Pearl Harbor, Pope Benedict & the Contested Catholic Discovery of Religious Liberty

Jesus bestowing the “Keys of the Kingdom” (aka, the control of the brand-new Catholic church to Peter, the first pope) in Matthew 16:17-19.

I missed a significant anniversary last month, on December 7.

No, not Pearl Harbor Day, December 7 1941, when a deadly Japanese surprise attack on American bases in Hawaii pulled the U. S. into World War II.

Nor was it December 7, 1973, my son’s birthday.

It goes back to 1965; I was then in Selma, Alabama, wrapping up a year in the civil rights movement; but nothing special happened there.

It was a continent away, in Rome, in an assembly I was paying no attention to, that a big event happened, namely:

The Catholic church discovered religious liberty.

And said “Yes” to it.

At least, provisionally.

This was announced in a paper at the Second Vatican Council (aka V2), which had been meeting for 4 years. It was finalized at the last minute, one day before V2 adjourned for good.

The declaration was not an attack, but did come as a surprise. Reporter John Cogley wrote in the New York Times on December 8, 1965, with barely suppressed astonishment, that:

the Fathers of the Council affirmed their agreement with the conviction that “the person in society is to be kept free from all manner of coercion in matters religious.”

The declaration was of historical significance. In centuries past it was common Roman Catholic teaching that “error has no rights” though it might be “tolerated” in the interests of maintaining civic peace. . . .

It was generally agreed by observers, Roman Catholics and others, that promulgation of the declaration will have more immediate effect on social and political life throughout the world, especially where Catholics make up the great majority, than any other Council decree.

[Well, “observers” may have “generally agreed” that the declaration was, in current parlance, a BFD; but Cogley’s New York editors yawned and buried his dispatch on page 23.]

The declaration was a 5800-word document, titled Dignitatis Humanae: Of the Dignity of the Human Person.

The full text is at the link above; here’s the nub of it:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.“

Not exactly Thomas Jefferson’s church-state separation wall; but close enough.

When this appeared, freedom of (& from) religion had been part of basic U. S. Constitutional law for 174 years.  Yet Dignitatis Humanae marked a drastic departure from long, stern Catholic teaching and action. It followed centuries of the church’s claim to a central role in the kingdoms and other domains of “Christendom,” as the definer and enforcer of the one “true” faith.

The V2 declaration even conceded, in very subdued, oblique terms, that in its triumphalist past, as the church

“has made its pilgrimage through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or was opposed to it.”

“Hardly in accord.” Indeed.

A church historian wrote somewhat more candidly about one such “vicissitude” that:

[t]he idea of Religious Freedom was condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in (an encyclical, i.e., official statement by the pope, titled) Mirari Vos (1832), Pope Bl. Pius IX in Quanta Cura (1864), Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei (1885) and Pope Pius XI in Quas Primas (1925).[NOTE: Not an exhaustive list].

Two of numerous popes who just said NO to any idea of religious freedom.

Since Catholicism was the one & only true church, all rightly-ordered governments should recognize and protect it as such. When the church did gain such preference, enforcement efforts included continuing educational propaganda, plus the dreaded Inquisition, censorship, banishment, prison, torture, pogroms, massacres and war.

This conviction, that in a “rightly-ordered” state, Catholicism would be the official and favored religion, was still the church stance well into the 1950s, even among many leading American Catholic thinkers, echoing the motto, “Error has no rights” (Latin: Error non habet ius).

Toleration of other faiths or unbelief might be prudent in some situations (such as the United States, where the Church operated freely, and lacked the power to abolish separation of church and state), but sole supremacy remained the ideal and the goal.

John Courtney Murray, who made the case.

Details of the debate about this at V2 are beyond our reach here. The key proposition was skillfully argued by an American Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray. It was that while indeed, “Error” (all non-Catholic religions) had no “rights” against Catholic truth — yet religious ideas are abstractions, and really, abstractions don’t actually “have rights.”

It’s People (real people) who have rights, human rights. And one of the  human rights people have is to follow their own convictions about religion — including those that were “in error” (i.e., not Catholic), both as individuals and groups.

That human right, Murray asserted successfully, deserved to be protected by civil society, and respected by the Church (unless it involved practices that society found intolerable; and most limits of toleration were set in the social order, aka via politics and courts.)

Murray’s proposal was like many which have marked historic changes in church policy: major doctrines (e.g., that Catholicism is the only true church) were restated and preserved, at least in name, while their application and enforcement were changed, sometimes radically.

Also like many such changes, the new practices authorized by V2 often met resistance, sometimes fierce, sustained, and ongoing.

So it has been with Dignitatis Humanae. For almost sixty years, the reactionary wings of the Catholic Church have rejected and obstructed it, as well as most other changes pronounced by V2. (They have had considerable success in places like Hungary and Poland.) For the past decade, the reactionaries have focused their fire on the moderate pope Francis. They treat him as a kind of proxy Anti-Christ, and this past week has been marked by barely-controlled paroxysms of their rage.

The spark was the death of his predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger, who resigned as pope Benedict XVI in 2013.  The rage seeped out between the lines of numerous tributes to the dead pontiff by prominent resistance pundits. They had adopted him as their champion.

Biographers of Benedict have noted that in 1965, the rising young theologian was regarded as a “progressive” voice at V2. (He favored Dignitatis Humanae, though since he was not yet a bishop, he couldn’t vote for it.) But evidently he moved right a few years later, after student uprisings swept across much of Europe and the USA, and the disruptions even spilled over into Ratzinger’s theology classes.

