Serving Two Masters

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

June 2002
Revised May 2007


The media has been telling us about Catholic priests who raped boys, priests who sexually molested children. The Catholic Church has treated this situation as an internal church matter. However, under the American constitutional system, it is not. Sexually molesting a child is a crime and the offender is subject to criminal prosecution. So why has the rape of children by Catholic priests been treated as an internal church matter?

Let's go back in history for about 150 years. Pope Pius IX will give us some keys to understanding what is happening now.

Pope Pius IX reigned in the mid-nineteenth century, during a time when governments were changing, the power of the Catholic Church was decreasing in some countries, and there was more freedom of religion. In 1864, Pius wrote an encyclical called the "Syllabus of Errors" in which he condemned many things. [This is available on-line. Note 1 gives addresses.]

In this encyclical, Pius said that when there is a conflict between civil law and Catholic Church law, then church law should prevail. He declared that kings and princes are under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. He said that it is right to have Catholicism be a state religion, and it is wrong for non-Catholics to worship publicly. He condemned freedom of religion.

Pius' attitude towards freedom of religion is demonstrated by the case of Edgardo Mortara. The Mortaras were Jews. They had a Catholic servant girl. She secretly baptized their son Edgardo when he was a baby. Catholic authorities found out about it. (By then Edgardo was six years old.) Papal police came to the Mortara home and took Edgardo from his family. They said that because he had been baptized, he was a Catholic. And a Catholic child could not be raised in a Jewish home. This became internationally known. Heads of state begged the Pope to return the boy to his family, but the Pope refused. [Note 2 has addresses of on-line articles.]

In 1855, Pius signed a concordat [treaty] with the Emperor of Austria. According to this concordat, Catholic clergy controlled Austrian schools and censored literature. Roman Catholic Canon Law was officially recognized by the nation of Austria. Where any civil laws contradicted Canon Law, the civil laws were repealed. [Note 3 gives the address of an on-line article.]

In 1866, Austria was defeated in the Austro-Prussian War. One result was the formation of a new government. [Note 4] In 1867, the new Austrian state ratified a Constitution which allowed freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of the press. It allowed non-Catholics to publicly practice their religion. [This Constitution is available on-line. It is short, direct, and easy to read. Note 5 gives the address. ]

Pope Pius IX officially declared that Austria's Constitution was "null and void". And he threatened Austrian Catholics with "spiritual penalties" if they accepted the Constitution of their own nation. [Note 6]

In 1874, Austria passed a "Law on Recognition" of churches. This law allowed Protestants and other non-Catholics to have religious schools, and to import ministers, missionaries, and religious teachers. [Note 7 gives addresses of on-line articles.]

Pius wrote an encyclical condemning this law. [It is available on-line. Note 8 gives addresses.] In this encyclical, Pius condemned freedom of religion. He denounced Austria for allowing "sects" [Protestants] and "defection from the Church" [Catholics who become Protestants], and for allowing non-Catholics to have their own schools.

According to Austria's Constitution, civil law took precedence over the laws of the Catholic Church. Pius declared that church laws should have priority. In other words, he asserted that the Catholic Church was a higher authority than the national leaders of Austria.

Pius went even further than that. He instructed the Catholic clergy in Austria to do everything within their power to "defend the liberty of the Church". In other words, to undermine or get around or openly confront Austrian laws which limited the power of the Catholic Church. He told the Austrian priests and bishops to be willing to go to prison in order to accomplish this.

Although these clergymen were Austrian citizens, the Pope expected them to work against their own national government in order to increase the power of the Catholic Church. These priests and bishops were under a vow of obedience. They were required to obey the Pope. [The Pope's instructions are in his encyclical in the section entitled "Role of the Clergy". Note 8 gives on-line addresses for the encyclical.]

Austria was not the only case. Pius also condemned the constitutions of France and Belgium because they allowed freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Because of their loyalty to the Pope, many Catholics in Austria, France and Belgium backed the Pope instead of their national governments. As a result, Catholics in these countries were considered to be unpatriotic. [Note 9 gives the address of an on-line article.]

These Catholics were torn between two loyalties. They were trying to serve two masters. It was almost like having a dual citizenship. They were citizens of their nations, under the authority of kings or princes or elected officials. But they were also loyal to the Catholic Church and to the Pope, and they were under the Pope's authority.

Now let's see how this relates to the "Catholic scandals" of the twenty-first century.

We have been hearing about American priests who sexually molested children. This resulted in civil lawsuits against the Catholic Church, most of which were settled out of court.

Why were these civil lawsuits? Ordinarily, when a man rapes or seduces a child, somebody calls the police, and the child molester is prosecuted. According to the laws of America, the normal penalty for sexually abusing children is the imprisonment of the man who did it. Why aren't Catholic priests held accountable like other men?

Recently a few priests were criminally prosecuted. But this is unusual. Perhaps things are changing. Perhaps some Americans are no longer buying into the idea that priestly pedophiles are just a matter for internal discipline of the Catholic Church.

When bishops and cardinals found out that priests had sexually molested children, why didn't they call the police? Molesting children is a criminal offense. It is not just a matter for internal church discipline. It is a crime against American citizens. [Note 10 gives the address of an on-line article.]

If you or I knew that a man had raped a child, and we helped him cover up his crime and escape justice, we would be guilty of aiding and abetting that criminal. If we were caught, we would probably go to prison for it. So why aren't these bishops and cardinals facing criminal charges? They aided and abetted priests who committed the crime of sexually molesting children. And they did not report those priests to the civil authorities. They acted as if they and the priests were above the laws of the land.

It looks as if we are right back with Pope Pius IX, who said that the laws of the Catholic Church take priority over the laws of civil governments.

By failing to report these child molesters, the bishops and cardinals acted as if the norms of American society do not apply to them. They behaved like foreign citizens on American soil.

In the case of cardinals, they literally do have a dual citizenship. They are citizens of the Vatican. Some people have questioned whether or not Vatican citizenship would provide cardinals with diplomatic immunity if they are brought to court by civil authorities. Cardinals are considered to be "princes". [Note 11 gives the address of an on-line article.]

It is not surprising that high-ranking Catholic clergy, who were taught to put the Catholic Church above everything else, are dutifully doing what they were taught that they should do. However, if Pope Pius IX were alive today, and tried to do what he did back in the 1850s and 1860s, I doubt if he would get much support from the Catholic citizens of those countries. The Catholic Church has become fragmented. Its members hold a wide variety of beliefs, some of which deny traditional Catholic teaching. (See my articles “False Credentials” and “New Age Catholicism.”) And many Catholics no longer have the kind of loyalty to the Pope that was common in the nineteenth century.



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