What cross does the Catholic Church bear?

Mapping the ideological hierarchies of the Catholic Church

Tect reading "What cross does the church bear?" On top of a triangle filled in with a blue and purple stained glass pattern. Artwork by Annie Zhang

On the morning of 6 August 1945, Pedro Arrupe is surprised by a blinding light that floods his room. Opening his door, the young Jesuit faces a deafening explosion. The walls of his home crumble and blanket him as he is violently thrown to the floor. As he rises to his feet, a destroyed city lies before him. A group of young women painted in blood and blisters drag themselves up his street. A steady procession of 150,000 injured Japanese civilians fleeing their destroyed city would pass Arrupe. Using his medical background, he helps those he can. On that day alone, more than 70,000 Hiroshima residents would die. By the end of 1945, that number would nearly double.

The witnessing of this scene of horror and mass slaughter marks Arrupe for the rest of his life. Later spurred by the reformative potential of the Second Vatican Council, he heralds a socially progressive Catholicism focussed on serving the poor and marginalised. He becomes Superior General of the Jesuits, a historically conservative religious order within the Catholic Church tied to establishment power throughout the West. Many of his admirers would go on to lead activist campaigns and join radical leftist organisations. In him, they saw a progressive Catholic leader capable of spearheading social change.

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In stark contrast, Catholic doctrines in Australia today are most closely associated with conservative positions. For those who know the Catholic Church as a propagator of homophobia and sexism, helmed by stern old white men, the two ideologies verge on synonymity. There are good reasons for this. An increasingly senescent institutional hierarchy continues to strangulate progressive Catholic movements. As a majority of Western Catholics move away from the rigidity of Church doctrines, a calcified Vatican further entrenches strict social tenets on marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. Catholic leaders in the electoral arena continue to push conservative agendas. And yet, banished to the margins of the Catholic institutional core reside a significant number of progressive Catholic individuals and institutions. Their relegation is the result of a bizarre fusion of political and theological conservatisms.

Modern political conservatism is defined by an economic conservatism, underpinned by notions of individualism and self-reliance, and a social conservatism, focussed on preserving traditional institutions. Conservatism’s inherent relationship with the institutional Church is certainly ambivalent. Catholic notions of collective responsibility militate against economic conservatism while many Catholic social teachings support social conservatism. Yet despite this ambivalence, the Catholic presence in Australia remains largely aligned with political conservatism. This phenomenon is not isolated to the modern Australian experience, and yet its logic is perplexing.

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On 7 August 1981, paralysed by a stroke, Arrupe resigns as Jesuit Superior General. His reformative stances and social activism see him retire as one of the most popular, albeit controversial, Catholic figures in the world. Nonetheless, in an unexpected turn of events, Pope John Paul II rejects Arrupe’s choice of interim leader and personally installs Paul Dezza as Jesuit Superior General. Described as a “papal smackdown” and a personal affront to Arrupe and the Order, John Paul enrages many progressive Jesuits. One Jesuit contends that John Paul’s actions are fuelled by the fear of a possible strengthening of Arrupe’s legacy. Another commentator labels John Paul’s intervention an act of martial law.

John Paul insists that Dezza, an 80-year-old conservative Jesuit, is the necessary “delegate who will represent me more closely in the Society.” Writing to the paralysed and now mute Arrupe, John Paul II cites the necessity for a “more thorough preparation of the Society” before an election for Superior General takes place, effectively cementing temporary control over the Jesuit Society. More than a year later, in preparation for the election of a new Jesuit Superior General, Dezza suggests the Jesuits should elect a conservative successor and implies that Arrupe had committed errors in his leadership.

