In what I can only describe as a bizarre essay, Garry Wills has reviewed two books together in the New York Times Book Review this week, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion and Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. Wills begins his review:
We do not need these books to tell us that money and religion make for a poisonous combination. But it is of some interest to see that ancient truth confirmed in both a church as relatively new as Scientology and one as ancient as Roman Catholicism.
I'm not even sure what this is supposed to mean. Religious institutions generally need money to operate, just like any other institution (whether nonprofit or for-profit). Is money and education a poisonous combination? What about money and healthcare? Or money and newspapers? No matter what sector of society you look at, it would be easy to find cases where there was corruption and where that corruption involved money. It may not be money, so much as human nature.
Wills's real problem, of course, is with what he believes is too much money and a lack of transparency about where the money is going. (I'm somewhat more sympathetic to the latter point, but we'll get back to that in a moment.) He uses the first part of his review to describe Janet Reitman's new book, a deep, investigative account of how L. Ron Hubbard began his religion and how he used the money given to him by his followers to fight his critics and thwart government investigations of his organization.
Hubbard’s feuds were deadly. Of a person suspected of stealing his secrets he wrote his followers: “The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway . . . will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. . . . If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.” Those who opposed Scientology in any way were called “suppressive persons,” of whom Hubbard wrote: “A truly suppressive person or group has no rights of any kind, and actions taken against them are not punishable.” They “may be tricked, sued, or lied to or destroyed.”
Anyone who read the profile of director Paul Haggis, a former Scientologist, in the New Yorker a few months ago would readily recognize much of this as familiar. Haggis describes paying thousands of dollars over many years to take new courses in Scientology, to reach the next level of spiritual enlightenment, etc. In the article, one expert "estimates that the coursework alone now costs nearly three hundred thousand dollars, and, with the additional auditing and contributions expected of upper-level members, the cumulative cost of the coursework may exceed half a million dollars."
All of the material on the Church of Scientology dug up by Reitman and others presumably would have been enough for a review. But then we read this: "The Catholic Church offers a very different picture, but one where money is even more important." Really? Wills chronicles the enrichment of the Catholic Church over the centuries, as it built new cathedrals and launched a few European wars, paid off some sex abuse victims and closed quite a few parishes. Surely it is hardly innocent of corruption. And many of its members have paid over the years for indulgences or greater access to the pontiff himself.
But oh yes, there is this other thing that the Catholic Church has done with its money -- You know all those schools and hospitals and shelters and soup kitchens and all those church sponsored employment services and counseling services and immigrant aid? Oh yes. That's right. The Catholic Church does spend some of its money for the good of others. I'm not familiar with that part of the Scientology organization. Do they run schools in the worst urban neighborhoods in this country? Are they providing food, shelter and medical services for the poor?
Not so much. If you are going to be discussing religion and finances, it would be useful to consider not only the money coming in, but the money going out.