In Crisis, Catholic Church Plays ‘The Jew’

As the Holy See continues to respond to the latest uproar over pedophilic priests (specifically the accusation that the Pope himself, when still Cardinal Ratzinger, was intimately involved in covering up the actions of serial molesters) the matter has become strangely entwined with another of the Church’s persistent headaches: the Jewish question. 

First, on Good Friday, the Pope’s personal preacher offered a homily in which sustained criticism of the Vatican’s failure to stanch a hemorrhaging of child sexual abuse was equated with the persecution of Jews. The orator, the Reverand Raniero Cantalamessa, left most of the heavy lifting to the text of a letter he had received from an unnamed Jewish friend, which he cited extensively: “I am following with indignation 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.”

After this mind-bending comparison, it was perversely refreshing to read a statement that appeared a couple of days later on the Catholic Web site Pontifex, deploying the Jewish people on the battlefield of this scandal in the manner to which we are more accustomed. Giacomo Babini, emeritus bishop of Grosseto, is alleged to have suggested that the “powerful and refined” nature of the assault on the Pope’s character indicated it was part of a concerted “Zionist attack.”

For those unclear that “Zionist” in some minds is code not for the problematically successful movement toward Jewish self-determination, but rather for the fabled machinations of the Elders of Zion, the speaker continued: “They do not want the church. They are its natural enemies. Deep down, historically speaking, the Jews are God killers.” Babini has since denied ownership of these words (though the Guardian noted his legacy of “accusing Jews of exploiting the Holocaust.”) Nevertheless, the Italian Bishops’ Conference, with some predictable prodding from the American Jewish Committee, felt obliged to declare the remarks: “entirely contrary to the official line and mainstream thought of the Catholic Church.”

This comes, however, precisely at a time when “the official line and mainstream thought of the Catholic Church,” particularly with regard to the Jewish people, is a matter of some ambiguity. Since the late 1960s, until quite recently, the mainstream of the Church had been undergoing a radical reconfiguration of its attitude toward Judaism. This was the legacy of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council and its Nostra Aetate declaration, which exonerated the Jews of collective guilt in the murder of Jesus Christ and acknowledged that they might be adherents of a living, rather than fossilized, faith.

But in the five years of his papacy, which were sufficiently foreshadowed by the ideological stance of his prior career as a high-ranking cardinal, Benedict has endeavored to reestablish a firm conservative line in the Vatican. Several of his moves in this campaign, though not intended primarily to do so, have had the effect of antagonizing organized Jewry. His widening of the availability of the Latin Rite, a nod to liturgical traditionalism, reintroduced the “Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews” into the available Good Friday cannon, albeit in a rewritten form that dropped the adjective “perfidious.” His reconciliation with Lefebvrist sectarians, intended to heal a rift within the Church (though such healing would not have been imaginable were the Church itself not listing in the direction of these anti-Vatican 2 renegades) bore as a consequence the recommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a vociferous Jew-hater. 

Perhaps most aggravating to Jewish-Catholic relations is the seemingly implacable march of Pope Pius XII toward sainthood. Benedict green-lighted the Holocaust-era pontiff for consideration last December, based in part on the argument that Pius’ failure to publicly condemn the Nazi slaughter belied extensive clandestine work on behalf of individual Jews. Many historians counter that any evaluation of this claim is impossible without access to a raft of documentation that the Vatican has yet to release. In the meantime, the matter has become something of a battle of wills, with the Vatican asserting its right to offer a halo to whomever it chooses, over and against external objections. Benedict refueled this flashpoint only last week, with his laudatory comments following the viewing of Under The Roman Sky—a new, hagiographic documentary about his controversial predecessor.

All of this provides context for the recent introduction of anti-Semitic discourse into the Church’s response to pedophilia allegations, which represents a provocative new twist in the ongoing saga. “Babini’s” buffoonish accusations, incendiary but familiar, are not nearly as striking as the analogy Cantalamessa invoked between condemnation of Church hierarchy and Jewish suffering. It is certainly not the first time that Christianity has played “the Jew.” One could argue that the religion itself is founded on an appropriation of Jewish identity, with one Chosen People (refined, rather than rejected by, Christianity) replacing another, under a new dispensation. Historically, however, it has been a triumphant church laying claim to the victor’s mantle. Here, in the heart of a wounded church, a play is being made for the shroud of the victim.  

Victimization is, in fact, one of the mainstays of Catholic-Jewish relations. The tone was set early, with the victimhood of Jesus, a Jew whose brutal death was blamed on his countrymen, and thus became the pretext for nearly two millennia of anti-Jewish doctrine and violence. Then came the Holocaust. Babini is not alone in complaining that the Jews “exploit” the Holocaust, though this is a rather vulgar way to speak of our response to the murder of one-third of the global Jewish population. 

Compelling arguments have been made, by Jews, for the way that an intoxication of historical memory distorts the political horizons of the Israeli government, but when it comes to relations with the Vatican (as I have argued here before), it seems that only an equal and opposite cataclysm was able to get the Jews off the hook for the murder of God Himself. Christian guilt displaced Jewish guilt. The heinous legacy of Nazi Jew-killing was reified and its implications elevated almost to the level of official Church doctrine, as evidenced by the way a certain stripe of Catholic clergy still reverently intones the word “Shoah.” One of my congregants, a Jewish professor at the law school of Jesuit Fordham University, suggested it had achieved the status of “the canonical suffering of the age.”  

Cantalamessa’s homily seems to indicate another turning point. His friend’s comparison was strange on a number of levels. The “collective guilt” of anti-Semitism is a function of ancient and persistent religious mythology, whereas the Church in our time is quite vulnerable to charges of a “systematic,” if not “collective” guilt, stemming from an administrative culture that shuffled abusers of children from one post to another (and, to take it a step further, from a refusal to consider that the robust expression of adult sexuality might be good for the soul).

Beyond that, there is the fact that the Catholic Church itself is one of the all-time leading instigators and purveyors of anti-Jewish sentiment, though this circumstance has been blessedly altered over the past half century. But, again in the words of my congregant, himself a passionate participant in Catholic-Jewish conversation, these new circumstances have given rise to a confusing sense of “intimacy,” in which Catholic representatives feel a certain kinship with Jewish experience—particularly Jewish “canonical suffering”—with varying degrees of recognition of their role in that suffering. After all (and these are my words), if the crucifixion is counterbalanced by the apocalypse of Jewish suffering, then the Church no longer has sole claim to being the body of Christ, but must take its turn playing the Romans, or, the way they used to tell it, the Jews.

This takes on another level of meaning, however, in the era of Benedict’s decidedly post-Vatican 2 papacy. Though he may not be intending to anger Jews, there is a good, equally systematic reason for why he keeps doing so: a resurgent Church is, among other things, precisely one that throws off some of its concern for Jewish sensibilities. The Pope often seems to be steering Church doctrine away from Nostra Aetate—an affirmation of the validity of other religious traditions—and back toward a vision of the son as the only path to the father.

This is a kind of murmuring triumphalism, and may result in a Jewish anxiety, bordering on existential for some, about our place in the scheme of things. We may suspect there are many silent Babinis, as petulant about doing what they see as our bidding as a fat cat who can no longer smoke a cigar in his favorite restaurant. But Cantalamessa is far more intriguing. In seeking victory for his Church, he mistakes a self-inflicted wound for the side-piercing spear, and describes his pain through recourse to the “canonical suffering of our age.” Such is the tortuous career of the narrative of victimization.