The revelation that Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff sought to pressure the Catholic Church to liberalise its teachings has provoked understandable outrage. For those with a sense of history, however, it may also have elicited a tired shrug. Talk of swaying the Church for political ends has been around for a very long time.
Secular rulers have sought, from first centuries of Christianity, to influence the Church’s teaching and steer it in their preferred political direction.
That was the subtext of the Investiture Contest which pitted popes and kings against each other in the 11th and 12th centuries, and produced martyrs such as St Stanislaus of Kraków (1010-79) and St Thomas Becket (1118-70).
It was behind Henry VIII’s decision to declare himself head of the English Church, and Reformation-era princes’ commitment to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio – “who rules determines the religion”.
In 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia ended more than a century of bloody confessional wars, Europe’s rulers finally agreed to allow “exact and mutual equality” in religion, and to ensure that “all violence and physical force in these as in other matters shall be perpetually forbidden”.
But that broke down in the late 18th century, when the French Revolution set out to form a church whose primary loyalty would be to the state rather than Rome.
The means used, including the Revolution’s notorious Civil Constitution and loyalty oath, forced a rift between two types of clergy: the regime-backed constitutionels, and the non-juring réfractaires.
It was only in 1801 that Napoleon realised that the confrontational model was unworkable and signed a concordat with Pope Pius VII. But with its vision of a new world order, the Revolution had established an anti-Church prototype which would be copied repeatedly over the next two centuries: property seizures, suppression of monastic orders, state control over appointments and the secularisation of education.
Attempts to force the Church to speak and act in line with state diktats were made by all communist regimes. But the movements founded for this purpose – from the pro-Soviet Orthodox “Living Church”, which spoke out against Patriarch Tikhon in 1920s Russia, to the Catholic “Patriot Priests” of post-war Poland – all failed, despite lavish state support. Today, the pro-regime “patriotic church” survives only in China. But this too is under constant pressure and is unlikely to survive long-term.
Of course, attempts to harness and control the Catholic Church haven’t been confined to left-wing regimes. Parallel efforts were made by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco – as well as by dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere.
They’ve also been made, albeit a bit more gently, in democratic countries. We need only recall Margaret Thatcher’s running battle with British Church leaders over her de-industrialisation programme, striking miners and inner-city riots – and similar moral confrontations between the Church and governments in France, Spain and Belgium.
The fact that all blatant acts of interference have failed teaches important lessons. The most critical is that the Church must always be independent of the state. This does not mean aggressive or negative independence – Church and state can and should co-operate where possible. But the Church should maintain its autonomy, and never be coaxed into siding with power and privilege and allowing its values to be compromised.
And its best defence against this will always lie with Rome. Local hierarchies may be bullied and cajoled; but the Pope can never be. And while the Vatican has its own accords with dozens of countries worldwide, the red line in all of these has been the Church’s capacity to teach and minister in freedom.