Vatican interests versus the public interest – The Political Power of the Catholic Church

Vatican interests versus the public interest – The Political Power of the Catholic Church – Cover Story

Edd Doerr

Attempts to discuss “Vatican interests” or to criticize policies advocated by Roman Catholic bishops often provoke accusations of bigotry or Catholic-bashing, sometimes with references to “nativism.” One writer has even opined that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.”

The United States is, of course, a child of western Europe, so images and perceptions of Europe’s religious, ethnic, and other conflicts have become incorporated in complex ways in American culture. Many Catholics in nineteenth, and early twentieth-century America found themselves paying for real or perceived offenses committed by popes and prelates in Europe. Fortunately, religious and ethnic prejudices have been waning in our country. A Catholic was elected president in 1960. Actors of non-Anglo extraction no longer feel the need to adopt Anglo stage names. Once-excluded minorities of all sorts are moving steadily toward parity in politics and the arts and professions.

Unfortunately, however, some people who recognize anti-Catholic prejudice in their own backgrounds or those of their antecedents have chosen to overcompensate for past sins by refusing to criticize those policies of the Catholic hierarchy which need criticism, all too frequently leaving that job their liberal Catholics.

The bottom line is that, while prejudice and bigotry are to be condemned, fair and honest criticism is not only legitimate but necessary. And just as criticism of televangelist Pat Robert, son is not Christian-bashing, so, too, criticism of the policies and actions of the pope or Catholic bishops is not Catholic, bashing.

To return to our theme, then, it is possible to identify three general areas in which the special interests of the leadership machinery of the Roman Catholic church clash sharply with the interests of the general public, including the vast majority of individual Catholics. These three areas may be labeled: (1) special recognition and privilege; (2) compulsory financial support; and (3) excessive influence over individual and family life.

Special Recognition and Privilege

Since the time of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the consistent policy of the Roman Catholic leadership has been to secure special recognition from the state. This recognition can take many forms–from outright establishment, preferment, and financial support, through various intermediate forms (such as arrangements under which the state and the international headquarters of the church have a symbiotic relationship that allows the state a voice in naming national church leadership), to several forms of “accommodation” with the state, including participation in “multi-establishments” as in Britain or Germany today.

For over 1,000 years, the church owned its own state: the Papal States in central Italy, which was finally absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870 with the overwhelming approval of its subjects.

In the era of modern nation-states, the church leadership looked after its interests through a system of agreements, or concordats, between the Holy See, the headquarters of the church (since the 1929 Lateran pacts with Mussolini, housed in the sovereign 108-acre microstate of Vatican City in Rome), and national governments. These concordats, with the force of treaties, spelled out the status and privileges of the Catholic church and guaranteed its hold on such civic institutions as education and marriage. One such concordat, with Colombia in 1887, gave the church enormous power over the life of the country. Another was concluded with Hitler in 1933, a move which gave the Nazi dictator his first international recognition. In short, concordats allowed the church leadership to bypass its ordinary lay members and to deal directly with governments.

(By the way, none of this implies that other religions have not also been established or sought preferment from the state. The Church of England and the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, for example, have both enjoyed an established status. Nor have predominantly Catholic countries always been fond of these church-state unions. Colombia separated church and state in 1853, an agreement that came undone in 1887. Mexico under Benito Juarez did likewise at the time of our Civil War. Spain separated church and state in 1931, as a reaction to the evils of clericalism, a move that helped bring on Franco’s successful rebellion in 1936. Interestingly, since Franco’s death in the mid-1970s, Spain has been moving steadily toward church-state separation.)

Another sort of special privilege sought by the Holy See is formal diplomatic recognition, a status not sought by any other religion. The Holy See (qua church, not Vatican City qua state) maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 countries (pointedly excluding Israel, by the way).

The United States had diplomatic relations with the Papal States from 1797 until 1867, shortly before the Kingdom of Italy abolished that entity, but these were, of course, normal relations with a state, not a church. Since that time, the United States–with its constitutional principle of separation of church and state–stayed away from diplomatic entanglements with the Holy See until quite recently. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a “personal” envoy to the Holy See during World War II; however, when Harry Truman sought to upgrade the envoy to ambassadorial status, he ran into such popular opposition that even the envoy arrangement was terminated.

