4 Principal Sources of Power of the Roman Catholic Church

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 15 May 2015
Church and State

(Credit: Riccardo De Luca – Update / Shutterstock.com)

This excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 4 of our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s book, American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (1984). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

Chapter 4: The Catholic Church and Social Justice Issues

Numerous books have been written by both Catholic clergy and laypersons charging that the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy in general concern themselves too much with dominance and too little with social justice, that struggle for and retention of power enjoys the highest priority, and that positive stands on social justice are taken only when they are expedient and do not threaten the equilibrium of the Church. Among these Catholic critics are writers such as Malachi Martin,[1] Andrew Greeley,[2] and Jean-Guy Vaillancourt.[3] This preoccupation with power has serious implications for non-Catholics as well, regarding some of the most sensitive and important social issues of our day. They include the Equal Rights Amendment, the environmental movement, legalized abortion, family planning and population growth control, and illegal immigration control. This chapter discusses the sources and current threats to the power of the Church and some of the bold actions the Vatican has taken to counter these threats.

The past few years have been very active for the Roman Catholic Church in America, and, as time passes, its activities have become less thinly veiled and its intentions more evident. Particularly since the Pastoral Plan of Action of November 1975, the Catholic Church has placed in gear its formidable political machinery. Although American bishops said that this plan for political mobilization was designed in response to the legalization of abortion, astute observers now recognize that abortion was simply an excuse for the American Church to mobilize politically.

At the 1975 annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at which the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (often referred to as the Pastoral Plan of Action) was announced, then Archbishop Joseph Bemardine of Cincinnati told the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops that “the will of God and the law of reason” demand an unrelenting fight against abortion. This “will of God and law of reason” justified, in the Church’s eyes, the implementation of the Pastoral Plan of Action and what the influential National Catholic Reporter, a lay-edited weekly, referred to as the creation of a new political party, an American Catholic Party.[4]

Sources of Power

The Roman Catholic Church is an organization whose influence exceeds that of most governments of the world. How did the Church arrive at this position? What are its principal sources of power?

First, the Church establishment is an absolute monarchy. In this highly autocratic situation, the chain of command is well defined, and all in positions of authority are absolutely responsive to their superiors. When the pope speaks, his subordinates listen—at least through the rank of priest. Anyone who steps out of line is quickly dealt with, usually very quietly. Father Drinan and Hans Kung are examples. Unquestioning loyalty to the monarch who sits on St. Peter’s throne is demanded and received.

Second is the claim of infallibility, a rather recent invention, first proposed in the early 1880s. For centuries, the Church had maintained considerable temporal power. About this time it became apparent to the Vatican that it was about to lose all of its temporal power, so it struck upon this idea of infallibility—its new source of power.

Third is the ever-present threat of excommunication: a person may be excluded from entering heaven by declaration of the pope. Bishops and priests also possess this power as they can recommend excommunication to the pope. This is probably the most powerful social engineering weapon ever devised by humankind. For the true believer, there is absolutely nothing worse than excommunication, not even death. Such a ruthless weapon says much about the nature of the relationship of the hierarchy to the communicant.

The fourth is indoctrination, which is fundamental to control over the laity. It is this source of power that the Church sees seriously threatened by numerous efforts to improve the quality of life, such as

1. democracy in general
2. the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
3. legalized abortion
4. the family-planning movement
5. the control of illegal immigration
6. the protection of the environment
7. the Global 2000 Report[5]

Each of these thrusts threatens the power of the Church by undermining its carefully indoctrinated authority. Certain tenets have been persistently inculcated during the process. If these tenets are undermined by civil law instituted by temporal authorities, then the authority of the Church itself is undermined and, in the eyes of its followers, the power of the Church diminished.

The Social Justice Issues

True democracy is very threatening to the Church. As long as it can control the lawmakers, as it did when the Christian Democrats held sway in Italy for several decades, the Church has no problem with democracy. However, when a democratic government implements advances that tend to diminish influence of the hierarchy and thus weaken its hold on the populace—such as legalized abortion and equal rights for women—these actions can become very irritating. Furthermore, a democratic political system encourages clergy and laypersons to demand a more democratic Church such as existed in the earliest years of the Church. These demands can be exasperating to a Church leadership that rules absolutely. Why should the Church share its power? Its success lies in the fact that it is the most monolithic organization on earth.

