Archive for the ‘Religion and Politics’ Category

According to The Washington Post, the leaked personal correspondence of the Pope, Joe Ratzinger, shows a “fractured Vatican,” filled with “tales of betrayal and rivalries, allegations of corruption and systemic dysfunction.” For example, the Pope’s appointment of Carlo Vigano as ambassador to the United States was a banishment of sorts perpetrated by forces in the Vatican hostile to reform. The Pope had intended that Vigano enact a series of reforms within the Vatican, but “some of Rome’s highest-ranking cardinals undercut the efforts and hastened Vigano’s exile to the United States,” according to the Post. Even the Pope’s own desire to reform the Vatican bank was undercut by “a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency.” In a way, it was Ratzinger’s own insistence that his traditionalist/conservative ideology willow down the Church to the true flock that undercut his own reforms.

In 2006, the Pope had appointed Tarcisio Bertone as Secretary of State, the second most powerful position in the Vatican. It was no accident that Bertone had been the Pope’s “longtime doctrinal sidekick”—in other words, a partisan traditionalist ideologically. That Bertone had had no international experience was apparently not as much of a factor. That he used his position over the Vatican bank to eviscerate the Pope’s financial reforms oriented to transparency while keeping power for himself was apparently something in which the Pope himself had been kept in the dark. Put another way, being a fellow anti-Vatican II traditionalist was in Ratzinger’s mind all that counted for high-level appointees.

Vigano accused Bertone of obstructing the Pope’s reforms oriented to cleaning up “so many situations of corruption and abuse of power . . . rooted in the management of so many departments.” For example, the same firms habitually won contracts at almost double the cost charged outside the Vatican. As a result, the Pope’s very own butler felt compelled to take action. “Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church, I finally reached a point of degeneration, a point of no return, and could no longer control myself,” Gabriele explained to Vatican investigators. A shock, “perhaps through the media,” Gabriele continued, could “bring the church back on the right track.” Might the butler have been suffering from a bit of naivity, however? 

If the corruption and infighting, qualities that ought to have disqualified the Vatican from leading any Christian group, have been systemic in the Vatican, any “shock” would probably merely result in a defensive circling of the wagons by the insiders. Moreover, the shock was oriented to a symptom, rather than what undergirds the corruption. In particular, the ideological fixity or “litmus test” of the traditionalists could alternatively have been the target of the butler’s “shock and awe” campaign. Put another way, the dearth of “checks and balances” could be rooted not in the Secretary of State’s amassing of power, but, rather, in the hegemony of ideological identity. That is to say, the hypocrisy goes deeper than merely fighting in the name of the one who came to turn the other cheek and love his enemies. The underlying culprit is that of the selfish and intolerant insistence that one’s own ideological preference be the exclusive door through which everyone must pass.


For the article in The Washington Post, please see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/pope-benedict-xvis-leaked-documents-show-fractured-vatican-full-of-rivalries/2013/02/16/23ce0280-76c2-11e2-8f84-3e4b513b1a13_story.html   Jason Horowitz, “Pope Benedict XVI’s Leaked Documents Show Fractured Vatican Full of Rivalries,” February 17, 2013.

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How far can clergy reasonably go in the name of religion? More to the point, are there any limits to what counts as religious? In the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, religious leaders “vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby.” According to the New York Times, the leaders had come to the conclusion that the time had come for “action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy office—the General Board of Church and Society—sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders. “I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action. And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.” I contend that Winkler missed an opportunity for a more intense or riveting spiritual response than merely praying or being sad (as though this were a religious response) as he moved off religion itself into the realm of political activism. It is possible that the clergy in general undercut their own religious credibility in becoming advocates for gun legislation.

To take sides on a political issue is to be partisan in nature. Even if many people in one’s congregation happen to take the same position, those who take the opposite stance would at the very least feel a slight discomfort in listening to a speech under the subterfuge of a sermon. The New York Times reported at the time that advocating limits on guns was controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals were opposed. A CBS News poll taken during the week following the massacre found that while 69 percent of Catholics wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed. Even in a Catholic homily, promoting gun control could distance or even offend nearly 30 percent of a congregation. The advocacy could be viewed as a manifestation of the priest’s own politics taking advantage of the pulpit.

Therefore, a cleric’s decision to weigh in on a political issue could potentially divide or even rupture a house of worship. At what cost to the worship? Indeed, partisanship itself may be inherently inconsistent with worship. Whereas the latter is transcendent in nature or orientation, political issues are “this worldly” and thus eclipse transcendence. Jim Winkler not only risked introducing division into Methodist churches; he also missed the opportunity for transcendence beyond that which comes with prayer. In other words, he was going off a false dichotomy.

Admittedly, there was something unifying, and thus holistic, in the gathering of clergy from the three Abrahamic religions (and various sects thereof) at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. exactly one week after the shooting. It might be tempting to conflate this unity with that which is presumed through faith to go along with transcendence (e.g., an attribute of God or of the experience itself). There is something “other worldly” about the church bells including on toll for the 20 year-old gunman who committed suicide after having killed 20 children and 8 adults at the school. That is to say, including him changes the perspective to one that is more holistic, even transcendent, because he is grouped in with the victims. Experiencing the toll for the shooter can be transcendent because the symbolic act goes beyond “the ways of this world” in treating humanity itself as a part rather than the whole. The unity of various religions taking part would have enhanced the significance of the transcendence were it, rather than gun control or even sadness for the victims, emphasized by the clergy. Had they been oriented to changing the perspective to one that is more transcendent, they would have remained within the religious domain.  In fact, they would have been promoting it! Using the occasion to lobby or organize for gun-control legislation, on the other hand, shifted attention away from the more transcendent perspective onto one that is divisive or at least all too familiar in terms of partisan divisions.

