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Papalism and religious liberty.

The Roman Catholic church today is not a completely monolithic enterprise. There is an official church, dominated by the pope and his appointed prelates. There is also a group of more independent or liberal Catholics who think for themselves. This group is frequently described as the Vatican II Catholics, partly because they take more seriously the religious liberty of Protestants, Jews, and humanists, and partly because Vatican II seemed to promote ecumenism, including dialogue with and listening to those of other faiths.

Actually, genuine religious liberty and ecumenism are not authorized by the official documents of Vatican II. Non-Catholics as well as Catholics who have not read the documents are misled by popular assumptions that the church has changed its position to accept genuine religious liberty or ecumenism. Prior to Vatican II, the traditional position of the Roman Catholic church as formulated by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) was that

the State must not only "have care for religion" but recognize

the true religion professed by the Catholic Church.

It is a thoroughly logical position. If the State is under

moral compulsion to profess and promote religion, it is

obviously obliged to profess and promote only the religion

that is true; for no individual, no group of individuals,

no society, no State is justified in supporting error or in

according to error the same recognition as to truth.

[quoted from John A. Ryan and Francis J. Boland's Catholic

Principles of Politics, New York: Macmillan, 1960]

The Declaration of Religious Liberty that came out of Vatican II affirms "traditional Catholic doctrines on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ." It specifically says, "This one true religion subsists in the [Roman] Catholic and Apostolic Church. . ." It also indicates that the declaration does not, in given circumstances, prevent a particular religious group from receiving "special civil recognition" from the state.

The Declaration of Religious Liberty speaks of the rights of parents "to determine . . . the kind of religious education that their children are to receive." This means that government "must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools." According to the Council's Declaration on Christian Education, free choice has nothing to do with parental options to send a child to a non-Church school, for "the Council also reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools." Rather, free choice means "that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose." In this way, the Vatican Council has woven the idea of government aid to Church schools (and therefore taxation of non-Catholics as well as Catholics) into its position on religious liberty.

The major new approach to religious liberty by Vatican II is the recognition that the religious liberty of non-Catholics is a "civil right," whereas for Catholics it is grounded in divine law and "a sacred freedom" which "is so much the property of the Church that to act against it is to act against the will of God." The "civil right" of non-Catholics to religious liberty is not set forth in the absolute terms reserved for the Roman Catholic church but, rather, is due to present-day circumstances. The Jesuit weekly America acknowledged the short-coming of the Declaration on Religious Liberty in an October 2, 1965, editorial, saying: "It is perhaps necessary to remind Americans that the Council is not about to enact the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as a Catholic doctrine."

Those who criticize the Roman Catholic church's position on religious liberty generally make the point that it is difficult (if not impossible) for a church that denies liberty to its own laypeople, priests, and bishops to show much concern for the liberty of others outside the church. The Reverend Christopher C. Webber, an Episcopalian, has said that Catholic structural reform must begin within a system "in which no layman yet has a voice, no parish priest, bishop or cardinal is elected, in which no representative forms exist." He added, in discussing such questions as attendance at religious ceremonies other than those of the Roman church or participation in weddings between non-Romans, "The basic theory is still that you must be guided in all such things by the hierarchy, that they will decide what is best for you and what you may do." Father Webber concludes by saying, "When all rules and power are placed in the hands of one man, however able and liberal and well advised, error is almost certain."

The official Catholic position on ecumenism is also different from the views of Protestants and others and is conditioned by the "one true church" theory. The ecumenical movement is a twentieth-century product intended to foster cooperation and unity among Protestant and Orthodox churches. Agreements not to compete in mission fields abroad were one result of ecumenism. Another was the formation of federations of churches, such as the Federal Council of Churches (which later became the National Council of Churches), and the World Council of Churches. Thus, one view of ecumenism is cooperative activity among equally valid churches organized in an ongoing federation or council. This concept did not prevent mergers of churches with similar roots or polity, but there was no assumption that all churches would necessarily become one ecclesiastical body.

