10 November 2012.
By Gerald T. Slevin
The Catholic Church is in a deepening worldwide crisis precipitated largely by the current Vatican's failure, inability and/or refusal to deal effectively and openly with the expanding scandal of priest sexual abuse of children. Its aged and apparently rapidly declining 85-year old pope will likely soon be replaced, ending hopefully a long era of almost dictatorial rule. The Vatican's modern-era geo-political strategy has just fatally failed with the re-election of Barack Obama, which the pope tried hard to prevent. The related implications of Obama's victory are beginning to become clearer for the American Catholic Church, for the worldwide Catholic Church and for the spreading scandal of priest sexual abuse of children.
I. ARE THE BISHOPS AND POPE NOW CHASTENED BY OBAMA'S VICTORY ?
President Barack Obama has won re-election by a clear MAJORITY of all American voters, of all Catholic voters, of all women voters and of all states. The almost half trillion dollar amount spent trying to defeat Obama, mainly by some tax-averse plutocratic Republican supporters from the top 0.01% financially, including some major Catholic donors supported by various U.S. bishops, was evidently wasted money. All plutocrats must now pay their fair share of American taxes, and all Americans will now have to accept Obamacare, as the top Republican, U.S. Speaker of the House and a Catholic, John Boehner, has just done. The Nuns on the Bus surely left the popemobile in the dust on election day!
The pope's and U.S. bishops' political prestige in American elections has just been permanently diminished, if not completely destroyed. The modern-era papal geo-political strategy is in shambles. It is time to let Caesar, not the pope, be Caesar, as the U. S. Founding Fathers wisely intended.
After making such an unprecedented electoral effort to try to elect Republicans and ban gay marriage in the U.S.A., the Catholic hierarchy has very little to show for it. The anticipated lame excuses, such as poor catechetics, insufficient zeal, changing demographics and even the weather, are already circulating, but few find them credible. A majority of Americans just reject completely the social policies that the Catholic hierarchy and their favored Republicans were urging.
Unfortunately, this aged and tired pope had already prematurely and unwisely rewarded with choice diocesan appointments the politically incompetent American hierarchs who failed so completely here, including Cardinal Dolan and Archbishops Lori, Chaput and Cordileone. They, along with their apparent Vatican savvy masters, including American Cardinals Burke, Stafford, Law, Levada and Rigali, appear sheepishly to be keeping very low profiles currently. Cardinal Burke, of course, will now have to forego wearing to Romney's inauguration his $30,000 almost obscenely princely outfit, that seems to some to combine the worst of the styles of Louis XIV and Lady Gaga, both Catholics, of course!
The pope's customary U.S. political weapon, the anti-abortion wedge issue wrapped this year in a contraceptive device, completely backfired and helped lead to a 12% advantage among women voters for Obama. The U.S. bishops' current general counsel's flawed, and at times even ludicrous "Taco Bell" strategy appears to have been a major reason for Obama's big victory. Sandra Fluke, not Rush Limbaugh, has had the last laugh. Obama perhaps owes the pope a bottle of schnapps for the pope's unintended help with his re-election. Poor Romney doesn't yet seem to realize how badly he was used to fight for a doomed papal cause.
Given the massive Democratic voter suppression efforts recently pursued by U.S. Republicans, which apparently reduced Democratic turnout by nearly 8 million voters, Obama's three-million vote victory margin is almost breathtaking and a clear mandate. And Obama also got, and now has, a larger majority of Democrats in the Senate to approve up to four new U.S. Supreme Court Justices that Obama may get an opportunity to appoint in his second term. This is obviously just the icing on Obama's cake.
To complete the sweep, the papally backed anti-gay marriage forces lost 0 for 4 in failed efforts to thwart gay marriages by legal obstacles. Americans have shown decisively that they strongly support civil rights for gay persons. Moreover, gay rights supporters have decisively shown they will no longer be pushed around by bigoted religious zealots.
The pope and his inept U.S. bishops must now accept once and for all the electoral reality that sensible family planning and gay civil marriages are here to stay in the U.S.A. The hierarchy must also now, like Jesus, just preach morality and not try legally compel it in complex moral cases by criminalization. American voters have rejected the criminalization approach decisively.
