The Catholic Church and Its Preoccupation with Power

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 15 March 2024
Church and State

(Image by Bernd Marx from Pixabay)

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.

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.


[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.

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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