Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Theocracy is Authoritarian

(It's the weekend for another Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm. Blue Gal has more information. The twitter category is here. Here are my previous entries for Blog Against Theocracy and religion.)

As First Freedom First points out, Freedom of Religion means "the freedom to worship – or not." The essence of theocracy isn't religion per se; it is power over others and authoritarian rule. In America, people are free to practice religion as they choose, but their religion does not allow them to break the law, nor may they impose their religious beliefs on others through the government. Those opposed to theocracy include both religious and non-religious people. They are united by their recognition of the theocrats' dangerous goal - using the government to acquire power and privilege based on religious beliefs (specifically, theirs).

Normally I've discussed religion in more general terms for the Blog Against Theocracy. However, thinking of theocracy and authoritarianism this year, I couldn't help but think of all the recent news about the Catholic Church – and some of the more noxious apologists for it. Nearly every problem of theocracy can be illustrated by looking at news this past year about the Catholic Church as an institution. Some of these issues are not unique to the Catholic Church, and I'm merely using it as an example. In other cases, the problems are more particular to the Catholic Church specifically, even if they illustrate the greater perils of theocracy. I'm thinking about the office of faith-based initiatives, religious organizations lobbying Congress, religious organizations setting public policy, and religious figures punishing political figures for disobedience. I'm also thinking of the widespread, long-standing sexual and physical abuse of children, the cover-up of that, and the infuriating apologists for that. Almost everything centers on sex and power, and the domination of women and children.

Obviously there are good people who identify as Catholic. There are Catholic churches that do valuable work for their communities. There are Catholic charities that likewise do useful work around the world. Bill Donohue and Ross Douthat, among others, probably don't speak for the majority of American Catholics. Nor does the Pope speak for most American Catholics, at least on some issues – for several decades, roughly 80% of American Catholics have favored the use of birth control (Catholics for Choice puts the number far higher). There are Catholics who have criticized some or all of the actions and abuses I'll be discussing.

However, all this still leaves us with the institution that is the Catholic Church. Just as I'd love it if conscientious, "reasonable" Eisenhower Republicans (those few that are left) took over the Republican Party, I'd love it if those more conscientious, practical Catholics took over the Catholic Church. The problem is, the Catholic Church is by its nature extremely hierarchical and authoritarian. Catholics can send messages to their bishops or the Vatican, but they don't get to elect their pope, who is supposedly infallible and God's emissary on Earth. There is a firm power structure in place, and it's extremely unlikely that will ever change. Even if papal infallibility and other matters of church dogma are sometimes debated internally, the fact remains that the pope or others of high rank issue orders to those below and expect obedience. The Catholic Church is not a democratic institution; it is an authoritarian one. It can do some good when well led, but is prone to the abuses encouraged by authoritarianism and unaccountable power.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a whole section on the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, started under Bush and unfortunately further funded by Obama. The big issue is that the Office gives money to religious organizations who violate federal discrimination laws in hiring, most often by only hiring members of their religion, or by banning homosexuals. Additionally, some religious charities proselytize and seek to convert others to their religion. As private entities they're entitled to keep doing both these things, but shouldn't be given taxpayer money to do so; it's unconstitutional. In contrast, Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization that does public charity building homes, and has long been given government money because (to my knowledge) it's avoided crossing either of those lines.

In Washington, D.C., gay marriage was legalized. As a result, the organization Catholic Charities decided to drop spousal benefits for its employees so it wouldn't have to give benefits to gay couples. Otherwise, Catholic Charities would have run afoul of anti-discrimination laws, because they receive "$22 million from the city for social service programs." They had previously transferred their foster care program to another organization, presumably because gay couples would have been eligible to participate. But if these are essential social services, why give $22 million in funds to a religious charity in the first place? Why not expand the public systems for these services instead, and avoid these theocracy issues altogether? Similarly, why grant government funds to a proselytizing religious group to run a homeless shelter when secular organizations are also available?

On the lobbying front, we've previously covered how some Catholic organizations opposed health care reform while others supported it. However, there's the question of their tax status, and that applies to other religious organizations as well. Individual can of course speak out, and organizations can as well – but this becomes more problematic if they are tax-exempt. (The big no-no is endorsement or opposition of a specific candidate.) Religious organizations can do some limiting lobbying. I'm not an expert on tax exemptions and lobbying restrictions, so I don't know about the precise legal lines on lobbying by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other organizations on health care reform. However, it is troubling if members of Congress are effectively giving veto power over legislation to a religious organization (or any organization, for that matter). That flies in the face of John Kennedy's famous speech on his religion and the importance of the separation of church and state. America is not a theocracy. Effective government should respond to all constituents, but represent the public interest – which is not necessarily the same as those of any specific religious organization.

