Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Christianity Unveiled


CHAP. XV.

OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, OR PRIESTHOOD.

THERE have been, in all ages, men who know how to profit by the errors of mankind. Priests of all religions, have laid the foundations of their greatness, power, and riches, on the fears of the vulgar. No religion has, however, had so many reasons as the Christian, for subjecting people to the priesthood. The first preachers of the gospels the Apostles, are represented as divine men, inspired by God, and sharing his omnipotence. If each individual among their successors has not enjoyed the same privileges in the opinion of all Christians, yet the body of priests, or Church, is never abandoned by the Holy Ghost, but always illuminated thereby. They collectively, at all times, possess infallibility, and consequently their decisions become perpetual revelations equally sacred with those or God himself.

Such being the attributes of the priesthood, this body must in virtue of the prerogatives they hold from Christ himself, have a right to unconditional submission from men and nations. The enormous power they have so long exercised is not, therefore, surprising. It should be unlimited, since it is founded on the authority of the Almighty. It should he despotic, because men have no right to resist divine power. It must degenerate into abuse, for the priesthood is exercised by men whom impunity always renders licentious and corrupt.

In the infancy of Christianity, the Apostles, commissioned by Jesus Christ, preached the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles. The novelty of their doctrine, as we have already seen, procured them many proselytes among the vulgar. The new Christians, inflamed with ardour for their new opinions, formed in every city particular congregations, under the government of men appointed by the Apostles. The latter having received the faith at first hand, retained the inspection and direction of the different Christian societies they had formed. Such appears to have been the origin of Bishops or Inspectors, which are perpetuated in the Church to this day; [84:1] an origin in which the princes of modern Christianity sufficiently pride themselves. It is known that, in this infant sect, the associates held their goods in common. This duty appears to have been rigorously enacted; for, by the command of St. Peter, two new Christians were smitten to death, for having withheld some part of their own property. The funds resulting from this practice, were at the disposal of the Apostles; to this submission the Bishops, Inspectors, or priests succeeded, when they became successors of the Apostles; and as the priests must live by the altar, we may suppose that they paid themselves, and not illiberally, for their instructions, out of the public treasury. Those who attempted new spiritual conquests were, probably, obliged to content themselves with the voluntary contributions of their converts. However this may be, the treasures accumulated, through the credulous piety of the faithful, became an object of the avarice of priests, and begat discord among them. Each one wishing to govern, and have the disposal of the riches of the community. Hence the cabals and factions which we find growing up with the church of God. The priests were always first to wander from the principles of their religion. Their own ambition and avarice always contradict the disinterested maxims they teach to others.

So long as the Christian religion was much depressed and persecuted, discordant Bishops and priests combated in secret, and the noise of their quarrels did not spread far abroad. But when Constantine wished to secure to himself a party, the obscurity of which had favoured its increase, until now become very numerous, the face of every thing in the church was changed. Christian leaders, transformed to courtiers, and seduced by authority, fought openly. They engaged sovereigns in their quarrels, and persecuted their rivals. Laden by degrees with riches and honours, they would no longer be recognized, as the successors of the poor and humble Apostles, sent by Christ to preach his doctrine. They became princes, and, supported by the strongest arms, opinions, they found themselves able to give laws to nations, and put the world in confusion.

Under Constantine, the Pontificate had been by a shameful imprudence separated from the empire. The Emperors soon found they had cause to repent this oversight. The Bishop of Rome, that former mistress of the world, whose name still sounded awful in the ears of nations, knew how to make a skilful advantage of the troubles of the empire, invaded by barbarians, and the weakness of Emperors, too remote to watch over his conduct. By dint of plots and intrigues, the Roman pontiff at length seated himself on the throne of the Caesars. It was for him that Emilius and Scipio had fought. He was, in fine, looked upon in the west, as the monarch of the Church, the universal bishop, the vicar of Jesus Christ upon earth, and the infallible organ of God. Although these haughty titles were rejected in the East, the Roman pontiff reigned, without contest, in the greater part of the Christian world. He was a God upon earth; through the imbecility of kings, he became arbiter of their destinies, and founded a theocracy or divine government, of which himself was chief, and they were his lieutenants. When they had the audacity to become disobedient to him, he dethroned them, or excited their subjects to rebellion. In a word, his spiritual arms were, through a long succession of ages, stronger than the temporal ones of his opponents. Nations had the stupidity to obey him, and the distribution of Crowns was in his power. To secure his dominion over princes, he sowed divisions among them; and his empire would still retain its extent and vigour, if a gradual increase of knowledge, had not, in spite of religious opposition, made its way among mankind, and kings, acting inconsistently with their religion, listened to ambition rather than duty. If the ministers of the Church have received their power from Christ himself, to resist these his representatives is, in fact, to revolt against him. Kings, as well as subjects, cannot throw off allegiance to God without a crime. The spiritual authority proceeding from God, must, of right, have jurisdiction over temporal authority proceeding from man. A prince, who is a true Christian, must become a servant of the church, and, at best, the first slave of the clergy.

