Saturday, February 19, 2011

Real Church Reform: A Zero Sum Game?

 One of the trends I tend to follow very closely concerns the relationship between the governments and official Catholicism in what are considered strongly conservative Catholic countries.  This is especially true of Spain, Mexico, and Italy, the three countries which have spawned the most of the 'lay' Catholic initiatives (cults) so favored by the Vatican occupants of the past thirty years.  

An aspect of these conservative Catholic groups which really troubles me is their relationship to the money and power brokers with in their countries of origin.  The NCR is currently running a story on the nature of the relationship between Mexican drug cartels and the Church.  It is highly reminiscent of the relationship between Italian religious authority and the Mafia.  The following is an excerpt which includes a couple of areas I will expound on in more detail: 

"Although it had traditionally stayed out of the fray, the church had without a doubt crossed paths with the narcos. During the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) between 1929 and 2000, Mexico’s drug traffickers were not necessarily considered the criminals they are today. The narcos attended social functions throughout Mexico, at which politicians, businessmen and priests would be present. The narcos attended baptisms and weddings of important social figures. One priest in Mexicali, on the northern border, claims to have baptized several of Chapo’s children. In 1983, Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (aka El Padrino, or the Godfather) attended the wedding of Rodolfo Sánchez Duarte, the son of a former governor. Officiating at the wedding was the bishop of Culiacán.

The relationships weren’t necessarily clear-cut; after all, in many parts of Mexico, says George Grayson, a longtime Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., “drug barons have long been members of the local establishment.”

“The church justifies its relations with the narco-barons on the grounds that these contacts may change the criminals’ behavior and lead them to the path of glory. If not, members of the flock emerge with a church building whose roof doesn’t leak and schools that have desks,” he says. (And bishops emerge with a higher life style and nicer digs--both spiritual and material.)

 Indeed, the narcos have allegedly long donated money, known commonly as narco-limosnas (“narco-alms”), to the church. For years, the church has backed away from such claims, sometimes denying them furiously, other times simply asking how one might prove such accusations. But on Nov. 1, 2010, in a printed statement in Desde la Fe, newspaper of the Mexico City archdiocese, the church hierarchy admitted that some of the “dirtiest and bloodiest” money in Mexico could well have been used to build chapels and other facilities. This was “immoral,” the church declared. “Nothing can justify allowing this sort of situation to occur.” (Something justified it because it went on for decades, enabled by the very Church authorities that now condemn their own behavior--but only when the death toll skyrocketed as one of the fruits of fostering a parallel quasi governmental and social structure.)

While local priests have played a very reassuring role in comforting victims and frightened residents amid the violence, the hierarchy’s pronouncements throughout the drug war have failed to win over the hearts of a declining membership -- church attendance is dropping at a rate of roughly 1.7 percent a year, according to Mexico’s national statistics institute.

At times, the church has appeared completely out of touch.

Last year, for instance, Mexico City archdiocesan spokesman Fr. Hugo Valdemar criticized the liberal, left-wing Mexico City government of Marcelo Ebrard, which has legalized gay marriage, instituted social and health programs, and managed to improve security in the capital. “He and his government have created laws that are destructive to the family, which cause worse harm than drug trafficking,” Valdemar said. (This statement is indicative of a man whose understanding of his reality is more than out of touch. It's the kind of thing that twenty somethings take as proof of the inherent irrelevance of organized religion.)

Valdemar was promptly attacked by columnists and the citizenry alike: Comparing Ebrard, no matter how conservative one might be, to the narcos was simply offensive and wrong.


Fr. Hugo Valdemar is not the only Catholic cleric who has made incredibly stupid statements about gay marriage or other Catholic moral stances which seem nonsensical when placed in the context of what is really destroying families and the societies in which they try valiantly to raise their children.

They seem nonsensical  until you take your focus from family culture to church culture.  Then they make a sort of diabolical sense. It makes sense to stay silent about organized crime if organized crime is one your major meal tickets.  It also makes sense to distract a certain segment of the population from dealing with your meal ticket by focusing that segment on a defenseless population which is also easily demonized.  For centuries it was the Jews and now it's the gays.  The strategy has been with us in one form or another since the descendants of Cain were ostracized in Genesis.

The other idea which floats through this article is one I have always found more than a little devious.  It's that notion that dirty money can somehow be laundered through the process of narco-limosnas.  I'm not taking a stance here that says narcotics traffickers are beyond salvation, but I am saying they shouldn't be able to buy that same salvation while the rest of wait for their conversion.  I am saying Church authorities are in denial if they think taking this money doesn't corrupt the church or seriously effect it's ability to proclaim the Gospel message.  What it says is that money buys salvation and it doesn't matter what one does to garner that money.  I have no doubt this is a message that plays loud and clear amongst certain members of our Catholic flock.  It's a message which is at the evangelizing heart of many of these conservative Catholic groups whose charism is to the wealthy and influential.  It seems to say "we're more than happy to hold your place in heaven as long as you keep paying for the privilege." 

