There are likely no two organizations in the world more diametrically opposed than the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. Among a myriad of differences, one of the most poignant has to be that one holds itself accountable to the people while the other holds itself accountable only to God. So what happens when an organization like the church tries to exist within a society like the United States? Or furthermore, what happens when a Catholic runs for the office of president of the United States? This is an inherent conflict that we have not had to address since the days of John F. Kennedy, but thanks to the candidacy of John Kerry, the issue is once again on the table.
Recently there have been a number of people, both clergy and laymen, in the church calling for the excommunication of any American politician who takes a position contrary to church teaching. This includes Kerry, who has taken positions opposed by the church on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Whether the church realizes it, it is setting a very dangerous precedent. The church is essentially making political agreement a requirement for Catholics. This effectively puts the church in the position of controlling the votes of members of the faith. Such an intrusion by a religious organization, which also happens to be a sovereign state, into the inner working of a democratic government would be intolerable to any nation, let alone one that has such a strict separation of church and state as the United States.
In fact, it may even create serious legal issues for our system of government. While the separation of church and state was intended to keep the government from forcing a religion on the people, it was also meant to prevent external influences, such as the Catholic Church, from controlling the affairs of the nation, as has occurred numerous times in history. If the church can dictate the vote of a congressman on a domestic issue, such as abortion, what's to keep it from controlling votes on foreign issues, such as military action?
The church's position is just the latest symptom of a growing rift between the Vatican and the American people. As an American Catholic, it's easy to get the impression that you're a second-class citizen in the faith's worldwide community. For instance, the Vatican's lethargy in responding to the abuse scandals in recent years has been nothing short of terrifying. For far too long, the Vatican didn't even seem to think that this was a serious issue. In a local case, the Pope refused to accept the resignation of Bishop Thomas O'Brien, who offered to step aside in an effort to alleviate the abuse case against the Phoenix Diocese. It wasn't until his involvement in a hit-and-run case months later, in which he was recently convicted, that the Vatican let him step down.
The situation is indicative of an attitude of superiority at the Vatican. It's not hard to see how this attitude has developed. After all, the church is among the oldest institutions in the history of mankind, and for much of its existence was a central figure in world politics. But, for better or worse, those times have come to an end. With the proliferation of democracy, and likewise the notion that church and state are separate institutions, the church can no longer think of itself as a political entity. It must understand that it operates within the governments of other nations, not in addition to them. This is particularly true in the United States, where there is no single religion that defines the people.
The Catholic Church must come to understand that it can no longer dictate policy to the world. An attempt to do so, as we may see this election year, will only serve to further isolate the church from the American public. While there will be a group that appreciates and supports the church's effort, the majority of Americans will view it as an arrogant foreign influence in domestic politics. The Vatican must find a way to hold on to its principles, while at the same time giving Catholic Americans the flexibility to participate in their government. Besides, any faithful and patriotic American Catholic will already be struggling to reconcile his faith with national allegiance. I know I am.
Tim Belshe is a systems engineering junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.