‘Gestapo’ is the short form of Geheime Staatspolizei, or Secret State Police. The Roman Catholic Church has such an organisation, whose depredations upon members of the church is only revealed when someone balks at the high-handed way in which it seeks to put a lid on controversy or even thoughtful questions put by its front line clergy. When the Roman Catholic Church wants to cover something up, like the widespread sexual and physical abuse of children, they sweep it under the door of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, usually called CDF, for short, and the CDF tentacles reach into every aspect of the church’s life around the world, silencing priests, hiding the bad apples in the priesthood from the police, even transferring them to other parishes so that they get to abuse a new crop unsuspecting children. And people whose children may be at risk, as Frank Bruni points out in his column, “Catholicism’s Curse,” in the New York Times, have no say as to who is appointed to their parish. Bishops move priests around at will, and parishes take what they are given, even priests who are likely to prey on their children.
Not surprisingly, the present pope, Ratzinger, who was the former head of the CDF for many years under the pontificate of Karol Józef Wojtyła, finds the CDF, the church’s Geheime Welt Polizei, a useful agent to do his dirty work, challenging nuns (a favourite, according to Bruni), and recusant priests, reaching out with hierarchical veto wherever individualism or thoughtfulness rear their ugly heads. As Bruni points out, the issues at stake are often simply organisational aspects of the church, like the male priesthood or celibacy, which have no particular doctrinal significance, and are merely human accommodations, but the questioning of which the church, with “imperious regularity,” as Bruni says, challenges and condemns, mainly because the church is the one European feudal monarchy left in existence, centuries after feudalism became a dead letter in European society, and popes, sequestered in their fake state, clearly enjoy wielding absolute power bequeathed to it from those ancient absolutisms. And here we are, several centuries later, and the church is still acting with high-handed disregard for human dignity (of which it has made such a fetish in other situations), condemning nuns because they do not spend enough time condemning abortion, and do good works instead, disciplining priests who raise questions about aspects of church order, and yet welcoming into its fold anti-Semitic bishops whose minds are on the same reactionary wavelength as the pope and his curia, which he has stacked with extreme conservatives who will bow to his every whim.
There is a priest in Ireland who has been a thorn in Ratzinger’s flesh for some time now. He has now, after years of raising questions in books and articles read by Catholics who want to see change in the church, been placed under threat of excommunication, for he cannot in conscience simply recant and claim to uphold teachings that he cannot support. Fr. Tony Flannery joined the Redemptorists in 1964, when he was 17. He is the founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, whose meetings he has been forbidden to attend. Although forbidden to have any contact with the press, or to write books or articles, he held a press conference at which he spoke of the threat of excommunication under which he now stands. But the church’s Gestapo will not parlay with him. They want his submission and obedience only, failing which he will face excommunication for his stated views, and his refusal to renounce them. The Gestapo (CDF) has refused to meet with him, though officials of the Redemptorist Order have made it clear to him that the demands are coming straight from this secret organisation. According to the Galway Advertiser:
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a group of cardinals, monsignors, archbishops, and bishops charged with safeguarding and upholding Catholic doctrine. Fr Flannery said the CDF had not contacted him directly and had refused to engage with him, but he had been made aware that the orders were coming from it.
Like secret police everywhere, they do their work in the background, without fanfare, and they work best if they are unresponsive and threatening. Once they consent to consultation and parlay, their effectiveness of the threat is lost.
As Fr Flannery has said (again, according to the Advertiser):
I could not possibly put my name to such an article without impugning my own integrity and conscience. … The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is orchestrating all this while refusing to communicate with me. I have had no direct communication with them. I have never been given an opportunity to meet my accusers, or to understand why this action is being taken against me when I’ve raised the same issues, consistently, for decades.
He has been asked to write an article, approved by the CDF,
accepting that the Catholic Church can never ordain women to the priesthood, and accepting the Church’s stance on contraception, homosexuality, and the refusal of the sacraments to people in second relationships.
This he cannot in conscience do. Now, notice, those who have suggested that I do not understand the doctrine of infallibility, that, while no pope has actually made an ex cathedra declaration on any of these matters, popes have certainly spoken out concerning them, and they are simply assumed by the CDF to be the unchangeable teaching of the church and parts of its ordinary magisterium. This is the other way in which secret police work. The law is always uncertain enough that unsuspecting persons can be caught in its web. The church makes a great show of its faith and order being subject to reason, and yet, when push comes to shove, it is heavy-handed authority that wins out in the end, not reason.