U.S. bishops, some of whom insulted Obama repeatedly and needlessly during the campaign, including one who compared Obama to mass murderers, Hitler and Stalin, will now have to face Obama's motivated Federal prosecutors. These prosecutors can now be expected to pursue vigorously bishops who have covered up for priests who have either raped children and/or facilitated child pornography. These prosecutors aggressively went after recently convicted Kansas City Bishop Finn's child pornographer priest, apparently thereby inducing Finn to accept a plea bargain for his criminal failure to report the priest promptly to the police as required by applicable state law. Obama has also personally and strongly condemned child sexual abuse following Penn State's Sandusky revelations. Significantly, Federal prosecutors are pursing apparent Federal crimes implicated in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.
Fortunately, perhaps, for U.S. bishops and the pope, as expressed by Obama on video here in tearfully giving his post-election thanks this week to his young Chicago campaign workers, Obama has fond memories of his youthful service as a low-paid community advocate for some Catholic parishes on the Southside of Chicago. He clearly is not anti-Catholic.
Similarly, Obama's IRS tax officials can now be expected to address thoroughly the significant pending complaint to revoke the bishops' Federal income tax-exempt status because of reportedly extensive political lobbying done during the election campaign by numerous U.S. bishops in many apparent violations of a crucial statutory pre-condition for Federal tax-exempt status. The loss of tax-exempt status would likely push more American Catholic dioceses into insolvency.
Moreover, much of the funding for U. S. charitable health care and even some educational activities done in the bishops' names comes from Federal subsidies. Generally, non-denominational nonprofit organizations compete with the bishops for these scarce Federal subsidies and often perform at least as favorably as their Catholic counterparts, at times with less hassle over contraception and similar issues. U.S. bishops may now find that the new Obama administration is much less interested in the bishops' requests for Federal subsidies. Certainly, the Obama administration will henceforth pay much less positive attention to various bishops' rants and threats, especially since he will not be running for office again.
It is perhaps too early to tell fully how chastened the pope and bishops will be by their devasting and apparently unexpected defeats. It appears that the hierarchy, including the pope with his new ex-FOX News media advisor, and many Republicans may have been listening almost exclusively during the election campaign to Rupert Murdoch's FOX News, which was still predicting a significant Republican victory right up until election day. This prediction, of course, proved to be drastically wrong and had been contradicted earlier by many scientific polls that FOX commentators, Romney and, apparently the pope as well, just disregarded.
The U.S. bishops before the election were facing a real risk of increasing criminal prosecutions of Catholic hierarchs and more bankruptcies of Catholic dioceses, all related to the continuing scandals of priests' sexually abusing children. A Romney presidency and his likely U.S. Supreme Court appointments, coupled with larger donations from wealthy Catholics who would benefit from Romney's tax reductions on the top 1%, must have seemed a better papal option as the Catholic Church steadily and almost relentlessly continues to slide down the child sex abuse sewer.
The pope's "Hail Mary" pass to Romney, however, has been intercepted by Obama. The modern papacy's geo-political strategy of exchanging papal influence over Catholic voters for papal political influence has failed completely and once and for all. The pope and U.S. bishops must find a new strategy, or face a total collapse under the unrelenting legal and financial pressure on the American Church, and even on the Vatican itself, that likely may come from Obama himself.
The U.S. bishops begin their semi-annual meetings in Baltimore on this Monday (11/12). Will they reassess their prior strategy or will they just wait for Obama to take the offensive? Will the U.S. bishops shake up their leadership and legal teams or just continue to limp along aimlessly with their failed strategy that must have shocked and disappointed Catholic plutocratic donors who now will not likely continue to support papal causes financially?
Will the U.S. bishops finally address making bishops truly accountable by mandating (1) that bishops once again be answerable to lay Catholics as bishops were before Constantine in the early Catholic Church, and (2) that all dioceses have effective and comprehensive independent annual financial and priest personnel file audits.
We should have some clearer indications from the bishops, and therby indirectly from the pope, within a few days.