The seeds of John Paul’s resentment towards Arrupe and the Jesuits were rooted in the latter’s controversially progressive and reformist endeavours. The most famous of these endeavours was found in liberation theology, a theology which emerged in a Latin America characterised by conservative military dictatorships as a synthesis of Marxist analysis and Catholicism. It sought to aid the poor and oppressed through political participation and social activism. At its core was Arrupe’s principle of the “option for the poor” — a principle which stressed giving priority to those in the most marginalised positions. Accordingly, its proponents posited that the best translation of salvation in their repressive contexts was liberation — liberation from poverty and repressive governments. Adopting the class struggle dialectic, many of liberation theology’s manifestations were unapologetically Marxist. In Nicaragua, Jesuits featured in the revolutionary Sandinista government. They even held ministerial positions in Government. In El Salvador, Jesuits advocated for a negotiated settlement between the government and guerrilla organisations. Six were murdered by government forces for their efforts.

During this period, John Paul accused the Jesuits of “causing confusion among the Christian people and anxieties to the Church and also personally to the Pope.” Priests of various denominations promoting liberation theology were suspended. The doctrinal czar in this Vatican crackdown was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a theologically conservative ally of John Paul. Dubbing liberation theology a “singular heresy”, Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith zealously silenced proponents of liberation theology. Following John Paul’s accusations that the Jesuit Society was engaging in “secularising tendencies”, Arrupe attempted to stem the tide of papal criticism. He limited the way in which Jesuits could adopt Marxist analysis, allowing only for the adoption of methodological insights. This attempt was ultimately unsuccessful. Ratzinger continued to view liberation theology as a threat to orthodox Catholicism as it moved doctrinal focus away from the sacraments and towards social justice.

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Curiously, Catholic groups of different political and ‘secular’ persuasions worldwide did not face similar treatment, themselves seemingly more problematic. The alleged ties between various conservative and fascist governments and Opus Dei, a notoriously secretive and ultra-conservative Catholic institution, were ignored by the papacy. If anything, Opus Dei’s anti-communist rhetoric was lauded. In 1982, Opus Dei was made a ‘personal prelature’ by John Paul and encouraged to increase its presence in Latin America.

Given the sheer size and global reach of the Church, the existence of a diverse political spectrum is not surprising. However, the differing treatment of various ideologies by the Church begs justification. The instinct for self-preservation explains the Church’s concern over strains of communism that are staunchly anti-religious. However, these concerns do not provide a basis for fundamentally associating Catholic beliefs with politically conservative positions, nor for dismissing theologies centred on social justice.

The local seeds of the modern association between Catholicism and conservatism in Australia are found in the political migration of Catholic Australians during the second half of the 20th century. Historically, the membership of the Australian Labor Party and Australian Liberal Party were divided along sectarian lines. Working class Australians of Irish Catholic backgrounds found their natural home in the Labor Party while British Protestants populated the Liberal Party. However, during the 1950s, Bob Santamaria led the staunchly anti-communist Catholic wing of the Labor Party into a new party: The Democratic Labor Party. This fracture, coupled with the decision of the Liberal Government to fund private Catholic schools, paved the way for a great migration of disaffected Catholic voters to turn to the Liberal Party. Demographic changes in the form of higher incomes and changing class interests only facilitated the flocking of Catholics into the Liberal Party.

And yet, as already suggested, the roots underpinning the relationship between Catholicism and political conservatism should not be surprising — they are found in a Vatican hierarchy that stifles progressive Catholic movements. In reaction to liberation theology, the Church silenced many of its most vocal proponents, rejecting any theological relationship with Marxist analysis. Historically, the Vatican adopted some of liberation theology’s terminology, such as the “option for the poor.” Critically, however, it refused to import any of the political significance of these concepts, therefore disabling any meaningful progressive implications. Modern priests who varied too far doctrinally faced similar consequences from conservative members of the hierarchy. The Jesuit Thomas Reese was forced to resign as editor of the America magazine for his openness in discussing nettlesome issues such as the Church’s relations with Islam and same-sex marriage.

Today, a senescent hierarchy within the Catholic Church continues to prosecute a culture war which fixates on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. Even the most reform-inclined and popular pope since John XXIII, Pope Francis, isn’t able to sway this institutional bureaucracy. With a reformist Pope in power, many in the Vatican hierarchy are forced to reimagine themselves as conservative dissenters. The institutional strength of the conservative Vatican wing, however, allows dissenters to be influential and decisive. Any reform to conservative dogma, even by the Pontiff himself, is subject to review and criticism. Francis’ decision to allow Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics is criticised as heretical. After stating that atheists may enter heaven, the Vatican later clarifies that the Pope only intended to state that God’s grace was available to all. While in the secular sense of the word, Francis’ progressivism may seem mild, his attempted reforms stand in stark contrast to the Church’s fierce past of political conservatism.

