How It Worked Then
The key to the despoliation of the Church in every era is a plausible excuse which weak-kneed, semi-conscious, secularized Catholics will accept. Once there is a plausible excuse, a slightly anti-Catholic government will nearly always join forces with private citizens who stand to benefit financially by converting Church property into cold cash. With a plausible excuse in place, many Catholics and other fair-minded citizens will be so confused about whether or not the despoliation is justified that there will be virtually no significant negative response.
The excuse in Henry VIII’s day was the unpopularity of the monks and nuns whose establishments had accumulated considerable wealth in lands, buildings, liturgical acoutrements and art treasures over the centuries, generally gifts from pious lay people. The holiness of most of the monks and nuns was not noteworthy, and there was a growing sense in the sixteenth century that these people were getting a pretty cushy ride through no merit of their own. Moreover, the acquisition of a good set of monastic lands served either as a means to directly increase the royal coffers or as a way to reward private persons for services rendered.
Very often, the dissolution and despoliation of this or that monastery seemed reasonable and fair to most onlookers. Each case was presented with its own justifications. Not everybody noticed that the whole process was so systematic and thorough that there must have been other significant motives at work. No few raised their voices to opine that it would all be good for the Church in the end.
How it Can Work Now
I noted in an earlier column that financial suits against the American Church arising from the sex abuse scandal have already succeeded in converting something like a billion dollars worth of ecclesiastical property into cold cash for the benefit of a rapacious few (see Fleecing the Catholic Church). These huge abuse settlements have been largely unjustified and completely uneven when compared with the handling of similar cases involving non-Catholic organizations, but at least they have primarily affected dioceses in which there have been true scandals. Now, a new legal ruling has opened the way to despoiling the entire American Church.
Definitely some words and ideas to ponder. I definitely cannot condone or minimize the actions of our priests and bishops in the sexual abuse scandal. I also cannot understand the ferocity with which the Church is being attacked over it when this is compared to the minimal response of the media and government to sexual abuse by other institutions, most notably public schools.