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The U.S. and the Vatican — Historical Siblings?

Can the Roman Catholic church teach the United States how to be a global leader?

June 14, 2002

Can the Roman Catholic church teach the United States how to be a global leader?

In the Middle Ages, the Vatican was at the pinnacle of world power. The Catholic Church was the world’s most important institution.

Its decrees were respected everywhere in the civilized world — which is to say in Western Europe and its nascent colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Its power transcended national borders. Back then, Catholicism was much more than a mere religion.

It spanned the worlds of power, ideology, philosophy, science, literature — and history.

The Catholic Church was also the most important patron of painting and the arts — and the ultimate arbiter of taste.

It decreed whether scientific discoveries conformed to the Church’s dogma. If not, it declared them as heresy. However, by the early 1500s, Rome had lost touch with the world that existed at the time.

Church doctrine became corrupted, as priests and popes no longer felt it necessary to do what they themselves preached.

Sure enough, absolution from sin could be purchased in the form of “indulgences.”

However, the proceeds from these murky deals supported the popes’ lavish lifestyles and their numerous ‘nephews,’ which is how their illegitimate offspring were known.

This is the historical setting from which the Reformation was born.

On October 31, 1517, German Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Now, fast-forward to the end of the Cold War: The United States has emerged as the world’s only superpower. However, America’s wordly influence is not confined to its military might.

Not unlike the Vatican in its own heyday, the United States holds sway in matters of business, finance, public policy — and culture.

U.S. contributions support the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and dozens of other transnational institutions.

In the most remote corners of the world, people speak American English, watch Hollywood movies, wear Chicago Bulls T-shirts and New York Yankees baseball caps. They also eat at McDonald’s.

Yet, what happened to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages seems set to repeat itself. Bit by bit, Washington appears to have grown out of touch with the rest of the world.

It is ever more ignorant of the concerns shared by the rest of mankind. In fact, the United States finds itself on the opposite side on a growing number of issues — standing there proudly, all by itself.

The number of international treaties which it has refused to sign, for example, continues to pile up. Although the country is by far the world’s largest polluter, the government in Washington has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

More recently, the Bush Administration has spurned United Nations’ efforts to protect the world’s abused and neglected children.

The United States has also refused to sign other international treaties that deal with attempts to make economic growth more equitable and sustainable over a longer term.

One of the major legacies of U.S. economic domination has been the spread of the free-market economy, which has helped bring prosperity to previously poor nations.

Yet, even in this ideological area, the United States seems to subscribe to the concept: “Do as I preach, not as I do.”

Take free trade, for instance. Washington has traditionally been a champion of open markets and free competition among trading nations.

Yet, the Bush Administration slapped tariffs on steel imports — and started a nasty trade war with Canada over lumber.

Canada is America’s closest trading partner for that commodity.

Then, it muddied the issue of farm subsidies by signing a far-reaching farm-support bill. That action destroyed any possibility of consensus for reforming world agricultural trade.

Similarly, the United States has long advocated openness, strict regulation and a level playing field in financial markets. The Enron-Andersen scandal, however, demonstrated that those ideals were not really supported by all Americans.

Yet, vested interests are likely to thwart badly needed fundamental changes — and replace them with a few cosmetic adjustments.

Thus, on free markets, the United States behaves like the medieval priests who preached chastity, but themselves sired numerous children with their mistresses.

Martin Luther was not a revolutionary. His initial goal was not to split the Church, but to return it to its pristine roots.

In the end, he triggered the most dramatic schism in Christianity in its 2,000-year history.

Similarly, the most effective critics of U.S. policies are not the terrorists who attack American interests or anti-globalization protesters who want to eliminate U.S. influence altogether.

On the contrary, it is America’s allies who want Washington to return to its principles.

They are the ones who are most likely to lead a new reformation. That is why it is so important that the United States take European criticism seriously.

It is the only way the country will avoid repeating the mistake made by the Catholic Church when it tried to suppress Martin Luther’s teachings instead of learning from him.