American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition



Web Supplement

On Target!

American Atheists

What's New

Flash Line



[text only]
American Atheist Forum

Not Only In America

Pope John Paul II’s upcoming visit to the United States again raises serious questions about the separation of church and state, diplomatic recognition of the Vatican, and what the church’s political agenda for Americans.

BY Conrad Goeringer

He’s baaaack...

Pope John Paul II will visiting the United States again next week when he stops in St. Louis, MO. following an excursion to Mexico. The pope is scheduled to conduct a mass in the giant TransWorld Arena on Wednesday, January 27. No doubt, the media will be on the scene, describing every nuance, movement or word the pope utters. The local talking heads will no doubt be joined by priests from the local Archdiocese, whose explicit job will be to provide “commentary” on the spectacle, but who might be more accurately described as baby-sitters.

For Atheists, it’s an old story. When a spokesperson for an Atheist or separationist groups appears on radio or televisions, station managers inevitably feel compelled to call upon the local clergy for their input under the excuse of providing news consumers with a “balanced” perspective. When the pope arrives, though, the talk about “balance” or “hearing the other side” drops from sight. Father so-and-so, or Bishop X is enlisted to allegedly help us “understand what’s happening” and, supposedly, what the pope is talking about.

John Paul II’s latest visit to the United States, though, should be less of a media spectacle which covers the obsequious pandering of local Catholic leaders and politicians, and more of an incentive for all of us to ask some poignant questions about the future of state-church separation, and what the Vatican has in mind for the American people. Strip away the pomp and circumstance of the papal road show, the gushing media claims that the people of America stand in awe of John Paul, or seek to “refresh” their parched souls, and some tough issues -- often unexamined -- remain.

* Vouchers and tax credits for Parochial and other religious schools. Should Americans be compelled to financially subsidize through direct or indirect means, sectarian religious schools? A lot of the Capitol Gang thinks so, although the courts have remained skeptical of voucher scheme. In most cities, including Milwaukee -- site of one of the most ambitious voucher programs -- the biggest beneficiary is the Parochial school system. Maybe that’s why in Archdiocese throughout the country, Roman Catholic prelates have orchestrated aggressive campaigns to enact school vouchers, or support friendly candidates.

* Banning “Partial Birth” and other forms of abortion. Even presidential wanna-be Steve Forbes admitted that outlawing so-called “partial birth” abortions is simply part of a wider strategy designed to ban abortion outright. At a recent meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, church officials pledged to renew their struggle against abortion rights for women -- something which would include even many forms of birth control such as the pill which the church considers “unnatural” or “against the will of god.”

* Censorship, neo-Sabbatarianism, intolerance to criticism. Don’t you just love it when a group calling itself the Catholic League for Civil Rights goes on the warpath against any movie, play or other form of public expression which it deems insults, threatening or “hateful” toward Catholic religious belief? In the 1950s and 60s, church officials maintained the notorious Index of prohibited books, plays and movies, until realizing how out of step they were with modern culture. Now, the old message of censorship has been repackaged, and the new target is anything, or anybody, which “insults” Catholicism. The Catholic League, for instance, recently protested a New York play at the prestigious Manhattan Theater Club which portrayed a gay, Christ-like figure.

And Catholic leaders like Cardinal John O’Connor have been flirting with an idea whose time expired long ago, but may be ready for a kind of renaissance. Remember the notorious Sunday “blue laws” which originally were designed to keep people in church by discouraging other forms of commercial activity or entertainment? Economic necessity, as well as the courts, have generally made the “blue laws” a relic of the past. Unable to compete in the Sunday market place, though, Catholic and even Protestant leaders are trying to impose a new Sabbatarianism. Cardinal O’Connor, for instance, laments that parades, athletic events and other activities are more appealing to the faithful than Sunday worship is.

Imagine if a group of movie theater owners tried to abolish Sunday church services for similar reasons?

