Wednesday, November 09, 2005

WWJD--Would you like sauce with your goose?

Part 4 in a series:

There is actually a very interesting question here, and it may be one fought out in silence and behind closed doors.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the involvement of religion in politics was obviously a very hot issue. (The link is from Amy Sullivan, but I think it raises many more questions than she intended.)

But wait, there's more: the directive to deny Kerry communion came from Pope Benedict, before he was Pope Benedict. Which raises the question of influence and interference with politics to a new level. Now we have not only a church intervening in an American political campaign, but a foreign authority doing so. I don't mean to raise the usual American bugaboos about "foreigners," but the mere hint that the Chinese might have been involved in the 1996 campaign raised all kinds of issues.

Which won't be raised now, of course; nor should they necessarily be. But while "the IRS is banned by law" from disclosing which non-profits it is investigating (and that's a good policy, let's all agree), does anyone really think they would take on the tax status of the Catholic church in America?

One priest in one prominent pulpit is worthy of investigation, as it doesn't involve the status of the entire Episcopal church (too big for the IRS, I think). But take on then Pope John Paul II's doctrinal advisor and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? How do you begin to separate that from the entire Catholic church, at least as it owns property and employs priests (from a tax point of view) in America? (Catholic priests, btw, don't pay taxes under the same rules as Protestant priests and pastors, because they have a different status before the church. That isn't a complaint by me, just a point of information.)

Now, to be fair, "The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says each bishop should decide whether to withhold Communion," but legally, it seems to me, that doesn't really shift the burden off of the institution, as the bishops act as agents of that institution, and act as bishops only because of that institution. In other words, when the bishop speaks, the entire church speaks.

That's some catch, that Catch-22.

And this is not exclusively a problem of the Catholic church. Nor do we know that the churches Amy Sullivan mentions, or the one I've brought up, are not under investigation. Unless the churches tell us themselves, we have no way of knowing.

But does anybody really think the IRS is going to take on the Catholic church at the level of its bishops? And over an issue as central to the Church as who is permitted to take communion at its table, and on what grounds it makes that decision, and the timing or the circumstances surrounding when it announces that decision?

For example: per the Miami Herald article, "Priests for Life" may well be under IRS scrutiny right now (if it has a tax exempt status). And here is a bald statement of the issues:

The Rev. Frank Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, said the group is not violating the law. Federal tax laws subject churches to fines and removal of their tax-free status if they endorse or fund candidates.

'It's the bishops' responsibility to make clear to people what the requirements of the Catholic faith are when you have a high-profile Catholic like Mr. Kerry taking a position that is contrary to the Catholic faith,'' he said.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas, said such statements could imply a political endorsement: 'When they say, 'Vote for Bush,' that's a violation. When they say the same thing without using the name, that's a violation.''

Which is it? Is this a matter of the bishop's exercising their responsibility to the flock and the faith? Or is it an implicit political endorsement? And who gets to decide? And on what basis? One sermon? One edict? One pronouncement or memo from Rome?

I'm not at all comfortable with this, because the effort is clearly to have a chilling effect on speech; and on the practice of religion.

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