Generally speaking, a religious perspective that is transcendent via symbol, myth or ritual can situate a horrible situation that seems total. Including the two “sides” of a conflict in a way that erases sides altogether by adding a transcendent dimension—which relativizes the conflict itself—can demonstrate the utility of transcendent experience itself, and thus religion. The point is not forgiveness. That new moral implications can ensue is also not the point. Nor does it mean that religion is morality (or even is bound to moral principles). Drawing a moral lesson from a tragedy is not in itself religious. Worse still, taking a side and promoting it—which from a religious angle could be categorized under self-idolatry—treats the conflict or issue itself as the background or basis rather than as relative or partial. Perhaps in wanting to cover more ground, the clergy oriented to gun-control legislation may actually wind up with less from the standpoint of their own native fauna. In wanting more, maybe we betray ourselves and, in so doing, can actually wind up with less.

For more, please see Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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Just because one’s cause is just does not mean it should be one’s cause. Russian Patriarch Kirill said in early January, 2012 that it would be a “very bad sign” if Russia’s political officials failed to heed the recent protests over whether the elections in 2011 had been subject to significant fraud. Given Kirill’s religious station, one could be forgiven for assuming that the “very bad sign” refers to something from God, such as a flood or other “natural” catastrophe. Actually, Kirill meant “a sign of the authorities’ inability to adjust.” He went on to assert that every person “in a free society must have the right to express his opinion, including disagreement with the actions of the authorities.” He urged change rather than revolution, pointing to the loss of life following the 1917 revolution. Had the demonstrations before that upheaval ended in “the expression of peaceful protests and had not led to a bloody revolution and a fratricidal war,” Russia “would have challenged or maybe even surpassed the United States from the point of view of economic development.” On the same day, Archbishop Vsevolod Chaplin said that the political officials could be “slowly eaten alive” were they to ignore the protesters.

Using words like “eaten alive” does not sound like very religious language. Indeed, the statements are in the realm of political theory (democracy) and perhaps economic development. Educationally speaking, the study of theology (even philosophy of religion) does not constitute or sufficiently involve political or democratic theory, let alone economic development. Of the latter, liberation theology has something to say, but even that theology does not claim to know how GNP can be maximized. Kirill’s statement that Russia without the revolution of 1917 would have a population and economy on par with the United States can only be taken as the opinion of a “lay person” from the standpoint of experts in political theory and political economy. Putting it another way, having studied theology or simply being a religious leader does not entitle someone to assume expertise in political or economic matter. Even if Kirill has an advanced degree in political theory or economic development, making his statements in his capacity as a religious leader represents a category mistake.

Besides the possibility of bad advice being given (and relied on!) by a non-expert who on account of his own base of knowledge in another field is wrongly assumed to be an expert, there is the opportunity cost of other uses of the cleric’s time lost on account of the foray into the other field. In other words, there were presumably other things he could have been doing—activities in the religious realm like praying, hearing confessions, or even administering his religious organization. More abstractly, Kirill’s decision, admittedly well-intended given his political opinions, illustrates the tendency of the religious domain to be extended beyond its native turf. To claim that God is omnipresent is not to say that every field is included in theology—or that the latter has a claim of expertise in any other field. We would not want a lawyer branching out to see a few patients just because the waiting rooms at medical clinics are crowded. So too, I contend, we ought not assume that clerics have political or economic expertise.

Indeed, we might even benefit from religious leaders doing more in their own back yards, such as maintaining their organizations and modeling religiosity. Pope John Paul II was admittedly involved in fighting the USSR’s dominance in Poland, but he tended to stress modeling religiosity as he developed in office (the fall of the USSR no doubt was a factor). Talking about officials getting “eaten alive” or engaging in comparative economics not only does not count as religiosity; such engagement comes at the expense of the sort of religious experience that can engender a distinctive way of being. The compassion from it is different than that which led Kirill to wander off into Russian politics. Whereas compassion based on religious experience stems from heightened sensitivity towards existing itself (there being a transcendent dimension to the experience), political compassion comes out of, or presupposes, conflict.

In short, it is paradoxical that presuming to have influence beyond one’s native ken can actually mean that one has less influence overall because one has shirked the basis of one’s expertise by engaging in “lay opinions” extrinsic to that base. To constrain oneself to one’s own area can actually maximize one’s influence because that is where one’s true credibility lies. Religion is delimited, as is any domain or field. No one field has a “get in free” card to all of the others. In each field, distinctive study and practice are requisite to being proficient. I cannot very well say that by virtue of my studies a certain field, I am therefore able to be taken as an expert in another. Particularly among people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus (e.g., agape), one would not expect that sort of arrogance. Implicitly, the foray itself undercuts the cleric’s own basis of authority.


Sophia Kishkovsky, “Head of Russian Church Urges Action on Vote Fraud Allegation,” The New York Times, January 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/world/europe/patriarch-kirill-urges-russian-leaders-to-listen-to-protests.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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The New York Times reported on October 10, 2011 that a “demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests [in Cairo] against the military council.” Twenty-four people were dead and more than 200 were wounded. Witnesses said that several protesters were crushed under military vehicles and about twenty people underwent surgery for bullet wounds. Lest the protest be viewed as purely sectarian or even religious in nature, it is important to note that when “the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christains against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.” In fact, some people in the protest chanted, “Muslim[s] and Christians are one hand.” One protester said to a reporter, “This is not the issue of Muslim and Christian, this is the issue of the freedom that we demanded and can’t find.” To be sure, the police made use of Muslim civilians in favor of an Islamic state and armed with clubs and stones, but the conflict itself was not religious. According to the New York Times, he military council ruling Egypt “has become a subject of public ire for its failure to establish stability and for its repeated deferrals of its pledged exit from power.” Indeed, under the council’s plan at the time of the protest, the military could function “as an all-powerful chief executive for another two years or more.” The Egyptian media was openly discussing whether the military would ever follow through on its commitments to democracy.