Let us not, then, be surprised, that, in the ages of ignorance, priests, being most readily obeyed by people, more attached to heavenly than earthly interests, were more powerful than kings. Among superstitious nations, the pretended voice of God and his interests is more listened to, than that of duty, justice, and reason. A good Christian, piously submissive to the Church, must be blind and unreasonable, whenever the church commands him to be so. The power that has a right to render us absurd, has the right to render us criminal.

Besides, those that derive their power from God, can he subject to no other power. Thus, the independence of the Christian clergy, is founded upon the principles of their religion. Of this circumstance, they have taken care to profit, and impressed with this idea, they, after being enriched by the generosity of kings and people, have always proved ungrateful to the true sources of their own opulence and privileges. What had been given this body, through surprise or impudence, it was found impossible to recover from their hands. They foresaw, that future generations, breaking loose from the fetters of prejudice, might tear from them the donations they had gained by the extortions of terror, and the evils of imposture. They, therefore, persuaded mankind that they held from God alone, what had been given them by their fellow mortals: and by a miracle of credulity, they were believed on their word.

Thus the interests of the clergy became separated from those of society. Men devoted to God, and chosen to be his ministers, were no longer confounded with the profane. Laws and civil tribunals renounced all power over them. They could be judged only by members of their own body. Hence the greatest excesses were often committed by them with impunity; and their persons, at the disposal of God alone, were sacred and inviolable. Their possessions, although they contributed nothing to public charges. or, at least, no more than they pleased, were defended and enlarged by fanatic sovereigns, who hoped thereby to conciliate the favour of Heaven. In fact, those reverend wolves in shepherds clothing, under pretence of feeding with instruction, devoured with avarice, and, secure in their disguise, fattened on the blood of their flocks, unpunished and unsuspected. From their instructions for eighteen hundred years past, what advantages have nations derived? Have these infallible men found it possible to agree among themselves, on the most essential points of a religion, revealed by God himself? Strange, indeed, is that revelation, which needs continual commentaries, and interpretations. What must be thought of these divine writings, which every sect understands so differently? Those who are incessantly fed with the gospel, do not understand these matters better, nor are they more virtuous than others. They are commanded to obey the Church, and the Church is never at accord with itself. She is eternally busied, in reforming, explaining, pulling down, and building up her holy doctrines. Her ministers have, at will, created new doctrines unknown to Christ and the Apostles. Every age has brought forth new mysteries, new ceremonies, and new articles of faith. Notwithstanding the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, this religion has never attained to that clearness, simplicity, and consistency, which are the only indubitable proofs of a good system. Neither councils, nor canons, nor the mass of decrees and laws, which form the code of the Church, have ever yet been able to fix the objects of her belief.

Were a sensible heathen desirous of embracing Christianity, he would be, at the first step, thrown into perplexity, at the sight of the numerous variety of sects, each of which, pretends to conform precisely to the word of God, and travel in the only sure road to salvation. When he finds that these different sects regard each other with horror; that they all deal out damnation to all, whose opinions differ from their own; that they all unite their efforts to banish peace from society; that always, when power is in their hands, they persecute and inflict the most refined cruelties on each other, for which shall he determine? For, let us not be deceived-- Christians, not satisfied with enforcing by violence, an exterior submission to the ceremonies of their religion, have invented an art unknown to heathen superstitions, that of tormenting the conscience, and exercising a tyranny over the mind itself. The zeal of the ministers of the Church is not limited to exteriors; they steal into the foldings of the heart, and insolently violate the most secret sanctuaries of thought. [88:1] And for this sacrilege, their justification is a pretended interest in the salvation of souls.

Such are the effects which necessarily result from the principles of a religion, which teaches mankind that involuntary error is a crime that merits the wrath of God. It is an consequence of such ideas, that in certain countries, priests, with the permission of the civil governments, pretend to a commission for maintaining the faith in its purity. Judges in their own cause, they condemn to the flames all whose opinions appear to them dangerous. [88:2] Served by innumerable spies, they watch the minutest actions of the people, and inhumanly sacrifice all that have the misfortune to give them the smallest umbrage. To excite suspicions in their minds, is to rush upon inevitable destruction. Such are the blessings which the Holy Inquisition, all mild and gentle, pours upon mankind.

