The Catholic Church and Ideological Purity

Back in 2010, I was a student at Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Nebraska. I was a sophomore and was just starting to take classes that didn’t have 101 in them. That first semester back, I took a 200 level course in Christian Ethics taught by Todd Salzman, then chair of the Theology department.

I did not expect any surprises in this class. Having been raised by an Anglican priest and gone through 13 excruciating years of Catholic homeschool (nuns were never as tough as my mother was), ethics and theology were bread and butter to me. Or so I thought. Salzman was an excellent teacher and he challenged our class in many ways. I didn’t know it, but that was the beginning of my divergence from Christianity and its worldview. It was also the beginning of thinking critically about religion in a way I never had before.

For Salzman, however, the Winter semester was the start of an ordeal. He had published a book with his colleague Michael Lawler called The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. In it, they examined many of the assumptions Catholicism makes about the morality of a person’s sexual life, including cohabitation, abortion and birth control, and homosexuality. As a baby gay (I was in the process of coming out during that semester) and a Catholic, I was fascinated. Here was something I had not heard before, a lessening of the rigidity I was used to from Catholic theology.

Both Salzman and Lawler came under fire from the Catholic establishment for their work. It was an argument between the Diocese in Omaha and Creighton. I watched as Salzman, a devout Catholic, struggled with the pressure. It was clear he felt anguish over the controversy and his own spiritual life was taking a hit. I felt bad for him, especially since the book did not argue against accepted theology but asked questions. It was part of a dialogue, of asking the questions an academic is supposed to ask: what do we mean? Are we right? Is there a better way?

The controversy petered out. Creighton supported its employee, the Catholic Diocese backed down, and by the end of semester it was just another story to add to Creighton’s bucket list for being a prominent American university. For me, it was my first lesson in how the Catholic industry worked. I realized for the first time that the Catholic church was an institution, like government, and that it had its own ways of policing transgressions and its own law by which it operated.

The Catholic Church is the biggest multinational corporation in the world and one of the least transparent. It is also one of the richest, with profits in the billions. Its product is religion, which not only provides a service to members, but adds to the power of the institution itself. It is also a political institution and has its own totalitarian ideology.

Does that seem a little harsh? Let me just point out the treatment that people who transgress this ideology receive. Salzman is one individual example. The recent treatment of women religious in America is another.

Pope Francis has turned the Vatican’s operation 360 degrees on this. He ended the inquisition into the American nuns and their governing body, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and met with their representatives for an hour. As theologian Eileen Burke-Sullivan (another Creighton professor I had during my time there) told the New York Times, “It’s about as close to an apology, I would think, as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.” 

Despite the emphasis on doctrinal matters that this inquisition put forward, it was an inherently political operation. The New York Times (again) noted that the original complaint against the LCWR involved “radical feminist themes” and support for President Obama’s healthcare reforms.

“A crucial focus of the inquiry appears to be the fact that dozens of American nuns involved int he conference and in antipoverty and hospital work provided prominent support to President Obama’s health care reform. Conference leaders said Vatican investigators had pointedly raised the issue and the fact that the conference had split with American bishops, who opposed reform.”

In essence, this was an investigation into the LCWR’s politics, which had marred the ideological purity of the Church by opposing the bishop’s political activism.

One of the hallmarks of totalitarianism is the dissent is stamped out. Political activists who oppose authoritarian regimes are subject to intense scrutiny by authorities and often violent retribution. The only difference between a totalitarian government and the Catholic Church is that one is religious. The Catholic Church is as invested in ideological purity as any communist regime. Luckily, Pope Francis seems to be trying to change that. But that does not erase the past, nor does it involve the dismantling of ideological policing bodies that the Vatican has.

Stories like Salzman’s and the LCWR’s are proof that the Catholic Church is far more invested in policing people’s political and ideological beliefs than it would like you to think. And unlike a government, it has more insidious ways of ensuring the ideological purity of its members. Instead of being threatened with imprisonment if people dissent, they will be sent to hell. It is a particularly evil form of totalitarianism that uses a person’s very soul as leverage to ensure their adherence to the institution’s ideological program.

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