Nasser Nasser/AP

 Even as they were out protesting the state rather than leaving what is Ceasar’s to Ceasar, the Christians “said that they scuffled at least three times with Muslims who did not want them to pass.” But the violence did not escalate until the protesters reached the radio and television headquarters in the evening, when the demonstrators and security forces “began throwing rocks at each other.” The media reported that “at least three security officers had died in the attacks by Christian protesters.” For their part, the Christian protesters “insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.” In retaliation, the security forces began driving their trucks into the protesters, crushing at least four. A Coptic priest, Rev. Ephraim Magdy, said, “It is up to the military to explain what happened, but I see it as persecution. I felt that they were monsters.”

I read the entire paragraph immediately above as pointing to the hypocrisy of the so-called Christians who took part in the protest. The same sort of convenient, partisan rationalizing as we read from Rev. Magdy had no doubt been used to justify the four Crusades. It is interesting how the other guy is a monster even though Magdy admits to having thrown stones too. Who was it who said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind, and love those who persecute you? It does not seem likely that the Copic Christians who were marching were being persecuted, so the line, love your enemy, is perhaps more apt.

Both in pulling the persecution card and in partaking in a violent tit for tat, Rev. Magdy comes off as a hypocrite rather than as a disciple of Jesus. It is sad that the priest had devoted so much of his life to something only to miss the point when it really counted. Indeed, he may have missed his calling to enter some military rather than the Church. I can imagine Jesus rebuking him, Get behind me Satan! This is what Jesus says to Peter in the Gospels when the disciple tries to prevent Jesus from suffering unjustly in Jerusalem. That the rock or foundation of Jesus’ movement is so quickly renounced as though Satan may give Christians some pause in assuming that institutional Christianity is (and has been) necessarily in line with its founder. In keeping with the Biblical theme in Mark wherein the insiders are really outsiders because they just don’t “get it,” some outsiders (e.g., strangers) do “get it” even if they are relegated as anonymous Christians at best by the proud.

In terms of protests, I would point to Gandhi rather than Magdy as evincing Jesus’ message and example. I would also point to the Muslims who had the courage to walk with their Christian brothers and sisters in Cairo. I am reminded of Gandhi telling a Hindu man whose son had been killed by a Muslim that if he really wanted to get into heaven after what he had done in the riots, he should go and adopt a child—only make sure that child is a Muslim. Gandhi understood Jesus’ dictum, Love your enemies. It is a pity that so many churlish church-goers do not. Magdy and his fellow “Christian” protesters certainly did not. They were not following Jesus, either in terms of his example or his teachings on how to enter the Kingdom of God. The Coptic marchers should never have picked up the stones, even after being hit. In fact, they should have unilaterally volunteered to become body shields for the Muslims who had joined them! That is what it means to be a Christian—it is not about metaphysics, science, history, politics, or even morality.

Jesus himself says in the faith narratives that he was sent to preach the mysteries of the Kingdom of God within, which can be realized here and now and whose spirit of humility is especially felt in taking a stand in being compassionate when it is least convenient. This is a rather specific strength that is still not typically valued in the world, and is even less often manifested in behavior. Yet valuing and instantiating that particular strength within is what ultimately defines the disciple of that particular movement that could perhaps best be described as mystical and paradoxical in nature. It is a pity it has been so misunderstood, particularly by those who act as though they cannot be wrong simply because lead it. They are like the proverbial wedding guest who shows up to the wedding feast without bothering to wear wedding attire and yet sits himself at the head table.

Generally speaking, it is perhaps all too easy for us to go with appearances and asseverations tied in with the status quo instead of stepping back and permitting some perspective to challenge convenient claims made by vested interests that may be other than what they seem.


David Kirkpatrick, “Rage at Military in Egypt Fuels Deadly Protest,” New York Times, October 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/10/world/middleeast/deadly-protests-over-church-attack-in-cairo.html

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Richard Riordan, who was mayor of Los Angeles, California from 1993 to 2001, wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial in line with his role as the founding president of the city’s Catholic Education Foundation. While his advocacy for more funds to enable children from poor families to attend Catholic schools is salutary, given the poor condition of the city’s public schools, the former mayor ignores a potential downside to education provided by the Catholic Church.

Generally speaking, religion and education are two qualitatively different, although not disparate, domains. A sermon or homily, for example, is not instruction even if some teaching happens to go along with the preaching. Teaching is not preaching. Nor is education a type of religious ritual. Although religious institutions may offer religious education classes to their faithful, such classes are distinct from the institutions’ worship activities, or ritual. In other words, education has its own rituals, as does religion. Therefore, it can legitimately be asked whether a religious institution should be in the business of running schools.

I contend that the religious domain has a tendency, whether due to human caprice or innate to the phenomenon itself, to encroach on other domains—essentially dominating them illegitimately in what can be seen as a form of passive aggression. If so, having a religious institution take on schools is just asking for trouble. By analogy, it is perhaps like allowing the U.S. Government, which has evinced a tendency over decades to encroach on domains reserved to the state governments, to run some of those governments. Allowing the federal government to get its hands on the machinery could be expected to result in still more encroachment.

