by Jerome Grapel.......
(Quite coincidentally, I was in New York when the Pope made his blockbuster visit to the mega city. It didn’t take long before I was totally “Poped out” under the weight of such an onslaught. If there is one thing I can say for sure about Pope Francis, it is this: his public relation skills are better than anyone who has ever held the Papacy. Whether he can, or intends to back this ability up with the substance of his rhetoric, is still to be seen. In any event, his “invasion” of America made the following essay, written a few years ago in Spain, quite relevant.)
“Caritas” (Kah’ ree tas) is a name one comes across frequently in Spain. It is a charitable organization that operates under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. When a taxpayer in Spain complies with their tributary obligations, such taxpayer is given the choice of having a small part of this civic duty deflected into the coffers of the Roman Catholic Church. Just put an X in the indicated box and --- voila! --- a small part of one’s debt to society is entrusted to a religious organization that will supposedly do something worthwhile with it.
When the state goes out of its way to provide such an accessible, “drive thru” mode of sending money to a religious organization, it is easier to see this as a use of public funds rather than a charitable contribution. Undoubtedly, a great many of the people who put their X in the box would not send this money to the Catholic Church if the state was not offering this easy, “you just add water” way of doing it. As an American, I would consider such a practice beyond the realm of our political traditions and would strongly object to it. We have always been, by law, a secular state, even though our culture tends towards “religiosity” more than the other western democracies. The historical DNA of Spain presents its own customized set of circumstances, one which makes the X in the box less onerous --- or at least understandable.
There is much irony here. Although the idea of separation of Church and State is a deeply rooted part of the American mindset, one that would make the X on the tax return even illegal, America is a far more religious country than contemporary Spain (this is something the religious fanatics in America should take note of as they try to take over the mechanisms of government). A politician’s belief or non-belief is generally not a factor in European politics, and that includes the great Catholic states of Spain, Italy and Portugal (I won’t even mention France in this group, where they just don’t give a crap about such things).
It could be said that Spain’s attachment to the Catholic Church began 2000 years ago. Indeed, the apostil Jacob, rumor has it, ended up on the Iberian Peninsula. This Catholic hegemony was interrupted by more than half a millennium of Moorish rule, ending with the completion of the re-conquest in 1492. The Spanish state as we know it started then.
This essay’s spark began with an article I read in the local press about 3 days ago. I will apologize to both its author and my readers for not remembering his name, with the mitigating excuse that I did not begin to postulate this essay until the day before yesterday’s news was already a sloppy mass of newspaper waste. But I do remember the gist of it.
The author of the article, who seemed to be neither a conservative ideolog nor Catholic fanatic --- it would not surprise me if he were not a believer --- was explaining why he would put the X in the box, thus diverting some of his taxes to the Catholic Church. He argued that Caritas, regardless of your feelings about the Church or your political ideology, did splendid work --- its food banks, clothing outlets, hospitals and clinics, etc. --- and deserved his largesse. Unlike the money we give to the government, whose use is always under a cloud of suspicion, with Caritas we know what we are getting.
Fine. There is absolutely nothing offensive about this gentleman’s point of view. I have little doubt those working for Caritas are sincere people doing the best they can for the neediest amongst us. They represent the most noble aspects of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I both applaud and thank them for their efforts (I buy virtually all my clothes at the Salvation Army). Go ahead; put your X in the box, there are far worse things a human being can do in this universe.
But I remind the gentleman writer his money is not going directly to Caritas, but to the Catholic Church itself. Sure, some of it will end up there, whatever the more omnipotent force in charge of it decides. In such circumstances, that greater power, the Catholic Church in this instance, must be further scrutinized (or “vetted”, as they say in contemporary American politics). Down through the centuries, has it been an effective force in fighting poverty? Even worse, has it been a sincere force in fighting poverty?
If we go back to that magical year of 1492 and trace the history of Spain into the present, we see a monarchy whose Kings and Queens were not just figureheads --- as the current King is --- but the final arbiters of decision making in the country. This is a state of affairs that lasted, with some brief outbursts of dissent beginning in the 19th century, into the 20th century. For almost all that time, the mechanisms of government and its bureaucracy was the Catholic Church. That cute and cuddly arm of governance known as the Spanish Inquisition was Spain’s version of our Department of Justice. Such light hearted jokesters as the Great Inquisitor Torquemada, were the Attorney Generals of their day. All the Ministers and surrogates were Catholic clergy. Foreign policy was dictated through whatever person in the religious hierarchy had the King’s favor. Spain and its policies were indivisible from the Catholic Church.