* The Vatican -- is it a religious institution, government, or both? During the Reagan years, the US government made the startling move of extending official diplomatic recognition to the Vatican. The dictator Benito Mussolini had done this years earlier, of course, when his government signed the Lateran Treaty, gave the Vatican political autonomy, and kicked in over $80,000,000 to set up the Vatican bank. For the US, though, the Vatican became a partner in world political intrigue, particularly in eastern Europe where the church played a vital role in the disintegration of the old Soviet block. After the “fall of the wall,” however, the love affair between the formerly enslaved Europeans and the Vatican turned sour, as church officials moved to toughen divorce laws, seize control of schools systems, and implement the Holy See’s political agenda.

Diplomatic recognition and the granting of legal status for the Vatican has been widely debated in many countries, but not in the US. In Mexico, the decision of former President Carlos Salina de Gortari to grant legal recognition to the Catholic Church prompted national concerns. Even Salinas admitted, “Owing to past experience, the Mexican people do not want the clergy to take part in politics or to accumulate material wealth.”

In the US, however, there were few objections when William A. Wilson was appointed as first US ambassador to the Holy See at the end of 1983. Several groups filed suit to stop this diplomatic recognition, arguing that the ambassadorial appointment “creates a formal official relationship between the United States” and a religious entity, thus violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

As a result, the Roman Catholic Church is the only religious entity on earth which receives this special recognition from the US government. It is both a religious and a political entity. Even the Justice Department admitted that fact of realpolitik, when it responded in court:

“Whatever the source of the authority of the Holy See, or the view of the Holy See as to the source of its world influence, that source is irrelevant. The fact is that however the Holy See views itself, it is a highly influential player on the stage of world diplomacy. The first amendment does not require the President to ignore diplomatic realities in order to avoid contact with an internationally recognized entity that views its part in world affairs as primarily religious...”

Maybe so. But was full diplomatic recognition the only way of recognizing these “diplomatic realities”? Even George Washington, Freemason and standard bearer of the Enlightenment, was shrewd enough to appoint a “consul” to the Vatican in 1797. Other presidents used similar representatives, including Ford and Carter.

The question of diplomatic status for the Vatican is germane in light of American politics. If the Vatican is a formal state, then are its representatives -- bishops, archbishops, cardinals -- essentially “foreign agents” representing another political power? And how, then, do we view the involvement of these religious officials in our political system? When Pope John Paul II denounces abortion and Catholic Bishops in America threaten legislative action, or excommunication of pro-choice Catholic political officials, is this interference in our electoral system? How would we feel if the head of some other government -- in Russia, Great Britain, or elsewhere -- maintained well-financed organizations here to influence American legislation and elections?

It is doubtful that these sorts of issues will be much in the limelight next week when Pope John Paul II lands in St. Louis. We can expect all of the vacuous hoopla and hype which has characterized his other visits to the United States. And JP-II has his hand full with discontented, even rebellious Catholics in America. One poll suggests that over 90% of Roman Catholics in the US feel that it is possible to be a good member of the flock, and still disagree with the pope over issues like abortion, or some other tenet of the church. But after nearly two millennia, the Church of Rome has demonstrated an enormous ability to survive and adapt, even in a modern world dizzy with change. In the race between the Vatican and modernity, there is no clear winner.

Pope John Paul II will be in St. Louis, MO. next week -- so what better time to find out what you think about some of the issues related to his visit? After you’ve responded to our polling questions, consider leaving some comments of your own for others to read. The poll will close on Thursday, January 28 at 9:00 p.m. ET

Participate in poll and leave a comment if you wish
View the results so far
Read selected readers' comments
Thanks for visiting!

[monthly special]

[back] Back to Magazine Index.

Previous polls:
Blasphemy and the law
Church bulletin Discounts
Assisted Suicide
Paranoid Nation?
Boy Scout Discrimination
The Religious Freedom Amendment
The execution of Karla Faye Tucker.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.