A Price Too High: A Conversation with David Ranan

This is the extended version of an interview first published in The American.

I first met British author and social critic David Ranan in a Rome bookshop in the summer of 2007. He was spending a few months in the city absorbing the cultural climate of the Vatican’s hometown. He’d just published his book, ”Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church,” a critical reflection about the history of the Roman Catholic Church. He was curious to get to know Romans — and their priests — firsthand.

Ranan grew up in Israel and Holland, where he attended an English boarding school. He served in the Israeli Defense Force, later obtaining a BA in economics, an MBA, both of them in Israel, and a PhD in London. He worked as a banker and strategic consultant before turning to research and writing. “There is nothing very titillating about me,” he says.

A tall and weighty man with a big, bellowing voice that betrays strong traces of both Israeli and German accents (he comes from a German-Jewish family), Ranan is an atheist who considers religious belief a curiosity. He speaks with the playful authority of someone who won’t tell all. During his sojourn in Rome, he spent his days attending Mass and approaching Catholic priests on the street, tossing out questions like, “What made you decide to go into the priesthood?”

Since his Rome sojourn, he’s published “God Bless America,” a personal and political reflection written in New York City during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. These are excerpts from a recent email exchange.

Were you ever religious?

I didn’t grow up in a religious family, and from childhood on I was very skeptical of the power of religion. I was more than skeptical, indeed I was angry: angry because of the power wielded by the Jewish religious establishment in Israel through the willingness of the secular regime and political parties to coerce the rest of the population into adherence to religious laws.

I read your book Double Cross from beginning to end. It draws a pretty poor picture of the Catholic Church and its actions from the time of the early popes right on up to John Paul II–basically, your account is of an almost uninterrupted stream of treachery and dishonesty, colossal misconduct and psychological bribery. With such a sordid past, why do so many people–and so many non-Catholics–continue to see the Church as a force for good in the world?

Well, I am not sure that I agree with your statement that ‘so many people…see the Church as a force for good in the world.”

I disagree. I think many people have a kneejerk kind of respect for the Church. I wonder–in the light of massive scandal–why this is so. I am speaking not of simple charity work, a là Mother Theresa, but of seeing nuns or Catholic priests in public and treating them as people deserving of a special kind of respect–at least, more respect than one would pay to a mechanic or a lawyer. This is quite curious, no?

I think you have just explained it yourself. To begin with kneejerk is just what it is and not logical.

But importantly you are describing respect that is often shown to priests and/or nuns and not to the Church. This respect is for their willingness to forego the pleasures – material and physical – of life to lead a life according to their values. This in itself is worthy of respect.

When we speak of the Church as a ‘force for good’ we normally think of the charitable work undertaken by members of religious orders and other lay members in areas of health and education. They are driven by their faith and their religious role models to take on social responsibility. This important and often vital work is admirable indeed.

Then there is the emotional sustenance and support that religion and faith in general offer their adherents. These have been proven to be of great importance to millions of faithful of all religions, including the Catholic Church. This may be considered by some as a force for good in the world. I would not consider this to be good caused by the structure (the Church) but rather good caused by faith.

The author Sam Harris wrote a very persuasive book condemning the idea of faith as a force for good. He regards it as a shield for fanaticism. Have you read The End of Faith? Might the Church be protecting its power behind a mask of faith?

I know Sam Harris’s book. 1) His conclusion is that faith is dangerous. But, the fact that faith sometimes shields fanaticism does not mean that it cannot also be a force for good. 2) I actually spoke about the subjective importance of faith for many who feel they need the support of faith in order to cope with life. To those who need the support and feel they get it from faith – faith is a force for good. Those for whom the vehicle for their faith is the Church, will feel that the Church does them good. The Church, like all institutions, will do whatever it can to protect its power. This naturally includes manipulating faith.

Double Cross is not a general history of the Church but rather an investigation into the cost, the very high price that society has been paying for centuries for this ‘force for good.’

Might there be a good side that outweighs the focus of your book?

Can there be a good side that outweighs such evil? I think not. Above all, I have demonstrated that the structure and the rules of the game continue to lead to ‘evil’. A recent example is the organised coverup of child abuse by Catholic priests.

