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Papal Authoritarianism and American Democracy

This column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

In one of the seminal moments of the 1960 Presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy sought to assure the American people that he would not take orders from a Pope. In a famous address to Southern Baptist leaders, Kennedy affirmed:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote - where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference - and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish - where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source - where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials - and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

John Kennedy would be greatly distressed by recent events. The 2004 Presidential Election was one in which not only American Fundamentalist and Evangelical ministers sought to portray President Bush as God's candidate, but also one in which at least four Catholic bishops sought to influence the outcome of the political process by announcing that they would refuse Communion to John Kerry. I suspect that this latter development would also have greatly alarmed the Founders and Framers.

As Adam Nagourney describes in an April 4, 2005 story for The New York Times, New Pope Could Influence Political Life in America, the Catholic Church has a history of becoming involved in American politics. This history goes back as far as the 1930s, and the church's support of anti-poverty measures like Social Security. Hence, Catholic involvement in American politics is not a recent innovation.

When its hierarchy reflects a cross-section of American opinion, and its activism is restricted to gently advocating for programs and policies that enjoy broad support, perhaps an attempt to influence parishioners would not represent undue interference in the political life of a free people. However, this was not the case during John Paul II's papacy.

As Hans Küng, a Catholic Priest, Vatican II participant, and eminent Swiss theologian, described in a March 26 critique of the Pope's tenure for Der Speigel, entitled The Pope's Contradictions, the Vatican hierarchy that John Paul II erected hardly represented a cross-section of Catholic thought:

"The criteria for the appointment of a bishop is not the spirit of the gospel or pastoral open-mindedness, but rather to be absolutely loyal to the party line in Rome. Before their appointment, their fundamental conformity is tested based on a curial catalog of questions and they are sacrally sealed through a personal and unlimited pledge of obedience to the Pope that is tantamount to an oath to the 'Fuehrer'."

It is only fair to note that, while still a Catholic Priest, Küng was barred in 1979 from describing himself as a "Catholic" theologian by this Pope. Kung drew the ire of church authorities when he chose to challenge the peculiar Vatican claim of Papal infallibility in matters of faith. So, Küng can be seen as both a man with an ax to grind but also quite representative of the kind of progressive theologian that John Paul II deliberately purged from the hierarchy of his church.

Küng has much more to say in this article about the late Pope's willingness to impose his theological views on the political life of nations.

"In the papal campaign of evangelization, which centers on a sexual morality that is out of step with the times, women, in particular, who do not share the Vatican's position on controversial issues like birth control, abortion, divorce and artificial insemination are disparaged as promoters of a "culture of death". As a result of its interventions - in Germany, for example, where it sought to influence politicians and the episcopacy in the dispute surrounding the issue of abortion counseling - the Roman Curia creates the impression that it has little respect for the legal separation of church and state. Indeed, the Vatican (using the European People's Party as its mouthpiece) is also trying to exert pressure on the European Parliament by calling for the appointment of experts, in issues relating to abortion legislation, for example, who are especially loyal to Rome. Instead of entering the social mainstream everywhere by supporting reasonable solutions, the Roman Curia, through its proclamations and secret agitation (through nuntiatures, bishops' conferences and "friends"), is in fact fueling the polarization between the pro-life and pro-choice movements, between moralists and libertines."

I would also point that this same intensely political Pope issued an edict requiring that Father Robert F. Drinan, a five time United States Congressman and liberal Democrat, not run for re-election - claiming that service in the clergy was inconsistent with politics. In light of John Paul's constant agitation on behalf of political issues that interested him, I believe that reasonable men and women not blinded by notions of Papal infallibility would find this edict hypocritical in the extreme.

The America that John Kennedy advocated for in his race for the White House represented an ideological ideal. The speech was a bold stroke, and might have swayed enough wary voters to help him capture the Presidency. But American ministers and priests have been involved in the political process since the beginning of the republic.

As much as I vehemently disagree with Pat Robertson's or Jerry Falwell's theological and political views, I can see no fundamental problem with their involvement in American politics. For every ten Robertsons and Falwells, I wish we had but one Martin Luther King. And all three of these men rose to influential positions in their respective communities through an organically American process. But is this also true of the American Bishops and Cardinals of John Paul II's Catholic Church? I think not, and there lies the problem.

According to Küng and other progressive Catholic thinkers, by emphasizing ideological parameters above all others in the selection of bishops, cardinals, and other high Church officials, John Paul II was able to pack the Catholic executive in much the same way that George W. Bush would like to pack the Supreme Court. No diversity of opinion, or freedom of conscience, is permitted - even for former Vatican II participants who well remember Pope John XXIII, and the reforms and spirit that he sought to bring to his church. Based on the history of his Papacy, one could argue that while Karol Wojtyla physically left Soviet-dominated Poland, its authoritarian mindset accompanied him to Rome.

I'm forced to conclude that John Paul II's appointees here in America - and especially those Bishops who tried to influence a Presidential Election - must be regarded as ideological agents of a foreign national who deliberately sought to impose his parochial views on the citizens of a nation born in revolution, and nurtured by freedom of conscience and intellectual liberty.

John Paul's colossal disconnect with American sensibilities and ideals may also help explain, to respond to a question that Bill O'Reilly was asking his audience about the other day, why only approximately twenty-five percent of Catholics in the country even bother to attend Mass. Americans love celebrities as much as any people, and John Paul II was a rock star among religious leaders. But the proof of his real impact as a theologian, or lack of an impact, may lie in the empty pews - both here and in Western Europe.

As someone who left the Catholic Church during John Paul II's tenure for reasons of conscience, I no longer expect a say in official Church business. But as an American I retain my right to object to the meddling of any foreign national - be it the head of the U.N., the WTO, or the next Pope - in this nation's political process. I pray that progressive American Catholics share my concern, and are prepared to loudly insist that the Vatican and its ideological appointees either keep to the center or get out of the way.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 10, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.