Richard Riordan states that Catholic schools “infuse beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives.” The standard objection made by non-Catholic parents of students attending Catholic schools is that Catholicism itself will be infused—meaning Catholic theology such as transsubstantiation (i.e., the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist) and the four Marian miracles (e.g., the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary being conceived without original sin). To be sure, non-Catholic students may be exposed to such theological doctrines, but I suspect in a way in which they are not pushed on the students. The “pushing,” if there is apt to be any, is more likely, ironically, in domains in which religion tends to encroach.

Once while visiting my insipid hometown (where a pathological fear of change is ubiquitous), I spoke with a “pro-life” advocate who was attending a Catholic parish that had been taken over by what I would call a right-wing cult. For example, a priest at her parish more than once petitioned during Mass for God to have a “pro-life” (i.e., Republican) elected as U.S. President at the next election cycle. That any Democrats or even Independents might have been in attendance was doubtless of little concern to him. Such inconsiderateness can be taken as a red flag, particularly when ostensibly in a “religious” context. The unexpected brashness may even bespeak self-idolatry facilitated by ideology.

The parishioner-advocate with whom I spoke was obsessed with abortion, as if that moral-political issue were the core of her religious faith. She would not countenance any distinction between the morning-after pill (which kills cells) and a partial-birth abortion. Physically, a distinction can be made between a static clump of some cells and an organized fetus that reacts physiologically to stimuli. Ethically, a distinction can be made between killing a few cells that do not react in pain and a developed fetus that does. To overlay the theological concept of soul on the physical and ethical distinctions involves a category mistake. I suspect the root problem undergirding the assumed application (and its decisiveness) involves not understanding the distinctly theological concept in distinctly theological terms. The concept (and the “object” to which the idea refers) is simply assumed to carry over to physio-ethical matters. I should have asked the woman, “What, then, is a soul?” Do any of us really understand what a soul is?

I could sense from the woman that neither her theological ignorance nor my doctorate in ethics had any standing, so I did not pursue either avenue. That she was for capital punishment in some cases even as she was avowedly “pro-life” on human cells and fetuses made no matter to her single-minded pursuit. She could not be wrong, and consistency was extrinsic to her purpose. Within her tunnel vision, all that counted was outlawing abortion. This was religious reductionism with a few category mistakes tossed in for good measure (as religion is neither ethics nor politics).

After the woman bragged that she is a single-issue person (which is not a compliment, in my view), I decided to test it by bringing up the ethical issue of contraceptives being used in Africa to stop the spread of AIDS. At the time, the Catholic Church permitted it, but she would have none of that. “A misunderstanding of what the Pope said,” she dogmatically insisted. Suffice it to say that the woman felt that those African men who do not refrain from extra-marital sex deserve to die of the disease. I was stunned. Ideology apparently trumps compassion even under the auspices of Christianity. There was the parish’s right-wing cult, standing directly in front of me!

I should explain that I refer to her parish as having been taken over by an ideological (extremist) cult in part because its bias eclipses even fidelity to Church positions where they deviate from the cult’s ideology. For example, the woman blew right past the Church’s opposition to capital punishment and relaxation on condoms being used in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS because these positions were not in line with her ideology. Even though she used the Church to enforce the hegemony of her positions where there was a match, she could just as easily ignore (or re-interpret) the Church’s positions when they deviated from her opinions. In other words, the Church was not really her default or basis. What might seem to a bystander as dogmatic or arbitrary deviations would appear to her as necessary from the perspective of her instinct for ideological purity—a line connecting her various right-wing opinions ultimately to her basis in self-idolatry. The reactionary cult that had captured her parish (which had been in favor of Vatican II in the 1970s and 1980s) was thus not isomorphic with the Catholic Church, even if the tone and political ideology were shared by the city’s bloated bishop.

Turning to the topic of homosexuality, I told the woman that a former girlfriend and I used to babysit the two infants of a lesbian couple (friends of my girlfriend at the time). I had enjoyed the babies and the couple seemed well-adjusted and good at parenting. Nevertheless, the ideologue would have none of that. “Those two women are not normal!,” the woman blurted out in spite of never having even met them. “Those babies will not grow up normal because they don’t have a mom and a dad.” Again, I was stunned; lots of people turn out bad even though they were raised by a mother and father. “When did you change to accept that?” the petulant woman demanded. “You had a mother and a father—when did you change?” I was not aware that I had changed my ideological position. It was odd that the oracle would simply presume it.

I then raised the related topic of the compromised (or discredited) credibility of her bishop interlarding himself in local politics to get foster kids yanked out of homes containing a gay person even as the “right-wing cult” parish had housed a pedophile priest just a few years before (hardly surprising, given the clerical arrogance associated with the reactionary position against Vatican II). True to form, she ignored the question of her bishop’s having any credible basis to impose himself locally on the matter of sexual ethics and children. She even went on the offensive, aggressively declaring without any hint of tolerating a rebuttal, “The bishop should pull those kids out. They need a normal upbringing!” I attempted to disagree, but she would not hear of it—so certain she was that she could not be wrong.

It occurred to me that the “devout” woman had absolutely no respect for me or my views. I was particularly concerned when she went on to use religion as a club of sorts to enforce her ideological stands and prevent any other view from seeing the light of day. “Homosexuality is against God’s law,” she insisted as though modern society were rightfully subject to ancient Hebrew norms in Deuteronomy. Never mind that we have nothing on Jesus commenting on the topic. What would he say of priests who take advantage of “the least of mine”? Ought not her bishop have been concentrating on this in his churches rather than venturing into foster homes? The ideologue simply ignored the possibility that I had a point. She presumed that her ideological opinion had taken the entire picture into account, and could thus not be wrong.

