The Top Church-State Un-Story of 2014

January 2, 2015

What's the top church-state un-story of 2014? I'd have to nominate the close cooperation between the United States and the Holy See in the diplomatic negotiations that led to the change of U. S. policy toward Cuba. The pope is the head of a church; he is a head of state only by dint of a huge, archaic, and increasingly irrelevant legal fiction. For the White House to work that closely with a single church on a geopolitical issue violates the separation of church and state in the most literal way imaginable, and I'm amazed that none of the usual church-state watchdogs raised an objection to it.

Obviously, I'm not talking about the First Amendment, whose applicability to international diplomacy is unclear. (Though it's hard to think of a more lurid example of "respecting an establishment of religion" than the White House treating the Vatican as though it still genuinely wields the powers it held during the Middle Ages. That's way too much "respect" in my book!) I'm talking from the viewpoint of secularism -- and secularization -- as transnational phenomena.

In a pair of 2006 op-eds, I suggested that secularization can be understood, at least in part, as a dynamic that has been inflecting Western history for, give or take, the last 1,500 years (https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/2854 and https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/4091, available to FREE INQUIRY subscribers).

At the close of the Dark Ages, the Christian church had sole responsibility for almost every area of human endeavor across what we now know as the West: education, diplomacy, care of the sick, patronage of the arts, raising large public buildings, you name it. Largely this was because no other institution was capable of coordinating large-scale works across Europe and the Mediterranean world. As I noted, "bottlenecks seldom endure," and as the West climbed out of the Dark Ages, one assignment after another was plucked out of the Church's "job jar" and taken over by governments or private institutions. "Consider diplomacy," I wrote. "As recently as the 1490s, only the papacy could negotiate and enforce the division of South America between Spain and Portugal. But diplomacy has been secularized for centuries; when figures like John Paul II or the Dalai Lama appear on the diplomatic stage in our time, they are recognized as special cases and already carry a whiff of the archaic."

It's archaic in the extreme for the Vatican to act as a peer in diplomacy between sovereign states. And it was inappropriate in the extreme for the U. S. to have treated the Roman Catholic Church as this sort of peer. Even if Pope Francis played an indispensable role in opening discussions between the U. S. and Cuba, the White House should have seen to it that once begun, the negotiations unfolded without an unqualified player continuing to be involved. That would have been the secular thing to do. It's the way JFK would have handled it if this had happened on his watch -- ahistoric as the thought of JFK taking part in a rapproachement toward Cuba may be.

This is the 21st century; real sovereign states should not be treating the Vatican as a member of their club. Hell, the Vatican has lost much of its legitimacy even in one of roles it properly retains; few rank-and-file Catholics now take it seriously as an authority on doctrine within the church!

When the Vatican's role in the U. S. - Cuba talks came to light, I'm surprised that no Protestant organizations objected. I'm very surprised that no Jewish or Muslim or even Hindu institutions objected. And I'm just amazed that no secular organizations raised the hue and cry. (I must regretfully kick my own butt in this regard, though at least I'm raising the matter now.)

I think the secular movement, both in the U. S. and across the West, ought to be saying more about how inappropriate it was for an allegedly secular nation to treat Pope Francis as though he were Pope Alexander VI, who decided which parts of the Americas could be colonized by Spain and which by Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas. (That was, for you history buffs, back in 1493.) We should be saying more about how ridiculous it is that in this day and age, the Vatican still enjoys the status of a sovereign state ... that the U. S. maintains full diplomatic relations with the Holy See (not the case until Ronald Reagan's presidency) ... and that the Roman Church enjoys special observer status at the United Nations. National and international secularist organizations should be more vocal in calling for all of these things to end.

Not that I expect the medieval fiction that the Roman Catholic Church is a nation to be abandoned in 2015. But it ought to be impossible for well-informed people not to know that there's a secular opposition clamoring for that to occur. 

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