It seems to me that we might usefully consider the behaviour of the Roman Catholic Church in many jurisdictions today in the light of historical struggles between Rome and secular power. In an article in the Guardian published yesterday (26 June 2012) Katherine Stewart (author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children) argues that Catholic bishops in the United States are abusing the idea of religious freedom in such a way as to claim religious privilege. In a summary statement at the beginning, the article says this:
The founding fathers saw the state as guarantor of freedom from persecution. Now, the Church is trying to cast it as persecutor.
In the article itself Ms. Stewart gives us a number of examples of religious leaders complaining that religious freedom is in danger because powerful religious institutions are not being permitted to exercise authority over employees in defiance of federal or state labour legislation.
But the problem, as Stewart says, goes far beyond the question of the right of religious institutions, like hospitals and other agencies, which are often funded by the government, to impose religious values on their employees — as in the cause célèbre of the requirement that coverage for contraception be included in health care insurance for female employees in religious institutions (such as hospitals and clinics) funded by federal agencies. Not at all. It extends even to
… the astonishing claim that religious freedom has suffered in America because the country is becoming “less religious”, and people who aren’t religious supposedly don’t care about religious freedom.
The claim is made by Archbishop Gomez (archbishop of Los Angeles) in an article in the conservative Catholic journal First Things, where, astonishingly, he says this:
But our freedoms are also being eroded as the result of constant agitation from de-Christianizing and secularizing elements in American society. In the public arena, we’ve seen relentless efforts to get Church agencies to go along with secular agendas that violate Catholic beliefs—from trying to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and sterilizations, to trying to coerce Catholic adoption agencies to place children with homosexual couples.
In our wider culture, Christian faith and values are increasingly portrayed—in the media, in the courts, even in comments from high government officials—as a form of bigotry. In our diverse, pluralistic society, it seems sometimes that Christianity is becoming the one lifestyle that can’t be tolerated to have a role in public life.
“Our freedoms”, in other words, according to the archbishop, are being eroded by the mere fact that others are exercising their freedom! There is a pattern developing here, and it is a dangerous one. It assumes that religious freedom, as Stewart says, implies religious privilege. Secular criticism of religion erodes religious freedom, because it makes it seem as though religious beliefs are hangovers from the past, bigoted, and out of step. But of course no one is saying that religious people cannot be bigoted. Their freedom is unimpaired, even though those who disagree with them will criticise them for bigotry and unjustified prejudice. They, after all, criticise others for being relativists, unprincipled, and immoral; they claim is often made by the religious that contemporary society is morally rudderless, deeply conflicted and in a state of moral and social crisis.
The “Fortnight for Freedom” to which Archbishop Gomez refers is an attempt by the Catholic Church to impose its will on the government. Coming as it does in the midst of a presidential campaign, it obviously has the purpose of influencing the electorate, and warning the present administration that it will exert its considerable power in an attempt to unseat the President and replace it with an administration that will look more favourably on religious privilege, even though, as Stewart points out, the privilege of religious institutions in America is already considerable.
The “Fortnight for Freedom” kicked off on the saint’s day commemorating St. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, who was, in the end, beheaded by Henry for his refusal to take the oath recognising the king’s supremacy, but who, before that, was a zealous persecutor of reformers, and burner of books and men. The significance of the choice of this particular day to kick off the “Fortnight for Freedom” should not be lost on anyone. Like Thomas More, rigid and unbending in his orthodoxy and faithfulness to Rome, the Roman Catholic Church will not accept curbs on its authority established by secular governments or secular people. It is not freedom that it wants, but power.
In his review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Christopher Hitchens reflects on the English Reformation.
Part of the greatness of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, it has always seemed to me, is its conscious analogy to the English Reformation. The Inner Party is the holder of a secret book, on which profane eyes may not gaze, and the public language of the dictatorship is a jargon designed to obliterate every possibility of free thought. Regular rituals of execrations denounce the infidel and the Evil One. Over the scene rules an Eternal Father, or rather Big Brother. The struggle of the dissenter is to find a tongue in which to speak: a vernacular that is, as the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England so quaintly yet memorably put it, one ”understanded of the people.” [in Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, 149]
And this brings me, by a rather circuitous route, to Eamon Duffy’s Telegraph article: “The story of the reformation needs reforming,” where he argues that the English Reformation was a cultural catastrophe for Britain, and that now ”it seems less obvious than it once did that the religion which gave us the Wilton Diptych and Westminster Abbey, or the music of Tallis, Byrd and Elgar, is intrinsically un-English.”