A second view of ecumenism is that all Christians should be unified in one Christian body. During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI announced that such unity "cannot be attained save in identity of faith and by participation in the same sacraments and in the organic harmony of a single ecclesiastical control." He also asserted that "only the Catholic Church can offer" these elements. This is also the position of the decree on ecumenism of Vatican II.

A third view of ecumenism that emerged from Vatican II was evident in the cooperative activity at many local levels of peace and social-justice groups composed of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, sometimes as interfaith groups and often simply without accenting the differences in faith or church membership.

There is a minor controversy in the Roman Catholic church today as to whether all first-century churches--and hence modern churches--are as valid as the Catholic church. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, whom the Vatican has rebuffed, holds to the interpretation in Lumen Gentium of Vatican II: "This church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local congregations of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called churches in the New Testament." However, in 1987, Pope John Paul II, while in the United States, warned the U.S. bishops that "the universal church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular churches or as the federation of them."

The thorniest problem confronting the ecumenical movement today is the arrogance of the Vatican. It insists that the goal of ecumenism is the return to the "true church" in Rome, and it demands that its authoritarian structure and its positions on women, sex, celibacy, abortion, birth control, and homosexuality must be normative for other churches. Pope John Paul II has reaffirmed this position again and again.

An Episcopal bishop, John S. Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, wrote that he is not now in favor of working for ecumenical union with the Roman Catholic church. He lists among his reasons:

First, the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward

women.... secondly, the attitude of this church toward

homosexuality, which reveals not only an unwillingness

to hear new data, but also high levels of ecclesiastical

hypocrisy; and thirdly, the claim by this church of its

own infallibility, which makes significant internal

disagreement all but impossible and which gives to its,

ecumenical partners the empty choice of either converting

and returning to the "true church" or wasting time

in meaningless dialogue over trivial subjects that matter

very little to anyone.

Ecumenism, although almost exclusively a Christian term, has also implied a dialogue with and appreciation of various other religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Unfortunately, it is not only the Roman Catholic church that thinks of itself as the only true or authentic church; Christianity in general, over the centuries, has thought of itself in such a fashion. Some religions are messianic and therefore intolerant of other religions or of people who profess none.

If religious liberty were a crucial belief of all religious expressions and separation of church and state the accepted norm, so that no church or faith received any special recognition or subsidy from the state, there could be a friendly dialogue, a rivalry of ideas, and cooperation on solving such problems as poverty, violence, lack of respect for persons and the environment. Obviously, these are the ideals and goals of genuine humanists, whether or not they are members of organized religious groups. The major obstacles to these shared ideals and goals are the messianic and fundamentalist claims of some religious groups that ask government sponsorship of particular religious expressions, that demand government subsidies of specific religious enterprises, and that oppose separation of church and state.

It seems apparent to this writer that there is a deep insecurity in a Catholicism that has to insist on its unique claim to speaking for Christ when--if true--it ought to be apparent in the lives and deeds of its clergy and laity. There is also a deep insecurity among those fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants who evidently do not believe in the power of individual or group prayer unless officially sponsored by state or local governments in public or public-school ceremonies. They have forsaken the original ideas implicit in their religion and instead adopted the Constantinian heresy of government promotion of their claims to supremacy.

The first and major task of humanists is not merely to oppose and expose these pretensions and hypocrisies but chiefly to explain and defend religious liberty and separation of church and state.

If any religious groups dominate the state or are sponsored by it, there can be no genuine voluntary cooperation or dialogue. Dialogue presupposes a nonviolent discussion among equals and cooperation implies voluntarism, mutual respect, and action on agreed-upon issues. None of these is possible with state-preferred, sponsored, or subsidized religion, because those not sponsored or subsidized are always, to some degree, less accepted, less powerful, and less equal than those with official status.

In fact, official sponsorship and subsidy are a by-product of the exercise of political or financial power and not the result of any moral claim. Moral influence--as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King demonstrated--is evident in service to people and leadership against those who seek by sheer power to impose their institutions, beliefs, and practices on others.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:The Political Power of the Catholic Church
Author:Swomley, John M.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:The bishops lobby.
Next Article:Catholicism's new cold war: the church militant lurches rightward.

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