Sunday, September 5, 2010

Paying for the Pope

In times of economic crisis, one can embrace the precept that one should be careful about how one spends money without buying whole-hog into the Republican ideology that any government funding for the public good is a socialist threat. From this point of view, I perfectly understand the strident criticism in the United Kingdom voiced in opposition to the allocation of £12m in public funds to cover a visit this month by Pope Benedict XVI. From my own distant vantage point, this strikes me as neither a public good nor socialism; rather it seems like a clear-cut violation of basic principles of the separation of church and state. I therefore find it puzzling that the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, should defend this budgetary decision on the grounds that the occasion is a "state visit." At best it reflects a pre-nineteenth-century mentality that recognized that certain territories on the Italian peninsula were under direct sovereign rule of the papacy; but the "Papal States," as they were known, were officially absorbed into a unified Italy before the end of the nineteenth century. Vatican City was established in 1929 as a domain of territorial sovereignty; but, from a pragmatic view, this little domain is as dependent on Italy as the island of Sark is on Great Britain. So the use of the noun "state" lies somewhere between nostalgia for the past and a fiction of convenience in the present.

On the other hand I am less interested in the Archbishop's apologetics (which, sadly, seem to have become the strong suit in the hand of the Catholic Church recently) than I am in how this visit came to be in the first place. It comes down to the following sentence from the BBC News account of this dispute:

But Archbishop Nichols told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme it was right the taxpayer and the Church shared the bill because the Pope was coming at the invitation of the government.

The more critical fiction of convenience may be the premise that governments invite visitors. The question that the BBC report dodges concerns who in the government proposed the visit and how that proposal was debated before a decision was made. For example, if the invitation had been extended by the Royal Family (as one monarch to another, so to speak), then presumably those £12m should be coming out of the Royal budget; and any debate should be over the question of how much public money annually goes into that budget. Another possibility would be that the money comes from "discretionary funds" of the Foreign Ministry. In this case one could imagine Parliament debating over whether or not this Ministry needs a slush fund large enough to cover an expense of that size.

The problem is that the Archbishop may be right: This may well be an "official" state visit. If that is the case, however, then the spirit of Senator Howard Baker needs to haunt the House of Commons. Someone has to ask that question that the Senator made so famous during the Watergate hearings, translating it to the context in which this invitation was extended by demanding an account of what "the state" knew and when it knew it.

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