 As if the woman had not been sufficiently supercilious concerning people she had never met, the presumptuous woman said in an air of arrogant dismissiveness mixed with fake compassion that she would pray for me. “Oh,” she said hastily as though she were worried because I faced some impending danger, “I’m going to have to REALLY PRAY for you! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” There was no need for dialogue. No exchange of views. Mine was simply relegated and deemed invalid by an authority who selectively appropriated from Catholicism to back up her partisan ideology as if it were truth itself. Religious Republicanism was indeed a drug all too comfortable to her, and she was accustomed to going out from her base to impose her political stands on other people as though she were omniscient (i.e., all-knowing). This is the real danger that comes with the Catholic Church running schools: political-ideological indoctrination under the guise of “morality” and ultimately God. The operative axis here is not Protestant-Catholic; it is Democratic-Republican. The subtext is a category mistake enabled by an encroaching tendency and habit. Not exactly a religious habit, I might add.

Religion has come to be used all too often as a club by which people insist that their moral and political ideological (and thus partisan) positions are right and must be accepted under pain of going against God’s law. Given this practice, religious institutions (not just Catholic!) should not be in the business of running schools. I suspect that Catholic school teachers are not even aware of what they are doing when they are imposing their political agenda. They would undoubtedly not think twice about “reminding” students “off-handedly” that abortion is wrong and should be illegal because it is murder—period! Such an encroachment is simply too tempting and already too common for the Catholic Church to be in the business of education.

To be sure, a Unitarian-run school would face the same temptation—in that case pressuring students to accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion). A student objecting to either one would likely get a scowl and even perhaps be told that he or she is prejudiced and narrow-minded—even oppressive! In actuality, the teacher’s ideologically-based overreaching would constitute the oppression. Furthermore, the teacher’s attitude would surely impact how the contrarian student is taught. The student’s learning and self-esteem would likely suffer as a result, but this would be of little concern to the “teacher.

Unitarian ministers are told that they can believe virtually anything they want, but that they must agree to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies. Even though this ideological litmus test is extrinsic to Unitarian Universalist theology, the imposition is deemed legitimate nonetheless, rather than a dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) ideological encroachment that can and should be stigmatized as impious and ultimately grounded in self-idolatry and bloated selfishness. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church has similar ideological/political litmus tests for its potential clergy.

In my view, the passive aggression latent in self-idolatry can manifest whether from a right-wing or left-wing cult operating under the auspices of religion. In both cases, it is ironic that the native fauna of religion—religious experience and the associated sensitivity and compassion—suffer as a result of the encroachments that have become so commonplace they are taken as religion. Religion itself and its institutions would be the primary beneficiaries were the encroachments severed. But the “religious” are too greedy—wanting more. As a result, they get less even though they think they are extending their reach.

Even suggesting that religion ought to be delimited to its native fauna is apt to be rejected out of hand by those inured to the mentality and practice of encroachment. Scarcely any respect or toleration is apt to be given to anyone who attempts to prune the vines back to within the Church’s property lines. The gardener rather than the interloper is apt to be labeled the offender. This is akin to ignorance presuming that it can’t be wrong and fortifying itself by whatever authority it can aggressively muster. The hypocrisy concerning claims of humility and compassion amid the passive aggression, and the related denial on the encroachments onto ethics and politics make the tacit assumption of infallibility—especially on partisan issues!—look utterly absurd and even comical.

It is the utter rigidity and assumed infallibility of the ideological positions that makes the problem so insufferable and intransigent. That’s right, I can’t be wrong. It’s God’s law.  End of discussion. No if’s, and’s, or buts. The oracle has spoken, and it turns out that God is a Republican (or Democrat). How, one might ask, can such a mentality be conducive to, or compatible with education anywhere outside a theocracy?


Richard Riordan, “Saving Catholic Education,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204138204576600660103642184.html


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In October 2011, the Vatican proposed an overhaul of the world’s financial systems with the establishment of an international authority to oversee the global economy. In making this proposal, the Holy See was seeking to bring more democratic and ethical principles into play on economic and financial matters. If the proposal is not specifically religious in nature, it can legitimately be asked whether the ecclesiastical authors were credentialed sufficiently in the domains covered by their proposal. Furthermore, the matter of any opportunity costs from the encroachment can be raised.

The New York Times reports that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace “argued that ‘politics — which is responsible for the common good’ must be given primacy over the economy and finance, and that existing institutions like the International Monetary Fund had not been responding adequately to global economic problems.” It is notable that religion does not even come into play here. Rather, it was “the Roman Catholic Church’s concerns about economic instability and widening inequality of income and wealth around the world” that fueled the proposal.

“The time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence, now that vital goods shared by the entire human family are at stake, goods which the individual states cannot promote and protect by themselves,” Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the president of the pontifical council, said as he presented the report. “That is what pushed us.” What is perhaps most striking from a religious standpoint is the potential collision between the proposal and the view held by some Christians that a one-world government is the vehicle used by the anti-christ to gain earthly power. Such a theological discussion would fit with the cardinal’s religious credentials. Such credentials do not convey any particular expertise in international relations, political theory, economics, finance or even ethics. To see that religion is not, or does not reduce to ethics, one need only consider the distinctly unethical divine decrees in the Torah. Besides the killing of women and children simply because they did not convert to Yahweh, Job does not deserve the harm inficted on him by the devil, which God allows.