Catholic officials have been most vocal about opposing and punishing abortion. Ironically enough, it was Kennedy family member Patrick Kennedy who Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin banned from receiving communion. This was because, as one account puts it, "Kennedy criticized the nation's Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose an overhaul of the nation's health care system unless lawmakers included tighter restrictions on abortion." Chris Matthews, also a Catholic, had Tobin on, and quoted John Kennedy's speech to him. Watch it for yourself - but Tobin truly doesn't seem to understand Matthews' point that Tobin was violating the principles expressed by JFK. Tobin's action was theocratic, and it'd be naïve to think he has no influence on Catholics in his diocese. John Kerry ran into similar issues during his presidential run, being denied communion because he is pro-choice. Again, it would be naïve to think this had no effect on Catholic voters – or that such an edict wasn't designed to influence them.

The Church's opposition isn't solely to abortion – it's to any form of reproduction control other than abstinence. A bishop barred an Oregon hospital from calling itself "Catholic" anymore because it performed tubal ligations on women. For years, the Catholic Church has inexcusably lied about condoms preventing the spread of STDs, including AIDS. Sometimes the children of disobedient Catholics are punished as well. Mary Ann Sorrentino writes that she was excommunicated because she worked with Planned Parenthood, but the Church threatened to deny her daughter's confirmation as well. Sorrentino claims she replied:

"Let me understand this, Father. Because of my work with women at Planned Parenthood, you don't want me to come to the rail and take communion from the hands of a man who sexually abuses children? Is that what you're telling me, Father?"

Meanwhile, in one of the more infamous recent cases, in Brazil the Catholic Church excommunicated the doctor who performed an abortion on a 9-year old rape victim. The mother and the rest of the medical team were excommunicated, too. At least one bishop has since questioned this action. However, if your morality leads you to harshly condemn the people helping an abused child, it's time to re-examine your morality.

It's the children that have suffered the most, from an institution that has systematically raped and tortured children, and then systematically covered it up. Newly revealed incidents of abuse, and the news that the current pope may have known about some of these abuses, reveal an even deeper level of corruption than was previously known. The Catholic Church denies that Ratzinger knew, but there have been so many allegations of sexual abuse in Germany this strains credulity, and at best it shows a horribly dysfunctional system. However, questions are not limited to the current pope; Raw Story reports on the Vatican knowing about widespread sexual abuse of children by at least 1963. Rather than tending to the children, the victims, church officials sought to protect the priests involved and protect the institution. Guilty priests have generally not gone to jail.

After such revelations, it's rather bad form to compare outrage toward the Catholic Church to the persecution of the Jews (as a senior Vatican spokesman did) or to claim that the Pope faced 'some of the same unjust accusations once faced by Jesus' (as Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan did). As John Cole remarks, "Can someone show me in the bible where Jesus was unjustly accused of covering up systematic pedophilia?"

Bullying blowhard Bill Donohue of the Catholic League claimed molesting priests weren’t pedophiles because most boys were post-pubescent. (Yeah, he really did.) If this is your best argument, you're in serious trouble. Donohue then doubled down on this claim, and ran an ad in the New York Times claiming Catholics were being persecuted. Michael Tomasky (among others) pointed out the biggest flaw in Donohue's argument – it was still illegal, and still wrong. This scandal belongs to the Catholic Church, not the gay community. (Update: Pharyngula also posted on Donohue.)

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat's column "A Time for Contrition" received plenty of just criticism, particularly for the first two of these paragraphs:

This hasn’t prevented both sides in the Catholic culture war from claiming that the scandal vindicates their respective vision of the church. Liberal Catholics, echoed by the secular press, insist that the whole problem can be traced to clerical celibacy. Conservatives blame the moral relativism that swept the church in the upheavals of the 1970s, when the worst abuses and cover-ups took place.

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.) But it was the church’s conservative instincts — the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics — that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished.

What’s more, it was a conservative hierarchy’s bunker mentality that prevented the Vatican from reckoning with the scandal. In a characteristic moment in 2002, a prominent cardinal told a Spanish audience that “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign ... to discredit the church.”

Douthat is a Catholic, and the third quoted paragraph makes a decent point. He does criticize the Catholic Church at other points in the op-ed. However, this doesn't excuse his attempts to spread the blame. He loves playing the mushy argument and false equivalency games, but these charges are just infuriatingly dishonest or dim-witted – not to mention whiny. Yes, the Catholic Church's well-known hang-ups about sex, including celibacy for priests, probably did contribute to some of the problems - because the priesthood has been more likely to attract people with unresolved sexual issues. However, the real problem isn't celibacy; it's (duh) that Catholic priests raped and tortured children, and rather than turning those priests in to the police, the Catholic Church covered it up. This is not a mystery that passeth all understanding, or a series of crimes that can only be seen through a glass darkly.

