Not since Protestants routinely identified the pope with the Antichrist has the Roman Catholic Church been so demonized as it is today, when epithets like “criminal conspiracy” seem to trip lightly from the most respectable lips. This time around, though, many Catholics themselves have taken leading positions among the ranks of the accusers, while millions of other faithful Catholics find themselves bereft of counterarguments. For the bill of particulars against the Church to which I have belonged all my life is heavily documented, and it has every appearance of amounting to a litany of shame.
The scandal of sexual abuse by priests, in the United States and across the English-speaking world, has rapidly burgeoned into a sweeping crisis of confidence. The betrayal of ordinary Catholics, first by their priests and then by their bishops covering up for the priests, has sown deep discord between a hierarchy accountable only upward—to Rome—and a laity furious with those who have placed their children in jeopardy, concealed the truth from them, and dragged their Church through the mud. The catastrophic failure of leadership that began in the seminaries before spreading to the bishops and archbishops has finally embraced the Vatican itself.
The clergy’s fall from grace has exacerbated an already acute falling-off of recruits to the priesthood, enabling liberal critics within the Church to press anew for abolishing the doctrine, recently restated by the Vatican, that priests must be celibate and male. Although, in Asia and Africa, the Church is young and growing, the demographic and social evolution of Europe and North America have trapped it between secularism and senescence. Despite the heroic efforts of Pope John Paul II, Catholic influence on moral, political, and cultural life in the West is in apparently terminal decline.
As if all this were not enough, the Church is in trouble not only on its domestic front but also in what might be called its foreign policy. A new book has reignited the longstanding controversy about the role of the wartime pope, Pius XII, in the Holocaust, and has broadened the indictment to take in the entire history of the Church, which stands accused of being the primary source of anti-Semitism in the world. As in the case of sex abuse by the clergy, which coincides with widespread hysteria about pedophilia, this accusation could hardly have come at a worse moment: thanks to Islamic terrorism, the parlous situation of Israel, and the revival of global anti-Semitism, the question of Jewish security has become more urgent than at any time since the Holocaust. In the moral climate of today, for the Church to be cast in the role of an unrepentant persecutor of Jews is no less damaging to its reputation than to be depicted as a front organization for pedophiles.
How did the Church arrive at this nadir in its fortunes? In the United States, 2002 will remain etched in the collective memory of Catholics as the year of hideous truth. The gravity of the problem first became apparent in January in the appalling case of John Geoghan, who abused some 130 boys while being shuttled among three different parishes by the archbishop of Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law. As the disease signaled by the Geoghan revelations began to seem more like a nationwide epidemic, the bishop of Palm Beach and the archbishop of Milwaukee resigned and senior members of the U.S. hierarchy traveled hurriedly to Rome for consultations. The disclosure of secret Church files confirmed that Cardinal Law and other bishops had personally sanctioned the practice of moving, rather than removing, priests known to be guilty of molestation, seduction, or drug abuse. In Boston, the bishops received a subpoena to testify before a grand jury.
By December, with the clergy of Boston joining the laity in openly demanding Law’s resignation, the pope finally bowed to the inevitable. Today, as lawsuits mount everywhere, the specter of criminal prosecution and financial bankruptcy haunts not just the diocese of Boston but perhaps the entire American Church. In a confrontation between the culture of compensation and the Church, it is already clear which side is likely to come off worse.
Though the United States has been the eye of the storm, there have been sex scandals in other English-speaking countries, too, from Ireland to Australia. In Dublin, Cardinal Connell faces demands for his resignation from a thoroughly alienated laity. In Wales, the archbishop of Cardiff was forced to retire after two priests in his office were convicted of abuse. And in England, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, is under intense pressure to step down over his decision a number of years ago to appoint a known pedophile priest, Michael Hill, as chaplain of Gatwick airport, where he went on to abuse more boys, including two who were severely disabled.
Nor has the crisis been limited to Anglophone countries: Cardinal Groener, the archbishop of Vienna, retreated to a monastery some years ago after a sexual scandal shook the Austrian Church to its foundations. In all these capitalist democracies, the phenomenon of the predator-priest fits dormant but easily reactivated stereotypes, inviting upon the Catholic episcopate the wrath of the world’s most inquisitive, most prurient, and most irreverent media. Just as Cardinal Law was brought to book by the Boston Globe, so Cardinal Murphy O’Connor is being hounded by the British media establishment, led by the BBC and the (London) Times.