To be sure, links to the theological or religious domain can be made. For example, the Vatican’s report states: “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest.” Rather than proposing an earthly international organization, the proposal could have preached on the nature of the Kingdom of God, which turns the world on its head. In other words, what we presume to be power may not evince strength in a distinctly Christian sense. Furthermore, the proposal could have picked up on its reference to the weakest to cite Jesus’ saying, to wit, What you do to the least of mine, you do to me. Also, the theme in Mark wherein the outsiders—the strangers—“get it” while the disciples do not understand could also be mentioned. Indeed, most of the first can be last, while the last are first—those who are presumed to be weak by the world’s standards. The Vatican officials would have been on terra firma had they pursued this route rather than ventured off into the governance of international political economy.

Bishop Mario Toso, secretary to the pontifical council, claimed that the proposal is “in line with the Magisterium of the church.” Interestingly, he pointed to reasonableness rather than to a distinctly religious criterion. It seems that he may have been unconsciously conflating philosophy with theology. Indeed, ethics is a sub-field in philosophy, and the Vatican’s report avers, “To function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind, but one that is people-centered.” Whether or not the authors had advanced degrees in ethics—whether ethical theory or business ethics—was apparently of no concern to them or their religious superiors. On this basis, one could say that a propensity to encroach without limitation exists in the Vatican.  Perhaps the operative rubric confides that religious education and authority proffers legitimacy in virtually any domain because religion or theology can be applied to anything. A similar claim could perhaps be made of the study and practice of law—it is virtually everywhere in modern society (even in the church in terms of criminal law applied to priests).

The wanderings of Vatican officials into other back yards carry rather significant opportunity costs. First, the document itself could have stressed distinctly religious points such as I have suggested above. Second, extending the teaching authority of the Church onto fields other than theology, even the latter can be related indirectly, risks relegating or even severely undercutting that authority even where it is at home in theology. Politically conservative Catholics, for example, “hastened to assure their camp that the document does not carry the full force of church teaching, since it was produced by a Vatican office, not by the pope himself.” The Times continues by observing that “some dismissed the report as nothing new, or simply misinformed.” In other words, the clerics at the Vatican risked losing their credibility not only on account of their intransigent arrogance and lack of empathy for the least of mine in refusing to hold their priests accountable for pedophilia, but also for being ideologically greedy in refusing to confine the magisterium to distinctly theological matters.

According to a survey (led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter) of 1,442 American Catholic adults, 86% say “you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church.” Only about 30% accept the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican. It could be the low number reflects the greediness of that teaching authority with respect to forays into extrinsic domains without any apparent hesitancy or humility. Alternatively, the lack of any limiting factor could risk an even lower acceptance rate in the future.

It is a paradox that in being greedy—wanting more, even in terms of ideological influence—one can wind up with less. Ignore the inherent strictures of your credentials and you will suffer in terms of credibility. Ignore the delimited nature of your knowledge and you will come off as ignorant. Ignore your own base and the floor will fall from beneath you.

In the 1980s popular business press, one of the main mantras for managers was: get back to the knitting. In other words, get back to focusing on what you do well, rather than diversifying into other businesses. It would appear that the Vatican might take this business advice to heart and return to the Church’s native fauna of religion, wherein Vatican officials are credentialed and well-studied, and thus legitimate and credible. Another 1980s business mantra was: management by wandering around. This one the officials should not follow, given their proclivity to wander into other back yards; any walking around should be assiduously delimited in the spirit of humility that enervates the insipid instinct to overreach. At the very least, it is bad form to tell a neighbor how to clean up his or her yard while one’s own could stand some attention.


Elisabetta Povoledo, “Vatican Calls for Oversight of the World’s Finances,” The New York Times, October 25, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/world/europe/vatican-calls-for-global-oversight-of-the-economy.html

Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-10-24/catholic-religious-identity-survey/50891152/1?csp=34news

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The Illinois legislature voted in November 2010 to pass The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which legalizes civil unions for same-sex couples. In the following year, most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois were closing down rather than having to comply with the requirement that same-sex couples be included among potential foster care and adoptive parents. “For the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, the outcome is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people,” the New York Times reports. In other words, the Bishops wanted the issue to be viewed in terms of a clash between religious freedom and group rights. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer whom the Times reports “helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.”

According to the New York Times, the bishops were “engaged in the religious liberty battle on several fronts.” The clerics asked “the Obama administration to lift a new requirement that Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charity groups cover contraception in their employees’ health plans.” At the same time, the bishops were protesting the denial of “a federal contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking, saying the decision was anti-Catholic.” An official with the Department of Health and Human Services told “a hearing on Capitol Hill that the bishops’ program was rejected because it did not provide the survivors of sex-trafficking, some of whom are rape victims, with referrals for abortions or contraceptives.” Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel and associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed with the decision. “It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,” he said, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.”


To be sure, “political rights vs. religious beliefs” is a difficult nut to crack. It is like having to solve for both x and y in an algebraic equation. Both sides enjoy formidable legitimacy in the West, and the political and religious dimensions are difficult to relate or compare, as they are different domains of the human experience. That they can impact each other does not mean that they have the same substance. If we could get “political” or “religious” on both sides, however, it would be easier to compare the sides and, moreover, to which domain was driving the conflict. I contend that the conflict was at root political. Obscuring this realization is the long-standing habit of overextending the domain of religion from its basis in religious experience.

In late 2011, the Catholic archbishop of Chicago remarked in an interview that gay activists are like KKK members because both groups oppose the Catholic Church.  My immediate reaction in hearing of the remark was that the man was doubtless a partisan, being in a political fight. Lest the bishop’s protestations to the contrary be taken seriously (as if there were nothing in the remark that could reasonably taken as offensive), I want to make his distinctly political impetus (as well as the implied opportunity cost in foregone religious experience) transparent. If I am correct, the wolf in sheep’s clothing took after the Pharisees more than the lamb. My approach in this argument is to relegate the apparent religious and even moral alternative bases of the bishops’ motivation.