Richard Nixon revived the envoy post (after promising not to) in 1972 as part of a strategy of seeking urban ethnic Catholic votes. Ronald Reagan, as part of his convergence of interests with ultraconservative Pope John Paul II, granted formal diplomatic recognition to the Holy See in 1984, with Senate approval, after inducing Congress to repeal a nineteenth, century law barring expenditures for such an endeavor. A legal challenge to the arrangement by a wide spectrum of religious groups and individuals (including myself and Ken Gjemre, a member of the American Humanist Association board of directors) failed when the Supreme Court allowed to stand a lower federal court ruling that no one had “standing to sue” and that the president’s conduct of foreign affairs is beyond the jurisdiction of the federal courts–an expedient ruling of dubious validity.

The controversy revived this year when President Clinton nominated Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn for the Holy See ambassadorial post. Clinton’s motives are unknown, though possibly they have to do with an interest in mollifying the Catholic hierarchy in the wake of Clinton’s support for abortion rights and opposition to tax aid for sectarian schools. In June, the Senate rushed through approval of Flynn’s appointment, declining to hear any testimony against Flynn personally (he is strongly anti-choice) or against diplomatic relations with the Holy See in general. A large number of pro-choice groups and liberal Catholics had sought to present testimony to the Senate against the appointment.

Special recognition for one religious body–whether the Holy See or any other–is not only a gross anachronism in today’s world but also totally out of place in a country whose Constitution enshrines the principle of separation of church and state. This unwarranted special treatment also allows, as apparently both Ronald Reagan and John Paul II desired, the unelected, conservative boss of the Holy See to bypass American Catholics and non-Catholics alike in dealing with the highest echelons of the United States government.

Compulsory Financial Support

The Roman Catholic church leadership has long preferred not to be dependent upon the voluntary good will of its members. For many centuries, the papacy, bishops, and religious orders could count on lands and properties for support; in many countries, the church was a major landowner, which was often a cause of envy and dissatisfaction. The Reformation in England cost the Catholic church dearly, as did the Mexican revolution of 1910 and other upheavals. One of the main reasons for the Vatican’s long-time prohibition of marriage for priests has been to keep wealth within the institution rather than allowing clergy to provide support to wives and children. This policy has been the cause of numerous abuses, many of them making dramatic headlines in recent years in the United States and Canada.

The Holy See also has long sought direct or indirect government subsidies. Perhaps the most egregious example of this today is in Germany, where about 9 percent of each citizen’ federal income tax goes to the church in which he or she was baptized. The only way out of the church tax is a civil procedure to sever one’s connection with the religion of one’s birth. When German Catholic writer Heinrich Boll sought to get out of the church tax, Germany’s highest court ruled against him. Asked if he were still a Catholic, Boll replied, “Fiscally, yes.”

Until quite recently, Spain and Italy provided direct support to the Catholic church–a practice now largely discontinued. But the most significant form of compulsory tax support for the Catholic church is support for its charitable and educational institutions, the latter to a much greater extent than the former used to indoctrinate students and shelter them from heterodox influences.

Extensive tax support for Catholic schools is provided in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Australia. Even in the United States, where all major forms of tax aid to nonpublic schools are unconstitutional, minor and peripheral tax aids to nonpublic schools are permitted. These tax aids–transportation services, textbooks, auxiliary services, and so on–add up to over $1.5 billion annually. Protestant and other religious institutions also share in these tax subsidies, but the Catholic church gets the lion’s share. No one has a clear picture of exactly how much tax money flows into church coffers worldwide, though it is obviously quite substantial.

Here in the United States, the Catholic bishops have been especially keen on getting tax support for their institutions. Private charitable and medical institutions of all sorts have long enjoyed public support, virtually unchallenged, under the theory that the aid is paying for religiously neutral services. There is some merit to that argument, but the existence of a large number of tax-aided Catholic hospitals has meant that large numbers of women of modest means have been and are being denied easy access to reproductive health services, such as tubal ligations, contraceptives, and abortions.

So many Catholics have been turned off by their church’s regressive and oppressive positions on birth control, abortion, divorce, ordination of women, and clerical celibacy that voluntary support for the church has dropped off considerably. While Catholics and Protestants alike donated about 2 percent of their incomes to their churches a generation ago, Catholic support for their church has dropped to an average of 1 percent, and most Catholics donate nothing whatsoever to their church. In addition, only about 20 percent of Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools, a drop from about 50 percent 30 years ago. In recent years, bishops have had to shut down or consolidate a great many schools and parishes.

