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The Roman Catholic hierarchy: putting the squeeze on politicians; the Catholic Church is pursuing a new policy of aggressive interference in lawmaking and elections.

When Pope John Paul II annually addresses the ambassadors to the Vatican in his New Year's "state of the world" speech, he sets forth his priority concerns for the coming year. In his 2005 address, given January 10 and followed by a posting of its English translation on the Vatican website, the pope maintains that the greatest challenge facing humanity "is the challenge of life" and that "the State has as its primary task precisely the safeguarding and promotion of human life." In this the pope specifically refers, first, to "the beginning of human life," declaring: "the human embryo is a subject identical to the human being which will be born at the term of its development." In this context he speaks against both abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Second, the pope refers to "the very sanctuary of life: the family," which he says is, in some countries, "threatened by legislation which--at times directly--challenges its natural structure, which is and must necessarily be that of a union between a man and a woman founded on marriage." He adds that the family "must never be undermined by laws based on a narrow and unnatural vision of man"--in other words, by laws recognizing gay marriage.

Though he takes up other issues in this speech, such as war and natural disasters, it's only in these matters that he argues in terms of government action. This is part of a pattern. The current leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has moved in recent years from pastoral persuasion to political pressure, using intimidation, coercion, and force to achieve obedience to its teachings on contraception, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, same sex marriage, and a range of other issues. The church seeks not merely to discipline recalcitrant church members but to require that church teachings on these subjects be imposed by coercive measures upon entire nations.

This is particularly clear in a Vatican statement issued in January 2003 by the authoritative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by the pope. In this statement, Roman Catholic politicians are told they aren't being faithful to church teaching if they vote against the church's position on issues such as abortion. "A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals." This reiterates church teachings that no division of public and private morality can be allowed. "There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence; on the one hand, the so-called spiritual life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called secular life, that is life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities in the responsibilities of public life and in culture?' The statement goes on to say, "No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements."

In 2004 the Vatican released another strongly worded directive demanding that Catholic politicians vote against the legalization of same-sex marriages, marriages that the pope had declared immoral. And, as reported in the May 1, 2004, New York Times, Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican office of worship and sacraments, declared that "any Catholic politician who supports abortion rights is 'not fit' to receive the Eucharist."

This viewpoint was stated as American Catholic policy on June 18, 2004, when the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, at their spring meeting outside of Denver, Colorado, approved a statement on "Catholics in Political Life" that brands Catholic politicians who support abortion rights for non-Catholics as "cooperating in evil? The statement insists that Catholic leaders are obligated to demonstrate their "fidelity to the moral teaching of the church in personal and public life" The bishops declare, "The separation of church and state does not require division between belief and public action, between moral principles and political choices, but protects the right of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life."

Consistent with this, in the middle of the recent presidential campaign, Bishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Missouri, declared that he would refuse communion to Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, because of the latter's views on abortion. And most shocking of all, on October 9, 2004, just three weeks before the election, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, Colorado, declared that to be a faithful Catholic one had to vote against Kerry (although he didn't explicitly endorse George W. Bush). Chaput was joined by Burke, Archbishop John J. Meyers of Newark, New Jersey, and many others. Never before have so many Catholic bishops interfered in a presidential election by explicitly warning Catholics that to vote a certain way was to commit a mortal sin requiring confession before receiving communion. In sum, agents of the last remaining absolute monarch in Europe interfered with the presidential election of a self-governing democracy.

And Kerry hasn't been the only target of such attacks. In April 2004 Bishop John Smith of Trenton, New Jersey, expressed his partisanship by declaring that New Jersey Governor James E. McGarvey was "not a devout Catholic" because, in the words of a May 1 New York Times article, "he held the view, common among Democratic politicians, of being personally opposed to abortion but feeling compelled to support abortion rights in his public life." Nor is abortion the only matter at issue. The new bishop of Camden, New Jersey, Joseph A. Galante, declared at his installation that he would deny communion to Governor McGarvey since the governor has remarried without obtaining a church annulment. A decade earlier, both former New York governor Mario Cuomo and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro incurred the wrath of church leaders for refusing to impose church abortion views on non-Catholics.