But it is precisely the kind of thing being claimed by the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States, though the demands were in More’s day less camouflaged by the constitutional language of religious freedom, that makes the religion which gave Britain these things, in fact, deeply un-English. Consider the history of other European countries where the writ of the pope still ran with full vigour. There is scarcely one of them that has not been, at one time or another, governed for many years by autocrats and dictators. “The flood of English freedom,” as Wordsworth called it, though by no means perfect, is at least partly the basis upon which the American Republic was founded. The demand that there be “no taxation without representation” was an English sentiment urged by residents in English colonies. Freedom came slowly but by sure degrees, from the time of the Commonwealth (1649-1660) until the many reform acts that broadened the suffrage until it became at last universal 1928, when the age for women voters was lowered from its 1918 level of 30 years, to 21 years, the same as men. The progress of freedom was sometimes creakingly slow, and is nowhere perfect, but a reasonable conception of the source of that freedom lies, I suggest, in the English Reformation, and its imposition of a state sponsored religion which was, in fact, itself grounded in dissent.
The trouble with Eamon Duffy’s version of things lies in the suggestion that Britain stood in no danger from Rome at all during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Duffy seems to think that he has dispensed with these dangers by adverting to the imaginary plot to assassinate Charles II dreamed up by Titus Oates. But there were other plots, the Babington Plot, the Ridolfi Plot and the Gunpowder Plot, all of them based on the Pope’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I (see Pius V’s Bull against Elizabeth , here), and his declaration that anyone who killed her would be doing God’s service. (The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is not a figment of Protestant imagination, nor was the Te Deum ordered by Gregory XIII to be sung in celebration at the “victory” of so many Protestant dead. The “victory” was also celebrated in a fresco commissioned by the Pope from Giorgio Vasari.) Pius V’s declaration of papal power is unequivocal:
Him alone [Peter and successors to Peter] He [God] has made ruler over all peoples and kingdoms, to pull up, destroy, scatter, disperse, plant and build, so that he may preserve His faithful people (knit together with the girdle of charity) in the unity of the Spirit and present them safe and spotless to their Saviour.
The loss of so many treasures in the closing and destruction of the monasteries in Britain was no doubt a cultural calamity, as Duffy claims, but the rooting out of the power that claimed such supremacy over peoples and nations, and, in effect, still does, as we have seen above, is no loss, but sheer gain. It was in the exercise of this power that Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England so relentlessly hunted down and imprisoned (some he had burned at the stake) dissenters and reformers. It is not at all clear to me that a bad bargain was struck when such overweening power was exchanged for the more moderate Church of England, which, while persecuting at first, became, in time, a broad house within which, at least for a time, Christians of many different persuasions could find a comfortable home. It may have come to lack in zeal, though, in its first starting out, it was zealous and even repressive, and though it seemed often confused and confusing, as the present Archbishop of Canterbury has been, it still avoided the worst offences of the Roman Catholic Church, in thrall to which, if the English Reformation had turned out differently, English history would have, I think, taken a very different course, and may have even deferred the turn to democracy — which the Roman Catholic Church does its best to undermine whenever it gets the chance — even demanding, in Canada, an appeal of the British Columbia ruling on assisted dying. Forget all about due process and democracy. The bishops command.
None of this, of course, is meant to qualify any of my frequent criticisms of Christianity or religion in general. While the Church of England may have been, in those particular historical circumstances, better than the continued subservience of the English people to Rome, this does not in any way suggest that the Church of England, Anglicanism, or Christianity in any form, is a rational response to questions regarding the meaning or purpose of life. Not only that, but it is my conviction that religion will never be content to see itself as one interest group among many; it will always seek for and grap if possible as much power over law and governance as it can. The Roman Catholic Church, based on the fiction of a Vatican state, is a particularly dangerous player in this quest for power, since it has diplomatic representation in most countries, and therefore can influence governments directly. Of course, Islam, with its many nations governed according to Islamic law, has a similar relationship internationally, and since it is prepared to use this power to leverage advantage for Muslims in other nations, it poses a similar danger to that posed by the Roman Catholic Church. The willingness of a minority (however small) to use violence in pursuit of power (without clear evidence of restraint by majority Muslim agencies or opinion), makes Islam particularly dangerous in this respect, in my view.