Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Three - The Church of the Servant-Girls

The Church Triumphant

The question may be asked, What of it? What if the Church were to rule? There are not a few Americans who believe that there have to be rich and poor, and that rule by Roman Catholics might be preferable to rule by Socialists. Before you decide, at least do not fail to consider what history has to tell about priestly government. We do not have to use our imaginations in the matter, for there was once a Golden Age such as Archbishop Quigley dreams of, when the power of the church was complete, when emperors and princes paid homage to her, and the civil authorities made haste to carry out her commands. What was the condition of the people in those times? We are told by Lea, in his "History of the Inquisition" that:

The moral condition of the laity was unutterably depraved. Uniformity of faith had been enforced by the Inquisition and its methods, and so long as faith was preserved, crime and sin was comparatively unimportant except as a source of revenue to those who sold absolution. As Theodoric Vrie tersely puts it, hell and purgatory would be emptied if enough money could be found. The artificial standard thus created is seen in a revelation of the Virgin to St. Birgitta, that a Pope who was free from heresy, no matter how polluted by sin and vice, is not so wicked but that he has the absolute power to bind and loose souls. There are many wicked Popes plunged in hell, but all their lawful acts on earth are accepted and confirmed by God, and all priests who are not heretics administer true sacraments, no matter how depraved they may be. Correctness of belief was thus the sole essential; virtue was a wholly subordinate consideration. How completely under such a system religion and morals came to be dissociated is seen in the remarks of Pius II, that the Franciscans were excellent theologians, but cared nothing about virtue.

This, in fact, was the direct result of the system of persecution embodied in the Inquisition. Heretics who were admitted to be patterns of virtue were ruthlessly exterminated in the name of Christ, while in the same holy name the orthodox could purchase absolution for the vilest of crimes for a few coins. When the only unpardonable offense was persistence in some trifling error of belief, such as the poverty of Christ; when men had before them the example of their spiritual guides as leaders in vice and debauchery and contempt of sacred things, all the sanctions of morality were destroyed and the confusion between right and wrong became hopeless. The world has probably never seen a society more vile than that of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The brilliant pages of Froissart fascinate us with their pictures of the artificial courtesies of chivalry; the mystic reveries of Rysbrock and of Tauler show us that spiritual life survived in some rare souls, but the mass of the population was plunged into the depths of sensuality and the most brutal oblivion of the moral law. For this Alvaro Pelayo tells us that the priesthood were accountable, and that, in comparison with them, the laity were holy. What was that state of comparative holiness he proceeds to describe, blushing as he writes, for the benefit of confessors, giving a terrible sketch of universal immorality which nothing could purify but fire and brimstone from heaven. The chroniclers do not often pause in their narrations to dwell on the moral aspects of the times, but Meyer, in his annals of Flanders, under date of 1379, tells us that it would be impossible to describe the prevalence everywhere of perjuries, blasphemies, adulteries, hatreds, quarrels, brawls, murder, rapine, thievery, robbery, gambling, whoredom, debauchery, avarice, oppression of the poor, rape, drunkenness, and similar vices, and he illustrates his statement with the fact that in the territory of Ghent, within the space of ten months, there occurred no less than 1,400 murders committed in the bagnios, brothels, gambling-houses, taverns, and other similar places. When, in 1396, Jean sans Peur led his Crusaders to destruction at Micopolis, their crimes and cynical debauchery scandalized even the Turks, and led to the stern rebuke of Bajazet himself, who as the monk of St. Denis admits was much better than his Christian foes. The same writer, moralizing over the disaster at Agincourt, attributes it to the general corruption of the nation. Sexual relations, he says, were an alternation of disorderly lust and of incest; commerce was nought but fraud and treachery; avarice withheld from the Church her tithes, and ordinary conversation was a succession of blasphemies. The Church, set up by God as a model and protector of the people, was false to all its obligations. The bishops, through the basest and most criminal of motives, were habitual accepters of persons; they, annointed themselves with the last essence extracted from their flocks, and there was in them nothing of holy, of pure, or even of decent.

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