The sound of collapsing scenery from the general direction of the Vatican is deafening enough, but it is nothing compared with the screeching noises given off by the pope’s apologists. One gets the sense that some sort of desperate “line of the day” was promulgated around the time of Easter and that it was agreed among the Church’s loyal “intellectuals” that the way to go was to accuse their critics of anti-Semitism.
The first hack out of the trap was a certain Father Cantalamessa, who in a Good Friday sermon with the Holy Father in attendance decided to quote from an unnamed Jewish friend of his who had written him a letter saying that the atmosphere of criticism against the Church reminded him of the excesses that used to be practiced against the Jews. The pope, who is unlikely to have been surprised at the contents of an address delivered in his presence on such an important day, has not chosen to declare any distance from this wild claim and is therefore apparently approving it by his silence.
Not long afterward, I received an e-mail from a leading Catholic academic at Oxford University who was evidently giving wide circulation to the article that he attached. It was a piece recalling the remarks of Josef Goebbels during a demagogic campaign in the 1930s in which Goebbels accused the Roman Catholic authorities in Germany of harboring child-molesters. (The article did have the grace to admit nonetheless that, even if it was Goebbels saying it, the allegation had the regrettable disadvantage of being true.)
Next up was Joseph Bottum, an editor at the ultra-devout magazine First Things. Writing in The Weekly Standard, he explicitly stated that in times of moral crisis there is a tendency to turn on the Roman Catholic Church and on the Jews. He made no attempt to say in what way the awful disclosures about child rape were related to this, and he did not even attempt to identify an anti-Semite among the Church’s many public accusers. (He’d better not try, either, with any of the critics I know or with me.)
What can be the cause of this hysteria? Some of it must be displaced guilt. Good Friday used to be a very bad day to be Jewish, with Christian crowds breaking heads and windows after hearing an Easter Latin Mass that called for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” who had murdered Christ. The return of this same traditional “Tridentine” Mass is one of the centerpiece proposals of Pope Benedict’s reactionary regime. Another early sign of the same right-wing tendency was the lifting of the excommunication of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, a dyed-in-the-wool schismatic, one of whose most notorious disciples, Archbishop Williamson, is a leading Holocaust-denier. How odd and even perverse, then, that self-pitying Catholics should seek to identify with the victims of the pogroms that they themselves used to incite!
Again, if I were a Catholic, I would do my best to get people to forget about Josef Goebbels. Like many Nazi leaders, he started off as a practicing Catholic and was the only one of them to be excommunicated-not because of his Nazi crimes but because he had married a woman who was not only Protestant but divorced: a double indemnity in the eyes of Rome! The Reichsconcordat–the very first diplomatic agreement between Hitler and a foreign state-gave the Nazis recognition as the rightful rulers of Germany in exchange for Church control over the education of Catholics and (significantly perhaps) the dropping of allegations about priestly child-abuse. In a time when the Vatican freely banned books it deemed dangerous, all discussion was abandoned of a ban on Mein Kampf–a book in which Hitler claimed to be doing “the Lord’s work.”
Lawyers for the Vatican have recently announced that, if claimants try to summon the pope to court as a defendant, they will in turn claim “sovereign immunity” for the pontiff as a head of state. Again this is something they may regret, since millions of people, including many Catholics, are unaware that the “Holy See” or Vatican City, a pathetic rump of real estate covering 0.17 square miles, is the creation of a treaty between the pope and Mussolini in 1929. I’m sorry, but I just will not be accused of being a fascist or a Jew-hater by an organization with this disgraceful birth certificate or any of the above pedigree.
Scanning Joseph Bottum’s bizarre essay, I didn’t have to wait long to find a remark that is often dragged out at times like this. “Anti-Catholicism,” some mediocre idiot is supposed to have said, “is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.” Is there even a tincture of sense in this slogan? To be a Roman Catholic is to be a voluntary (well, all right, sometimes involuntary, as in the case of millions of children) member of a religious group with a distinct liturgy and ideology. Any adult can “lapse” from this allegiance at any time. With Jews, this is not the case. Even though many Jewish sects dispute the question of “Who is a Jew?” and even though a huge number of Jews have said farewell to Judaism, the ethnic bond (itself disputable and disputed) is considered paramount by anti-Semites. Even those Jews who “converted” to Christianity in medieval Iberia were subject to an Inquisition precisely because of their suspect “blood.” In no conceivable sense is this kind of bigotry and superstition comparable to the view of a person who finds the doctrines and practices of the Roman church to be repellent and irrational.
I can think of one possible reason for this crude attempt to muddy the waters. As the number of lawsuits grows, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to rule on whether the pope does indeed have “sovereign immunity.” Currently, the majority of the justices are practicing Catholics. I think we may be seeing a preemptive attempt to criminalize and defame anybody who has the bad taste to point this out.