When a bishop says that gay men or women should not have sex, not to mention form a civil union that legitimates the “sordid” sexual relations, should intimates that the claim has a moral or normative dimension. Lest thou shalt not be taken as subsuming morality under religion, as in the moral half of the Decalogue, the immoral treatment of Job and the divine decrees to the ancient Hebrews to kill even the children of the tribes refusing to convert from worshipping Baal both suggest that religion is not confined or reduced to morality. Theologically speaking, divine omnipotence (i.e., God’s power) cannot be limited by a moral system by definition alone. Nor can immoral be treated as synonymous with sinful. Harm to others is not the same as distancing oneself from religious experience, even though one can affect the other. To the extent that the Catholic bishops were applying “should not” to particular issues that can be viewed as essentially moral in nature, a category mistake was likely involved in characterizing them as “religious beliefs.”

Were the clash between political rights and religious belief more accurately between political rights and moral standards (or ideology), we are still left with the uneasy job of relating the political to the moral—another case of x and y. As in algebra, it would be easier if we could substitute an equation of x’s for the y so we could solve for x. Fortunately, the “political vs. moral” relation may not go far enough in getting us to the root of the conflict. Specifically, the moral aspect may be a subterfuge for a political motive.  

That both the anti-gay and anti-abortion (as well as the anti-stem-cell) stances of the American group of Catholic bishops line up with political conservatism in the Republican Party suggests that a “right-wing” political push may have been the bishops’ true motive beyond (though related to) their traditionalism. Lest the bishops’ call for more economic redistribution be cited as an outlier or counterexample, Christian charity dovetails with the Republican platform. The ill-fate of liberation theology in the Vatican of John Paul II suggests that even there mandated economic redistribution was receding in value. In my view, the theological de-emphasis was due to shifting political ideology. To be sure, the Vatican’s call in 2011 for greater financial regulation—though notably coming from the Vatican in Europe rather than the American bishops—is either an exception or something the American bishops could easily advocate in lip-service out of a traditionalist view of obedience to the Vatican, especially relative to their opposition to abortion, which even renders them as “single issue” (i.e., reductionist) voters. In terms of the traditionalist bishops’ political ideology generally, I submit that the bishops themselves were by 2011 much closer to the “right-wing,” social-conservative branch of the Republican Party than to Obama’s Democratic Party. Liberation theology had lost out to abortion (and gay marriage). I contend, in other words, that the bishops’ personal political ideology was in the driver’s seat—with their social ethic and even theological interpretations occupying the back seats even in their official roles as bishops. Claiming that the particular incumbent should not matter, Max Weber would no doubt object to the salience of the personal in the bureaucratic role.

The salience of political ideology even in an ecclesiastical office could also account for the subtle presence of passive-aggressive anger in the Christian clerics whom one would naturally expect would be compassionate peace-makers rather than incendiary partisans. Additionally, ideology could be behind the “single issue” orientation wherein the “pro-life” issue has been pushed so in homilies and petitions. The near-obsession over the issue of abortion, even though Jesus says nothing on the issue itself in the New Testament, may suggest that something other than following Jesus or even religion itself is involved. At least with social welfare, passages in the Gospels can be found in which Jesus advocates feeding or caring for the poor. The hypertrophy of abortion (and even gay marriage—the secondary political issue in the Church) does not pass the smell test from the standpoint of what a follower of Jesus would prioritize politically. My point is that something else is in the mix, and it is rooted neither in religion nor ethics.

Furthermore, the increasingly extreme positions since 1979 taken by the traditionalist clergymen could reflect the nature of a distinctly political ideology. Without a viable check to arrest it, a political agenda is apt to take more and more for granted until the movement is finally upended by the opposition finally having had enough.  This pattern can be seen by comparing the U.S. House Republican majority in the mid-1990s with that in 2011. A similar pattern was extant among Catholic priests (and their lock-step epigones) through the same period. The issue of  stem-cell research, for example, can be viewed as going beyond abortion to a more extreme position, which in turn could only find enough of a solid constituency once the traditionalists had effectively taken over the hierarchy and the vast majority of parishes. I suspect that a similar trajectory can occur in theological matters, as in going from Mary as an intercessor to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though without any obvious associated moral or political movement. In both cases, the lack of any internal check is evident (and perhaps lapses in the human mind’s ability to keep perspective on its own trajectory). Similarly in the case of greed , that which looked like a good deal achieved an hour ago suddenly looks hackneyed next to the possibility of an even better deal. The perceptual switch implies a dis-ease with limitation.

In Illinois, the Catholic hierarchy has at times been astonishingly blatant in both its extremism and overt political partisanship. The blatancy alone may say something about the formation of a dominant coalition in political terms (i.e., that the traditionalists had already infiltrated the hierarchy and enough parishes). In 2011, for example, a young priest in Rockford, a rather conservative city ninety miles northwest of downtown Chicago, openly petitioned God in Mass for a “pro-life” candidate to be elected as president of the United States in 2012. A “pro-life” candidate necessarily meant a Republican candidate, as Barak Obama was clearly pro-choice and no other Democrats were contesting him in the primaries.

Another priest, also a year or two out of seminary, declared (without any hint of a possibility of being wrong) in a homily at the same parish that the Catholic laity have a “religious obligation” to martyr themselves for “the pro-life movement.” Notably, that movement is political in the American lexicon. The lay leader of the parish’s anti-abortion group interpreted that “religious” obligation as implying that lives would be saved if there were fewer doctors. Aside from the clearly political nature of homily despite (and undercutting?) the religious context, the sheer extremism (without any hint of being recognized as such!) matches the tendency of political movement to go too far, as if it were entitled to do so.  