Such are the principles of this sanguinary tribunal which perpetuates the ignorance and infatuation of the people wherever the false policy or governments permits its horrors to be exercised.

The disputes between Christian priests have been sources of animosity, hatred, and heresy. We find these to have existed from the infancy of the church. A religion founded on wonders, fables, and obscure oracles, could only be a fruitful source of quarrels. Priests attended to ridiculous doctrines instead of useful knowledge; and when they should have studied true morality, and taught mankind their real duties, they only strove to gain adherents. They busied themselves in useless speculations in a barbarous and enigmatical science, which, under the pompous title of the science of God, or theology, excited in the vulgar a reverential awe. They invented a system, bigoted, presumptuous, ridiculous, and as incomprehensible as the God whom they affected to worship. Hence arose disputes on disputes, concerning puerile subtleties, odious questions, and arbitrary opinions, which far from being useful, only served to poison the peace of society. In these bickerings we find profound geniuses busied; and we are forced to reject the prostitution of talents worthy a better cause. The vulgar, ever fond of riot, entered into quarrels they could not understand. Princes undertook the defence of the priests they wished to favour, and orthodoxy was decided by the longest sword. Their assistance the church never hesitated to receive in time of danger; for on such occasion the church relies rather on human assistance, than the promise of God, who declared that the sceptre of the wicked should not rest upon the lot of the righteous. The heroes, found in the annals of the church, have been obstinate fanatics, factious rebels, or furious persecutors. They were monsters of madness, faction, and cruelty. The world, in the days of our ancestors, was depopulated in defence of extravagancies which excite laughter in a posterity, not indeed much wiser than they were.

In almost all ages complaints have been made of abuses in the church, and reformation has been talked of. Notwithstanding this pretended reform, in the head, and in the members of the church, it has always been corrupted. Avaricious, turbulent, and seditious priests have made nations to groan under the weight of their vices, while princes were too week to reclaim them to reason. The divisions and quarrels which took place among those ecclesiastical tyrants did indeed at length diminish the weight of the yoke they had imposed on kings and nations. The empire of the Roman pontiff which endured many ages, was at last shaken by irritated enthusiasts, and rebellious subjects, who presumed to examine the rights of this formidable despot. Some princes, weary of their slavery and poverty, readily embraced opinions which would authorise them to enrich themselves with the spoils of the clergy. Thus the unity of the church was destroyed, sects were multiplied, and each fought for the defence of his own system.

These founders of these new sects were treated by the Roman pontiff as innovators, heretics, and blasphemers. They, it is true, renounced some of their old opinions; but content with having made a few steps towards reason, they dared not to shake off entirely the yoke of superstition. They continued to respect the sacred writ of the Christian, which they still looked upon as the only faithful guide. Upon them they pretended to found all their opinions. In fine, these books, in which every man may find what he pleases, as they became more common from time to time, produced new sects. Men were lost in a dark labyrinth, where each one groped his way in error, and yet judged all but himself to be wrong.

The leaders of these sects, the pretended reformers of the church, gained but a glimpse at the truth, and attended to nothing but minutiae. They continued to respect the sacred oracles of the Christians, and believe in their cruel and capricious God. They admitted their extravagant mythology, and most of their unreasonable doctrines. In fine, although they rejected some mysteries that were incomprehensible, they admitted others not less so. Let us not be surprised, therefore, that, notwithstanding these reforms, fanaticism, controversy, persecution, and war, continued to rage throughout Europe. The reveries of innovators only served to plunge nations into new misfortunes. Blood continued to stream, and people grew neither more reasonable nor more happy. Priests of all sects have ever wished to govern mankind and impose on them their decisions as infallible and sacred. They were always persecutors when in power, involved nations in their fury, and shook the world by their fatal opinions. The spirit of intolerance and persecution will ever be the essence of every sect founded on the Bible. A mild and humane religion can never belong to a partial and cruel God, whom the opinions of men can fill with wrath. Wherever Christian sects exist, priests will exercise a power which may prove fatal to the state, and bodies of fanatical enthusiasts will be formed, always ready to rush to slaughter, when their spiritual guides cry, the church or the cause of God is in danger.

Thus, in Christian countries, we see the temporal power servilely submissive to the clergy, executing their commands, exterminating their enemies, and supporting their rights, riches, and immunities. In almost all nations where the church prevails, the most idle, useless, seditious, and dangerous men are most liberally honoured and rewarded. Superstition thinks she can never do enough for the ministers of her gods. These sentiments are the same in all sects. [91:1] Priests every where endeavour to instil them into kings, and to make policy bend to religion, in doing which they often oppose the best institutions. They in all places aim at the superintendance of education, and they fill their adherents with their fatal prejudices from their infancy.

