The key to understanding the political role of the Catholic hierarchy is acknowledging that the leadership of the Catholic Church is remarkably well suited to participate at all levels of political contestation. Individual diocesan bishops often play active political roles in their specific contexts, generally framed around protecting the institutional interests of local churches, schools, and social service providers, as well as representing the social interests of Catholic communities in local political discourse and conflict. For their part, national conferences of bishops serve in many countries as vehicles for advancing the church’s positions within nationally defined policy debates and political contestation. These conferences have limited formal teaching authority according to Catholic ecclesiology. But in many contexts, these coneferences have come to play important roles as policy issues of interest to the Catholic hierarchy get played out on national rather than local political stages. Finally, the Pope, as leader not only of the transnational church but also of the sovereign entity of the Holy See is able to participate in world politics in ways that would be unthinkable for virtually any other religious leader. Enjoying formal diplomatic relations with over 180 countries and occupying a seat as Permanent Observer at the UN, the Holy See is deeply engaged in international diplomacy and firmly entrenched as a prominent element of global civil society. In sum, it is precisely this institutional complexity and multileveled breadth that renders the Catholic hierarchy uniquely well positioned to play meaningful roles at all levels of politics: local, national, and global. Moreover, the multifaceted ways in which these levels of the church’s leadership structure interact with and intersect with each other also grant complexity, nuance, and pervasiveness to the hierarchy’s political role. The first requirement for scholars seeking to conceptualize and explicate this role, therefore, is to be careful about what we mean when we use the term “the Catholic hierarchy,” and to be cognizant of the many different “levels of analysis” at which the Catholic Church operates as a universal institution.
Timothy A. Byrnes
The American Catholic Church has a long history in health care. At the turn of 19th century, Catholic nuns began developing the United States’ first hospital and health care systems, amassing a high level of professionalization and expertise in the field. The bishops also have a well-established record advocating for healthcare, stemming back to 1919 with the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, which called for affordable and comprehensive care, particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Moving into the latter part of the 20th century, the bishops continued to push for health care reform. However, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade (1973), the American bishops insisted that any reform or form of universal health care be consistent with the Church’s teaching against abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. The bishops were also adamant that health care policy respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In 1993, these concerns caused the bishops to pull their support for the Clinton Administration’s Health Security Act, since the bill covered abortion as a medical and pregnancy-related service. The debate over health care in the 1990s served as a precursor for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) opposition to the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) contraception mandate. The ACA also highlighted a divide within the Church on health care among religious leaders. For example, progressive female religious leadership organizations, such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and their affiliate NETWORK (a Catholic social justice lobby), took a different position than the bishops and supported the ACA, believing it had enough protections against federally funded abortion. Though some argue this divide lead to institutional scrutiny of the sisters affiliated with the LCWR and NETWORK, both the bishops and the nuns have held common ground on lobbying the government for affordable, comprehensive, and universal health care.
While three-quarters of the population in Ireland still declare to be Catholic in census data collection, the position and role of the Catholic Church has changed dramatically. A fruitful relationship between the state, church, and nation that developed in the 19th century became meaningfully embedded in social and political relations from the 1920s. Involvement of the church in the running of education, health, and welfare meant that its “moral monopoly” extended into both the institutional and individual spheres of life. The Irish Republic relied on the church organizations and personnel to provide education and guidance in absence of the state’s infrastructure and Will to consolidate the new political entity around a state-building project based on inclusivity, reciprocity, and diversity. The confessional state that emerged with its own constitution favored one religion over others, economic stagnation over progress, and patriarchal social values over equality. The internal processes of social change and the external impetus for economic development sent Ireland into modernization and changes in attitudes and behaviors. It became obvious that the church did not hold a monopoly on truth and that accountability of the relations between the state and the church should be called into question. Economic prosperity propelled Ireland into the world of consumerism, materialism, and instant gratification, teaching a new generation that religion helps keep your parents appeased and at times can provide solace, and that the Catholic Church is just an institution that seems to be around but nobody is quite sure what its role is. The vicariousness of the church coupled with cultural Catholicism makes the Ireland of today more open to change.
Christopher W. Hale
Historically, the Catholic Church in Latin America has supported conservative interests. It legitimized Spanish colonial rule and sided with traditionalist elites following Latin American independence. However, beginning in the mid-20th century, some within the Church engaged with social causes, and a new progressive theology inspired many priests and bishops to advocate politically on behalf of the poor. The resultant movement helped topple dictatorships, facilitated transitions to democracy, and developed as a result of three factors. First, liberation theology emboldened clergy to support the political causes of the poor and created an ideological frame encouraging Catholic laity to organize for social change. Furthermore, competition from new Protestant religions provided Catholic leadership with an incentive to support secular political movements and created an opportunity for political engagement through the Catholic Church. Finally, decentralization within the Church encouraged Catholic adherents to engage and develop organizational capacities at the grass-roots. Taken together, scholarly explanations emphasizing framing, opportunity, and resource mobilization create a compelling account of the development of progressive Catholic activism. Less sustained theoretical attention has been given to assessing the dynamics of conservative Latin American Catholic advocacy. The Church consistently opposes abortion, divorce, the use of contraceptives, and gay marriage. Moreover, although the Catholic Church has enabled many women’s political movements, it suppresses efforts at liberalizing reproductive rights. Future research on Catholic advocacy in Latin America should identify additional pathways through which framing, opportunity, and resource mobilization influence conservative Catholic advocacy in the region. Additionally, the Church’s relationship with environmental issues is understudied. Finally, Latin America offers untapped potential to examine the complicated relationship between ethnicity, religion, and collective action.
