas, was also a monk. He was only a peasant German monk yet he defied the greatest authoritarian power in history.

The Sovereign Thinker
“It is not safe to act against your own conscience”. So said Martin Luther and with those words began the world’s biggest movement away from authoritarianism towards individual sovereignty of thinking.

Luther’s rebellion against the authority of the Pope provided the trigger that set off a chain of events which went on long after he died. His challenge to authoritarianism led on to the splitting of the Church, the destruction of the Pope’s temporal power, the bursting of the Church’s monopoly on The Truth and a greater freedom of people to question things without automatically being treated as heretics. Those of us who cherish personal freedom owe a lot to Luther.

What kind of man would defy a pope?

Martin Luther was born in 1483 into a peasant mining family in Germany. At fourteen he showed sufficient promise to be prepared for university. By then his father had risen to be manager of a group of smelting works and could afford for his son Martin to read Law.

So Martin went to Germany’s top University of Erfurt and graduated in Law, second in his class. Everyone knew that he had a promising law career ahead of him. But no, Martin changed his mind and one day he suddenly decided to join an Augustinian monastery and changed his direction from Law to Theology.

He began to absorb the predestination ideas of Saint Augustine that men are sinners (Original Sin) and are therefore predestined to whatever God has in store for them. Such a point-of-view reduces the role the Church plays in mediating a person’s salvation.

At that time, Rome claimed that it, and it alone, had the only ticket to salvation. If you wanted to get to Heaven then you bought your ticket from its representatives on the only flights scheduled to get there.

“You fly with us. You buy our ticket or you don’t go to Heaven at all! That’s it. Take it or leave it. You’re in or you’re out”.

The Scheme
The Pope, the Roman Curia and clerics feathered their nests (amassing huge fortunes) by selling to the True Believers tickets to Heaven in the form of indulgences. This is how they pulled it off. In all their Holy Authority, the popes and clergy would draw up long lists of activities relating to everyday human behaviour and position them as ‘sins’. So, every day when you committed your ‘sins’ you attracted debits points that prevented you getting into Heaven.

Then, cleverly, Rome drew up a catalogue of indulgences. Indulgences were credit points you could collect to wipe out the debit points you had in your account from your daily ‘sins’. And, if you collected enough credit points, well, the Church could get you into Heaven.

Some years ago, on a holiday in Bali, I came across this extract which has a similar view on indulgences in a very amusing book by Anthony Bourdain called Kitchen Confidential.

He writes: “The crusaders of yore, it is said, used to stop off at the local church or monastery before heading off to war; where they were allowed to purchase indulgences. This was sort of like a secured pre-paid credit card from heaven, I imagine, and negotiations probably went something like this … ‘Bless me, father, for I am about to sin. I plan on raping, pillaging and disembowelling my way across Southern Europe and North Africa, taking the Lord’s name in vain, committing sodomy with all and sundry, looting the holy places of Islam, killing women and children and animals and leaving them in smoking heaps … as well, of course, as getting up to the usual soldierly hijinks of casual eye-gougings, dismemberment, bear-baiting and arson. Given this sinful agenda, padre, how much is this gonna cost me?’ ‘That’ll be a new roof for the vestry, my son, perhaps a few carpets from down there. I understand they make lovely carpet where you’ll be goin’ … and shall we say fifteen per cent off the top, as a tithe?’
‘Deal.’
‘Go in peace, my son.'”

……….

Collecting Heaven Points
This was a brilliant scheme! Through indulgences, Rome had invented a kind of Holy Currency of its own.

There were vouchers for Heaven Points which members needed to collect to pass through the Pearly Turnstile into the ‘Members’ Only’ enclosure in Paradise. Just like winning FlyBuy points to get a weekend at Crown Casino. This became the world’s first loyalty marketing or frequent flyer program and has subsequently built The Vatican into most powerful, multi-national, private enterprise in human history.

As a member, how did you collect the credit points? Why, you bought them, of course. The Handbook of Indulgences listed matching Heaven Points for even the wickedest crime. Murder had its price-tag and could be absolved for 20 crowns. An assassination could be absolved for 300 livres.

But mostly, it’s just the humdrum everyday human activities like gossip, smoking, masturbation or telling lies which are proscribed as sins and still today attract ongoing debit points.

Pay Your Money, Collect Your Points
The ‘Indulgence Scheme’ with its Handbook of Indulgences meant that members had to make regular purchases of Heaven Points. These credit points (known as Sanctifying Grace) were the currency you needed to save to buy your permanent condo in Paradise just like you need to save your Aussie dollars if you want to buy a condo in Surfer’s Paradise. “Step right up folks. Pay your money. Collect your points. Step right up sinners! Get your Heaven Points here. How many do you want? How much money have you got? Don’t push, there’s plenty for everyone”.

