"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 15, 2015

Popes, Politics, And Sticking To God

Popes have always meddled in secular affairs.  Even though the Church had no standing army, the threat of excommunication was as potent a weapon as military divisions. The only reason why Henry VIII did not defy Clement VII sooner was his fidelity to Rome and the desire for the Pope’s blessings.  The legitimacy of the Tudor line was contingent on Vatican sanction for marriage and leniency and understanding when it came to divorce. Henry and Thomas More tried every possible ecclesiastical argument to convince the Pope to release him from his bond with his first wife, Catherine; but to no avail. As Henry became more and more frustrated with what he saw as the Pope’s recalcitrance, he grew equally impatient with what he saw as the Church’s defiance of his royal, secular law. 

Henry VIII

The issue of the monasteries and Rome’s growing treasury had been a source of friction between the English kings and the Church since the days of Henry II and Thomas Beckett. 

Henry VIII finally broke with the Church, but not without much consideration and reflection. He always remained a Catholic at heart despite his historic defiance of the Church. Martin Luther’s Reformation finished what Henry started, and as Protestantism grew, the power and influence of the Church waned.


                Thomas Beckett

Subsequent Popes, however, did not cede power willingly; and  they consolidated political alliances with countries which remained Catholic and faithful to the Vatican. Even as late as World War II, the Catholic Church played an important role in international affairs. Pope Pius XII was accused of colluding with Hitler to assure the safety and well-being of Italian Catholics and to continue his authority over the many Bavarian Catholics in Germany.

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Although less involved in international affairs, the Vatican continued to be an indirect force in the internal politics of the United States.  In order to secure Protestant votes, John Kennedy had to swear independence from the Church in all matters of state risking the Vatican’s opprobrium.  The Church demanded allegiance from US Catholics in matters of faith and morals, and no politician was able to advocate abortion or contraception.

More recently the Vatican upped the ante and threatened to excommunicate any Catholic politician who did not follow the Church’s teachings on reproduction; and Catholic Democratic candidates like John Kerry had to walk a fine line between electoral politics and Church authority on faith and morals.

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All this, however, was within the recognized authority of the Church. Vigorous objection to both abortion and contraception have been long-standing doctrines of the Church and based on Biblical interpretation and Catholic tradition. The Popes were not overstepping their bounds when they weighed in on matters close to Church teaching. The Church lost credibility when it attempted to influence American elections.

Which brings us to the current Pope, Francis. He has been the most outspoken Pontiff in recent memory on international affairs which to not concern the Church.  He, for example, has spoken frequently about poverty, inequality, and materialism; and while there are certainly many appropriate references in the Bible on which to base his criticism, Francis has chosen to take sides.  His anti-capitalist position is clear and unequivocal.

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Christ was never categorically condemned wealth per se.  He only said that it was often more difficult for a rich man to attain salvation because the pursuit of material goods was a distraction from spiritual affairs.  He was not alone in his observations.  Both Hinduism and Buddhism express the same sentiment.  Christ was compassionate about the poor, and on many occasions urged generosity for them. Yet he was never political in suggesting that the rich were wrong in their accumulated wealth and had a spiritual obligation to share it.

Francis, however, has gone much farther than Christ ever intended.  There is an issue, he says, with accumulated, reserved wealth; and that America must deal with it.

However, people do not agree on how to address the problem.  Conservatives do not believe in redistributive measures, and they point to the fact that there is scant evidence that a decline in the wealth of the top income percentiles is correlated with an increase in the bottom.  Progressives believe that income inequality is a generically immoral phenomenon, and only government through its fiscal and economic powers can redress all wrong.  So, it is one thing for Francis to cite words about the risks of materialism and wealth to individual salvation; but another thing altogether to suggest collective state intervention.

A few days ago (5.13.15) the Vatican recognized the Palestinian State, a completely unexpected and untoward political action that far exceeded the Church’s traditional authority regarding belief and individual morality. As in the case of income inequality, resolving the situation in the Middle East is not at all simple.  Palestinians have not only repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel but for the annihilation of the Jews.  The Israelis and the Americans have fully backed Israel in its defiance of Hamas and radical Palestinian elements. Siding with Palestine and against Israel is a position untenable for many.  Recognizing the Palestinian State may be the panacea that progressives see, but the reasonableness of that option is not clear at all.

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The Pope has plenty to do within his sphere of influence. He could, for example, continue to raise the issue of abortion and present clearly, repeatedly, and forcibly the reasons why the Church feels that abortion is murder.  By so doing he can remind Catholics who have abandoned Church teaching why they were wrong to do so; and to advise those who are considering abortion to reflect on the implications of their decision.

Francis should also explain why artificial means of contraception are wrong.  He knows that most Catholics have rejected this Church teaching; and he knows that there is little that he can do. Nevertheless, the unspoken issue behind both abortion and contraception is expediency. Couples defer or reject childbearing for personal, practical, and temporal reasons, and thus lose sight of its more spiritual or existential nature. In other words, the lesson behind the prohibitions is as important as the prohibition itself.

In other words, there is more than enough the Pope and the Church can do for the modern world. The Pope represents the accumulated tradition of 2000 years of Christianity, and even for those who do not believe that he is either the Vicar of Christ or the direct descendant of Peter, he represents an important spiritual authority. Most of us need spiritual attention or guidance at some point in our lives, and churches are there to help.  It is an enormous responsibility for the Church, and Francis should take it more seriously than he seems to. There are plenty of politicians to take up the cause of the poor or the Palestinians.

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