This conservative institutional dominance isn’t confined to the walls of the Vatican. Its doctrines extend and influence how local Dioceses express themselves, especially in the electoral arena. No clearer example is the Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s support for the Coalition for Marriage in the same-sex marriage plebiscite. In the recent Federal election, the Archdiocese of Sydney released a federal election guide surveying the policies of various parties on four issues: Life and Family; Education; Care for the Vulnerable; and Religious Freedom. The issues canvassed a broad range of progressive and conservative topics including Catholic school funding, offshore detention, environmental issues and housing affordability. And yet, in an opinion piece accompanying the election guide, the Director of Public Affairs for the Archdiocese of Sydney claimed that the issue of primary concern was religious freedom. The Director stated that this was fundamental to resisting “attempts to teach LGBTIQ sex and gender education” in Catholic schools and allowing Catholic hospitals to refuse to “provide abortions, IVF and surrogacy, gender reassignment surgery or euthanasia.” The Director concluded by highlighting the potential of minor parties in the Upper House, warning against a future where the Greens hold the balance of power and lauding the potential of another Australian Conservative Senator to join Cory Bernardi in upholding religious freedoms in education and expression. For the Director, these were apparently more pressing concerns than offshore detention, education funding, housing affordability or First Nations representation.

The trend of promoting socially progressive issues — “care for the vulnerable” — while emphasising the importance of strict social tenets is not isolated to the electoral arena. The progressive Jesuit high school I attended placed great significance on producing “men for others” who would strive for social justice. Progressive teachings were incorporated throughout the syllabus and community service was expected of all students. And yet, despite this commendable focus, the external hierarchy saw to it that conservative social tenets were present. The school mandated that only female partners could be brought to school formals. It distributed the Sydney Archdiocese’s pamphlets advocating against marriage equality during the plebiscite. It warned students of the sinful perils of masturbation.

These teachings reveal a disconnect between the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church and self-identifying Catholics. More than 70 per cent of Australian Catholics believe abortion should be left to individual women and their doctors. The majority of Australian Catholics do not adhere to or agree with the Church’s teachings on premarital sex, contraceptive use or civil divorce. By shifting the focus of Catholic doctrine towards controversial social tenets, the Church continually falls short of its mission to engage with pertinent economic and social justice issues. This allows the Catholic Church’s most vocal teachings to mirror conservative positions, as only conservative social tenets are thoroughly addressed.

Throughout all this, certain progressive teachings in the Catholic Church remain consistent. However, the perceived synonymity between Catholic and politically conservative beliefs is furthered by prominent Catholics in the electoral arena who avoid implementing legislation consistent with progressive Catholic teachings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the offshore processing of refugees in Australia. Catholic institutions have unanimously advocated for more humane processing of refugee applicants in Australia. However, despite each of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey consulting with Jesuit priests during the 2009 Liberal leadership spill, none followed the Church’s teachings on the issue. In 2013, when asked what Jesus would do in relation to asylum seekers, Abbott reminded viewers of Q&A that “Jesus drove the traders from the temple,” and that “Jesus didn’t say yes to everyone.” It appears that conservative Catholics may themselves chose when the Vatican is incorrect.

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In 2005, John Paul was afforded the luxury he expressly denied Arrupe: having a successor who would further his own legacy. John Paul’s confidant and fellow conservative, Joseph Ratzinger, was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Ironically, Benedict would be followed by a reformist Jesuit.

Perhaps the supreme irony, however, is that while a reformed-minded Pope is unable to shift the institutional hierarchy of the Vatican, the hierarchy itself is proving to be increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, Australian Catholics continue to vote with their feet as empty churches attest to Australia’s disillusionment with Catholic institutional conservatism.