Should we question the recognition of the Catholic Church as a religion?

In
October Ron Harding, the president of a bikie club targeted by a special police
taskforce, made a provocative rebuttal to the government’s plans to criminalise
motorcycle clubs. Harding asked whether the Catholic Church should also be
deemed a ”criminal organisation” due to child abuse by priests. (Read
more: here)

Over
the years there have been many questions raised about the Church of Scientology
and if it should be recognised as a religion. Many people think not.

With
the current turmoil being faced by the Catholic Church around sexual abuse of
children and other crimes, is it too much to ask if the institution of the
church has step so far away from a moral framework that it loses its right to
be called a religion? The Church would argue not. Under Australian law,
what is a religion? Does the Church comply with the definition?

Section 116
of the Constitution of Australia prevents the national government
from making laws for establishing any religion, imposing any religious
observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. This section has
been subject to judicial review in the High Court.

In
determining what makes a religion our national judges have used a number of
tests. The leading case on this question remains the 1983 judgment of the
High Court in Church of the New Faith v Commissioner for Pay-Roll
Tax. Understandably, and perhaps cynically, religious status is a highly
valuable commodity for tax breaks.

The
court found that Scientology was a religion, despite some judges
commenting on some of scientology’s practices. In reaching this finding, the
court argued that the definition of religion needed to be flexible. But the
court also noted that one needs to be sceptical of disingenuous claims of
religious practice.

Justices Ronald
Wilson and William Deane gave five “indicia” of a
religion: a belief in the supernatural; a belief in ideas relating to
“man’s nature and place in the universe”; the adherence to particular
standards, codes of conduct or practices by those who hold the ideas; the
existence of an identifiable group of believers, even if not a formal
organisation; and the opinion of the believers that what they believe in
constitutes a religion.

Let’s
unpack part of the question as it applies to the institution of the Catholic
Church. I stress here that we should question the institution, not individual
believers. Indeed, a betrayal of the philosophy underlying Catholicism by the
institution of the Church, betrays those very believers.

How
does the Church stand up to “the adherence to particular standards, codes of
conduct or practices by those who hold the ideas” test? In asking we can
recognise that ‘a few bad apples’ does not make a bad bunch. So let’s look at
what the structure of the church has done, rather than individuals.

More
and more victims are coming forward with experience of child abuse at the hand
of Catholic priests, but also coming with these accusations are claims that the
Church has hidden or moved the priests out of the reach of the law. Senior
police investigator Peter Fox is just one of the many voices making this claim
(see here).


While a young lawyer I worked for a firm that represented
Catholic Church Insurance in defending many of these priests against the civil
claims. Legal professional privilege prevents me from giving specific examples,
however some of the confessions priests made to us left my stomach sick. In
listening to the priests I saw no evidence that would undermine Peter Fox’s
claims.

While
an individual priest’s actions could be a bad apple, the institution’s
decisions to move the accused out of arm’s length to the law, is an
institutional decision.


Frighteningly though, child sex abuse may not
be the only type of crime where the Catholic Church has hidden accused, and
perhaps may not even the worst of crimes. Without discounting the great evil
that is child sexual abuse, the crime of Genocide is recognised as the worst
evil that humanity can perpetrate on itself.

I
worked in Rwanda for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the
aftermath of the Genocide. Not only was there evidence of priests actively
involved in the genocide, and several convictions in international courts,
there is evidence of the Catholic Church moving priests out of Rwanda and into
Belgium to protect them from accusations of complicity in genocide (see
more here).


I also worked for the United Nations in the Philippines.
Globally it is recognised that educating woman and girls, particularly in
family planning issues, is a key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Bangladesh
has seen enormous improvements in poverty largely by empowering women and girls
with family planning decisions.

Yet
in The Philippines, the Catholic Church institutionally was and is
the greatest blocking force to sensible sex education programs and
contraception (see more here). This single decision is keeping many women
in poverty and keeping women and girls vulnerable to many health issues
sometimes leading to death.

None
of this of course touches on the Church’s institutional hatred of the gay
community, their anachronistic status as a ‘nation’ through the Holly See’s
role at the United Nations, the collection of multiple billions of
dollars in vast institutional wealth, while still claiming charitable status
to institutionally work for the poor claiming tax deductions in those
same poor (and wealthy) countries.

So
let’s go to the question: In testing the institution’s ‘adherence to particular
standards’, what are the standards that the Catholic Church applies to its
deeds not to its words? How does the Church Institution stand up to the test of
“adherence to particular standards, codes of conduct or practices by those who
hold the ideas”?

Given
the institutional protection of paedophiles, genocide suspects, the
fight against women coming out of poverty through education, the
collection of vast amounts of wealth, do we still think this is an institution
that sticks to its principles and is worthy of the classification as a
religion? Is it now time to question the very premise of the institution that
makes up the Catholic Church?

In
considering the above question lets be careful to clarify what we are not
saying. We are not saying that freedom of religion should be limited. We are
not saying people should not be catholic.

We
are saying though that the institution that makes up the Catholic Church
hierarchy has been so focussed on protecting its image that it perhaps has lost
focus of its purpose, and therefore we should question if the hierarchy should
receive the tax and legal breaks the church hierarchy get from being classified
as a religion.

Regrettably
the Church is not alone. Some of what I saw while working for the UN would make
you feel sick.

With
what is now known about the ‘food for sex’ scandals by UN peacekeepers in west
Africa, the UN staff roles in child and teenage trafficking into Bosnia during
the war, and the goings on in places like in the Havana café, it would not
surprise me if one day the UN gained a reputation  a harbourer of
paedophiles.

But
the United Nations is not known for its forthrightness and candour in internal
investigations. It has been criticized for ignoring evidence or wrongdoing in
the past – including accusations of rape and murder by “peacekeepers.

”Like
the catholic Church, most early revelations of peacekeeping abuses have only
been revealed by news organizations. Such was the case in Cambodia in the early
1990s and later in Somalia, Bosnia and Ethiopia.

“I
am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken
place,” said Kofi Annan when Secretary-General. “This is a shameful thing for
the United Nations to have to say, and I am absolutely outraged by it.”

Yet
no major public investigation took place.

Given
my work as a junior lawyer defending catholic priests against the civil claims
of paedophilia, perhaps one day the UN and the Catholic Church will be
challenging each other in the reputation stakes.


Please post your comments below.

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2 Replies to “Should we question the recognition of the Catholic Church as a religion?”

  1. I do not disagree that either the UN or the Catholic Church (or people working for it) should receive legal breaks for crimes committed.

    I do not agree though that the Catholic Church should be stripped of its “religion status”. Perhaps, it is better to revisit the tax or legal breaks all organizations receives when granted a “religion” status.

    Believers of religion holds up their leaders with reverence that slight indiscretion on their end should be punishable. In the same light that citizens holds up public officials with the strictest regards, why should we do the same for people we have entrusted our eternal life to?

    Like

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