Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faithful Citizens? Papal Politics, 2008

Over the course of its nearly 2000 year history, the Catholic church is certainly no stranger to hypocrisy. To review that litany here would take up far too much space, but I think Daniel Goldhagen, in an essay some years ago in the New York Review of Books, explained the source of that hypocrisy persuasively.

The Catholic church occupies a unique position in the world as both a major religion and a nation-state. In the former role, it offers moral prescriptions - or threats - to adherents; in the latter role, it must move in the world of politics and power.

Dancing between these two roles has enabled the church to defend its hypocrisy in one arena by justifying it in the other. So, for example, when people have asked how Pope Pius XII could have, in good conscience, sat on his hands while jews were deported to the camps during World War II, his defenders have insisted that the Pope had an obligation to protect the institution of the Vatican, which might have been destroyed had the Pope spoken out. When, on the other, many wondered what business some bishops had inserting themselves so aggressively into the 2004 presidential campaign by denouncing John Kerry's pro-choice position, the bishops insisted that they had a moral duty to speak out. And so it has gone, deflecting criticism on one front by retreating to the other.

Which may help explain what the Times reports today. Among those already lining up to attack the Obama administration - along with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and John Boehner - are Catholic bishops. Never mind that the administration is still two months away from moving into office.

The issue, naturally, is abortion, and more immediately the likelihood that President Obama will reverse the Bush ban on stem cell research. (Note: I can't resist pointing out this particular feculant hypocrisy. The bishops believe that to use stems cells in medical research is to destroy a human life. Catholics have always had a testy relationship with scientific research - the Vatican finally repealed its Inquisition ruling against Galileo in 1992! When couples pursue IVF procedures, however, lots of eggs get fertilized and only a few implanted - the rest wind up destroyed. No public call yet from the bishops to close down these "baby-killing" clinics).

In its 2007 voter's guide, "Faithful Citizenship," the church suggests that there are a number of issues, in addition to abortion, that ought shape a good Catholic's vote: poverty, the degraded environment, torture. But abortion trumps them all, and many Catholic bishops instructed their flocks this way.

The Catholic church has become a single-issue operation not, I suspect, because of a moral calculation, but rather because of a political one. The Church in the United States - or at least much of it - has decided to be vocal about abortion because it can make common political cause with conservative Protestants for whom abortion is also the one and true issue. If Church leaders were actually to speak out about the Iraq War, for example, they would risk alienating those Baptists and Pentacostals and Whatever-It-Is-Church that Sarah Palin belongs to.

By fixating on abortion to the exclusion of every other issue of social justice, the American Church made a choice to tether itself to the Republican Party. In so doing, it believed it would have a seat at the table for the Thousand Year Rovian Reich that the Republican Party promised. And now, like the Republican Party, it now finds itself with eggs on its mitre. Catholics voted for Obama by 54%; Hispanic Catholics by an even larger margin.

So the fighting among the Bishops now meeting in Baltimore to plot their attacks on the Obama Administration looks much like the civil war erupting among angry Republicans. Should the Church double-down on its bad bet, threatening even more divine retribution for anyone who supports abortion rights and family planning? Or should it try to soften its position to appeal to alienated parishoners/voters?

Either way, the choice will be a political calculus masquerading as moral certitude.


King Politics said...

Upon deep reflection the Catholic Church should instruct its priests to extricate themselves from politics. Many Catholics I know openly engage in practices abhorrent to the Church, because they cannot abide 18th century teachings in a 21st century world. Seems the Church should focus more on tending to its shrinking flock than worrying about public policy.

FYI: I've changed my blog title form blackpoliticalanalysis to kingpolitics.com. Thanks for including me on your blogroll.

hysperia said...

Even if the Vatican wasn't a nation-state, I think the Church would use its political and economic power to fight abortion in any way it could. If you believe that abortion is baby-killing, you're probably going to do everything you can to stop it. The fact that the Church has some political power by virtue of that nation-state status just gives them a more powerful vehicle for their message. And a hypocritical message it is, I do agree. Decades ago, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclicle (meaning an infallible Church teaching if you believe in such things) which exhorted all Catholics to refrain from the use of birth control because it is a sin against the sanctity of life, or so said Paul VI. Catholics by the millions promptly ignored him and do so to this day. Many also ignore teachings on abortion and, some of them, publicly so. They continue to sit in the pews on Sundays because they believe in more than the institution of the Church, more than the nation-state of the Vatican. I can't do that, but I respect those who do. I just can't respect those who think they can tell those of us who don't adhere to their beliefs that they know better than us what we ought to do. Abortion, gay and lesbian rights - they're living in another century and they didn't even have it right then. I say, let the Catholic Church exert all the pressure they want. They have a right to believe what they want but they better keep their beliefs OFF MY BODY!

A much more serious issue to me is that the Catholic Church is growing by leaps and bounds in southeast Asia, Africa, the Phillipines and South America. The Church continues to teach these people that they mustn't use birth control, thus dooming them to have children they can't feed or to contract AIDS and leave their children behind as orphans. These are the people who suffer most from the power exerted by the Romans. (rant!)

Matt L said...

I liked your post, but I do have a little quibble about calling the Catholic Church a nation state. I think it would be better to describe the pope and the institutions of the Church as one of the last absolutist monarchies on earth.

The nation state needs a nation and a territory. Catholicism might be a cultural identity, but it does not really have the other qualities of the modern nation (ie, there isn't a common language, ethnic heritage or even a territorial boundaries.) In fact, we could consider Catholicism an heir to a much older multi-ethnic, universalistic identity, Christendom, that started to collapse in the Reformation and crumbled in the nineteenth century.

More importantly, the kind of power the Catholic Church wields is more akin to something to what Louis XIV understood. Its a politics of charisma, managed through hierarchical networks of patronage.

To cinch it, the pope claims sovereignty on the basis of his exclusive relationship to God. Most nation states, even highly authoritarian ones, nominally claim sovereignty comes from the people. Under absolutism, all authority comes from God.

But, this is a quibble, and a pedantic one at that. I think your analysis is spot on. Thanks!

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