DEVELOPMENTS LIKE THESE force us to ask to what extent a large and powerful church, synagogue, or mosque has the right to coerce its members in order to influence public debate on issues of public morality. Every time a dominant church group does this, it is turning to the power of the state to enforce its religious or sectarian values, doing so because persuasion of a free people failed. This naturally violates the religious freedom of those of differing faith or no faith. The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1788 that ratified the U.S. Constitution stated the principle best. That convention called for a Bill of Rights, including the right of religious freedom, to be added to the new constitution, saying:
 That religion or the duty which we owe
 to our Creator, and the manner of discharging
 it can be directed only by reason
 and conviction, not by force or
 violence, and therefore all men have an
 equal, natural and unalienable right to
 the free exercise of religion according to
 the dictates of conscience, and that no
 particular religious sect or society ought
 be favored or established by Law in preference
 to others.

Roger Williams, a Baptist minister and the founder of Rhode Island, advanced the right of religious freedom, teaching in his famous "ship letter" of 1654 that compulsion may be exercised by officials of the state in the area of the secular but not of the sacred. James Madison, while a member of the Virginia legislature in 1785, wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments that religion and its practice must be left to the conviction and conscience of each person. Every individual and every religious body owes the duty of tolerance to all others with whom it disagrees, supporting the freedom of religion and conscience of everyone.

Beyond this principle, the American Catholic Church has a special duty to be tolerant to nonCatholics because it was a beneficiary of the tolerance of others when it was a small, immigrant church. Now that it's the largest private organization in the United States--claiming to represent 63 million people, or one of every five Americans--it should set a positive example.

Moreover, intolerance violates the early tradition of the American church. One of the finest examples of Catholic tolerance was provided by the first American bishop, John Carroll of Carrollton, the brother of Charles Carroll who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland. Canon Anson Phelps Stokes, in his definitive history, Church and State in the United States, observed:
 Carroll's consecration as the first American
 bishop of the Roman Catholic
 Church was the occasion of an act highly
 significant of his tolerance. He was chosen
 to this office in 1789 but not consecrated
 until the following year. The delay
 was due partly ... to Carroll's desire to
 have the objectionable medieval phrase
 exterminare haereticos omitted from the
 enumeration of the bishop's duties in his
 oath of consecration. That he succeeded
 in accomplishing his aim was highly
 important for the whole future of the
 Church in America.

Stokes quoted a 1787 letter by Carroll written in response to a magazine article critical of Catholicism. In it Carroll wrote:
 Thanks to genuine spirit and Christianity,
 the United States have banished intolerance
 from their system of government,
 and many of them have done the justice
 to every denomination of Christians,
 which ought to be done to them in all, of
 placing them on the same footing of citizenship,
 and conferring an equal right of
 participation in national privileges.

Archbishop Gibbons, who presided over the third plenary council of bishops in the United States in 1884, frequently declared that the democratic provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were principles to which devout Catholics could give their loyal assent. In an article published in 1909 he declared:
 American Catholics rejoice in our separation
 of Church and State, and I can conceive
 no combination of circumstances
 likely to arise which would make a union
 desirable to either Church or State.

In the 1950s Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati said,
 No group in America is seeking union of
 church and state; and least of all the
 Catholics. We deny absolutely and without
 any qualification that the Catholic Bishops
 of the United States are seeking a
 union of church and state by any endeavors
 whatsoever, either proximate or
 remote. If tomorrow Catholics constituted
 a majority of our country, they would not
 seek a union of church and state. They
 would then as now, uphold the Constitution
 and all its Amendments, recognizing
 the moral obligation imposed on all
 Catholics to observe and defend the Constitution
 and its Amendments.

In 1960 at Loyola University, Archbishop Egidio Vagnazzi, apostolic delegate to the United States, said:
 In practice, the Church will not interfere,
 and has not interfered, in local situations
 where the separation between Church
 and State may be considered the greater
 and more general good.... As far as the
 United States is concerned, I feel that it is
 a true interpretation of the feelings of the
 Hierarchy and of American Catholics in
 general to say that they are well satisfied
 with their Constitution and pleased with
 the fundamental freedom enjoyed by
 their Church; in fact, they believe that
 this freedom is to a large extent responsible
 for the expansion and consolidation
 of the Church in this great country.

Historically, Catholic politicians, from Al Smith to John F. Kennedy, have promised not to let the pope dictate to American Catholics on matters of secular public policy.

CONTRARY TO THAT HISTORY and tradition, however, there has now been an enormous and conscious shift in policy by Catholic Church officials to move from persuasion to the use of coercive tactics to enforce certain official teachings. Make no mistake about it: by this change in policy, the Catholic Church is using its power not merely to enforce church teachings among its members but to engage the coercive power of the state to establish crimes and thus to impose its doctrines and view of morality upon the entire community.