This was Spain from the 16th century up into even parts of the 19th century. For much of that time, the country was living its salad days. It imprinted its language and culture on a great part of the western hemisphere. Its wealth and power was unsurpassed in the forum of western nations. And yet -- in spite of all this wealth, Spain showed what seemed to be an innate ability to keep any part of its populace other than its nobility, which included the upper tier of clergy who governed the country, in varying degrees of what must be called poverty.
There can be little doubt the Catholic Church, all through this centuries long run as Spain’s governing body, also had an infrastructure of charitable work, as it does now. In one form or another, something like Caritas surely existed, though its role in the Church’s personality may have been less important. In those days, the theological carrot offered to the poor in the form of a glorious after life, may have been more relevant. In a sense, for the Catholic Church and the sociological point of view it represented, poverty was a natural element of society, something not even necessary to fight against. Those at the top and those at the bottom (and there was not much else) were there through the Divine designs of God.
If this stance is not quite as stark now as it was then, it is because the Church was dragged along by an evolving world it could not contain and not because it had evolved itself. If we move into more contemporary history, we see it is hardly different now than it was back in the days of the Spanish Armada.
If we encapsulate Spanish history into its most basic elements, we see, by the 19th century, an antiquated socio-political order beginning to show its first cracks and fissures. The monarchy was challenged a number of times, replaced and brought back, etc., etc. The Catholic Church, through all of this, remained, if not the governing institution of the country, its only real source of socialization. Its moral values and social guidance stayed at the center of Spanish life.
When a democratic, secular republic was established in 1932, replacing yet another monarchic period, a true break with the past had taken place. The Republic’s progressive character was a serious attempt to change a petrified social order where poverty was taken for granted. The Catholic Church, whose influence had always been paramount in the country, was now being challenged by the winds of change the Republic represented.
But the old Spain was far from dead. With the legitimate government having trouble controlling the extremist elements in a volcanic situation, right wing sectors of the military rebelled in 1936, leading to 3 years of brutal civil war and the eventual triumph of Francisco Franco and his 30 years of hell for the mass of Spanish people. But it was Heaven on Earth for the Catholic Church.
Franco restored the Catholic Church to its primordial role in Spanish society. Regardless of whether it was formally considered a state religion; regardless of whether its clergy occupied the halls of government, Catholicism once again became the only measure of acceptable behavior. Anyone not openly a practicing Catholic was officially a “persona non grata.” All works of intellectual and artistic creation had to pass the “Catholic test” to be diffused. Public education, what there was of it, was really a Catholic education. No dissent was possible. If you objected, you either shut up, left, or commenced vacations in the penal system. For the Catholic Church, this was “Nirvana.”
Caritas is an old organization. It was just as much a part of Franco’s Spain as it is in today’s Spain. The charitable organisms of the Church were alive and well during the country’s 30 years of hibernation under Francisco Franco. And yet --- if there is one thing the Franco regime excelled in other than brutality and retro-thinking, it was poverty. Franco’s Spain was a poor Spain, a Spain locked into a well defined class structure with little social mobility.
The problem with the Catholic Church (and most religious organizations show similar tendencies) is that it has allied itself with the most conservative hierarchies of society, hierarchies that have thrived on the poverty of others. The Catholic Church has not been an innocent bystander, but an integral force in political mechanisms that help create and perpetuate poverty. In a perverse kind of way, the Catholic Church seems to welcome this poverty as a way to make itself relevant. Its charitable work becomes more of a smokescreen than a sincere effort in Christian charity in such a sociological climate. The great Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibanez, author of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, put it best: “Justice not charity”.
Caritas and many other religious based organizations do very good work, but on that Big Financial Sheet of history, the world has operated in the red with their help. The Catholic Church and others like it have always supported social orders that create far more poverty than their acts of Christian charity can make a dent in. The poverty surplus is never wiped out --- not even close --- with them and their likes playing a fundamental role. Anytime social agitation has altered or swept away an unjust political-economic framework, it has been done in spite of entities like the Catholic Church rather than with its help.
Go ahead; put the X in the correct box, perhaps it is the most practical thing to do at this moment in history. If I were a Spaniard, the box would remain empty. I can’t see these people as a solution for poverty. On the contrary, they seem to have rather thrived on it.