Pope Quits, So What?
Why should agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and/or Leftists give a shit about the latest crisis in the scandal-ridden Holy Roman Apostalic Catholic Church? Good riddance to bad rubbish, n’est-ce pas?
Even good Catholics agree: ‘New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope’ headlines Gary Wills in the N.Y. Times , while former alter boy John Patrick Shenley writes: ‘POPE BENEDICT XVI quit. Good. He was utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of priests who abused children. He’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. In addition to this woeful résumé, he had no use for women.’ In any case, don’t we believe that religion is necessarily in conflict with progressive reform or revolution? ‘Pie in the sky when you die’ in the words of the old Wobbly song? Doesn’t belief in the Hereafter preclude fighting for the Here and Now?
Christianity and Class
In theory, perhaps; but in historical practice Christianity has often inspired revolutionary mass movements among the poor to demand Heaven on Earth in the Here and Now. During 17th Century English revolution the Levelers preached radical social equality (‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the Gentleman?’) and the Diggers took over the land, while the Anabaptists under Jan of Leiden established a utopiaan commune. In the 19th Century, the radically egalitarian Taipings took over half of China and held it against the Emperor for over a decade in the name of a Christian Utopia. In 20th Century Latin-America, Liberation Theology-inspired clergy and Christian base communities among the poor courageously resisted wealthy oligarchies backed by U.S. imperialism, in 1979 successfully overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua as part of the Sandinista coalition.
For too long the Left, instead of adopting a dialectical approach to religion, has been identified with a sterile abstract atheism, rejecting spirituality (‘superstition’) and with it the billions of people of faith who make up the majority of the world’s working classes. Faith provides these billions with community and hope to keep going, just as faith in an improbable but necessary world revolution gives the revolutionary the hope and courage to continue the struggle. On the other hand, militant atheism, contempt for religion and worship of science characterize the sterile Voltarian ideology of the radical petty-bourgeoisie, rather than that of working class socialists.
Religion and Socialism
From the 1840’s Karl Marx actively fought for religious freedom, and although he famously wrote that religion is ‘the opiate of the people,’ he went on to say ‘it is the heart of a heartless world.’ This is all the more true in our neo-liberal 21st Century world, where the oppressed and unemployed turn more and more to the Church for community and solidarity. Everywhere — from the abandoned rust-belt heartlands of the U.S. to war-ravaged, plundered Africa – communities of faith are called upon to replace the social safety-nets, public services and civil-society communities destroyed by globalized capitalism in the name of its secular gods: the Free Market and Fiscal Responsibility.’
Although an atheist and anti-Zionist, Rosa Luxembourg saw religious freedom as a fundamental principle. ‘The reasons for [her] position were self-evident,’ writes Ronald Boer in the Winter 2013 New Politics. ‘Opposition to the state’s efforts to control one’s political aspirations, let alone religious affiliations (the tsarist autocracy persecuted Roman Catholics, Jews, heretics and freethinkers), and resistance to the church’s attempt to demand allegiance, especially by using a judicial system saturated with religious laws, means that one does not seek to impose the same type of control as a socialist.’ Lenin, the firmest of atheists, went even further: religious faith was not an obstacle to Membership in the Party, which was open even to priests, as long as they didn’t proselytize. For Lenin, quarrels over atheism were a distraction from class struggle: ‘Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.’
The Submerged Communist Content of Christianity
Social-democratic writers from G. B. Shaw to Barbara Eherenreich have emphasized the equality of the sexes and communistic practices of the early Christians. It was Paul of Tarsus, the Christian ‘Stalin,’ who engineered the counter-revolution from within, chastising the women and establishing the male-dominated, authoritarian, hierarchical Church that has endured, via constant bloody purges of heretics, since the Second Century. The political basis of the post-Pauline ascendancy of the Church hierarchy was its alliance with its former persecutor, the Roman Empire, which espoused the authoritarian Church as support for its own state authority. Likewise, the Vatican made its peace with both Emperor Napoleon and with Mussolini.
During the Middle Ages, the Church regained some of its fervor and sense of community. However, the profligacy of Renaissance Popes like the Borgias is legendary. From the 17th Century on, ‘The Alliance of the Throne and the Alter’ was the motto of monarchical absolutism, and at the time of the European democratic revolutions (1848) the Church moved even further Right, declaring the Pope ‘infallible’ for the first time in history in 1870. (Previously matters of dogma could only be decided at more democratic international Councils.)
In the 1960’s, under Pope John XXIII and in the wake of the historic Second Vatican Council, the Church returned to its base among the masses, particularly in Latin America. It re-affirmed the Gospel ‘preference for the poor’ and promoted a Liberation Theology that affirmed the right to resist injustice. A vast movement of hope and creativity swept through the lower ranks of the priesthood and spread through the (mainly female) active laity, the popular mass base of the Church, unleashing democratic energies that were threatening to the land-owning and parasitic classes and to U.S. interests. As an active participant in the Central America Solidarity movements in those years, I worked closely with radical priests, nuns and lay people. Often their attitudes and actions were more radical than their Leftist allies, who often made political compromises with parts of the old ruling classes (e.g. the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, where I visited in 1984, who refused to recognize the land claims of peasants occupying farms abandoned by their counter-revolutionary owners.)