Meanwhile, blaming "moral relativism" is pathetic and laughable. Is Douthat seriously arguing that the Catholic Church was sexually permissive in the 1970s? Even if that preposterous claim were true, what about the many cases of sexual abuse that occurred before and since? What about the Toledo police colluding with the Catholic Church to cover up sexual abuse in the 1950s? Douthat tries to shill two false notions here – that the media have been incorrect, and that any conservatives blaming culture have a point. (Apparently, they're blaming the culture of several countries, too, since it wasn't just in America.)

No, the scandal in no way "implicates left and right alike." If ever proof was needed Douthat was a hack, this is it. The scandal implicates Catholic priests who abused children, and the Catholic officials who covered it up. This isn't hard. Even Catholic doctrine holds that human beings are free to choose between sin and virtue. The demon rock 'n' roll did not drive them to molest children. While I'm sure there are Catholics who wish Douthat was not representing their faith, his arguments are poor, ass-covering, unconnected with reality and unconscionable. It's outrageous that he tries to lay the blame on anybody else but the perpetrators. Yeah, he bemoans what the church has done, but in his ridiculous arguments he also becomes a disingenuous, whiny, apologist scumbag for horrible abuses. He ends his column talking about "repentance," and maybe Douthat can repent for bearing false witness against his neighbors.

Other responses to Douthat include Truth Wins Out, TBogg, Sadly No and Susan of Texas. (Update: I forgot Non Sequitur.) The thing is, Donohue and Douthat actually think they're helping the Catholic Church. There are responsible, honest ways for Catholics to respond to these newly-reported scandals – but Donohue and Douthat's infuriating, blame-shifting responses just make things worse.

Plenty more needs to be uncovered. But keeping with the theme of the weekend, the Catholic Church can be viewed as a theocracy, because the Vatican City is technically a nation. The Catholic Church is also extremely hierarchical and authoritarian. It has abused power and covered up those abuses, as is the nature of authoritarian groups. Of course non-religious groups can abuse power as well. But the essence of authoritarianism is obedience to those in power, and the enforcement of dogma – which inevitably extols the righteousness of the group, and particularly its leaders. Organized religion fits in very easily with those dynamics, and gives an even greater dose of righteousness to the whole endeavor. We don't have to imagine the dangers of theocracy and authoritarianism in America. We can study history, or we can just read the news.

Again, there are plenty of individual Catholics who are good people, and worthy of respect. I hope they can reform their church, to the degree that it's possible. However, maybe they'd be better off starting their own. And given recent (and past) revelations, if anyone church-shopping decides to forego the Catholic Church, it would be hard to blame him or her. Meanwhile, I really have no patience for the Donohues, Douthats and high-ranking Catholic officials of the world complaining their church is being unfairly criticized. This one's pretty easy - stop the systematic rape and torture of children, expose the truth, and punish the guilty – and then you won't be criticized. Taking ownership is a step in the right direction; trying to blame others is maddening and unconscionable. There can be no forgiveness without confession and repentance, correct?

For more, check out Richard Dawkins on the Pope, Katha Pollitt, Ed Brayton, The Daily Show, John Amato, DougJ at Balloon Juice, Amanda Marcotte and a personal response to the scandal. DeDanaan has posts on the Pope's cover-up of the priest who molested about 200 boys, as well as Christopher Hitchens and Sinead O'Connor.

Finally, from the public debate "Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?" I thought Stephen Fry was easily the most persuasive speaker:

The Intelligence² Debate - Stephen Fry (Unedited)
Uploaded by Xrunner17. - Classic TV and last night's shows, online.

(Added the pic and fixed some typos.)


darkblack said...

A splendid roundup and dissection of the atrocities, deceptions and false equivalencies in the air today, Batocchio.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was another rather obvious indication (to those who care) that the Bush administration and its 'dysfunctionaries' had no desire whatsoever to govern according to American principle and historic tradition, preferring the low fruit harvest of cynical pandering to religion - and yet another attempt at the disruption of the State to recast it in their own image.

Regarding Pope Benedict: irrespective of his alleged record of 'reform' in the matter of child predation by church officials as touted by the RC church and its abuse apologists, the facts are taking shape quite starkly - Either he knew what was transpiring in his own diocese and did nothing of consequence to rectify it, or he was blithely, perhaps studiously ignorant regarding the broader problem until the damage had been irrevocably done...And that is merely the interpretation of events 'on his own patch', to say nothing of the myriad cases worldwide that later fell under his purview.
In either wing of this unfortunate dichotomy, his actions and inaction render him unfit for public commentary on church abuses or leadership of meaningful institutional change.

