Ecclesiastical Chutzpah

Honestly, I didn’t think even the Vatican was capable of stooping so low. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, while speaking today before Pope Benedict XVI, read a letter he had received from “a Jewish friend.” The letter expressed its author’s sympathies with the Church, and went on about the historic coincidence of Easter and Passover overlapping, as if that were some sort of divine message to be decoded by both parties. In fact, if you believe in divine messages, even the number of words in the letter might have profound significance. Nonbelievers have a word for this kind of thing: apophenia, meaning “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated phenomena,” according to Skepdic.

“I follow with disgust the violent, concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all of the faithful by the entire world,” the letter reads. “The use of stereotypes, the transference of guilt and personal responsibility to the collective remind me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

Let’s look at this a bit closer. The entire world? All of the faithful? I am fairly critical of the Church, but I have never for any reason allowed that criticism to leak out onto those friends and family members who might be counted as being among the faithful. If they want to believe things I personally find ridiculous or adolescent, that’s their business and I respect it. Even Christopher Hitchens, one of the Pope’s most distinguished critics, has never to my knowledge spoken out in favor of persecution of the Catholic faithful for the sins of the corrupt clergy. Here is a recent piece from the Washington Post:

Joseph Ratzinger may be a mediocre and corrupt Bavarian official but he is acclaimed by his flock as the holder of the chair of Peter and the vicar of Christ on earth. Their choice. Their responsibility. Let them say that their redeemer has chosen such a person as his spokesman. They must still be made aware that as long as this outrage persists, they will never, ever, hear the end of it. Justice is coming.

Now, Hitchens is using characteristically strong language. One might even infer that he wishes the Catholic faithful to accept some measure of responsibility for their undisputed (and unelected, by them) leader. We are talking about a huge, an incredibly huge scandal of systematic sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. That the Pope has been personally implicated in its cover-up only amplifies the gravity of these crimes. What Hitchens did not write was, “Rough up the Catholics wherever you find them. Make them pay in blood.” That, I agree, would have been somewhat closer to what our letter-writer called “the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” But that is not what is being said by Hitchens or anyone else, much less “the whole world.”

What is being said is that it is time to hold the Church accountable for its crimes. The rhetoric of “sin” and “repentance” is not enough. The fires of hell are not enough, not least of all because they do not exist. What is needed is accountability here and now for crimes committed against real human beings, not against gods and holy spirits. If there be such beings, they can look after themselves.

I watched Father Cantalamessa read this letter on television with a frowning, stony Joseph Ratzinger seated behind him. Who knows what was going through his head? The letter is a laughable piece of propaganda, however. After centuries of immunity from the law and public opinion, the Catholic Church is finally being treated like any other institution on (and of) this earth. It is in no way the object of discrimination or violence. Criticism of the Pope, the Church and its actions have nothing to do with their being Catholic and everything to do with their actions. To equate such criticism with anti-Semitism is laughable, inaccurate and dangerous. It distorts the meaning of what anti-Semitism is while simultaneously granting the Church immunity from criticism. That the letter was written by a “Jewish friend” adds insult to injury, and only serves to give an ounce of credibility in the public mind to an otherwise offensive analogy. Who would have taken such words seriously had they been credited to the Pope himself?

Susan Jacoby writes,

I am not sorry that the Catholic Church is finally being revealed for the morally bankrupt, bureaucratic institution that it is. But I am sorry that this is happening because of the suffering of generations of children. I am sorry for those who still love the Catholic faith–I grew up with them–and must reconcile that love with the terrible acts of the men who run their church. I am deeply grateful that, as an atheist educated in the Catholic Church, I no longer bear that burden. I also feel a deep sympathy for good priests–and I know many of them–who have never betrayed the trust of loyal Catholics. But for this pope, and all of the other church officials who knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it, I have nothing but contempt. They ought to resign and walk a personal via dolorosa every day of their lives. But they won’t do it. They will continue to cling to worldly power with all of their might, even as the moral power of their institution diminishes.

The Church could not ask for fairer or more elegant criticism than this.

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