Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer, who is reportedly “nonreligious,” devoted his May 1, 2015, syndicated column to an attack on the gripping six-episode PBS/Masterpiece series Wolf Hall for being “anti-Catholic.” Emily Nussbaum devoted her May 4 New Yorker article to praising Wolf Hall. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantell’s prize-winning novels, is the story of Henry VIII’s struggle to get the pope to annul his marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, who would hopefully bear him a male heir. (She didn’t, producing instead the future Queen Elizabeth.) All of the characters in the drama, in real life and on film, are rather despicable: Henry, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Henry’s key adviser and fixer Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and so on ad nauseam.
Why bring this up here? Because the outcome affected history in this way: if the pope had granted Henry the annulment, which he would have been justified in doing under Church law, England might well have remained Catholic, the Reformation might have been confined to Scandinavia and parts of Germany, there would have been no need for the Spanish Armada and Spain’s 1588 defeat, there would have been no Tom Paine or John Locke or Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, and there would be no United States as we know it today, which started out in part as a haven for European religious dissenters. Though that is necessarily pure speculation—maybe some alternative history science-fiction writer such as Harry Turtledove, whose novel Ruled Britannia dealt with the 1588 victory of the Spanish Armada and used Shakespeare, Marlow, and Lope de Vega as characters, could try his or her hand at describing such a world. Pause to think about that for a moment.
With that introduction, let’s turn to two new blockbuster, five-star nonfiction books about popes, the upper echelons of the largest religious organization in the world, and politics, power, clericalism, money, sex, and secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. Let’s note up front that both authors were raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, both are experienced lawyers, and the second author prepared for the priesthood and studied canon (church) law. Let’s also note, importantly, that most Catholics part company with the Vatican and their Church’s unelected leadership on such matters as divorce and remarriage, contraception, abortion rights, clerical celibacy, ordaining women, the need for sending kids to Church-run schools, and the Church’s unending push for tax support for its private schools. This has been nowhere made more clear than in the May 22 referendum in predominantly Catholic Ireland approving same-sex marriage by the wide margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, the very same margin by which Maryland voters in 1992 approved locking abortion rights and Roe v. Wade into state law.
From before the collapse of the Roman Empire until cracks began appearing with the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Catholicism was the established religion in Western Europe. For a thousand years, it was politically dominant in Europe, ruled chunks of it, and was a financial giant. All this largely fell apart in the nineteenth century, especially after the unification of Italy in 1870 and its absorption of the Papal States. The Vatican remained a secluded backwater until the rise of Mussolini and fascism in the 1920s and the coming together of the Vatican and Italy in the lucrative 1929 Lateran Pacts, which created the one-sixth square mile Vatican City State and put the Church back in business financially. The Church’s fortunes grew again with the 1933 Concordat with Nazi Germany, which eventuated in the German church-tax (Kirchensteuer) of about 9 percent on nearly everyone, a development that spread from Germany to Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and parts of Switzerland*. By 2010, the most recent year for which we have data, the church tax was yielding $14 billion per year. That figure, cited in the book about to be discussed, does not include the $10 billion annually diverted to private schools in France (as La Raison, the French freethought journal, reported this year), or the billions in public funds annually that flow to private, mostly Catholic, schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries.
The Church’s complicated, secretive financial buildup is detailed in Gerald Posner’s magnificent new book, God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican (Simon & Schuster, 2015). In exhaustive detail, with 172 pages of documentation, Posner explores the complicated history of the Vatican Bank, largely run by clerics with little business background, and its relationships with financial institutions worldwide, many of them rather shady but all protected from outside scrutiny by Church law and the Vatican’s microstate status as a sovereign country. The author examines the Vatican’s traditional anti-Semitism, the possibility that it profited from wealth looted by the Nazis from Jews and other victims of Nazi tyranny, and the apparently widespread practice of money-laundering. The book examines the roles of popes from Pius XI in the 1920s until today and leaves open the possibility that things will change significantly under Francis. (To my mind, it’s too early to tell.) This book merits wide readership, especially in the United States, where efforts are building to divert more public funds to church institutions.
Moving on, we come to the history of the Vatican’s problems with the sexual abuse of minors, which burst into the open in recent decades. For 1,500 years, Catholic Church law allowed not only church punishment of sexual abusers but also permitted abusers to be reported to civil authorities. All this shifted rather abruptly in 1922, with a number of changes in canon law designed to protect and privilege clergy abusers at the expense of the vast numbers of sexually abused minors worldwide. This subject is thoroughly analyzed in canon law–trained lawyer Kieran Tapsell’s book, Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press, 2014). Tapsell’s book, with abundant documentation, explores this issue mainly in the United States, Ireland, and Australia, places where civil law has gotten involved, clerics have been outed and punished, and gaps have appeared in the nearly century-old wall of secrecy.
Tapsell winds up with this citation from the 2014 report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of the Holy See”: “Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred. On the contrary, cases of nuns and priests ostracized, demoted, and fired for not having respected the obligation of silence have been reported to the Committee, as well as cases of priests who have been congratulated for refusing to denounce child abusers, as shown in the letter addressed by Cardinal Castrillon Hojos to Bishop Pierre Pican in 2001.”
And there is this, from Thomas C. Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, on January 21, 2014: “Despite Pope Francis’ heartfelt expressions of lament over priest sexual abuse last week, the Geneva hearing suggests to date he does not understand the full magnitude of the related sex abuse issues, or, if he does, is yet unwilling or incapable of responding to it.” Tapsell concludes: “Bishops in the United States, Canada and elsewhere have
claimed to be unaware of the serious nature of clergy sexual abuse and its impact on victims, but the historical record shows that this is not true. They may not have been aware of the scientific nature of the sexual disorders of these priests or the clinical descriptions of the impact on victims, but they always knew it was criminal and damaging. The 2004 John Jay College survey shows that the American bishops were well aware of the problem as far back as the 1950s, and consistently mishandled it.”
Tapsell’s book helps us understand why devout Catholic author Carol Kuhnert (No Longer on Pedestals, iUniverse, 2014) could get nowhere for years in trying to get church officials to deal appropriately with her priest older brother who was a serial abuser. (My review of her book appears on p. 64.)
To wrap matters up, the Church officials discussed in these two books, unelected and out of sync with most of their remaining members, are the same guys who have been promoting the diversion of public funds to faith-based private schools, obstructing women’s reproductive choice, and impeding progress in dealing with the climate change and overpopulation problems that I have written about often and that this journal spelled out so well in its last issue.
*This history is examined in greater detail in Gregory Paul, “The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis” (in two parts, Free Inquiry, October/November 2003–December 2003/January 2004. —EDS.