Afterward, Ratzinger/Benedict built his career as the church’s doctrinal enforcer; he long headed the Vatican group that succeeded the Inquisition. He gets credit for foregoing the use of the wheel and the torch; but protecting the institution and its authority were major priorities.

In the USA, only a few extreme Catholic reactionaries have continued to call for making Catholicism the state church. But the V2 resisters have pressed relentlessly to build toward Catholic cultural and political hegemony. Underwritten by the continuing largesse of Catholic billionaires and their dark money, they have marched under the banner of “religious liberty.”

Under this standard, they have been carving out increasing pieces of social policy, at both state and federal levels, into a separate, expanding “sacred” space where general public laws [e.g., baking wedding cakes for LGTQ people] do not apply. This thrust harks back to the era of “Christendom,” in which the Catholic church was largely above the secular law.

In the USA, abortion has long been the top-of-mind issue; but we won’t dwell on that in this post, because there are numerous others. Here are but three, from a longer list:

–gaining public funding for church schools and other religious agencies;

–rolling back abortion & LGBT rights; and

–the “liberty” to enforce their own rules of discipline, especially on clerical moral infractions.

It’s in regard to the third that the church has suffered its own “Pearl Harbor”: not a sudden surprise assault, but a continuing, spreading onslaught, namely the ever-unfolding exposure of what I call the 4P, the Pedophile Priest Protection Program.

For generations, the 4P operated inside the church and out of the limelight.But that changed in my generation’s lifetime: 4P scandals have cost the church billions, emptied many pews, and sullied the reigns not only of Ratzinger/Benedict, but also of his predecessor, “Saint” John Paul II, and the (comparatively) liberal Francis.

That’s because, in the first place, 4P was and is an inside job, reflecting multiple structural corruptions. And second, it’s a plague for which the targeted scapegoats (mainly liberal Catholics, especially LGBTs), are not the actual culprits, and hounding them doesn’t clean up the mess. (Hell, there are many liberals and LGBTs who are loyal Catholics, or at least want to  be.) Besides, the 4P was firmly entrenched long before the Sixties radicals, who so traumatized Ratzinger,  were born.

Sure, individual exposure and accountability for abuse are necessary, and most of the important work of exposure has come from outside, and must continue. Yet the roots of the 4P are systemic; and while I like Francis, I don’t yet see him as equal to the magnitude of the institutional task. Maybe nobody is.

Certainly Benedict wasn’t. Nor John Paul: he was tougher than Communism, sure, but barely laid a glove on the 4P.  Nor are the American Catholic reactionaries, though it looks as though they’re trying to give more & more of it back to the “tender mercies” of the church which loosed it on so many children.

The V2 resisters’ biggest tool is a captive Supreme Court, being deployed as a battering ram to knock holes in Jefferson’s wall and yield more and more “Liberty”/hegemony to those for whom the 4P has long been an inherited way of life. (And of course the beneficiaries are not all Catholics; looking at you, Southern Baptists/megachurch evangelicals, et al . . . . For more posts on the capture of the Supreme Court, click here.)

What would a real 4P removal program amount to? I’m not sure, but my sense is that it would look and read rather more like the monumental January 6 Committee report than the compact and euphemized 25 pages of Dignitatis Humanae, important as they were in their time.

Maybe the Vatican could release it on December 7.

As the struggles against 4P and reactionary Catholic hegemony continue, I’ll leave the closing words here to those speaking as and for the 4P’s victims, though their name projects a different, more optimistic term:

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a group which has advocated on clergy abuse issues since 1989.

Statement by SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests):

In our view, the death of Pope Benedict XVI is a reminder that, much like John Paul II, Benedict was more concerned about the church’s deteriorating image and financial flow to the hierarchy versus grasping the concept of true apologies followed by true amends to victims of abuse. The rot of clergy sexual abuse of children and adults, even their own professed religious, runs throughout the Catholic church, to every country, and we now have incontrovertible evidence, all the way to the top.

Any celebration that marks the life of abuse enablers like Benedict must end. It is past time for the Vatican to refocus on change: tell the truth about known abusive clergy, protect children and adults, and allow justice to those who have been hurt. Honoring Pope Benedict XVI now is not only wrong. It is shameful.

It is almost a year after a report into decades of abuse allegations by a law firm in Germany has shown that Pope Benedict XVI did not take action against abusive priests in four child abuse cases while he was Archbishop (Josef Ratzinger). In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church’s darkest secrets to his grave with him.

The past few days of ‘death watch’ have been filled with prayerful wishes and special masses to remember the emeritus pontiff. We heard no mention of empathy or sympathy for victim-survivors of sexual abuse during these special intentions. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Benedict’s legacy as pope was already tainted by the global deluge of the sex abuse scandal in 2010, even though as a cardinal, he was responsible for changing the Vatican’s stance on the issue. To us, Benedict XVI, the church’s successor to St. Peter, fell off the rock and was implicated in the most notorious scandal in the history of the church. Maybe a lesson learned from this is obvious – if someone is alleged to have abused children or adults, turn them over to secular authorities instead of protecting the church’s image.

One thought on “Pearl Harbor, Pope Benedict & the Contested Catholic Discovery of Religious Liberty”

  1. Also cf: Book review in Jan-Feb Atlantic magazine, “The Reinvention of the Catholic Church”, on “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis.” Bishops joining with the Federalists to get 5 of the 6 super-majority SCOTUS Justices appointed who are right wing Catholics, so that the Church hierarchy’s assault on modernity and individual rights and freedom can proceed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.