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On the night of the December 14, 2012, a 25 year old woman was sedated with date rape drugs in Cologne, Germany, and subsequently raped. When the police and medical authorities took her for medical checkup and evidence collection, two hospitals refused to treat her and prescribe emergency contraception.  Both hospitals were run by the Catholic Church. The doctors told the woman that emergency contraception was not in line with the worldview of their employer. Media reported that the doctors feared to lose their jobs.

The incidence was only picked up a couple of months later by the press; however it provoked harsh public criticism against the Catholic Church. The negative publicity fell on fruitful ground. Earlier in the same year there had been an intense media discourse about alleged inappropriate behavior of Catholic welfare providers. A female manager of a Catholic day care facility had been fired after the woman had divorced and moved in with a new partner.  The church argued that “not keeping faith ’til death” was incompatible with the Catholic worldview and hence the woman had to go. The press dug out similar cases where Catholic welfare providers had decided not to employ or to fire people due to their homosexuality or because they had divorced.

The German public was puzzled: how could it be that in a society  in which regular churchgoers barely make up more than 10 percent of the West and 3 percent of the East German electorate, the Church maintains such a strong normative grip on society?

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The pope is a transnational actor ex officio. He fills the highest position in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church which makes him: head of a state, head of an NGO-like organization, head of a huge religious organization, and spiritual leader of a transnational community.

However, the current discourses on the election of a new pope reveal that the affair has more layers than the universal doctrine of the church suggests. Discussions on ‘papapile’ cardinals included strong national allocations. Furthermore, focusing on internal challenges of the organization belittled the external relevance of the decision and the pope’s role as an advocate. With this blog, I want to shed light on those different dimensions of papacy and the Roman Catholic Church against the backdrop of the recent election of Franciscus I.

What the pope is and what he is not

Of course, the pope is the absolute head of a state. Since the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the Vatican is a sovereign state accepted in the international community. The pope is part of political struggles. However, he is no usual head of state. As a non-member permanent observer state since 1964, the Vatican representative has no right to vote at the United Nations (although all other rights of full membership were granted in 2004).

Analytically, the Roman Catholic Church is maybe best described as a unique hybrid on the world stage with state and non-governmental characteristics.

The Church today regards Vatican City as part of the infrastructure for carrying out its true mission. In the language of international relations, the Church understands itself as an NGO, and it additionally employs the benefits of sovereign status in the service of its advocacy interest. (Ferrari 2006: 40)

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
September 2019
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