As discussed in more detail below, it seems sadly very likely that the pope and bishops will not, or, given their ideological approach and consistent prior decisions, will not be able to, assess and respond to this significant electoral defeat realistically. If that stonewalling happens, then the Catholic hierarchy's future will likely end up during Obama's second term in the hands of various national criminal and insolvency courts, as well as at the International Criminal Court. The hierarchy will either become accountable under law voluntarily or involuntarily, but they will soon become accountable one way or another. The potential impact of this on the worldwide Catholic Church's longstanding hierachical structure and current, failed geo-political strategy is considered below.
As a lifelong practicing Catholic and son of devout Irish Catholic immigrants, as a grandparent, and especially as an experienced attorney who for decades advised senior executives of multinational organizations, it makes little difference to me at this point how the accountability reforms are implemented. If the hierarchy doesn't seize the current opportunity to implement reforms themselves, it will soon be done for them. They need only ask convicted Kansas City's Bishop Finn, or the once imprisoned Canadian Bishop Lahey or Cardinal Rigali's former top Philly subordinate, currently imprisoned Monsignor Lynn.
Imprisoning a few Cardinals would surely lead to fundamental reform and, given present trends and the incompetent and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy that appears to control all major decisions, such imprisonments are more likely than not. The rule of law is now increasingly being applied to the Catholic hierarchy worldwide. That will only accelerate during President Obama's second term. Make no mistake about that, as Obama likes to say!
II. IS CONSTANTINE'S CURSE NOW LIFTED BY OBAMA'S VICTORY?
The pagan Roman Emperor, amidst widespread Catholic persecutions, announced in Milan in 313 A.D. a new policy of religious freedom for the Roman Empire. Constantine, imperialist and pragmatist to the core, however, also soon thereafter, under implied threats of force, initiated a process completed a few decades later of politically commandeering the increasingly influential Roman papacy, thereby making it a key instrument of Roman imperial power. As part of this effort, Constantine, seeking empire-wide religious stability and tranquillity, pressed hard for theological uniformity at the Council of Nicea he convened in 325 A.D. He thereafter also pressed for agreement on the canon, or included writings, of the New Testament to esablish a "fixed Bible." The Catholic Church continues at present to struggle with these imperially mandated fourth-century ecclesiological, theological and scriptural decisions made prematurally and unwisely, mainly to accomodate Constantine, who tolerated little dissent and even had his own wife and son executed a year after the Council.
As a consequence of this imperial interference, the theretofore consensual Catholic Church effectively in the fourth century accepted, involuntarily as a "de facto imperial curse," a coercive hierarchical structure that still currently enables unaccountable Vatican bureaucrats to dominate worldwide Catholicism, contrary to Jesus' clear Gospel mandate of the "first" serving the "last."
Neither the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, two World Wars nor even the 1960's Second Vatican Council could replace this coercive hierarchical structure significantly and restore the early Church's consensual structure. John XXIII started to replace this structure by seeking to have popes share power with the worldwide bishops. John XXII died in 1963, however, as this process was just beginning, only to have power-hungry Vatican Cardinals get subsequent popes to maintain the Constantinian-initiated papal hierarchical structure, apparently as the price these recent popes paid to get the needed Vatican Cardinals' votes to get elected pope. Popes rule Catholics, but voting Cardinals, especially Vatican Cardinals, pick popes!
Will Barack Obama's resounding re-election victory, despite unprecedented papal opposition poorly disguised as "religious liberty" and ineptly managed by American Cardinals and Archbishops, including Dolan, Rigali, Wuerl, George, Lori, Chaput, Corileone, et al., now be the beginning of the end of 1,700 years of papal absolutism, thereby lifting Constantine's curse? As Obama and his Federal prosecutors, assisted by state and foreign prosecutors as well as the separate efforts of private lawyers for abuse survivors, set an example for governments worldwide that will likely demonstrate that the Catholic hierarchy's worldwide predatory priest sexual abuse cover-ups will be fully answerable to the rule of law, can the Vatican's current hierarchical structure survive? Very unlikely!
