I had not intended to write another column about the pedophilia scandal that has, at long last, reached the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level. After all–I thought–what more was there to say. Then, on Good Friday, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Benedict XVI looked on in silence, compared attempts to hold the church hierarchy responsible for the long coverup of priestly pedophilia to the persecution of Jews throughout the ages. Jews, declared Father Cantalamessa–whose title is preacher of the papal household–“know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence, and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms.”
I must admit that even though I never expected to be surprised by any display of arrogance and historical amnesia from anyone connected with the Vatican, I was stunned by this attempt to portray members of the church hierarchy as “victims” of attacks based on religious prejudice. There is only one line, from the Book of Job, that does justice to the moral offense committed by that priest and by the church officials who sat there bowing their heads: “Thine own mouth condemneth thee.”
Here are two differences between the entirely justified public outrage that is engulfing the Vatican and the historic persecution of Jews. One, the church hierarchy did what it is accused of doing–covered up decades-long acts of sexual molestation committed by some of its priests. The Jews–is it really necessary to say this?–did none of the things of which they were accused. Two, Jews were punished and punished and punished, as well as murdered, for the acts that they did not commit. The Catholic bishops–including Benedict, the current Bishop of Rome–aren’t being punished at all for acts they did commit, except in the court of public opinion. And oh, how the Vatican resents the fact that it can’t close down the court of public opinion by lashing out at American newspapers (specifically, The New York Times) and at the German and Irish media.
But let us return to the illustrious Father Cantalamessa, who, in his Good Friday sermon, quoted a letter, purportedly written by an anonymous Jewish friend. The friend supposedly wrote, “I am following the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope, and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” One wonders what the less shameful aspects of anti-Semitism might be. If a Jew actually did write this letter, it certainly gives the lie to the (positive) stereotype that all Jews are smart. But the locution “all the faithful” makes me doubt the truth of the attribution; this is not a locution that Jews generally use in regard to believers in other religions. “The faithful” is a very Catholic expression. But perhaps the Jew who supposedly wrote the letter is about to convert to Catholicism in solidarity with the persecuted cardinals and pope. .
The chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, responded with a great deal of wit and self-discipline. “With a minimum of irony,” he noted after reporters read him the text of the remarks made at the service, “I will say that today is Good Friday, when they [Christians] pray that the Lord illumine our [Jewish] hearts so we recognize Jesus. We also pray that the Lord illuminate theirs.” Rabbi Di Segni was alluding to a prayer in the traditional Catholic liturgy–Benedict has encouraged its revival in the Latin mass–that prays for the conversion of the Jews.
Kristine Ward, a spokesmen for the National Survivor Advocates Coalition in the United States said bluntly (command of wit and irony being more Italian than American traits), “It is incomprehensible that Father Cantalamessa did this and that Pope Benedict, the ultimate authority in the church who presided at the service, did not stand during the service to disavow this connection to anti-Semitism.”
Actually, it isn’t the least bit incomprehensible if you understand that Benedict is the ultimate Organization Man. Most of the On Faith panelists who addressed the question of whether Benedict should resign were hobbled by their general respect for religious institutions: they actually think that the problem is this pope rather than the authoritarian structure of the church itself. Richard Dawkins and Tom Flynn, my fellow atheists, got it right. It doesn’t matter who the pope is–unless Benedict were to be replaced with someone who was not a member of the church hierarchy for the past few decades. Somehow, I don’t think the next pope will be one of the nuns who, untainted by the molestation scandals, have so irked the Vatican by their uppity involvement with the secular world. Everyone responsible for a Catholic diocese during the past 30 years, if he shuffled pedophile priests around from one church to another or just looked the other way, is responsible. Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is responsible for appointing most of those bishops. In a way, one could almost feel sorry for Benedict, who has reaped the whirlwind sown by a predecessor who had a much warmer manner and a much cannier sense of public relations than the current pope.
Assigning responsibility to the church hierarchy is the opposite of attributing “collective guilt.” The Catholic Church is an institution in which all power and doctrinal authority flow from the top down. The men who have been running that church–not the faithful lay people whom they betrayed–are personally guilty of disregarding the interests of the devout Catholics who look to them (however mistakenly, in my view) for moral authority. The current pope and every bishop who participated in the coverup are all looking for plausible deniability.
After Father Cantalamessa’s ignominious sermon, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, produced a hasty statement that the priest was speaking for himself and not representing the official position of the Vatican. That is strange, since L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, published the priest’s homily without comment in its Saturday edition. How much more official can anything get? L’Osservatore Romano is to the Vatican as www.whitehouse.gov is to each U.S. president’s administration. Father Cantalamessa, in an Easter Sunday interview with the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, issued one of those classic non-apologetic apologies in which the Vatican specializes: “If, against every intention, I hurt the feelings of Jews and victims of pedophilia, I am truly sorry and apologize.” Oh, those touchy Jews and overly sensitive victims of pedophilia! Who could possibly have imagined that they would take offense at being compared to the misunderstood bishops who covered up child molestation?
When I saw the videotape of the sermon, I could only wonder why there is never anyone to stand up and shout, “You lie,” when the charge is truly appropriate. ,