The last chapter proposes an improbable solution to the Church’s seeming inability to reform itself and truly repent for past deeds. You propose dismantling the Catholic Church from top to bottom. This appears to be a drastic measure. Is there any hope that the Church will reform herself without outside interference? Is this wishful thinking?

In Double Cross I have established the inability of the Church to truly reform. My straight answer to your question is that there is no hope for true reform. Anything less should not really be wishful thinking. When I say ‘true reform’ I am talking about democratising the structure, introducing transparency and changing the basis of faith from devotion to texts, narratives and icons to commitment to values. The question is whether it would then still be the Catholic Church. It would not. And I believe that the Church’s leadership understands that. And don’t forget, the Catholic Church is the longest surviving power structure in the world. What pope would dare to bring about such change that might cause a total breakup?

How could such a “reform” feasibly come about in your opinion? Do you hold other authoritarian states to the same standard of forced democratization and transparency?

Should we hold authoritarian (and other) states to standards of democratisation (not forced) and transparency? Yes, we should. Indeed, it would be nice if we could but we can’t. The global political structure has rules about interference in internal affairs of countries. The Catholic Church, however, is a voluntary organisation and as such it is subject to the legal framework we have constructed for non-state organisations.

How deep is the Church’s responsibility for the Shoah? Is it unfair to tie Catholic anti-Semitism in with the more lethal Nazi brand?

The Nazi regime was indeed a secular regime but tens of thousands of willing executioners were the product of generations of dehumanisation of Jews by the Church, her leaders and her theologians. In my book I have clearly demonstrated that there is a direct line and hence responsibility of the Church for the Shoah. However, the Church does not share my view and has not accepted responsibility. Her mea culpas in this respect are seriously flawed.

What about Vatican II and “We Remember: A Reflection On the Shoah?” Where are the flaws in these efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people?

I do believe that there is a genuine wish within the Church leadership to reach a reconciliation with the Jewish people. This does not mean a willingness to accept responsibility. Vatican II was not set up to deal with the Jewish question; the Jewish question was one of many issued discussed. Indeed, “We Remember” was relegated to a rather lowly place in the Council’s documentation. After the Holocaust, the Church could not have an important Church Council without talking about the Shoah. But, if you analyse the text of the resultant documents you very clearly see that the Church does not accept responsibility for the anti-Semitism that informed and educated the Christian world, led to hatred and finally to the “final solution’. The “After the Holocaust” chapter in Double Cross demonstrates “We Remember” to be flawed, selective in its memory, intellectually dishonest and in bad taste. Some of the subsequent documents did a somewhat better job.

You recently wrote on your blog, in response to Jewish uproar over the infamous “Easter prayer” (which prays for the conversion of the Jews), “It is no longer necessary for Jews to appeal to the Popes to revoke anti-Jewish legislation or actions.” I was surprised to read these words in the wake of Double Cross. Does the Church’s wide influence (Catholicism is still one of the largest religious denominations in the world) not make such attitudes unprogressive? Why shouldn’t Jews fret when the Church reverts to such archaic attitudes?

There is an important difference between the forced conversions achieved through the state power the Church used to wield and conversions resulting from normal missionary work. People should be free to choose the religion they belong to and if they are convinced by Church propaganda – let them. I do not think that Jews need to ‘fret’. But, you are right, of course the Church’s attitudes are un-progressive. That is in the nature of religious structures; not only the Catholic Church. I do not think that there is much progressive thinking to be found within ultra-orthodox Judaism or Islam.

Near the end of your book, you write, “Everything Christianity has taught about Jews and Judaism is false.” Can you elaborate on this?

This sentence sums up what I demonstrated in the first chapter about the Church and the Jews, a chapter in which I highlighted and analysed texts from the New Testament, writings of Church Fathers and theologians. It is a determined and intensive character assassination of the Jews.

You spent some time in Rome talking to priests about their faith. Did you learn anything about their point of view? Why, in your opinion, do people choose such a life for themselves?

I had interesting conversations not only with priests but also with young seminarians who had just recently decided to dedicate their lives to an idea they believe in. I am not a psychologist and did not try to delve into the ‘why do they choose such a life for themselves’. But I have respect for those who are willing to do so.

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