Q: What do these countries have in common: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States?
A: All have been in the news this year regarding the ongoing clerical sexual-abuse scandals roiling the Catholic Church. Even the briefest summary of the widespread and widely reported scandals would more than fill this journal. My file of clips on the matter from this year alone is several inches thick, not to mention my shelf of books on the subject from the United States, Spain, and Mexico. For especially comprehensive coverage of all this, we can thank The New York Times and the National Catholic Reporter.
But before proceeding, we should note the wide (and widening) gap between the hierarchy of pope, cardinals, and bishops on the one hand and, on the other, the vast majority of ordinary Catholics who follow their own consciences on marriage, divorce, reproductive matters, politics, and educating their children, and who for all practical purposes are very much like Methodists, Episcopalians, Jews, humanists, and others in our increasingly diverse world.
A few examples: John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, was a staunch supporter of church-state separation. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan was a strong defender of church-state separation and reproductive choice. Catholic Democrats in the Senate and House ignored the demands of the bishops on reproductive matters and earlier this year defeated Senator Joe Lieberman’s efforts to continue the District of Columbia’s school-voucher plan (which had been foisted on the city by George W. Bush and a Republican Congress). Liberal theologians like Hans Küng have supported physician-assisted suicide and blamed the clerical-abuse problem on the Vatican’s medieval requirement for priestly celibacy. There are papers like the National Catholic Reporter and organizations like Catholics for Choice, publisher of the excellent journal Conscience.
But back to connecting dots—the clerical-abuse scandals (involving, to be sure, only a minority of priests) are only one important area of concern. In addition, the hierarchy, in the United States and the rest of the world, either seeks or has succeeded in getting tax support for its schools and other institutions, regardless of the damage this does to society, to social stability and cohesion, and to individual religious freedom and the all-important principle of separation of religion and government.
Overshadowing everything else is the Vatican’s malignantly patriarchalist “old boys’ club” obsession with sex. Not only has the hierarchy damaged countless young lives by the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse worldwide, but its fanatic opposition to contraception and abortion has cost the lives of countless women, harmed uncounted numbers of children, and greatly exacerbated the problems of overpopulation and climate change. Much of this could have been averted if, in 1968, Pope Paul VI had not disregarded the 73–10 recommendation of his own theological advisers and issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning contraception. That, and the Vatican’s overarching yet theologically silly antiscientific opposition to abortion, have erected political barriers in much of the world to progress on women’s rights and welfare.
Theologian (and former priest) Daniel Maguire puts it well in Conscience (31, No. 1, 2010): “What the bishops are up to is power. The bishops want power. They want control. They want to influence political elections, and do so from ‘tax exempt’ properties. The bishops want to exercise thought control in universities and the press; . . . And they want to control the sexual and reproductive lives of people, Catholic or not. All of that is a tad arrogant.”
As I was writing this column, two interesting articles arrived in my mailbox, one by liberal Catholic historian Garry Wills (author of the excellent 2000 book Papal Sin) titled “Forgive Not” (The New Republic, May 27) and the other by conservative Catholic writer Joseph Bottum in the June/July issue of First Things. If these two pieces blasting the Vatican had been written by a humanist, Catholic League demagogue Bill Donohue would have had a hemorrhage.
I was pleased recently to join with Luxembourgeans and assorted Europeans in petitioning the parliament of that tiny country (population under 400,000) to separate church and state for “three good reasons (3 gute Gründe)”: Religion is a private matter; the Catholic hierarchy (Luxembourg is over 90 percent Catholic) systematically covered up the sexual abuse of minors; because of an agreement with the government, the Catholic Church receives tax aid of more than 20 million euros per year despite the current recession.
From Hither and Yon
Wisconsin federal judge Barbara Crabb’s April 15 ruling that the National Day of Prayer (NDOP) is unconstitutional really stirred up the likes of Sarah Palin and Franklin (son of Billy) Graham. Judge Crabb was right. Under our regime of church-state separation, Big-Brother government steps over the line when it designates a special day for a religious activity and specifies which religious activity that will be: prayer rather than, say, visiting the sick or working for social justice. The NDOP was authorized by Congress in 1952, but I remembered that nineteen years earlier Adolf Hitler had the idea of proposing a National Day of Prayer for “Volk und Vaterland” (Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Church Under Hitler, 1979).