With a declining financial base, despite the vast amount of tax support already going to church institutions, the US. Catholic bishops-appointed by the pope and not elected–are frantically seeking tax aid for their schools. Although their quest for tax aid began early in the nineteenth century, it did not get into full swing until the 1950s, when they had the political clout to block federal aid to public education so long as nonpublic schools did not get a share. Our only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, opposed tax aid to non, public schools (on grounds of principle, as the late Humanist columnist Paul Blanshard reported after meeting with Kennedy shortly after his election) and thus failed to get Congress to provide federal aid to public schools. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, got Congress to begin federal aid in 1965 because civil-rights developments and the Democrats’ big win in 1964 removed most opposition to such aid. Unfortunately, Johnson included limited aid to nonpublic schools in the package, though he did not need to do so.

Emboldened by that success, the bishops’ lobbying operation has pressed Congress and state legislatures for tax aid through vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other devices. Their efforts were stopped by the courts and by 19 much underappreciated statewide referenda between 1966 and 1992. (See “Church and State,” page 38, for information about the referendum on a new voucher parochiaid plan in California.)

In the United States, as happened in the Netherlands generations ago, the bishops are working with their erstwhile antagonists, the Protestant fundamentalists, to undermine our uniquely American principle of church-state separation in the interest of replacing voluntary support with government, coerced support.

Excessive Influence Over Individual and Family Life

Just as all individuals have the right to hold and to act on their religious, philosophical, or life-stance convictions–at least up to the point where they might intrude on the equal rights of other persons–so, too, do those collectivities of people called religions have the right to espouse and advocate positions on issues affecting individual lives and families. It is not legitimate, however, for a religion or faction to use government to impose its peculiar moral vision on its own adherents or anyone else. Historically, many religions have sought to do this. Among the worst examples are conservative Islamic states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia; but most religions have tried, to a greater or lesser degree, to use the coercive power of the state to advance their agendas.

This sort of thing has faded considerably in the West. It is fading even in Ireland, though in Poland matters seem to be reverting to the way they were before the Nazis and the Soviets grabbed the country. The main opposition to the healthy secularization of these Western societies today–a secularization supported by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and humanist moderates and liberals–comes from the leadership of the Catholic church, strongly augmented in the United States by its old rival, Protestant fundamentalism.

Historically, the Vatican has tried to induce the state to enforce its policies on the most intimate aspects of individual and family life. Right up to the present, the church leadership has taken the rigid position that sex has to be confined to monogamous heterosexual unions which must do nothing to impede reproduction–thus, the church’s official condemnation of divorce and remarriage, contraception, abortion, sterilization, masturbation, and homosexuality. Where these prohibitions are enforced by the state, people are stuck with failed marriages and “irregular” unions in which their children lack legal protection; in which women are exploited and their health endangered; in which swarms of unwanted children become a burden to themselves and society; and in which hypocrisy reaches record heights. The Vatican has largely lost the battle to control personal life in the United States and Europe. But implementation of its vision has contributed enormously to misery in the Third World, while the former Soviet, bloc societies are in the midst of transitions which defy easy predictions. Yet even in the United States and the rest of the West, the bishops and their allies have been making progress in their efforts to roll back the right of women to control their fertility, recognized by the Supreme Court 20 years ago. Their ideological and financial support for the anti-choice movement, aided by the rising tide of Protestant fundamentalism, remains a major factor in holding back women, perpetuating poverty, and gum, ming up the political process.

Moving from the personal to the global, the Vatican’s drive to impose its archaic views on reproduction have succeeded in blocking serious efforts to contain the overpopulation problem and bring resource exploitation into balance with our planet’s carrying capacity. If the Holy See’s pronatalist fanaticism is not relegated to the dustbin of history, the human future may well be one of war, starvation, and pestilence. A world of Bangladeshes, Cairos, and Mexico Cities is not a very promising one.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The various perspectives on the Catholic church presented in this issue cannot begin to cover this subject with sufficient depth and breadth. Unfortunately, the major media seem afraid to cover the issue at all, except for titillating reportage on obvious scandals.

The Catholic church and the Catholic people have contributed much to human betterment, but the church’s unelected leadership is responsible for a great deal of mischief. If that leader, ship succeeds in its efforts to coerce financial support via the state and to get the American government to impose the Holy See’s repressive codes on sexuality and morality, our country will be in deeper trouble than we can imagine. We will see the balkanization (good simile, that) of our society, the lessening of our liberties, the accelerating degradation of our planetary environment, and the spread of human misery.

The power structure of the Catholic church is not the only threat to a decent society in a livable world. Other fundamentalisms and various forms of greed, stupidity, and short-sightedness are also threats. All must be met.

What we need, finally, is for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, humanists, Muslims, Hindus, and all others of good will to work together to contain these destructive fundamentalisms. Do we really have any other choice?

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group