L’Affaire Babini

An interesting development in the Babini affair is the content of the monsignor’s retraction. He denies having ever said anything anti-Semitic. “Certain words have been attributed to me which I never said…about my brothers the Jews.” There is fuzziness surrounding this interview. One of two things is going on, though. Either Babini gave the interview as published (in a kind of threat, Potifex claims to have the “tapes” of the  interview), and then retracted it in a sort of vague and non-committal way, or the whole thing is a fabrication.

I say non-committal because what is “anti-Semitic” in one person’s eyes may not be so in another’s. Perhaps there are those, like L’Osservatore Romano in its anti-Semitic heyday, who play the game of distinction between “good” and “bad” anti-Semitism. The good kind is actually anti-Judaism, or hatred of the Jewish religion. The bad kind is, presumably, violence against the Jews themselves. This is an extremely dangerous “distinction,” however, which led to the demonization of an entire people and sowed the seeds from which the Shoah grew. This “distinction” has also allowed the Catholic Church to wash its hands of any true responsibility in the Shoah. The brute killing was carried out by a “pagan” regime. Where might they have gotten their most dangerous ideas from? Why did they find the masses so indifferent and even willing? Could centuries of the most poisonous anti-Jewish propaganda by the Church have had something to do with it?

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s “semi-official” newspaper, skips the entirety of the 20th century. There is simply a widget reading, This section has no content. We learn nothing about what it actually published in its glorious heyday leading up to the Second World War: it’s vicious anti-Semitic campaign in the 1890s, its uncritical acceptance of ritual murder charges against Jews, its endorsement of Italy’s racial laws of the 1930s. Today L’Osservatore prides itself in “presenting the genuine face of the church and the ideals of freedom.” “145 years as the ‘genuine face of the Church,'” reads an article in the Catholic News Service from 2006. One hundred of which have no content, apparently.

Why bother about L’Osservatore Romano, though? Because it seems the Vatican is playing a never-ending game of hide-and-seek with “official” “semi-offical” and “unofficial” pronouncements. One might infer that the only “official” voice of the Church is that of the pope himself. That leaves a huge margin for bishops, priests, cardinals and the like to voice various “unofficial” points of view, some of which push the limits of free speech up against a wall. When Lilli Gruber of Otto e Mezzo, a popular evening news program in Italy, recently invited a cardinal to speak on the pedophilia scandals, Gruber smilingly acknowledged that the cardinal could not say certain things. Is his therefore an “official” voice, constrained to silence on touchy issues? Who can know? Can “offical” voices become “unofficial” if they lead to scandal or a worsening of the Church’s public image?

If the interview is indeed a fabrication, one would expect serious action to be taken against the Pontifex blog by the Church itself. One would expect the Italian media giants to have caught on to it by now and have published some kind of editorial apology. But none of this is happening.

I couldn’t, say, fabricate an interview with Hillary Clinton, quoting her as saying, “We’re going to nuke those sand niggers in Iran” (I’m being entirely facetious here), have the story picked up verbatim and uncritically by the New York Times and Washington Post and countless other media, then have Clinton retract her statement as “having said nothing against the Iranian people” and still keep the interview up on my blog without some serious legal action.

But that’s kind of how things stand at the moment with the Babini affair.

Fear and Trembling

Could this be the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church? I don’t think so, nor do I really care if it stands or falls. My guess is they will be around for another few centuries or millennia or whatever, but what is really interesting is that public opinion just might not be on their side for very long.

Many people are seeing just how out of touch with reality the Church really is. Making warped claims like that of Father Cantalamessa – on Good Friday before the pope nonetheless – and then claiming, after much uproar, that Cantalamessa’s was not an “official” Vatican statement is testing the patience of all but the most unwavering nucleus of the faithful.

It’s an easy  trick: get the message out there, start the meme running, then disavow yourself of any responsibility for what the consequences of it might be. By that time you’ve already made the front pages of every newspaper on earth and half the world’s population will believe what they hear because, hey, some higher up in the Vatican likened outrage at child rape to anti-Semitism. It must be true. I heard it on tv.

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.