Benedict and the Catholic Church

Dave Kellaway reports from Italy on the death of Pope Benedict and reflects on the influence of the Catholic Church and how socialists deal with religion.


People outside the Roman Catholic faith or culture might not have realised that until two days ago there were two popes. Pope Benedict threw in the towel in 2013 due to very bad health; the first pope for 600 years to do that. The authority and guidance of the global Catholic Church had always been sacredly entrusted to one man without any constraints once the cardinals had voted him in. Like absolute monarchs, you kept the job until you died.

Never short of procedural adjustments having nearly 2000 years of experience, the church set Benedict up as the Emeritus pope – a bit like emeritus professors in universities. He did not stop being a pope since he had been consecrated through god’s will mediated by the machinations of the cardinals.

Now with the current Pope Francis looking more frail every day – his Xmas mass was conducted from a wheelchair – you could have had a two spare pope situation, with him retiring to join Benedict in the Vatican’s ‘closed’ monastery. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to have one emeritus pope may be regarded as a misfortune but to have two looks like carelessness.

In the feudal one male authority of the Church, with an Emeritus pope there is always the risk of one pope contradicting the other. At one stage Benedict indeed did write a foreword for a book that was critical of some of the reforming proposals of Pope Francis.  The foreword was withdrawn.

Why discuss?

If you are still following all this, why should anticapitalists or socialists be concerned with what is happening in the Catholic Church?  I mean we know the Orange order obsesses every day about popes but do we really need an article on this?

Here in Italy, Benedict’s death is saturating the mass media. As an institution the Church is still very influential. It has negotiated favourable deals with many states to protect its interests – these are called Concordats. Through its biggest ever deal with the Italian state it retains huge fiscal benefits. 

After Mussolini fell, the Christian Democrats, with help and money from the US, stopped the Italian Communist Party from coming to power. The church was important in relaying the red scare message through its parochial network. It was only in the 1970s that divorce and abortion reforms were achieved in the teeth of the church’s opposition. The rise of the women’s movement and the strength of the labour movement had weakened the hold of the church on its individual members by that time. Today, the situation is different. Church attendance is on a much smaller scale even though most Italians identify culturally as Catholics, getting christened, married, and buried in church.

There have always been progressive and reactionary forces competing within the church. Amid the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s, you had the emergence of “worker” priests who helped the labour movement struggle. Today, the church is often at the forefront of welcoming migrants and asylum seekers. I was quite surprised to see the local priest a few years ago organising a protest, sprinkling flowers at the local beach in solidarity. He involved people you would not expect to see at such events. The Church is also prominent at poor tables (mensa di poveri), which are similar to the food banks familiar to us in the UK. Often, it has taken organised communities to help drug-dependent people.

However there is a reactionary wing that has organised massive rallies in support of the so called traditional family against attempts to regularise gay partnerships or allow adoptions by non-straight couples. This movement overlaps with the active base of the far right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and the Lega (the League), who are currently the government of Italy.

Both Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister and her cabinet partner, Salvini, show off their adherence to Catholic beliefs. Salvini is forever flashing his rosary beads or wearing a cross around his neck. There is today a minister in charge of supporting the Italian family – they are trying to incentivise Italian women to have more children. This policy is linked to the ideology of the great replacement of white Italians by the “migrant hordes.”

Obviously, the success of the far right has encouraged the reactionary wing of the church. Abortion rights have always been limited in Italy because the law includes a conscience clause allowing doctors and nurses in the state health service to refuse to carry out abortions. Regional governments run by the far right, such as in the Marches, have also cut funds to structures helping women’s right to choose. Of course the influence of the Church in Africa and Latin America in particular restricts women’s bodily autonomy through its opposition to birth control and abortion.

The reformism of Vatican II (1962–65), which modernised the liturgy and started a more open ecumenical approach to other religions, strengthened the progressive wing of the Church. Along with this trend, you had the rise of liberation theology, which began in Latin America.  Priests and even some of the hierarchy put themselves at the sides of the anti-colonial liberation struggles. Camillo Torres was a priest who joined the guerrilla movement in Colombia was killed in battle in 1966.  He said:

If Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrila

Camillo Torres

Once the Polish pope, John Paul II, was in power, the opposition to liberation theology was even tougher. He also brought Benedict in from his university post in Germany, as he wanted to use his intellectual depth as a theologian to lead the fight against the most progressive elements in the Church. Ironically Benedict was on a more progressive line at Vatican II but after the uprisings of 68 in Europe which he witnessed firsthand in the university sector, he moved sharply rightwards.  In his official encyclicals, he railed against modernism and advocated for a more spiritual approach.


Another very serious reason to examine the Catholic Church as an institution is the way its priests and other clergy physically and sexually abused tens of thousands of mostly young people and children. Priests’ positions of power and respect in Catholic communities made it relatively easy to abuse children and get away with it. Religious orders that ran orphanages or looked after vulnerable people were particularly involved in this criminal behaviour.

What usually happened when, on occasion, parents or children spoke out was that the priest was removed to another parish or overseas and the parents were paid off. Growing up a Catholic, I recall oblique references to this way of dealing with the matter. I saw firsthand how the Christian Brothers treated the youth in their charge. Loyalty to their faith and religion was used to manipulate them into agreeing to such arrangements. When it was teenage girls, the victim was frequently blamed as well. Such abuse was operating on an industrial scale.

The public outcry was so great that by the time Benedict became pope, he was obliged to make an open, public apology and take some action. Some priests were defrocked, and a few bishops were removed from their posts. Substantial sums were paid out, but very few abusers, or those who knew and covered up, actually faced criminal justice. The film Spotlight, which features the situation in a very strong Catholic diocese, brilliantly recreates the scandal. Pope Benedict only took partial steps to stamp out the practice.

Does this mean that religion can only be understood as “the opium of the people” and socialists will just not accept religious believers into their parties and be reluctant to work with activists who are believers? People often forget the first part of the sentence Marx wrote:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions


Marx and most serious socialists since then have understood the contradictory ideological appeal of religious ideas. Yes, the church reproduces reactionary ideas about women, the family, and sexuality. Historically, it justified colonialism and even slavery. Religion can turn people away from acting now to improve their lives in favour of “pie in the sky” in the afterlife. But Christian or other religious activists will pick out the progressive, humanist values of Christianity or other faiths to justify why they struggle against inequality or exploitation. Just think of Martin Luther King and the tradition of black pastors in the US leading the struggle against racism, or of Muhammed Ali and his Muslim faith preventing him from joining a war against the Vietnamese people. Today in Britain, a black footballer like Marcus Rashford is inspired by a strong religious influence to lead the campaign against child poverty.

We should also distinguish between the institution and individuals or groups of Christians. Socialists are for the absolute freedom of religious beliefs but are also completely for the separation of all religions from the state. This means in Britain we are for the disestablishment of the Anglican church and we are for the end of the theocracy in Iran. The Concordat should end in Italy and state subsidies to religious schools should end in France. Defending religious freedom means we are for the right to wear the hijab not to be restricted in France or elsewhere but we are fully behind the struggle of women, in Iran and elsewhere for the right not to wear the hijab.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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