The treaty of Feb. 11, 1929 was a diplomatic triumph for both Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI.
The fascist regime was assured the political support of Italian Catholics and the Holy See received minimal, but essential territorial sovereignty.
This would give the papacy necessary freedom to govern the universal Catholic Church, following the Holy See’s humiliating exclusion from the 1919 peace talks.
Big money – an insidious threat to the Church’s freedom
Ninety years ago, the Church’s freedom was essentially secured and threatened by the power of a nation-state that then tried to control and subjugate the spiritual power.
Today, the freedom of the Church is still at risk. This is true in some countries along the so-called “tenth parallel” in Africa and Asia where Christians face a growing threat to their freedom of religion. This threat is manifest and sign of our times.
But the Church faces another sign of our times, which is more subtle and insidious. It is the threat that big money poses to the Church’s freedom, presenting itself in the language of offering “protection.”
At least since the 8th century (with the alliance between Pope Stephen II and the Franks) every power that has ever offered “protection” to the Church has always demanded a price: the Church’s “subjection” to that power.
Over the centuries, the Church has sought different ways to manage its essential earthly coexistence with secular, political power.
The result has been the elaboration of a theological and magisterial rationale for relations between Church and State: from the “two-swords theory” of Pope Gelasius (end of the fifth century), to the “investiture controversy” (11th and 12th centuries), to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s “potestas indirecta” (early 17th century) and even up to the two Vatican Councils (1869-70 and 1962-65).
The issue of money has always been an important part of the deal. But the source of these finances has always been the political power. Money talks, as the saying goes. And thanks to an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of very few people, money has become a power unto itself that is capable of owning and superseding political power.
This may also be happening in the Catholic Church, especially in those countries where big money already owns politicians. There are some wealthy Catholics who see no reason why they cannot do with the governing bodies of the Church what they have already done with elected public officials.
This often impinges the freedom of the Church’s leaders, both within the clergy and among the laity. While the state also does this through public laws and policies, self-professed “good Catholics” of great financial means are doing it in a more quiet and less obvious way.
For example, it is well known that a diocesan chancery is more likely to return a phone call from a big financial donor.
And at the national and international levels, evangelization and outreach initiatives rely more and more on charitable giving by individual wealthy Catholics. These donations often come with stipulations.
This is true in the field of Catholic education where wealthy benefactors give funds in exchange for the ability to orient the ministry in a particular direction.
This is true not only for campus ministry at small, cash-strapped Catholic colleges, but also at prestigious universities such as the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.
And we all know as how some U.S.-based conservative Catholic media are heavily influenced by wealthy Catholic donors.
Money from right-wing Catholic billionaires
The influence of big money is a bipartisan issue.
But it’s undeniable that, in the last few years, it has been a group of rightwing billionaires that has attempted a hostile takeover of the U.S. Catholic Church, as Tom Roberts recently argued.
The extreme wealth of these conservative Catholics is an integral part of the current opposition to Pope Francis. But it is also a long-term threat that needs action and a new thinking.
In the Catholic tradition, there has long been a reflection on political power. What is needed now is an ecclesiology of money.
It is necessary to address the relationship between the Catholic Church and finance in a time when money has become able to run and dominate everything: from the selection and election of politicians to science and education.
Obviously, in a global Church the relations between Catholicism and money will always be influenced by very different historical, political and social situations.
It is unthinkable, for example, that the Catholic Church in Italy and Germany, with their concordats and the amount of money they assure, could adopt the U.S. system, where the Catholic Church will continue to need the support of private money.
The Australian and Canadian model, where government money helps support the Catholic school system, cannot and should not be disestablished in the name of a new kind of puritanism that would harm the mission of the Church.
This means that the relationship between Church and money will have to adjust to local traditions and circumstances.
The Second Vatican Council started to talk about “the Church of the poor” and Francis has adopted that theological intuition of more than 50 years ago in a slightly different direction: “a poor Church” and a “Church for the poor.”
The Church, in its proverbial pragmatism, is not naïve about this. But sometimes there is an excess of pragmatism.
In some countries where the Church relies heavily on private donors, Church leaders simply cannot say out loud what they think, if they want their churches to continue to minister through a variety of institutions (parishes, schools, hospitals, etc.) that cannot survive without big donors.
Donations with ideological strings attached
Why is the influence of wealthy Catholics particularly insidious today? I would say for at least two reasons.
The first reason is that some bishops who are particularly vocal (and often with good reason) about the threats against religious freedom are clearly reluctant to affirm the freedom of the Church from money tied to special interests.
Money today does not flow into the Church in order to buy influence or fund the arts with the goal of having a son or a nephew made bishop or cardinal, as it used to be for centuries.
Today it is about obtaining from the Church a blessing for a libertarian economic theory that is exactly the opposite of the Catholic social doctrine.
Today it has become harder than ever before to hear the voice of Church leaders where capitalism has come to control the democratic process in order to have more individualism, more unrestricted capitalism, and more diminishment of government services.
That blessing of the current system of capitalism is coated with a neo-traditionalist theology, often with clear anti-intellectual tones and a neo-devotional focus, which is preparing an intellectual disaster for the younger generations of Catholics.
In other words, big money often comes to the Church with ideological strings attached – strings that one can ignore in the same way some were ignoring that Soviet Communism also meant the Gulag system.
It is an ideological blindness that works in a similar way even though it enslaves in a different way.
Big money has always tried to corrupt the Church.
But the second reason why it is so insidious today is that the wealthy donors want to make us believe that, in their generosity, they are trying to save the Church from corruption.
We see this in the media coverage by the EWTN cartel and at the events sponsored by wealthy Catholics in Washington, D.C., in the second half of 2018, such as the “Red Hat Report” and “Better Church Governance.”
Once again, “protectio trahit subjectionem” – protection through money involves allegiance to money.
The Catholic Church needs an ecclesiology of money because big money is trying to buy parliaments, governments, judges, journalists and diplomats.
And now big Catholic money is trying to buy the Church hierarchy, whose price has become much cheaper as a result of the clerical abuse scandal.
This is at least one reason why the abuse scandal cannot be addressed only in moralistic terms, but must be seen within the framework of a systemic crisis in the Catholic Church.
Published in La Croix International, February 11, 2019.