Obama would be a surprising choice to be the modern Luther, who began his original Reformation in 1517, 500 years prior to Obama's scheduled final year in office. Obama is an evangelical Christian non-Catholic, with an African and an American parent. He was educated as a boy in an Indonesian Catholic school and worked for several years as a recent Ivy League grad and low-paid volunteer activist in several Chicago Catholic parishes. He is married to a remarkable Princeton/Harvard Law-trained descendant of African-American slaves, a mother who has championed children and reportedly considered in her husband's first term making the curtailment of child sexual abuse, rather than of child obesity, her main project as First Lady. Of course, Barack Obama is also a constitutional law scholar, a bold advocate, a devoted father and the strong leader of the world's most powerful constitutional democracy. A fairer match for Constantine and his papal successors than Luther might ever have been, it appears.
For much of the subsequent millenium and a half after Constantine, until 1870 when the pope lost his Italian political kingdom permanently to secular nationalists, popes had fiercely and consistently sought to preserve, and even to enhance, their geo-political power, mainly (1) by forming political, and occasionally military, alliances with more powerful European monarchs, (2) by controlling, and even in some cases immolating, internal Church reformers and dissenters, and (3) by exploiting their purported "mystical" spiritual power.
The 1789 French Revolution led generally, by the end of World War I in 1918, to the replacement of dominant European monarchies by constitutional democracies. An exception, the Vatican, still today remains at least two centuries behind these relentless constitutional developments.
This ultimately futile papal resistance to liberal modernity has recently been noted by the prophetic and perceptive former major papal contender, leading Jesuit biblical scholar and Milan's beloved Cardinal, Carlos Martini, in his final testament as noted in the BBC video here. Cardinal Martini especially noted sadly and shamefully the Vatican's unaccountable failure to act effectively to protect children from priest sexual abuse. This, of course, is a clear violation of modern democratic legal norms that are currently being applied worldwide by an increasing number of prosecutors and abuse survivors lawyers, some of whom are now relentlessly closing in on the Vatican and worldwide hierarchy.
Even after the papacy lost its Italian kingdom in 1870, the popes had desperately continued to try to maximize their remaining power and wealth. Pius IX, who had already in 1864 denounced political liberalism and the loss of the Church's privileged position in other European nations, effectively and desperately pressured bishops assembled at the First Vatican Council to declare in 1869 that popes were "infallibile" in his futile bid to preserve and even enhance papal claims to unique "mystical" powers.
After a self-imposed half-century exile in Vatican City, popes emerged in the 1920's with a new geo-political strategy that included trading papal political "imprimaturs" and support to desperate leaders in nations with large Catholic voter populations, in exchange for, among other things, (1) special legal privileges for national Catholic Churches and hierarchs and (2) large financial subsidies for their national Catholic Churches and institutions.
During the childhood of the current pope, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), who had served purportedly involuntarily as a teenager in Hitler's army, Pius XI beginning in 1929 gave fascist dictators, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, valuable papal political support at critical times in exchange for special privileges and financial subsidies for the Catholic Church and its hierarchy in Italy, Germany and Spain, respectively.
John Paul II globally expanded this papal geo-political strategy, including by reaching an understanding in the 1980's with Ronald Reagan and U.S. Republicans that has continued through George W. Bush's presidency right up through the recent U.S. elections. Key elements of that U.S. strategy included (i) favorable financial support through Federally funded "faith-based" initiatives for papal projects, (ii) special White House access and privleges for papal pawns, and (iii) lower tax rates on wealthy American papal donors, all in exchange for papal electoral support mainly in the form of strident U.S. bishops' anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage advocacy against Democratic candidates that appeared clearly intended to try to steer conservative American Catholics to vote Republican.
Not surprisingly, a former Reagan staffer and now well-paid CEO of the Catholic Knights of Columbus (KofC), Carl Anderson, is currently a top American adviser to Ratzinger, and a key Board member of the scandalous Vatican Bank. On Anderson's watch, the KofC has, for example as noted here, funded anti-gay marriage campaigns that were aimed from all indications at undercutting Obama's re-election efforts.