The Conservative Reaction
In 1978, on the eve of the Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberal counter-revolution, the conservative hierarchy took back control of the Vatican by electing John Paul II, a Polish professional anti-Communist, followed by Benedict XVI, the arch-reactionary former Hitler-youth and protector of pedophile priests, whose final act was to launch a Medieval witch-hunt of liberal U.S. Church women before resigning amid scandal. Recent news stories about the financial and moral crisis of today’s Catholic hierarchy reveal how a tiny mafia of old men are clinging to control of the Church’s vast wealth and holdings. We read about the Bishops cutting funds for schools and parishes, closing parishes for lack of male priests, refusing to allow women, the backbone of the Church, to substitute for men (even as deacons or such) in their parishes.
One wonders if the hierarchy is deliberately dismantling the parishes and schools, the Catholic base communities and liberal religious orders, to diminish any possible challenge from below to their authority, such as occurred in the 60s and 70s. Like the fat cat corporate CEOs who screw their disempowered stockholders, these shepherds couldn’t care less about the welfare of the sheep they are sworn to keep safe. Only about continuing to sheer and eat them. John Patrick Shanley writes ‘When I was a kid at St. Anthony’s in the Bronx (one of the schools that the archdiocese of New York is now closing), there were boxes for the poor. The people of the East Bronx worked hard and made little. Everybody put money in those boxes. I put money in those boxes. As far as I’m concerned, that money was stolen.’
The Cardinals who will now flock to Rome to choose Benedict’s successor are like wizened old gnomes sitting on a pot of gold equal to the wealth of many nations. These purple-robed gnomes control vast holdings and immense power through all kinds of ties, legal and illegal, with banks, governments and reactionary parties not only in Italy, but around the world. They include the likes of L.A.’s Cardinal Mahoney, removed for shielding pedophile priests. They willingly spend millions defending the child-molesting priests the hierarchy has long protected, indeed encouraging them to continue their criminal activities in unsuspecting new parishes. Why did the Vatican not take a pro-active stance, quietly dismiss the abusers while apologizing and compensating their victims? This would certainly have been cheaper, and would have re-established the Church’s moral authority.
The answer is that the Catholic Hierarchy (like the world of finance and the military) is a closed corporation, a state within a state, impenetrable, opaque, a law unto itself, protected by its intimate ties with other corrupt hierarchies in politics, the military, banking, law enforcement and the Mafia. The gnomes that run it would rather see the living Church wither on the vine than compromise, as can be seen in their inaction in the pedophile priest scandal, their adamant refusal to allow priests to marry or to give women a sacerdotal role of some sort so as to keep the parishes alive, and their unwillingness to fund Catholic education — once the Church’s proud monopoly and major source of its ideological influence.
Meanwhile, sensational ongoing court trials in Ireland, Europe and the U.S. keep the Church in the news in a terrible light. In Italy derogatory rumors and speculation about the ‘real’ reasons for Benedict’s resignation overshadowed the national election, and for cause. Maybe something new will open up after all to let a little light in.
Potential for Good
More than any institution, the Catholic (‘Universal’) Church is truly international, a huge potential source for good. The vast wealth of the Church could be used to promote Christian values through free Catholic education and by distributing charity and comfort to the poor and starving masses in every land. To some extent this is what is happening in the so-called ‘failed states’ of Black Africa, where 16% of today’s Catholics now live and thousands more flock to the Church every day. And if the U.S. Churchwomen and millions of hardworking Catholic laity round the world had their way, that’s probably what the way the Church would go.
Is there any hope for Catholic renewal? Any perspective of a revival of the Liberation Theology movement of the Sixties and Seventies (presumably, as part of an emergent 21st Century global movement of the 99% against the 1%)? Is their any scenario that one could imagine, wherein a rebellion of mainly female base Catholics and lower clergy succeeds in unseating the hierarchy ? In capturing the pot of gold so jealously guarded by the Vatican gnomes? These are questions for us Utopists who believe ‘another world is possible’ to ponder. My favorite scenario would follow the Medieval legend, long believed by many, of Pope Joan, the talented and learned girl who disguised herself as a boy, become a priest and, due to her abilities, rose through the church hierarchy, eventually being elected pope. Imagine what a modern Pope Joan might accomplish today!
Meanwhile, 900 U.S. nuns gather in St. Louis last August to prepare their reply to the Vatican’s crude attempt to stifle their self-governing orders. ‘Catholics across the country are stunned and outraged by the Vatican’s attempt to threaten the women who have been the backbone of this church for centuries. Since the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, thousands of faithful Catholics have held more than 50 vigils across the country and more than 57,000 people have signed a petition organized by the Nun Justice Project in support of the nuns. With these actions, Catholics have made it clear that they stand in solidarity with the sisters and their good works among the poor and marginalized. I wish them good Mazel.
NYC, Feb. 24, 2013