The New Despoliation
People say it can’t happen here. But that shows a profound ignorance of how these things work. I’m talking about the new despoliation of the Catholic Church. Not new dispensation: that’s the New Covenant. I mean new despoliation, like when Church properties were despoiled in the famous dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.
How It Worked Then
The key to the despoliation of the Church in every era is a plausible excuse which weak-kneed, semi-conscious, secularized Catholics will accept. Once there is a plausible excuse, a slightly anti-Catholic government will nearly always join forces with private citizens who stand to benefit financially by converting Church property into cold cash. With a plausible excuse in place, many Catholics and other fair-minded citizens will be so confused about whether or not the despoliation is justified that there will be virtually no significant negative response.
The excuse in Henry VIII’s day was the unpopularity of the monks and nuns whose establishments had accumulated considerable wealth in lands, buildings, liturgical acoutrements and art treasures over the centuries, generally gifts from pious lay people. The holiness of most of the monks and nuns was not noteworthy, and there was a growing sense in the sixteenth century that these people were getting a pretty cushy ride through no merit of their own. Moreover, the acquisition of a good set of monastic lands served either as a means to directly increase the royal coffers or as a way to reward private persons for services rendered.
Very often, the dissolution and despoliation of this or that monastery seemed reasonable and fair to most onlookers. Each case was presented with its own justifications. Not everybody noticed that the whole process was so systematic and thorough that there must have been other significant motives at work. No few raised their voices to opine that it would all be good for the Church in the end.
How it Can Work Now
I noted in an earlier column that financial suits against the American Church arising from the sex abuse scandal have already succeeded in converting something like a billion dollars worth of ecclesiastical property into cold cash for the benefit of a rapacious few (see Fleecing the Catholic Church). These huge abuse settlements have been largely unjustified and completely uneven when compared with the handling of similar cases involving non-Catholic organizations, but at least they have primarily affected dioceses in which there have been true scandals. Now, a new legal ruling has opened the way to despoiling the entire American Church.
John Heyburn, a federal judge in Kentucky, has ruled that plaintiffs in the United States can sue the Holy See on the basis that the American bishops were acting as agents or employees of the Holy See when they allowed known abusers to remain in clerical ministry. Certainly this decision will be appealed. But if it is sustained, as it could conceivably be, it would provide an end-run around Vatican immunity as a sovereign power. United States law allows suits against sovereign powers whose American agents cause harm while acting officially.
Of course, bishops are neither employees nor agents of the Vatican in anything like the sense in which government officials serve their governments. Nor are Church buildings, lands and other assets held and controlled by the Holy See as they would be by a secular government. Nonetheless, regardless of fact and precedent, there is a certain plausibility about this legal claim which may well resonate with both the American judiciary and the man in the street. While it is inconceivable at this stage that the U.S. military would directly despoil the Vatican or other Church properties and assets around the world, the application of force would not be necessary to despoil the Church in the United States. Rather, if the Vatican were held responsible, all the Holy See’s assets in this country could be vulnerable to various kinds of settlements, exactions and confiscations, and all American Church assets might well be construed to be assets of the Holy See for this purpose.
Not a Prediction but a Warning
I am not predicting that this will occur. What I am saying is that this scenario includes the kind of plausible excuse which can make despoliation both sweeping and popular. It is not hard to imagine that large portions of the federal judiciary would find this excuse plausible. It goes without saying that it would be both plausible and attractive to private individuals who stand to benefit. Surely our culture as a whole wouldn’t have much trouble with it. Worse still, we are already beginning to see an effort among weak-kneed, semi-conscious, secularized Catholics to sound fair and wise by noting that, after all, the case against the Church is legitimate, and the outcome will probably benefit the Church spiritually anyway.
Of course, any one settlement might serve as a wake-up call. But massive despoliation is not a wake-up call, it is destruction. It signals the triumph of secularist politics over the rights of the Church; it destroys the Church’s ability to do major charitable work; it is a gross injustice; and it severely hinders the Church’s spiritual mission. Could good come out of such a despoliation? Yes, God can bring good out of anything. But there are no guarantees, and the possibility of future good is not a legitimate reason to condone evil.
Cause for Concern
The mass despoliation possible under this scenario may not happen, but what concerns me is that all the attitudes which could let it happen are already firmly in place. So many Catholics try so hard to keep their thinking in line with the larger culture that almost anything is possible. Recent scandals may have been a wake-up call for the hierarchy, but where is the wake-up call for the laity? Where is the impetus to resist this culture of destruction? Where is the impetus, in the face of all the rationalizations, to just say no.
Considering how easy it would be now to despoil the Church completely, one cannot help but wonder whether anybody cares. We all watch the show as if it is happening to somebody else. The truth is that it is happening to us. We need to learn a lesson from the history of the Church in Northern Africa. It was vibrant in the time of St. Augustine; then it disappeared. Will we wake up one day to say the same?
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