Times The Catholic Church Was Surprisingly Progressive
The Catholic Church has remained a dominant force in Western society for almost 2,000 years. In the Middle Ages, the institution almost wholly replaced the government in many areas; it provided essential social services and cohesion for Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, as well as places of a communal congregation in the form of beautiful Catholic churches.
The dark side of the Catholic Church includes a long history of wrongdoings and morally repugnant deeds. In addition, the church often remains overly conservative, reportedly opposing the rights of women, supporting authoritarian regimes, and slowing down social progress.
While it's true the church is opposed to certain kinds of progress, it has implemented surprisingly forward-thinking on certain subjects. Like any institution, it goes through changes of leadership, and certain popes - like John Paul II and Pope Francis - have had a markedly liberal bent.
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Dominican Missionaries Advocated For The Rights Of Native AmericansPhoto: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
It is debatable whether or not the Catholic Church deserves credit for the individual consciences of its members. But if it does, then Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican friar, sheds a good light on the church. Las Casas was a man of means, owning enslaved persons and living on an estate located in what is now the Dominican Republic. However, seeing the adverse results of European slavery in the Caribbean, he gave up his holdings and traveled to Spain to petition the monarchy to give the indigenous people their freedom.
For the rest of his life, Las Casas was an activist in a time before activists. He tirelessly petitioned the Spanish government and won many important victories, including giving indigenous peoples the right to adjudicate their affairs, as well as providing them advocates in Spanish courts.
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Pope John Paul II Apologized For 2,000 Years Of PersecutionPhoto: Red Cross Unit München-Nord 3 Harthof/Hasenbergl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II gave a sweeping apology for 2000 years of persecution committed by the Catholic Church. He spoke generally about the church's mistreatment of indigenous peoples and the suppression of Native religions.
In addition, he mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the church's inaction during the Holocaust.
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The Vatican Supports Free Elections in Venezuela Over Maduro's PresidencyPhoto: Hossein Zohrevand / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
In early 2019, Nicolás Maduro was elected to a second term as president of Venezuela. The election was roundly denounced as a sham, and an opposition led by Juan Guaidó quickly formed a parallel government. Less than a month after the election, the Vatican received a delegation from Guaidó and has discussed intervening in the crisis. Even receiving the delegation was a statement, as Maduro has repeatedly called Guaidó illegitimate.
While the Vatican has not officially taken a side, Venezuelan bishops have repeatedly opposed Maduro, claiming his "de facto regime" has no legal right to govern the country.
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The Church Apologized For Wrongdoings In Ireland Perpetrated By Catholic OrphanagesPhoto: Casa Rosada / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
In August 2018, Pope Francis visited Ireland to apologize for and correct the many wrongdoings committed there. In particular, Francis was reportedly shocked by the mistreatment that occurred at various Catholic orphanages. Children were routinely taken from their mothers, and many children perished while in Catholic care.
While Francis was speaking in the town of Knock, there was a procession in the village of Tuam. The villagers were protesting a local Catholic orphanage, which was interring late children in a mass site near a sewage plant. It was discovered that there were just under 800 death certificates for children in the orphanage, but only one burial record.
Some of the survivors have said they felt Francis was compassionate and understanding towards them, perhaps because he had lived through similar misgivings of the foster system in his native Argentina.
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The Catholic Church Is Pro-Evolution
Pope Pius XII was known as a profoundly conservative leader. But in 1950, he published an encyclical that clarified the church's position on evolution. While he disapproved of the theory, he wrote it was consistent with Catholic theology. Pope John Paul II further endorsed the scientific reality of evolution, calling it "an effectively proven fact."
Lastly, Pope Francis reiterated the church's support of the subject. Each time a pope has made a statement on evolution, some Americans have responded with surprise, as there is an association between Christianity and creationism. The fact is, with notable exceptions like the persecution of Galileo, the Catholic Church prides itself on advocating science.
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Pope Pius Declared You Can Believe The Big Bang Theory And Still Be ReligiousPhoto: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-08838 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
In 2017, the Vatican gathered a group of cosmologists for a conference on the Big Bang and nature of the universe. During this conference, the church reaffirmed its commitment to science as a tool for exploring God's creation. Like evolution, the church's stance on the Big Bang is widely misunderstood.
In fact, a Jesuit priest and astronomer named George Lemaître made a significant contribution to the theory in 1927. Pope Pius XII, who saw the Big Bang as evidence of God's existence, supported Lemaître's work.