Saturday, July 07, 2007

Activist Clergy

In the last few years, we've seen an increasing level of religious figures engaging openly in the political dialogue of their respective nations. (Or, in the case of Pope Ratz, all nations)

Whether we are talking about Bishop Henry in Calgary, Pope Ratzinger's various declarations, or Bishops demanding "reviews" of a nation's laws on Abortion.

I do not for a moment wish to argue that being a member of the clergy means that one does not have a legitimate interest and voice in politics. Far from it.

However, the clergy enjoys a unique, and privileged position in many Western countries. We grant Churches exemption from taxation, a privilege granted to no group that acts as a political lobby. In a nation where no official religion is recognized, this privilege is extended to any organization that can describe itself as a "church". By definition, a church's clergy are privileged people - given unique access to a regular platform for influencing the views of a great many people.

To what extent should we grant clergy the right to use their position as influential public figures as a platform from which to engage in political activism? We've seen Bishop Henry in Calgary make some pretty awful statements in the past, and others have attempted to influence our politicians through what I have come to call "spiritual blackmail" - such as denying communion to a politician who doesn't legislate according to what the Church demands. (It is not the denial that is significant, it is the often public statement of that threat/punishment)

Churches are not neutral parties - and in fact they can be amazingly rigid and (by modern standards), bigoted. One example is the anti-semitic overtones of Catholic Tridentine Mass recently "reapproved" by the Pope should concern many in a society that claims that all people are equal.

The Latin, or Tridentine rite contains a prayer that is read on Good Friday calling for the conversion of Jews. The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League has criticized Benedict's decision, calling it a "theological setback" and a "body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations."

The 16th-century mass is traditionally delivered by a priest in Latin with his back to the congregation throughout the service.

How lovely. In essence, we have a pope here who is approving the revival of a pattern of prayer that is politely described as hostile to another faith. Coming from this particular pope, I'm hardly surprised by that revelation, but I don't think it reflects anything positive either.

When religion can foster conflicts and grudges that are ages old, and we already grant Churches a significantly privileged status in our society, should we allow them a free voice, or perhaps it is time to start demanding to "follow the money", and whatever percentage of their resources that is spent on political lobby/activism becomes taxable just like any other political lobby. (For example, I would argue that Bishop Henry's "pastoral letters" of a couple of years ago, and the distribution thereof would represent political activism. The costs of that activism come out of Church coffers, and whatever that cost is becomes taxable income.


Mike said...

I think you need to be careful. From the outside looking in it may appear that there is an issue with the prayer for the conversion of the jews. But Catholics pray for the conversions of various people at various times. Catholics, like many religious people, believe themselves to hold the truth and thus wish for others to come to that truth as well. It is not a case of discrimination against jews.

Grog said...

Perhaps. I've seen enough people expressing concerns to accept that there is a problem with it at least from their standpoint.

For many Jews, such prayers have their roots in times when followers of Judaism found themselves actively persecuted throughout much of Europe - a persecution that was sanctioned by various Popes.

Yes, any faith community believes that they have a monopoly on "The Truth", but I can see a validity to someone being offended by a group "praying for their souls" - it implies a deeply held disrespect for the "Other" being prayed for.