This flawed papal U.S. political strategy, which just failed totally, is described further briefly here. As noted above, Obama was handily re-elected with a majority of the American Catholic voters. The papal position was also defeated on the four "anti-gay marriage" ballot initiatives. In baseball terms, the pope's team was shut out!
This American political defeat puts greater legal and financial pressure on the Vatican. The 85-year old pope seems to be declining steadily under the pressure from existing scandals and likely will decline more after this major defeat. The defeat shows the 20th century papal geo-political strategy no longer works in the 21st century Internet Age when Catholics worldwide are able to follow closely the Vatican's worldwide cover-up of priest child abuse and the increasingly recurring stories of Vatican bureaucratic financial corruption.
The pope's butler's recent conduct suggests the butler no longer thinks the pope is operating fully in charge. A papal election seems likely soon. But will it make much difference? The Vatican's problems, which will likely only increase steadily and quickly as Obama's and other leaders' prosecutors move in and Vatican money runs out, are closely connected with the Vatican's secretive and unaccountable structure. Electing a new pope without changing the structure will never be enough to save the current Catholic Church.
As voting Cardinals assess new papal candidates, as well as the Cardinals' own prospects of being prosecuted for their failures to curtail priest sexual abuse of children, these Cardinals would be well advised to consider tossing the Church's Constantinian imperial structure and replacing it with a decentalized, networked church authority structure that is both accountable and transparent to lay Catholics worldwide. If Cardinals fail to do this soon, either prosecutors and international government forces will do it for them or the Church will just quickly morph into politically and spiritually irrelevant cult status. The choice is up to the voting Cardinals.
III. ARE CATHOLIC CHILDREN NOW PROTECTED BY OBAMA'S PAPAL VICTORY?
Not yet, but they could be soon if Obama acts boldly and decisively. Vatican experts estimate that over 100,000 American children have been victims of priest sexual predators. These abuse survivors, their families and society generally bear the effects and costs of these sexual assaults for many decades after the actual sexual assaults while the clerical predators and their pedophile protecting bishops go free.
To curtail this abuse epidemic, the current procedures for selecting and monitoring priests must change, but the Catholic hierarchy has refused and/or is unable to do so, which is why the role of diligent prosecutors is so critical. Instead, the hierarchy has tried to protect the status quo by pursuing endless and wasteful legal maneovers and by trying to control the prosecutors' bosses by political pressure like that which just played out in the U.S. presidential elections described above.
The ways to curtail priest abuse are well known and fairly straightforward, but the Vatican refuses to implement them effectively and openly. The potential priest selection pool must be expanded to generate more reliable candidates--that means welcoming married and women priests. Also, priests and their bishop bosses must be monitored by independent, comprehensive and regular audits. These audits would need to cover both pastoral and episcopal behavior and all parish and diocesan financial matters.
Also, all abuse allegations against custodians of childen, including priests, must be promptly reported to the police with severe penalties for failing to do so.
Other nations are quickly moving on these monitoring and reporting requirements; U.S. bishops are not and instead cynically try to create ineffective and duplicious fronts, while they lobby to prevent legislative solutions. The Vatican has stopped all efforts worldwide to expand the priest selection pool. Instead, the Vatican has resorted to inadequate and flawed approaches like creating more deacons and shuffling foreign priests from country to country.
While neither Obama nor any other political leader can change the priest selection standards, political leaders can impose monitoring and reporting requirements. Ireland is in the process of doing this and Obama must follow Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's example. Custodian (including priests) sexual abuse of children, like child pornography, is at least a national problem, and not just a a few states' problem. It requires a Federal legislative solution and Federal enforcement of these laws. Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania and in many other states have demonstrated their ability to unduly influence state legislators, judges and prosecutors. Obama must step up to protect defenseless American children and implement a comprehensive Federal solution.
There may now be a unique opportunity for bold and creative bishops to craft an overall resolution of this mess that would be acceptable to Obama and Boehner. Altenatively, they can continue to watch the American Catholic Church collapse. A resolution could possibly include some amnesty, while compensating all abuse survivors fairly and fully. It must also at a minimum contain enforceable laws to protect children prospectively.
Gerald T. Slevin is a retired lawyer living in New York City. He is a graduate of Providence College and Harvard Law School.
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