Strange times we live in, where the sort of suspension of reality needed to maintain belief in an unseen deity is laid so carelessly by some across more secular aspects of one's own life.

To keep the State 'rational' (or as rational as such a beast can be, given the vagaries of global politics and ideology), we must strive to keep Faith out of its processes.


Distributorcap said...


that was great ---- the lethal mixture of church and state - as in the Vatican proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that religion has no place in governing.

then why are SO many of our elected officials towing the religious line and acting as if god is giving them marching orders

knowing full well this truly against anything the founders had envisioned - this sort of underground theocracy of the US exists and thrives.

the question is how can it be stopped - yes stopped. you only need a Huckabee or Palin or one of their ilk to sit in the white house one day and with all the exec authority now sitting in one hand - bam - we will be praying to jesus as we get on the bus.

Cheyanne (Shy Ann) said...

Great In depth post Bat Vag. I would have expected nothing less coming outta your head.

Superficial as it may seem, I cannot believe how the looks of Sinead O'Connor have changed. Seeing her on Larry King Live, you could have knocked me over with a feather and said "Guess who that is"?

Another outrageous thing as of late is the way "Cardinal muckey muck whatever his name is" has been quoted as saying: "These recent gossipy comments about the pope" has people reeling and seething from the church's lack of seriousness about this issue.

I was raised a Catholic. I have ben searching for some measuring stick for morons that I might find to compare these sex scandals to that I never thought in a million light years I'd see in my lifetime. And that is ahhhh maybe the United States dropping the A bomb on Hiroshima.

Batocchio said...

Thanks for stopping by, folks.

Hey, Cheyanne, your blog currently doesn't allow comments except by blog members - otherwise a few folks would have commented on your BAT post.

libhom said...

One of the things I noticed that a lot of Vatican political meddling in the affairs of other nations was timed to distract attention from the child rape scandals. This time, they aren't even trying because nothing will distract people.

aimai said...

Great post. I just wanted to add something on the subject of Douthat's claim that the "silly season" of "the seventies" was responsible for priests losing their ability to keep their hands to themselves. Its obviously absurd, but I think its absurdity speaks to a very real problem that Douthat thinks the Church has. He doesn't mean that the "silly season" extended to the Catholic Church--Vatican II didn't attempt in any way to overthrow celibacy and self sacrifice, chastity and poverty--he means that all that sexual activity outside the church made priests and other celibates jealous. Because everyone outside of the church was getting silly, and having sex, it made it more difficult for Priests who previously had been able to scorn and reject merely boring old matrimonial sex.

I can't point to where in Douthat's ouevre I get this impression--and I think its very much unconscious on his part anyway--but I do think this is secretely what he thinks. Its all nonsense, of course, because the abuse of women, children, and junior members of the church far predates the sexual revolution. But to Douthat's mind the sexual revolution represents the world's rejection of the church's hold on sexual morality and priestly authority. To most of us that was a good thing, leading to greater honesty and equality in interpersonal relationships and sexual connections. Sexual compatibility, choice, mature deliberation, are all the end result of the sexual revolution as sexuality became something the individual choose, or didn't choose, for him or herself instead of as a part of a package religious deal. Douthat thinks that's dangerous because people--and especially women--can't be trusted to choose the timing, duration, context, and partner(s) for their own sexual lives. I think its great. The number of women my mother's age (and she is in her 70's) who found themselves married, unbeknownst to themselves, to gay men using them as a beard is kind of staggering. This is not going to be an issue for girl's my daughters' age.

But what happens to the celibate priesthood when the "one size fits all" model of family life no longer applies to parishioners and to potential future priests? What happens when the only route to education isn't through the priesthood? When the only route to wealth and power isn't through the priesthood? The same thing, of course--not only does the priesthood become the catchall for a lot of people who can't make it elsewhere in the real world, but as the perks of the priesthood decline compared to the perks of the real world you end up with a lot of disappointed and angry priests/celibates.


aimai said...

On the subject of how long this all has been going on check this out:

T he history of child molestation in the Catholic Church goes back centuries. The first official decree on the subject was written at the Council of Elvira, held around A.D. 305 near Granada, Spain. The precise history is complicated, but the council is traditionally believed to have set down 81 rules for behavior, the 71st of which is: "Those who sexually abuse boys may not commune even when death approaches." It was the harshest one-strike policy: If you're caught abusing a child, you are not only laicized, but permanently excommunicated—damned for all time.

From this horrific Seattle article from "the stranger"--http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-pedophiles-paradise/Content?oid=1065017

Batocchio said...

Thanks, aimai, for the historical background, and I think your insight is right. In addition to the actual crimes, I think there's been plenty of sex envy going on - snd rage over their dwindling influence.