In my last Letter, discussing the Catholic Church before Vatican II, I was not overly kind, though I hope I was fair (my letter #9, “Seriously Speaking”[October 23, 2020] which praised Pope Francis should testify to my open-mindedness). I know too that it was both Catholics and Protestants who embraced the Third Reich; and both Catholics and Protestants who did not.
A related issue is the inherited structure of the Catholic church — not just for what it says about Catholics, but for what it warns about us all at this moment in time.
To start, consider the sheer number of Catholics — some 1.3 billion worldwide – compared to my own paltry 15.2 million Jews. To serve that population, the church has evolved into an enormous bureaucracy, compared to which parallel Jewish organizations are like mom-and-pop stores. When Catholics change their liturgy, they develop worldwide committees informed by experts, some of whom are assigned full-time to the task at hand. When Jews change their liturgy, they find some already overworked rabbi, who meets part-time with a dozen other overworked rabbis, only some of whom have prior liturgical expertise or training to start with, and who cobble together a new prayer book. I don’t make light of either instance; it is hard to know which is the more difficult to pull off. But the sheer size of the Catholic bureaucracy astounds me.
So far so good, but there are different kinds of bureaucracy. Particularly before Vatican II, but even now to some extent, the Catholic one is a version of what Max Weber labelled “traditional,” in that it is 1. hierarchical; 2. with total authority vested in one traditionally appointed leader at the top; 3. and with a system that relies on the capacity to squelch or punish internal critique of those farther down the ladder.
One example will suffice. In 1925, some Dutch Catholics founded Amici Israel, “Friends of Israel,” an organization that still prayed for the conversion of the Jews, but (seeing racist anti-Semitism on the rise) sought also to erase negative references to Jews in the liturgy (like “Perfidious Jews” in Good Friday worship); and to end the traditional charge against Jews of desecrating the host and even of deicide. By 1928, the single founding chapter had mushroomed into an international movement – and the pope (Pius XI) closed it down. It could remain only as long as it prayed for the Jews to convert; more than that was to fall prey to “the hand and inspiration of the Jews themselves” part of the longstanding Jewish plot to “penetrate everywhere in modern society.” 
Hard stop, everyone. I am not out to bash the Catholic Church, the depth of which, you must already know by now, I appreciate and admire. The “Friends of Israel” example is just indicative of what happens when any organization, religious or secular, is run with total authority, a claim on every aspect of people’s lives, and the ever-present power to punish dissent. In politics, that approaches what we call totalitarianism.
It was Hannah Arendt who gave us the classic study of totalitarianism. To be sure, the Catholic Church is by no stretch of the imagination the same as the USSR and the Third Reich. But “totalitarian” is a type, to which any institution is prone, in varying degrees, insofar as (following Arendt): 1. The regime in question makes a total claim on its population: every gathering, lecture, artistic expression, and social institution is subject to that claim. 2. The regime supports this “totalizing” claim with an apparatus of power and the ever-present threat of punishment, which, taken to its ultimate extreme (Stalin and Hitler), produces regularized brutality and terror. 3. Unlike ordinary dictatorships which don’t care what the people believe, as long as they “behave,” totalitarianism uses the threat of punishment to inculcate ideological loyalty to the principles that the regime holds “sacred.”
By that definition, most premodern religion was totalitarian – not just medieval Christianity but medieval Islam and medieval Judaism as well. For better and for worse, Jews had no “secular” Jewish governments with which to contend, whereas Christianity and Islam did. At times, rivalry between church and state limited religious power. At times, however, the two sources of power coalesced, and when they did, the chances of effective totalitarianism increased dramatically.
Modernity changed all of that, because its Enlightenment mentality unseated absolute monarchies, denounced medieval religion, and venerated individual freedom. Tellingly, the Catholic Church (until Vatican II), ultra-Orthodox Jews of eastern Europe (until murdered by the Nazis), and most Islamic regimes (even today), were (or are) steadfastly at war with modernity.
Modernity was far from the final answer, however, because modernity itself crystallized into the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler. Hitler coopted the established churches to preach support of the Nazi doctrine; and annihilated those religionists who objected. Communism was officially atheistic, but erected its own “secular” religious structure, practically deifying Marx and Lenin, for example, as transcendent sources of absolute truth. 
It is Enlightenment thinking that saved science and scholarship from medieval church control; that gave Jews civic rights; that gave humanity promises of “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Absolute religion allied to absolute state governments are the epitome of all that the Enlightenment feared most.
It is the coalition we should fear as well, because instances of it are on the rise: Putin’s Russia, for example. The same Putin who deplored Christianity as a Communist now upholds its Russian Orthodoxy, which blesses the war in Ukraine. And then there’s Israel and our own United States of America.
Israel faces an election in which a coalition government threatens to enlist fascist-like forces of the extreme right, with the religious blessing of the equally extreme Orthodox. What an unholy alliance that would be! Not that Israel will become totalitarian in its entirety: its citizen army is nothing like what we saw in the classic fascist and communist regimes; it is, and will remain, a democracy. But we can only begin to imagine the terror that will reign down on innocent Muslims. By analogy, the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church too was nowhere near the classic examples of Hitler and Stalin. But Jews were subject to vilification and its consequence: anti-Jewish outbreaks as their own reign of terror.
Americans too have an election on the way; and we too face the rising clamor of the religious right in league with extremist politicians to urge the imposition of Christian nationalism upon the country.
Old-style religion reborn – Christian, Muslim or Jewish — claims total authority over our lives. Beware of it: the newest would-be totalitarians. I am all for a religious voice in the public square. I want freedom for all religions. But I also want freedom from religion, especially religion wed to political power, from which no good can ever come.
- Cf. David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, p. 250; John Connoly, From Enemy to Brother, p. 97
- The Classic account is Eric Voegelin, The Political Religions (1938).