All of this is why I think real reform needs to be a zero sum game.  Jesus didn't take any money for His teaching. The Apostles didn't have salaries, nor were they part of a self sustaining bureaucracy.  The early church met in houses and had no need to support a professional clergy.  The spiritual experiences they provided was the only evangelizing currency they needed.  Today's Catholicism would undoubtedly have more appeal to all those self proclaimed spiritual seekers if it still retained the spiritual dynamism of the early Church.  Substituting religious ritual for spiritual efficacy eventually smothers the life out of any religious system and leaves it wide open to material corruption.  

It wouldn't be the first time reform in Catholicism needed to look at the money aspects and the sometimes subtle notion of selling salvation.  St Francis finally understood God's command to rebuild his church meant precisely returning it to it's simpler, less power hungry roots.  If the Church is not of this world, then it is not of this world.  It should have no need to try straddle both worlds.  It should have no need to be a power player  in this world or pretend that it can be somehow clean up corrupting secular influences by partaking in those influences.  It needs to set it's sights much lower, more humbly as St Francis did.  Christianity works best in the small sphere and then letting the small spheres add up to one big sphere.  It just seems to me we are wasting way too much time and energy on attempting to maintain a religious system that is too big and too expensive in too many ways and is only getting more supersized.   We need to start entertaining ideas as to how to get back to a more zero sum game before all that's left of Christianity is a remnant triumphal Catholicism and millions of small Evangelical communities.


  1. Thanks for this article, Coleen. It puts so much together. I think that one thing that Authoritarians can not seem to stand is when the truth about them gets out. It also emboldens the populace against them. That is what happened in Cairo and may be what is happening in Madison. What are the chances that the people of Wisconsin will recall their Governor? dennis

  2. I scratch your back and you scratch mine. I comb your hair, you comb mine. (Word verification: Catalan verb for "you comb" = pentineau)

    I have long wondered how Carlos Slim could become the world's richest man through his original rather derivative investments in telecoms. He might be richer than Bill Gates, the Walton heirs and Warren Buffett but how did he do it?

    Mexico's GDP is about 1/15th of the United States, good for the 14th largest economy in the world. It is an unlikely place for such immense wealth accumulation.

    He's supposed to be the greatest benefactor of the Legion of Christ and is reported to have been close to Marcial Maciel for decades.

    Another church mystery.


  3. Dennis I hope Wisconsin serves as an educational moment for the rest of the country. I was quite proud the Wisconsin bishops came out and defended the rights of workers to unionize. they may not have said anything about what those unions could organize for, but at least they supported a workers right to organize at all.

  4. I kind of suspect Carlos made his money in other places besides Mexico. I imagine he might have found the Legion useful for gaining access to investment opportunities in other countries. He certainly has his piece of the action in American telecom and communication companies. Things like the NY Times for instance.

  5. Dennis,
    I heard that the governor in Wisconsin cannot be recalled until he is in office for a year-and he intends to use that time to his advantage. Republican legislators can be recalled however and their constituents need to think about that.
    I am glad that the bishop spoke out and hope that they preached about that kind of justice this week. We got a sermon on "anti-Catholic prejudice-the last acceptable prejudice" and how "we should love them even though they hate us." What about the sermons we hear against gays, uppity women etc?

  6. Well said. Mexico is an interesting case since there has been a strict enforcement of separation of church and state since at least the 1920s. President Calles imposed a strict church state separation, and it sparked rebellion from Catholics who opposed it. I would be interested to learn if the Legionaries had their origins in the Cristero movement.

    BTW about the homilies. One homily harangued about abortion (not something likely to happen) but stopped short of the pill. The more the homilies discuss sex, the more likely to suspect hidden sins.

  7. KHughes, But you see catholic zealots, with pretended medical understanding, view the use of the pill as abortion!!! They tell me that any scientist knows this!!

    When Burke was in St. Louis, he would not let anyone distribute communion unless they signed a pledge including that they were not using the pill. He even went further to say that communion should not be given to those that were known to be using the BC pill. Some zealots really do not care how many people they drive out of the organization. To them, they are right and there is never a shade of gray.

    They continue to make the argument that science is on their side even when scientists show them that most blastocysts never imbed and explain that many other conditions and medications cause a uterus to be less likely to implant a blastocyst. They even try to side tract the fact that the pills mostly work by preventing ovulation. No they believe the pill works by causing abortion. Yet the medical definition of abortion is the removal of an embedded fetus. To a zealot, facts are only true if they back their own righteous point of view. Many zealots use what I call factoids and commit massive calumny.


  8. Dennis, the idea that birth control is an abortifacient drives me crazy as well. And yet these same folks think nothing of taking other pharmaceuticals which do function as abortifacients in some cases. Amazing to me how intent never comes into play when it comes to sex and how pregnancy is itself more important than the human woman who happens to be pregnant. I can't think of anothe situation where a biological process over rides the right to life of the individual undergoing the process.

  9. I had thought South Dakota was bad with it's newly proposed bill to ensure any woman who wants an abortion in this state must first get consent to the abortion from the 'crisis pregnancy' adoption placement agencies. Last night I learned that the state of Georgia has gone one farther. They are proposing to criminally investigation any woman who has a miscarriage but who can't adequately explain why she had the miscarriage. Because she might have done something to deliberately harm the fetus...

    The conservatives just don't seem to understand that their idea of proper 'family values' are just as harmful to people in some instances as the 'crimes' they purport to rout out.