It is, however, in places that remained subject to the Roman pontiff, that the clergy have wallowed in the greatest profusion of riches and power. Credulity has even enlisted kings among their subjects, and debased them into mere executioners of their will. They were in readiness to unsheath the sword whenever the priest commanded it. The monarchs of the Roman sect, blinder than all others, had an unbounded confidence in the clergy of their church that generally rendered them mere tools of that body. This sect, by means of furious intoleration and atrocious persecutions, became more numerous than any other one; and their turbulent and cruel temper has justly rendered them odious to the most reasonable, that is to say, least Christian nations.

The Romish system was, in fact, invented to throw all the power into the hands of the clergy. Its priests have had the address to identify themselves with God. Their cause was always his; their glory became the glory of God. Their decisions were divine oracles; their possessions appertained to the kingdom of heaven. Their pride, avarice, and cruelty, were rendered lawful, because they were never actuated by other motives than the interest of their heavenly master. In this sect, the priest saw his king at his feet, humbly confessing his sins, and beseeching the holy man that he might be reconciled to his God. Seldom was the priest known to render this sacred minister subservient to the good of mankind. He thought not of reproaching monarchs with the abuse of their power, the misery of their subjects, and the tears of the oppressed. Too timid, or too much of a courtier to thunder truth in their ears, he mentioned not to them the insupportable oppressions, the galling tyranny, and useless wars under which their subjects groaned. But such objects never interest the church, which might indeed be of some utility, if its influence were exercised in bridling the excesses of superstitious tyrants. The terrors of the other world would not be unpardonable falsehoods, could they make the herd of wicked kings to tremble. This, however, has not been the object of the ministers of religion. They never stickled for the interest of mankind. They always burned incense at the altar of tyranny, looked upon its crimes with indulgence, and devised for them easy means of expiation. Tyrants were sure of the pardon and favour of heaven, if they entered warmly into the quarrels of the clergy. Thus, among the Catholics, priests governed kings, and consequently all their subjects. Superstition and despotism formed an internal alliance, and united their efforts, to plunge mankind into slavery and wretchedness. Priests frightened nations with religious terror, that they might he preyed upon by their sovereigns at leisure; and, in return, those sovereigns loaded the priests with opulence and power, and undertook, from time to time, to exterminate their enemies.

What shall we say of those subtle geniuses which Christians call casuists, those pretended moralists who have computed the number of sins against God which a man can commit without risking his salvation? These men of profound wisdom have enriched Christian morality with a ridiculous tarif of sins; they know precisely the degree of wrath which each excites in the breast of the Almighty. True morality has but one criterion for judging the sins of man; the greatest are those that injure society most. The conduct which injures ourselves in imprudent and unreasonable. That which injures others is unjust and criminal.

Every thing, even to idleness itself, is rewarded in Christian priests. Multitudes of these drones are maintained in ease and affluence, while, instead of serving society, they only prey upon it. They are paid with profusion for useless prayers which they make with negligence. And while monks and lazy priests, those blood-suckers of society, wallow in an abundance shameful to the states by whom they are tolerated, the man of talents, the man of science, and the brave soldier are suffered to languish in indigence, and poorly exist on the mere necessaries of life.

In a word, Christianity makes nations accomplices in all the evils which are heaped upon them by the Clergy. Neither the uselessness of their prayers demonstrated by the experience of so many ages, the bloody effects of their fatal controversies, nor even their licentious excesses, have yet been sufficient to convince mankind how shamefully they are duped by that infallible Church, to the existence of which they have had the simplicity to believe, their salvation attached.

 


[84:1] Saint Jerome highly disapproved the distinctions of bishops and priests or curates. He pretends, that priests and bishops were, according to St. Paul, the same thing, before, says he, by the instigation of the devil, there were destinations in religion. At this day, bishops, who do nothing, enjoy great revenues; innumerable curates, who labour, are dying with hunger.

[88:1] Spoken of the Romish Clergy.

[88:2] Civil tribunals, when they are just, have a maxim to look for every thing that can contribute to the defence of the accused. In the Inquisition a method directly opposite has been adopted. The accused is neither told the cause of his detention nor confronted with his accuser. He is ignorant of his crime, yet he commanded to confess. Such are the maxims of Christian priests. The Inquisition, however, condemns nobody to die. Priests cannot themselves shed blood. That function is reserved for the Secular arm; and they have even the effrontery to intercede for criminals, sure, however, of not being heard. Indeed, it is probable, they would make no small clamour, should the magistrate take them at their word. This conduct becomes men in whom Almighty interest stifles humanity, sincerely, and modesty.

[91:1] Except the Quakers.


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