Flannery says that the CDF’s approach to him is “frightening, disproportionate and reminiscent of the Inquisition.” Well, of course, because it is, after all, the Inquisition. A rose by any other name, and all that. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be called the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Luckily for Fr Flannery, there is nowhere in the world where he is likely to be burned at the stake for recusancy, but for a 66 year old man, who has served his church for nearly fifty years, the threat of excommunication is not a minor threat. According to Fr Flannery, he has been writing thoughtful articles and books for decades without being hindered by the hierarchy, but now that Ratzinger is in control, he is being assailed
by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers. (NYT, “Priest is Planning to Defy Vatican Orders to Stay Quiet“)
The church’s Gestapo, in other words. It is pointless to call it anything else. It has absolute authority. It will not meet with the accused. All it wants is unquestioning obedience, thoughtless compliance to the dictates of der Führer, or banishment (which is the worst they can do). The curse of Catholicism indeed.
But, as Frank Bruni says, it is a curse, because it gives people a puffed up sense of their own importance, the kind of inflated opinion that encourages the kind of cover-up that has been so common throughout the church worldwide in dealing with the sexual abuse scandals. The priesthood is given a larger than life significance in the life of the people, simply by surrounding those who occupy the office with an aura of otherworldly holiness, an aura that abusers take full advantage of in their depredations on little children. It speaks of celibacy — because celibacy, it seems, is holier than matrimony – and then turns a blind eye to offences against the vows that have been made, somehow assuming that breaking the vows with little children is at least better than a committed adult relationship, openly celebrated.
Flannery takes the position that the priesthood was a later development in the church — which it certainly was — and that Jesus never appointed apostles, which would certainly pull the rug out from under the pope and the claims made for the papacy, which was also a much later development in the church, and was based, from the beginning, largely on the False Decretals. Of course, the Catholic Encyclopedia claims that the forger of these papers, Pseudo-Isidore, perhaps, one at least claiming to have come down from the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, quote from earlier popes, which they doubtless do. But to base the universal ordinary jurisdiction of the pope on false papers, no matter how much was copied from earlier popes, and not to acknowledge the fraud up front, takes a considerable amount of aplomb. But if the priesthood was a later development in the church, and if, as Garry Wills says (according to Bruni),
that at the start, Christianity not only didn’t have priests but opposed them. The priesthood was a subsequent tweak, and the same goes for the all-male, celibate nature of the Roman Catholic clergy and the autocratic hierarchy that this clergy inhabits, an unresponsive government whose subjects — the laity — have limited say,
then a major shake-up is in order. (Regarding the celibate priesthood, it is perhaps relevant to remark that when the changeover from married clergy to celibate clergy was being made, priest’s wives were often claimed as the property of the church and were sold as slaves.) The Vatican cannot continue forever to base itself on threats and privileges which have nothing to do with the original order of the church. There are so many problems with the claim, still repeated, that the apostle Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and that the meaning of Jesus’ reported words, that Peter is the rock upon which his church will be built, are to be interpreted as giving that status (whatever was originally meant by them, whoever said them) to his successors to the see (which he only very doubtfully occupied), that it really is time for the church to stop pretending to an authority that it has arrogated to itself all these centuries. (Bruni says “abrogated,” but this is surely a misprint!) That the Roman church is still playing the game of imperial one-up-man-ship which was common in the first few centuries of the church, as different imperial cities vied for the place of primacy in the Roman Empire, is a sign that something is very wrong with the church.
But what is most wrong, it seems to me, is that people still quote the sayings of the occupant of “St Peter’s Throne” (or cathedra), as though they have universal significance in a world which has simply passed them by. Why the attention given to popes? When was the last time the pope did or said a thing that was truly useful? During the Second World War Pope Pacelli (aka Pius XII) had every opportunity to do a good thing. The bishops of the church in Germany objected to the T4 “euthanasia” programme, and intervened, effectively, in the case of Jews married to supposed “Aryans,” but they did not a thing, nor did Pacelli encourage them, to mitigate the terrible crimes that were being committed in the East. In an address, Pacelli made a glancing reference to those who were victimised because of their race, but he never appealed to Catholics in Germany to refuse to take part in the Nazi extermination programme, and, in fact, a large number of SS members at the concentration camps were communicating members of the Catholic Church. That was the last time a pope has had a chance to do something truly worthwhile, and did nothing, and yet we hear about the pope’s prayers for the people or Iraq, but nothing at all about the oppression of women and homosexuals carried out in the name of the church. This is truly appalling. And when a priest comes along to awaken the church to its moral duty, the church refuses to speak with the man, and merely threatens him with excommunication if he does not submit without question to its demands. As Hilary Mantel says, this is not a church for respectable people.