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I love France which has been my home for forty of my last fifty years. My nom-de-plume is “Frank O’Phile” : a fair dinkum Aussie whose francophilia led him to become a French citizen. I think I know France better than most of my former compatriots; I even published an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 13, 1998) entitled “Let’s Be Frank About France”, in which I sang my adopted country’s praises. But France has its faults. For example, I have an idea that revolutionary France invented strikes. In 1964, when I arrived in Rome having traveled from Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok and about to complete the last leg of my journey to Paris, I discovered that I could not. Paris’ airport, Orly, was, as usual, on strike.

After Air France’s pilots’ strike last week, this week France’s pharmacies closed and pharmacists staged a massive, and for them rare, strike. The reason, of course, was the threat to their livelihood : supermarkets, as in the States, may put them out of business if they are allowed to sell off-the-shelf pharmaceutical products. The chemists claim to be consultants, not just shop-keepers. Their slogan : “Your health is not a business.”

Of course it is. Surgeons, doctors, nurses, paramedics and pharmacists all make a living from our need for medical and health care. They may be good, generous, dedicated, competent professionals, but they are not the Red Cross. They may have had the purest of motives in choosing their profession, but they expect, rightly, to be paid for their services. Today in France pharmacists face potential commercial competition. Many want a piece of the pie; you don’t need a diploma to sell aspirin.

Some readers may at this point be tempted to rush off to post a comment on the pros and cons in a debate concerning what is only an analogy, as they did recently with my example of the Sainte Chapelle as a “house of glass”, my metaphor for the Church, as a glass-house in which people are advised not to throw stones. In the present context, strikes and pharmacies are NOT the point. The point is, as you thought when you began reading this post : Is the Church “just a business” ?

Please don’t expect me to come out with all the tired broadsides against the Church, accused of being a mere means of making money. The Church, in a way, IS a Red Cross, a spiritual philanthropy. It is dedicated to helping people find the true meaning of their lives, to spreading Jesus’ revelation of the depth of God’s love for all mankind, to encouraging people to love one another, to lead lives built on the Beatitudes, to prepare themselves for Heaven, the reward of the just. The Church is called, by its very nature and mission, to be an exemplar of the brotherly love it preaches, an institution committed to sharing with the world the Good News, the Joy and Hope of the Gospel, and to incarnate the love of God by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, educating the ignorant, reinforcing faith in Jesus’ redemption, sustaining the courage of believers in face of adversity and guiding them along the Way of Christ to eternal life.

I think that is a fair mission-statement of the Church’s raison d’être. To provide a living for its clergy, volunteers all, it must give them a modest salary and take care of their material needs. The Church is financed by the generosity and charity of its own members. St Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa and the Church today could not care for the poor, the sick and the dying without the income provided by the collections and contributions of its Faithful. But the Church is not a business. It is not a multinational dedicated to enriching its investors. It is, to use the cliché, a “charity”, not just a non-profit organization but a philanthropic association more like “Doctors without Borders” than a business like a local pharmacy or a pharmaceutical giant. It is true, unfortunately, that some of its “Pastors”, “Overseers” (the etymological meaning of “Bishops”), and even its Supreme Pontiff, the “Holy Father”, “the Servant of the Servants of God”, sometimes use their too generous income and acquired personal wealth to live lives of lavish luxury. But these are the exceptions. It is grossly unjust to condemn the Catholic Church as though it were essentially an institution dedicated to milking the poor and conning the credulous into giving its ministers a free ride.

“His dictis” – all this having been said – the real problem with the Church is its usually sincere and well-intentioned exploitation of the credulous. The Faithful are paying for the perpetuation of comforting (and sometimes frightening) myths, and the exploiting of their ignorance, fears and wishful thinking. In spite of the good faith and generous, selfless dedication of the majority of its clergy, it continues to promote groundless, irrational, silly beliefs, silly rules and silly rituals. Some critics, like Christopher Hitchens, go so far as to say that as an institution of religion, it “poisons everything”. True believers naturally will never accept this, and are happy to contribute to the only “business” they recognize in the Church : saving immortal souls. The problem is that indestructible “souls”, supposed to survive death, do not exist, any more than the God who they believe created them and the imagined eternal life He is said to have promised them. Believe it if you like. Pay for the Propagation of the Faith if you wish. It makes no sense to me.

P.S. Congratulations on persevering to the very end of this post, instead of just harrumphing at the title and dismissing the article, before even reading it, as another vicious, hate-filled attack on the Church. But just between you and me and the gate-post – apart from the final paragraph – you DID expect me to trot out the usual stuff, n’est-ce pas ? Judging a book by its cover or an article by its title is called “prejudice”. We all have prejudices, atheists and non-atheists alike. Recognizing them can make discussion of controversial subjects a little more rational.