The Church has found itself most effective in alliances with right-wing dictatorships. Being very conservative itself, it feels most at home with conservatives. Right-wing dictatorships and the Church coexist in a symbiotic relationship. The Church can deliver the control of the masses, and the right-wing governments permit the Church to conduct its business and its wishes, including ensuring the passage of laws which enhance its power.

Three popular modern movements—ERA, family planning, and legal abortion—all undermine Church authority and power by having as their ends the legalization and promotion of acts that completely counter the tenets with which the Church leadership has indoctrinated its congregants.

The Equal Rights Amendment would, in effect, encourage women to seek out interests outside a role devoted to a lifetime of reproducing and rearing faithful Catholics. Most important, the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment by the secular will soon lead to demands by women belonging to Catholic religious orders to be recognized as first-class citizens. No longer would the Church have at its disposal a force of millions of docile and obedient nuns. Actions such as the recent suit filed against a bishop in New England would become commonplace. There would be unending challenges to the authority of the all-male leadership of the Church by these women. This prospect has undoubtedly generated many nightmares for the occupants of the Vatican. Furthermore, calls for democracy within the Church would be strengthened. The ERA, therefore, seriously threatens the power of the leadership of the Catholic Church.

The Church has staked much of its authority on the issues of family planning and abortion. Initially, the Church took up these issues because it has always been highly pronatalist, believing that through numbers comes strength, and the greater the number of Catholics the better.

The Church’s claim that abortion and contraception are immoral continues to be eroded. What is moral is pretty much determined when a consensus is reached. Murder is immoral. There is a consensus. However, on the issues of abortion and contraception, America continues to slowly move away from the Church’s position. A majority of Americans belong to religious groups that do not believe that abortion and family planning are immoral, including nearly all of the major Protestant groups. An intimate knowledge of the sex lives of individuals gained through confessionals gives priests considerable power over individuals, and ultimately this power is exercised by the Vatican. The celibate males of the Church have always given considerable attention to the sexual lives of their followers, and concern with family planning and abortion became natural concerns.

On these issues of abortion and family planning the Church went out on a limb, staking much of its authority on these two issues. It cannot lose on these two issues without seriously damaging its authority with subsequent substantial loss in power. Both the Vatican and its critics agree here. The Church cannot lose these two battles nor can it reverse its positions. The course is irrevocably set. The Catholic leadership persists on these two issues because its power and authority are at stake. Therefore, abortion and family planning are issues of power—principally Catholic power issues—not moral issues.

Environmental protection and the Global 2000 Report threaten the Church indirectly but nevertheless quite seriously. The basic thesis of the environmental movement, with its inherent premise of population stabilization based on the limitations of the land, is that, if one exceeds the carrying capacity of our ecosystem, an irreversible process is set in motion. Environmental degradation caused by excessive stress on the ecosystem continues to reduce the carrying capacity of the ecosystem until it approaches zero. Desertification is one ultimate result. If this premise is accepted, then it becomes obvious that population growth cannot continue as it has for long. Once this is recognized, changes in social mores and previously pronatalist attitudes will soon bring acceptance of family planning and abortion by the Catholic laity. Thus, the environmental movement threatens the authority of the Church and therefore its power.

The Global 2000 Report was prepared by the most distinguished scientists in our government and is by far the best study of the earth as an ecosystem ever undertaken. I believe that it is unquestionably among the most important reports ever prepared by our government. It examines projections in twelve areas including world food supply, water supply, energy, minerals, and population growth. Although the findings are conservative and far too optimistic, it makes a powerful case by providing an enormous amount of evidence that the world is in deep trouble, that the ecosystem cannot hope to provide for the world’s rapidly expanding population. One of the firm conclusions is that population growth must be sharply curbed if we are to avoid a world in chaos. This means wide availability and use of family planning and abortion. Thus, if the Global 2000 Report is recognized as truth, then family planning and abortion will be accepted as necessary for survival. Thus the Global 2000 movement threatens the Church.

Another threat to the Church is the illegal immigration control movement. If this movement succeeds, and what is perceived by Latin Americans and other governments as an escape valve is shut off, these governments would logically say, “Our demographic course cannot continue.” These governments would have little choice but to confront the Church and say, “If we are to survive as governments, then we must get serious about population growth control. Otherwise, we in Latin America are destined to become a sea of chaos. We, as Latin Americans, must make family planning and abortion services fully available and encourage their use.” Turning off the valve to illegal immigration is therefore a serious threat to the power of the Church.