The Vatican still uses the scheme which has been copied by many marketing organisations worldwide, especially in the travel industry. This is not surprising since Augustine’s original invention relied on a member’s belief in the premise that the Vatican was the official travel agent for the City of God.

For example, Virgin Blue airlines’ loyalty program called Velocity was promoted with headlines such as, ‘Isn’t it time loyalty programs redeemed themselves?’ The main benefit of Velocity over other loyalty programs is its ability to redeem your points sooner rather than later.

This draws attention to the main drawback of the Vatican’s loyalty program: that you have to die before you can redeem your points.

“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”
Brother Martin was already dissatisfied with the Church’s claim to being God’s exclusive ‘travel agent’ and so on his visit to Rome he was deeply depressed and revolted upon seeing the spoils of the indulgence scheme that had been collected from the faithful and displayed in the decadence and opulence of the court of Pope Leo X.

……….

Today we are used to modern popes who live in a much more tolerant and multi-cultural world. A lot has changed since a fourteenth century John XXII said that to deny Aquinas was tantamount to heresy. Could you ever imagine a twentieth century John XXIII saying such a thing?

The papacy is an extremely difficult job yet Papal prestige is now at an all time high. Most modern popes appear to have been men of goodwill who seem to have tried very hard to balance the enormous burden of their office with the exigencies of a free society. That they have done so with such popular success is an extraordinary example of modern leadership.

For example:

  • John XXIII, said “I am not infallible” and called Vatican II to demonstrate it.
  • Paul VI showed great compassion to clergy opposing celibacy releasing them from their vows.
  • John Paul I wanted to clean-up the Vatican bank for which some, like investigative journalist, David Yallop, say he was murdered.
  • John Paul II was a popular leader. Like Ronald Reagan he was an actor and gifted media performer and was tireless in his global travels. His support of Solidarity was instrumental in helping his native Poland evolve towards democracy.
  • Benedict XVI was an intelligent man and a thinker whose teaching of his first encyclical is Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). In his first official teaching as Pope, Benedict wrote:God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
  • Francis does seem quite different to his recent predecessors which is probably why the cardinals elected him. When America was in crisis after Nixon and Watergate they needed ‘A Good President” and so they turned to Gerald Ford whose decency, honesty and transparency is credited with helping to heal America. Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. ‘‘Tip’’ O’Neill concluded: ‘‘God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us GERALD FORD—the right man at the right time who was able to put the Nation back together.’ After John Paul II and Benedict the church was in crisis and so the cardinals needed “A Good Pope” and so they turned to Francis. He seems to have got off to a good start.

Today’s popes are popular superstars who draw huge crowds wherever they go. But this was not always so. In the past, why did so many men, on securing the papacy, became corrupt?

Many have written about the extremes of papal corruption throughout history. Lord Acton wrote on the papacy that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and it may explain the long history of the papacy’s libido dominandi, its insatiable lust for power.

……….

Luther’s pope was one of the most infamous. He was the youngest cardinal ever. Given a Red Hat for his thirteenth birthday he became pope when he was 38. It is recorded that as the triple tiara hit his head, Pope Leo X turned to his illegitimate cousin, Giulio de’ Medici, and exclaimed, “God has given us the Papacy, let us now enjoy it!”.

And he did!

Leo took papal greed to new heights that trivialise the worst excesses of the 1980’s. Instead of giving everything up for Christ, Leo grabbed everything he could, in Christ’s name.

History records the following:

  • Leo had 683 courtiers on his payroll, an orchestra, a theatre and a menagerie of wild animals including a White Elephant that would bow to Leo three times.
  • Leo gave Bacchanalian banquets of 65 courses featuring such delicacies as peacock’ tongues, nightingales flying out of pies and naked boys jumping out of puddings.
  • Defying canon law, Leo planned hunting trips for weeks on end.
  • His Roman brothels, with 7,000 registered prostitutes in a population of 50,000 still didn’t bring in enough income for Pope Leo.
  • He was a gambler and big spender borrowing vast sums from bankers at 40% interest.
  • Although simony – the buying and selling of sacred things – was a crime, Leo invented 2,150 papal offices and positions and auctioned them off. Cardinal’s Red Hats went for around 30,000 ducats. And so on.

The ‘St Peters’ Property Development Scam
In recent years we have seen some rogue property developers in Australia and how they have created scams to rip off people and take their savings. But this was nothing compared to the avarice of Pope Leo. It was Leo’s ultimate act of obscene greed and blasphemy that finally pushed our hero Luther into action. In 1517 Pope Leo X, in cahoots with Prince Albert Hohenzollern, pulled a major scam on the long-suffering German people.

