Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Church Rolling in Wealth - But Out of Touch With the Faithful?

It was during one of my Religion classes at Monsignor Pace High that I once more made Brother Stephen squirm with a question he wasn't expecting.  This had been in the context of the role of the laity in the Church and the economic problems often experienced, and reconciling this with the evident wealth at the Vatican. Anyway, my question to Bro. Stephen was: "How much do you estimate the net worth of the Catholic Church to be?"

Dumbfounded, he had to reflect for several moments as he placed a hand on his chin and you could almost see his computer-like brain doing the math. Then he replied:

"I would venture a guess at maybe several trillion dollars in today's currency but it could be more."

He was perhaps more than a little accurate, especially when - nearly 20 years later- all the scandals erupted at the Vatican Bank and many further details became known. (This was around the time "God's Banker" - Roberto Calvi - was found hanging under Blackfriar's  Bridge, London.)

The point here is that like a rotting fungus, the Church's immense wealth always lurks in the background of whatever other actions it takes, or doctrines it proclaims - especially via its Bishops. To the cynic, which I make no bones about being, there is the natural suspicion that the Church's legions of sexual mores are constantly pushed in order to protect its wealth. If the minds of the faithful can be kept focused on their shortcomings,  mainly sexual "sins" and failures - they won't be so preoccupied with the Church's enormous riches and what it's doing with them.

Consider as 'Exhibit A' the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual meeting in Baltimore. Now
look at the agenda items addressed to see where its priorities lay.  In this venue the bishops of the richest, most powerful (and increasingly unequal)  nation in the world, convened in a city wracked by generational poverty, and talked about pornography, contraception and gay marriage-   while incidentally addressing questions of minor liturgical importance. Poverty was not on the agenda. Why not?

Did they not pay attention to Francis earlier condemnation of economic inequality? See e.g.

Did they not hear or process his warnings concerning trickle down nonsense integrated into modern Neoliberal capitalism? Or, could it be that once more they are confirming my suspicions of distracting attention from wealth-poverty-inequality  issues to belabor the faithful with pseudo-moral nonsense (compared to the major moral transgressions inherent in economic inequality)?

But a bit of history is useful. As brilliant and timely as Francis' message, it wasn't really original. In fact, this November marked the 27th anniversary of Economic Justice for All, a groundbreaking pastoral letter that condemned American poverty as a national moral scandal. Seen as a refutation of Reaganomics, the document received substantial media attention - along with severe conservative criticism-  when it was released in 1986.  The construction of the letter was remarkably democratic; economists and theologians were enlisted, drafts were released to the public.

A month later, the bishops of Maryland, the cradle of the Catholic Church in America, met at a soup kitchen in Baltimore to release a statewide plan intended to put its recommendations into effect. Tragically, Economic Justice for All proved one of the last pieces of social justice teaching of its kind.  At that time the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, was at about 0.37, compared to 0.49 now.

Concerned by its influence, and worried that “national churches,” or conflicting pieces of teaching, might develop if other conferences were left unchecked, the Vatican clamped down and clipped the conferences’ wings. By the 1990s, they could no longer publish pastoral letters that held “teaching authority” without near unanimity. From then on, things started to change around the bishop’s conference. More and more doctrinally conservative bishops were being appointed. The culture wars were raging. Then the sexual abuse crisis hit, and hit again, and the wagons circled.

By 1996, meanwhile, genuine liberals had embraced the message implicit in Charles Reich's Opposing the System, regarding the unfettered reign of coercive markets. As Reich put it. p. 22:

A free market produces results that favor the health of society as a whole, because an essential balance is maintained. But in a coercive market, the balance is destroyed, the earning power of work and the standard of living of workers declines, and society as a whole is devastated while those with economic power gain an ever more unbalanced share of the nation's economic wealth.

And nailing the consequences some pages later (p. 103):

When society itself comes to be modeled on economic and organizational principles, all of the forces that bind people together are torn apart in the struggle for survival.

Community is destroyed because we are no longer 'in this together' because everyone is a threat to everyone else

Indeed, an atmosphere of pervasive conflict encourages every form of racial, religious and class hatred as group is pitted against group; it encourages violence and crime and strips people of kindness and compassion as these qualities become disadvantageous in an ever more warlike atmosphere.

Reich went on to show that it is economics upon which much of modern morality pivots. When people therefore must fight over a few scraps to keep their family together, they often are also more likely to turn to crime, prostitution, drugs, the whole nine yards. Economic health begets moral health, in other words. (Not the other way around, as proto-Calvinist capitalists like Charles Murray, Bill O'Reilly and others claim).

Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops grew more and more out of touch with the economic woes which have now reached a crisis point with 48 million people on food stamps, nearly 27 million under-employed or unemployed and a minimum wage that is nearly THREE whole dollars LESS than it was in 1968, in terms of 1968 dollars.  Imagine then if the bishops had flexed just half as much muscle for certain “liberal” causes, equally deserving of Catholic concern, as they did for pet “conservative” ones. Imagine if they spent one tenth the time on economic inequality and the toxins of Neoliberal market worship - as they have on porn, or contraception.

It is not difficult to see if they had, a powerful moral voice for systemic economic change might have arisen. A voice of ecclesiastical authority supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, which might have protected that movement from being literally under the guns of the national security state. But the Bishops, flustered at the  sex abuse charges - were too preoccupied shuttling priestly pedophiles back and forth between parishes at the behest of Ratzinger and John Paul II.

More recently, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has gone 'over the top' to display a disgusting economic conservative agenda in league with a backward morality on other issues. In 2010 they opposed the Affordable Healthcare Act, arguing that it might conceivably lead to federal funds for abortions. The year after that, in 2011, Paul Ryan’s budget came out, cutting $3 trillion from programs for the poor. Then-Chair of the Conference of Bishops, Timothy Dolan, sent a public letter to Ryan that many of us thought gave him cover for his budget. In other words, Dolan was aiding and abetting the further destruction of the poor.

Some might quarrel and believe this take is offensive and unjust, but they have pitifully short memories.  In the 2012 election cycle, Dolan went further, referring to Ryan as “a great public servant.” Prior to the election year, the Council of Catholic Bishops unanimously voted to declare religious freedom its 2012 strategic priority. In June of 2012 and 2013, periods of prayer dubbed the “Fortnight for Freedom” were held in response to perceived threats to religious liberty. Ah yes, "freedom and religious liberty" - perfect buzzwords for an agenda which, when translated, comes out: "FUCK the poor!"

Of course, the Neoliberal political atmosphere in this country didn't help matters, with so much media attention paid to the Obama "Deficit Committee" starring Alan Simpson and Ernest Bowles. Both were insistent on cutting Social Security and Medicare. While this committee may be moribund, its awful recommendations remain including a "chained CPI".  At the same time, the market worshippers have insisted there can be no increase in the minimum wage, and the Repukes have proposed $40 b in cuts to food stamps over ten years, while the Dems (who always choose the less offensive tactic) want $4b in cuts.  All this after the SNAP program was already cut by the sequester.

Can the Bishops still become changelings? Maybe, and perhaps also space aliens will finally land in D.C. and reveal their existence once and for all. What we do know, is that in June, a report was released detailing the emergence of a “small, but well-funded network” of conservative, Tea-party-like Catholic organizations pressuring bishops to gut the funds of community and anti-poverty organizations with any remote involvement to groups supporting same-sex marriage. Last year, meanwhile, a document entitled Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy, was scuttled when 85 bishops voted against it. 

Do these Bishops care more about the 16 million kids now going to bed hungry each night because of food stamp cuts, or more about the "evils of pornography"?

You be the judge!



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