In short, both of the young traditionalist priests had the same distinct political orientation, which dovetailed with their traditionalist anti-Vatican II ideology.  Although subtle, both priests were said to have evinced a seething anger, just below the surface of a peaceful humility. Beyond being against modern society itself (one of the priests advocated in a homily that the parishioners replace their televisions with Jesus’ sacred heart), the anger was directed against liberals as a group (under the antiquated rubric of “heretics”). The priests’ subliminal message was that any politically-liberal Catholics were not really welcome at their parish. In other words, only socially-conservative (Republican) Catholics could truly feel at home there. I contend that this distinctly political prejudice is the counterforce to “political rights” in the dichotomy introduced above.

In brief review, I first replaced the “political rights vs. religious beliefs” distinction with that of “political rights vs. moral beliefs (or standards).” Beneath the moral dimension in this case is a political ideology. Now, the bishops refer to their claim as that of “religious freedom,” which would render the clash as “political rights vs. political liberty.” As a right is simply the protection of a freedom, the tension can be rendered as between liberties. However, the bishops’ “freedom of religion” may have been a red herring, as no right to receive government contracts exists in the U.S. Furthermore, the practice may compromise the “establishment of religion” clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. federal Constitution. Even if the “freedom of religion” claim applies to social services (which I doubt), the expression does not sufficiently capture the bishops’ push against gay marriage and abortion beyond the Church’s social services—that is, beyond the Church’s liberty being infringed. Hence, the “x” may not reduce exclusively liberty. To be sure, the “political rights” position may also include a “remaking of society itself” beyond ones’ own liberty. In other words, political ideologies are also in the mix. Beyond the clashing liberties may be clashing societal ideals presumably to be instituted and enforced by political means. It should be evident that we have left the domain of religion, even if religious beliefs may be related to one or both of the contending political visions.

To cement this conclusion and uncover an implication regarding the bishops’ religiosity, I turn now to distinguish religiosity from moral and political issues. I contend that pruning of what we somewhat carelessly take as the religious “tree” is long overdue. We have lost a sense of what the core of religiosity is, having been long distracted by interlarding moral and political agendas (as well as by the expansionary trajectory of religion itself).

At least in the United States, abortion and gay marriage (as well as economic redistribution) are within the lexicon of political issues, even if the two are also moral and ostensibly religious in nature. The religious nature is tenuous at best, even though linkages are possible. The phenomenology of religion literature, such as Otto’s Idea of the Holy, describes the phenomenon of religion as being an experience whose referent transcends the limits of human cognition and perception. Meditation, adoration, prayer, and worship (e.g., through ritual) are just a few of the possible manifestations of experience whose referent is transcendent. In contrast, moral and political issues are contended within these limits—in the human realm. In other words, yearning for union with the divine, as per Augustine’s pining for God as love, is sourced beyond our grasp, and is therefore qualitatively different than declaring a moral or political position (which we typically presume cannot be wrong, even apart from any link to something taken as religious).

For example, to believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in dynamics in the world is very different than claiming that having an abortion, engaging in sodomy, going on the pill, and using human stem cells in research are wrong. Most significantly, the Holy Spirit is inherently transcendent even as it is immanent, whereas the activities are not—the stances on them being at best indirectly linked to beliefs on a transcendent concept. In other words, the question of whether the Holy Spirit is acting in the world must be left at “I believe” and “You do not.” In contrast, stances on the activities, which—and this is crucial—are not transcendent, can get beyond such unknowability. An advocate would not say, “I have faith that abortion is wrong.” Rather, he or she would declare, “Abortion is wrong because . . .” The typical reason given—that of “harm to the fetus”—is itself a distinctly moral reason (i.e., harming the innocent is wrong). The issue is thus within Catholic social ethics, rather than being a theological doctrine on the nature of the divine. It is problematic to conflate the two, as if a stance on an “issue” were itself a theological belief on the nature of the divine. Yet this is perhaps the major fallacy being committed by the Catholic hierarchy in the post-1979 anti-Vatican II traditionalist movement, which have pushed “social ethics” on to political stances—the “pro-life” movement being distinctively political.

Lest it be retorted that a linkage can indeed be established from religious experience or even Christian theology to a prohibition on gay civil unions or abortions, a relation of affects does not constitute identity. In fact, two discrete entities or concepts are needed just to say “X affects Y.” Therefore, even just insisting that one’s religious experience or one’s faith in that which one believes is transcendent impacts one’s moral and political stances implies that on treats the religious domain as distinct at least conceptually from the stances. To the extent, moreover, that moral and political stances (e.g., the anger involved against contending partisans and their positions) eclipse religious experience and any ensuing sensitivity to existence itself (and people—i.e., compassion), the overgrowth of what we take as religious can actually suffocate that tree of spiritual life. One might ask, therefore, whether the bishops and their priests (and laity) truly value religious experience, given the opportunity cost that is involved in an expansionary interpretation of the religious domain as including particular moral and political stances (and advocacy).

If religion has indeed become too distended for its own good, then some of the clerics who portray themselves as religious may actually be enlivened a political motive that operates subtly at odds with the portrayal itself. That is to say, the clergy may have been tacitly undercutting their own claim of religiosity in general and more specifically in following Jesus, who taught us to value the good Samaritan, who tends after his enemy, over the priest, who passes by the injured as if religiously impure. The proof, as it were, is in the pudding.


Laurie Goodstein, “Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion,” The New York Times, December 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/us/for-bishops-a-battle-over-whose-rights-prevail.html?_r=1&hp

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