The method used by the current leadership is to specifically target and intimidate Catholic politicians. The goal is to force them to vote for and support the church's views on a wide range of subjects including abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and assisted suicide. The church intimidates nonconforming Catholic politicians by withholding communion and threatening excommunication. It denies them the opportunity to speak at Catholic churches, colleges, and universities.

Such efforts force Catholic political leaders to choose between their duty to all the people whom they represent and the coercive mandates of a misguided church leadership. To achieve the goal of religious freedom for all, political leaders are required to treat their religious values as personal morality and define crime only according to principals of public, secular morality. But the current Catholic hierarchy doesn't want Catholics who are politicians to think this way.

Though it is true that every person, organization, and religious sect in the United States, including the Catholic Church, has the right to free speech and is thus entitled to express an opinion on any subject and to likewise attempt to persuade nonadherents to its views, this right doesn't logically extend to the use of coercion and intimidation of members and nonmembers through religious sanctions. And though every religious organization has the right to set its own standards for membership and its own rules of member conduct, this doesn't logically extend to imposing conflicts of interest upon those members democratically elected to serve a broad public constituency.

It's difficult for nonbelievers to understand just how intimidating and coercive such measures can be. For a true believer, the loss of the ability to receive the body and blood of Christ, and the peace and comfort that such a union brings at times of stress and spiritual need, is devastating. The separation from spiritual friends, the public castigation of one as a sinner, is a true loss, a powerful duress, and a public humiliation. Though everyone has the right to persuade another to his or her view of truth, this doesn't extend to the use of such intimidation, coercion, or force. And these activities aren't protected as either free speech or the free exercise of religion.

This acceptance of what is tantamount to force, then, crosses the line and is extremely dangerous. One could ask, if refusal of communion doesn't work, would the church escalate to excommunication, interdict, inquisition, or even burning at the stake? Once the use of force is accepted, it is only a matter of degree as to just how much force will be applied until obedience is achieved.

Ultimately then, the most recent Vatican statements and ecclesiastical misdeeds aren't about taking a principled stand for Catholic doctrines. (Otherwise, why does the church threaten politicians only in opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage but not in opposition to capital punishment, preemptive war, and the use of atomic weapons?) Rather they are about power and the abuse of power. By setting itself up--through coercion, intimidation and religious sanctions--as the final arbiter of the morality of legislation enacted by the United States Congress and the legislatures of the several states, the Catholic Church is attempting to become nothing less than the de facto established church of the United States. It is admitting that it has been unable to persuade the majority of its faithful, let alone the general public, to some of its demands. After listening to church teaching and considering these matters thoughtfully, a large majority of American Catholics now ignore the church's teaching on contraception and divorce; Catholic women have abortions at about the same rate as other Americans and a strong majority support a woman's right to choose for herself whether or not to have an abortion. Furthermore, many thoughtful and informed Catholics support the right to die with dignity and the equality of gays and lesbians to choose caring relationships without government or church interference.

The times are clearly changing and the hierarchy has grown desperate in its efforts to hold back the tide. But this desperation could backfire. The church's interference in the recent U.S. presidential election, for example, wasn't only contrary to the principles of freedom and democracy but it was also unwise, since it puts the church in a lose-lose situation. If Kerry had won the election, church officials risked an unfriendly White House. Although Kerry lost for a variety of reasons, authoritarian church leaders have taken the risk that many Catholics who supported him will blame the American bishops for the loss of such a close election. Forcing Catholics and Catholic politicians to choose between their duty to their country and their commitment to the church is a sure recipe for internal dissension, anticlericalism, and perhaps schism. Just such a conflict is what caused English Catholics in the sixteenth century to flock to the Anglican Church.

For these and other reasons, then, it would be of benefit to everyone if American Catholics worked to cleanse the American church of this current intolerance that is inconsistent with the American church's earlier history, the tradition of the American people, and the demands of nonbelievers for freedom of religion and conscience. In this connection, the American bishops need to be encouraged to advise the Vatican that the Catholic Church in the United States is different from the church in Europe and elsewhere.

There is no official church in the United States. And in our time there are no interdicts or inquisitions.

The complaint, then, isn't with citizens who are Catholics but with the current church leadership. Nor is the complaint to be taken as an excuse for Catholic bashing or religious bigotry. It is simply part of a healthy debate toward restoring tolerance. The United States was founded on that ideal and can't survive, values intact, without it. II.

Robert Grant, a retired New York attorney and a former judge, is the author of a three volume work, American Ethics and the Virtuous Citizen, published by Humanist Press, and has taught American government at Augusta State University. He can be reached at
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Author:Grant, Robert
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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