Claudia Cerqueira and Guadalupe Tuñón
During the past three decades, the tide in religious affiliation has rapidly shifted in Latin America. The predominance of Catholicism in the region has been challenged by the expansion of Evangelicalism and the number of individuals with no religious affiliation. Changes in Brazil’s religious landscape are explained in part by the opportunities and restrictions that government regulations place on religious organizations. Regulation shapes religious competition by changing the incentives and opportunities for religious producers (churches, preachers, revivalists, etc.) and the viable options available to religious consumers (church members). Importantly, as our description of Brazilian regulations shows, the incentives defined by regulation affect religious denominations differently, creating winners and losers. Moreover, established religious groups are often able to reshape religious regulation, reinforcing the degree to which it favors them.
The relationship between religion and protest has been thoroughly discussed in various academic disciplines of social sciences, but there is far from consensus on the topic. Scholars differ significantly in their opinions on how religious values and doctrines shape the mechanisms which link protest and religion, and on how interaction between religious groups, the state, and other secular and religious groups may increase or reduce the likelihood of protests. Contemporary China provides an ideal setting in which to further advance scholarly understanding of roles that religion plays in protest, thanks to its richness, diversity, and complexity of religion, protest, and their relationship. In contemporary China, due to the inherent, profound, and possibly deliberate ambiguities within the state’s legal and regulatory arrangements on religious affairs, the boundaries between government-sanctioned churches and “underground” churches are often blurred. Many Christianity-related protests directly respond to government crackdowns, which are aimed not only at those congregations and groups that are normally considered as “underground,” “unofficial,” or “independent,” but also at churches that have long been tolerated or even officially recognized by the state. Further, while many Christianity-related protests are closely associated with the clash of ideologies in contemporary China, the specific causes of protests differ significantly among Catholic and Protestant churches, and Christian-inspired groups. The ideological incompatibility between the ruling Communist Party and the Catholic Church in China is epitomized by their struggle for authority and influence over the Chinese Catholic community. Until the provisional agreement signed between Beijing and the Vatican in September 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See had been competing fiercely for the authority to approve the ordination of new bishops, with such confrontations triggering numerous protests among Chinese Catholics. Unlike the Catholic Church, many of the Protestant churches that have emerged in the post-Mao era—including most “house” churches that do not affiliate with the state-sanctioned church—have no direct link with the transnational denominations which were active in China before the communist takeover in 1949 and are operated solely by Chinese citizens. However, while many Chinese Protestants display affection toward China and a sense of responsibility for improving their country, some influential Protestant church leaders have turned their progressive theology into social activism since the turn of the 21st century, leading to various forms of protests against the authoritarian policies and politics in contemporary China. Ideological and theological conflicts between different religions or religious schools may also trigger the Chinese state’s suppression of certain religious groups and activities, which often in turn cause protests. In particular, the Communist Party tends to impose extremely harsh repercussions on religious groups that are accused by mainstream Christianity of being “heterodoxies,” like the Shouters and the Disciples. These religious groups are often labelled as “evil cults” and their leaders and members often face legal action or even criminal charges. The protests organized by these religious groups have not only targeted the government but also the mainstream Christian churches that criticize them from a theological point of view. Given the profound ideological and political incompatibility of the CCP and various Christian groups, it is unlikely that Christianity can replicate the close collaborations that Buddhism and Daoism have developed with the CCP since the early 1980s.
Religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, was at the center of the emergence and initial mobilization of the pro-life movement in the United States. The movement originated in Catholic opposition to the liberalization of abortion law beginning in the 1950s, and accelerated rapidly after 1973 when abortion was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court. Protestants began entering the movement in large numbers beginning in the 1980s, which corresponded with a peak in the amount of antiabortion street protest (and violence). All forms of pro-life protest—educational outreach to influence public opinion, political and legal involvement to influence the legal status of abortion, the development of crisis pregnancy centers to persuade individual pregnant women to carry their pregnancies to term, and direct action against abortion providers—have their roots in this formative period of movement mobilization, and all have continued to be important elements of the movement over the last half century. All these forms of protest activity include a religious component. They involve activists of deep religious faith, motivated by religious ideas, using religious principles in arguments about abortion, and depending on the leadership and resources of religious organizations. But the role of religion in the movement is sometimes overstated. Religion has not been the sole source of support for the movement. Pro-life protest has always included activists and organizations that are partially or wholly outside these strands of religious influence. Religion has also been a frequent source of tension and conflict in the movement, in addition to being a source of support. And the relationship between religion and the movement in recent decades does not distinguish it from the underlying partisan political landscape in which it is now firmly rooted.