Saturday, April 18, 2009

Benedict's Evasive Apology

Benedict's Evasive Apology

When the Pope apologizes for anything, his statement generally signifies nothing more than an attempt at damage control in the wake of an unanticipated public relations disaster created by his and his church's actions. In all fairness, it must be said that this generalization also applies to nearly every apology made by secular politicians. This should not be surprising, because all popes are politicians. They wouldn't have gotten to be popes otherwise.

Pope Benedict's belated, ambiguous response to the storm of public criticism over his reversal of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop in January is a classic example of an apology unaccompanied by any real action to remedy the situation.

Richard Williamson, who has repeatedly said there were no gas chambers and that only 300,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis (and not as part of any organized plan) was told by the pope that he needed to revise his views or he couldn't serve as a bishop again. (Pope Benedict's reversal of the excommunication issued by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II--not, by the way, because of Holocaust denial but because of Williamson's opposition to liturgical reforms--was unchanged.) Williamson said he had to consult with more experts to examine his views. One of the "experts" was David Irving, a British historian who is also a renowned Holocaust denier.

No matter. The latest on Williamson is that he and his ultra-conservative Catholic liturgical sect, called the Society of St. Pius X, are trying to buy their own church in England. According to the East Manchester Advertiser, "It is understood that the Bishop of Manchester, chairman of the (U.K.) national council of Christians and Jews, has grave reservations about the move." I'll bet. When a Holocaust denier is moving into your liturgical neighborhood, it must be difficult to preside over well-meaning ecumenical efforts involving Christians and Jews. Pope Benedict hasn't weighed in on the matter. His apology--which I wouldn't call an apology because it was really just an admission that he had misjudged the strength of feeling on this matter in Europe--is worthless.

This pope's apologies (or expressions of regret) for the harm done to victims by pedophile priests are equally worthless, because he has done nothing to punish the bishops and cardinals, throughout the United States, who were fully aware of the accusations against these priests for decades and did everything possible to cover up the crimes by shifting the priests from parish to parish. That goes for the previous pope, John Paul II, as well. Boston's former cardinal, Bernard Law, one of the worst offenders, was given a position in the influential curia of Vatican cardinals, took a prominent role in funeral services for John Paul, and is head of the storied basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Some punishment. Why should anyone have paid attention to Benedict's crocodile tears (or, rather, misty eyes) over victims when he visited the United States?

I don't place much value on apologies for distant historical events about which the apologizer can do nothing. But the Catholic Church could, in fact, still do something about the evil heritage left by pedophile clergy. The church has the power to punish every high official who knew and looked the other way, but it has chosen not to do so. In similar fashion--instead of shilly-shallying and demanding that the Holocaust-denying Williamson reexamine his views--Benedict could simply revoke any church sanction for his acting, in any capacity, as a priest.

I cannot imagine why anyone would care one way or the other about what the Vatican does, and does not, consider worthy of an apology. Consider the Vatican's defense of a decision by a Brazilian archbishop to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who had an abortion after she was raped by her stepfather. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Catholic Church's Congregation for Bishops, declared that "life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified."

The rapist-stepfather was not excommunicated because, the Brazilian bishop had said, abortion is a far more serious crime than the rape of a child. So what if the nine-year-old, who was carrying twins, could, as the doctors feared, have died in childbirth? Why should anyone attribute any moral authority to a church, and its leaders, that upholds such inhumane doctrines? Their apologies and their moral rationalizations merit neither attention nor praise.

And, gentle readers, please refrain from criticizing me for criticizing the Catholic Church, and not some other church, in this instance. The question was about Pope Benedict and his apologies, not about a grand rabbi, an ayatollah, or the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. Yes, I know that representatives of other faiths, like other politicians, have also issued meaningless apologies. And when a rabbi or an ayatollah issues some smarmy non-apologetic apology in the future, I'll be happy to criticize him.

Religious "authorities" ought to burn in hell, if there were a hell, for hypocritical apologies composed of words rather than deeds. There could surely be no better place for church leaders who believe in forcing a nine-year-old to bear the children of her rapist. No apology could ever wipe away their guilt. But they won't apologize, because they feel no guilt. And no shame.

By Susan Jacoby | April 4, 2009; 8:55 AM


One World, Under God

What's your reaction to President Obama's recent statements to the Muslim world that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam" and that "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation"?

I admire President Obama for saying that the United States is not, has not been, nor will ever be in a war against Islam.

I would disagree with him had he said that the United States is not a Christian nation. That's not what he said. He said that the United States does not "consider itself to be a Christian, Jewish or Muslim nation, but a nation of citizens bound by ideals and a set of values." In so saying, he is honoring belief that divisions and differences among people ought to minimized, while at the same time, the common ground between people ought to be recognized and used to build a better world.

Mr. Obama's beliefs might be called idealistically religious, meaning that at their core, most religions hold to the ideal that all people are created by God and are therefore to be respected.

I am reminded that in the Christian Bible, Paul writes that in the new Christ-religion, "there is no favoritism." Later, Paul says in the Book of Galatians (in the Holy Bible) that we "are all sons of God..there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female."

But as quickly as Paul sets forth an egalitarian notion of personhood, he builds in, ironically, a dividing factor: Jesus the Christ. One can only belong to this "egalitarian" club if one confesses the Christ.

Therefore, the reasoning goes, if one is not Christian, one is not able to qualify for the same type of respect as would a fellow Christian. Mutual respect, in other words, is reserved for people who belong to the club.

This divisiveness built into the religious fabric is not unique to Christians. Many religions state an ideal belief in the universal equality of people created by God, only to back away from that ideal as religious doctrine pushes to the fore.

So, when Mr. Obama says that the United States is not dominated by any religion, but rather by an adherence to an ideal of mutual respect worthy and due all human beings, he is stating an ideal.

In reality, we are filled with division. The president's statements must be a balm to Muslims who have been excoriated because of emotions elicited after 9/11. Muslims, no doubt, have felt shunned and scorned by the United States, which is, after all, 77 percent Christian.

The rhetoric used by the previous administration further deepened the feelings of fear and dread of Muslims by America's bruised Christians. We, the Christian nation, lapsed deeply into divisive language and attitudes, and the war in Iraq was even referred to as a "Holy War."
That was dangerous and that was wrong. This war has never been about religion. It so happens that Iraq is a predominantly Muslim nation, and America is predominantly Christian, but the war has been about oil and power, not religion.

And though some religious extremists were responsible for the destruction of the Twin Towers, they did not and do not represent the sentiments of the Iraqi people in general, any more than Christian fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics and kill innocent people represent the vast majority of Christians in America.

Yes, there are some Muslims who would like to see Islam as THE world religion, just as there are some Christians who are actively working to make Christianity THE world religion. We in America have yet to come to terms with our feelings of prejudice, superiority and entitlement, as indeed some Muslims must do as well.

Once a nation starts to use religion as its justification for going to war, a cyclonic reaction is set in motion that is bound to have catastrophic effects. There is nothing quite so brutal, ironically, as a war fought "in the name of God."

I think Mr. Obama realizes that, and knows the anger that the Muslim world has felt since 9/11 against a nation, America, which it feels has maligned them unfairly. There can be no peace and no progress if the ground between two entities is filled with clay and rock as opposed to being filled with fertile ground.

Times are too dangerous, too unstable and too scary to continue to concentrate on how different we are. Mr. Obama, it seems, is trying to smooth feathers in the name of the God of us all, in order to attain a much needed and long overdue higher good.

By Susan K. Smith | April 14, 2009; 8:06 PM ET


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