Leo offered to sell Albert the See of Mainz and the Primacy of Germany for 30,000 ducats. But, since Albert didn’t have the money they conspired to raise the cash by selling indulgences to the German people saying the money was going into a property development and building fund for St Peter’s in Rome.

Luther’s Pamphlets
Luther fought back with a new weapon. Luck was on Luther’s side. Gutenberg had only recently invented the printing press and Luther not only officially submitted his arguments in Latin to ecclesiastical authorities but also wrote them in his native German tongue and published his pamphlets for general distribution to the German people.

This general distribution was a major new development the importance of which cannot be over emphasised. In one of his pamphlets he described Leo’s papacy as: ‘more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was … It is a distressing and terrible thing to see the Head of Christendom, who boasts of being the Vicar of Christ and successor to St Peter, living in a worldly pomp that no King or Emperor can equal; so that in him who calls himself most holy and most spiritual there is more worldliness than in the world itself’.

Distribution of Luther’s pamphlets to the general public broke the Church’s monopoly on information and his arguments directly challenged the Pope’s authority. The people and the local German princes had enough! They stood behind Luther and protected him from the wrath of Pope Leo who, of course, excommunicated him. When Luther received his copy of the Pope’s Bull of Excommunication, he simply burnt it in defiance.

Sovereign Thinker

Luther said, “The die is cast. I despise the fury and favour of Rome. I will have no reconciliation with the pope for all eternity.”

Like most of us, Martin Luther was deeply flawed. Sadly, like many Christians of his day he was ambiguous towards Islam and a rabid anti-Semite and did a great deal of harm to his Jewish brethren. Professor Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of Early Modern History at Oxford, says, “Martin was a coarse, aggressive man who said: ‘Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips to sit upon, so they ought to stay home, keep house and raise children’ and he was in many ways repellant”.

But even with his flaws, I still feel the words above are enough to make Martin Luther one of the greatest sovereign thinkers in history and his example of defiance, but not his intolerance, can be followed.

Using the new technology of the printing press to spread his ideas, Luther became the first thinker ever to bring his argument to the general public. His example, soon followed by others like Calvin, began the unravelling of the authority of Rome that led to the Reformation.

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation looms in 2017 giving historians a chance to further study and reappraise Luther, a complex and polarising individual. “It will be a huge celebration in Germany and has actually already begun”, says Professor Roper.

Inventor of the Media
If Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press, perhaps Martin Luther can be considered the inventor of the media, free speech and the right for individuals to think for themselves.

Modern Martins
To my mind, there are many modern day “Martin Luthers” who are willing to defy the pope. Yes, there are the highly publicised Madonna’s and Sinead’s of the world who may simply be more interested in publicity than defiance. But there are many also, like Brother Martin, in the clergy of the church.

There are the many nuns and priests like the Australian priest, Father Paul Collins, who has defied the pope in his expose on modern day Papal Power which is the name of his book wherein he says, “Just as the model of the absolute monarch or dictator places the ruler not only above the state and its laws but above society itself, so the papalist interpretations of primacy and infallibility [make] the Pope into some type of solo guru and intermediary between God and the church.”

For these and other words, Father Collins has already suffered at the hands of the Vatican’s authoritarian inquisitors and his Australian Constitutional rights may have been illegally contravened.

The Internet
Perhaps the Internet is the next biggest leap for sovereign thinkers since the printing press. Perhaps the www is becoming the new medium that will provide a fresh hope for individuals who wish to think for themselves and who, like Brother Martin, wish to defy the authoritarianism that still exists in many of today’s institutions in Big Government, Big Religion and Big Business.

I am often told by people in this kind of discussion that, with all it’s flaws and faults, we still need the Church ‘otherwise we’d all be selfish savages and no-one would ever think of his fellow man’.

Yes, of course, much good is done by people in the Church and these efforts are a great and worthy contribution to society. However, this view ignores the fact that co-operation was one of nature’s most effective survival strategies and evolved genetically many times in plants and animals millions of years before the Church was much more recently invented.

It’s an interesting footnote that Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are giving US$60 billion to the sick and the poor worldwide. This makes them the most generous couple in all of human history. Much of this money was generated as a result of the growth of the internet. Because people who buy PCs are not poor it means that this gift from the Gates’ comes from ‘the haves’ and is being passed on to ‘the have-nots’. Contrast this with the Vatican which has collected much of its vast wealth from the ‘have nots’–selling ‘salvation’ to the poor.

It’s a curious quirk of fact that the Gates family have now given more money to the sick and the poor than all of the 265 popes of history put together!

They are challenging many others to do the same and hope to generate ten times that – $600 billion dollars!