This movement threatens the Church in another way. The charge is that the Vatican strongly desires to see a Catholic majority in America so that the Vatican can exercise much greater, if not complete, control over the American democratic process, in the same way that the Vatican controlled the government of Italy for decades through the Christian Democratic Party. Many authors have advanced this idea. I have read this charge time and again over the past decade or so, and, until recently, I thought the idea ridiculous. But after observing the Church’s bold and thinly veiled actions in the Reagan Administration, I now believe these authors are probably describing reality. If 150 million Latin Americans legally and illegally migrate to the United States in the next twenty to thirty years, this apparent goal can be achieved. And, as I discussed at length in chapter two,[6] these numbers are demonstrably not farfetched.

The Reagan Administration is clearly being manipulated by the Catholic Church, apparently with the president’s blessing. In an April 1982 speech before the National Catholic Education Association, Reagan made the incredible statement, “I am grateful for your help in shaping American policy to reflect God’s will…. And I will look forward to further guidance from His Holiness Pope John Paul II during an audience I will have with him in June.”[7] Mr. Reagan is obviously leaning on the Vatican for a lot of help, and he’s getting it—much of it not in the best interest of the United States.

If the United States government shows no more willingness to deal with illegal immigration than has been shown by the Reagan Administration, then a migration from Latin America of the magnitude described above is certainly imminent. A Catholic majority in the United States and Vatican control of our government would greatly enhance the power of the Church not only in this country but worldwide.

[1] Malachi Martin, The Final Conclave (Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day, 1978).

[2] Andrew M. Greeley, The Making of the Popes, 1978: The Politics of Intrigue in the Vatican (Kansas City: Andrews and McNeil, Inc., 1979).

[3] Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control Over Lay Catholic Elites (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

[4] “U.S. Bishops Spark New Abortion Debate,” INTERCOM (1976), 4:1:13.

[5] Global 2000 Report to the President: Entering the Twenty-First Century, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980). 0-256-752.

[6] “Illegal Immigration, National Security, and the Church” first appeared in The Humanist (November/December 1981).

[7] A. Menendez, “Of Presidents and Popes,” Church and State (1982), 35:6:1.

Dr. Stephen Mumford is the founder and President of the North Carolina-based Center for Research on Population and Security. He has his doctorate in Public Health. His principal research interest has been the relationship between world population growth and national and global security. He has been called to provide expert testimony before the U.S. Congress on the implications of world population growth.

Dr. Mumford has decades of international experience in fertility research where he is widely published, and has addressed conferences worldwide on new contraceptive technologies and the stresses to the security of families, societies and nations that are created by continued uncontrolled population growth. Using church policy documents and writings of the Vatican elite, he has introduced research showing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal power behind efforts to block the availability of contraceptive services worldwide.

In addition to his books on biomedical and social aspects of family planning, as well as scientific articles in more than a score of journals, Dr. Mumford’s major works include American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1984), The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1986), and The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996).

During the formative years of the World Health Organization (WHO), broad consensus existed among United Nations member countries that overpopulation is a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future. One of the founding fathers of the WHO, the late Milton P. Siegel, speaks to Dr. Mumford in 1992. He explains how the Vatican successfully stymied the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

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  1. I love this Pope Francis. He has hit the nail on the head. The most corrupt group in my opinion is the Cardinals and Bishops sit on their behinds and make statements that is beyond their power to back up. They wear gaudy uniforms and care more about their positions and living high on the hog, while so many don’t have anything. At least this Pope is going to the people to show them a way out of the poverty and greed of the “hierarchy” and others that pretend to lead.

  2. agreed – the 'red hats' swan around the Vatican completed removed from society – model is distorted as consist of mainly misogynist males. its corrupt to the core. in essence a person shouldn't need a medium, such as a church, to have a loving relationship with God in each other. I think the institutional church is beyond reform and needs to implode. Ironically, women can implode the church by not supporting it otherwise women are supporting discrimination of themselves!

  3. Agree – Hierarchy church is distorted as made up mainly of misogynist males focused on power and control not its flock. Ironically women can implode it by not supporting the church otherwise women are supporting discrimination against women. One doesn't need the church as a medium to love God and one another. Vatican and red hats are swanning around in luxury far removed to society's ails and tribulations. Jesus Christ or any sane person couldn't support this current church!

  4. Comment: I believe the church congregants cannot be foolish to follow the catholic church for the last 2000 years they have a point and remembering the words of jesus, nothing that does not come from above can survive for long. They have a point.


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