Now the world has seen the white smoke above the Sistine Chapel, what are the challenges facing the new Pope Francis?
Some will raise issues of church administration. Some will raise issues of theology. Above these though is the need to re-establish the church as a ‘religion’ not a multinational corporation that seeks to protect its power.
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.
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?
What is a ‘religion’ under Australian law?
In determining what makes a religion in several court cases High Court judges have used a number of tests. The leading case on this question remains the 1983 case: 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.
Justices Ronald Wilson and William Deane gave five indicators 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 as the new Pope will see it.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 Sea’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 pedophiles, 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?
I am not saying that freedom of religion should be limited. I am not saying people should refused to be catholic.
What I am saying is the institution that makes up the Catholic Church hierarchy has been so focused on protecting its image that it perhaps has lost focus of its purpose of higher spiritual meaning. Legally therefore we should question if the hierarchy should receive the tax and legal breaks the church hierarchy get from being classified as a religion.