A pastoral authority built on trust cannot survive its betrayal, and for the victims of abuse, at least, that trust is forfeit. The damage to the prestige of the Church is all the greater because, in our culture, there is no crime more heinous than sex crime, and no victim more deserving of protection than the child. The impression of a sluggish, grudging, and secretive response to the crisis has also been exacerbated by the instinctive—but fatal—tendency of the Church everywhere, but particularly in Rome, to blame the press, and especially the Anglo-American press, for whatever ails it. There may be no other major organization so inept in its handling of journalists, even Catholic journalists.
Such ineptness, or worse, has characterized the Church’s response to the scandals from the beginning. In the United States, initial and obviously misguided efforts at stonewalling suddenly gave way to a radical proposal by the U.S. bishops: “zero tolerance” for priests accused of sex abuse. This was rejected by the pope as contrary to the rights of priests under canon law, just as John Paul II also refused at first to accept Cardinal Law’s offer to resign (while simultaneously condemning sexual abuse by priests more forcefully than ever before). But the bishops’ guidelines were later accepted by the Vatican after modifications, and so, as we have seen, was the cardinal’s resignation, thus redoubling the impression of an institution with much to hide and no direction.
In England, the Church’s reaction took a no less self-defeating form. Two years ago, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor asked Lord Nolan, the man who had been charged with stamping out corruption in Parliament, to set up procedures for dealing with accusations of abuse by the clergy. The Nolan guidelines were duly adopted in September 2001, with the draconian result that a priest who is accused, even anonymously, of abuse is now automatically suspended from active ministry while he is investigated by the police and assessed by psychiatric experts. It may be months before he is told what he is accused of, and even if the evidence is insufficient to warrant a prosecution—as is usually the case—he may still be judged too dangerous to continue in his ministry (a decision now made by a panel of lay experts over whom the hierarchy has no control). An innocent man may thus be ruined on the strength of a denunciation that has never been tested in court—and in at least one case this has in fact already happened.
To non-Catholics, highlighting cases of false or malicious accusation must sound like special pleading for priests when the real victims are the abused. In dealing with those victims, however, the Church has faced still another dilemma. If it compensates them, it is accused of paying “hush money”; if, on legal advice, it refuses to pay, it is “heartless.” The sums being paid out in the United States are sometimes so large that they may have a corrupting influence on the motives of those who engage in litigation. In such a no-win situation, defensiveness once again becomes the reigning posture.
In short, the Church has been playing catch-up, reacting clumsily to negative publicity rather than actively striving to shape public attitudes toward Catholicism. One is bound to conclude that its defensiveness betokens a deeper malaise, including self-deception on the part of many clergy. If those who speak for the Church cannot account for what has gone wrong in a manner that is persuasive to the world at large, they must be guilty at least of confusion and probably hypocrisy. In this light, it is hardly surprising that more and more Catholics are staying away from Mass, preferring no faith to bad faith.
One rare exception to the intellectual paralysis is George Weigel, the theologian and biographer of John Paul II. Weigel’s earlier book on the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, The Final Revolution (1992), was a brilliant essay in political theology, while Witness to Hope (1999), his study of John Paul II, is much more than a narrative of the life and times of a great pope: it is a major contribution to the renaissance of Catholic thought that it describes. One of the most lively, learned, and articulate intellectuals on the American scene, Weigel speaks to an audience that transcends the narrow confines of Catholic theology; it is a sad fact that there are few, if any, comparable figures in England, the land of Newman and Chesterton.
Weigel has responded with alacrity to the crisis of abuse, seeing it as a challenge to clergy and laity alike. In his latest book, The Courage to Be Catholic1 he sets out an impressive program of sacerdotal rehabilitation that would uproot the underlying cause of sexual depravity: the betrayal by too many priests of their vows, their vocation, and their faith.
What made this betrayal possible, Weigel argues, is the “culture of dissent” that has permeated the Catholic intelligentsia, especially in the U.S., ever since the mid-1960’s. Emerging in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and constantly appealing for justification to the reformist “spirit” of that event, it has drawn its real energy from the secular liberationist cultures of the age, the culture of sexual liberation emphatically included. Within the Church, the “dissenters” seized upon the ameliorative impulses that animated Vatican II and proceeded to push them over into an open defiance of Church doctrines and discipline. In time, an ethos of moral permissiveness came to be at first tolerated in Catholic universities and seminaries and then actively inculcated; under its influence, Weigel writes, many clergy lost sight of what it was to be a Catholic priest: namely, an icon of Christ, wedded to the Church.
What such priests offered to the people was a diluted version of their faith, a capitulation to reigning secular norms; Weigel calls it “Catholic Lite.” What they did to their own calling was much worse. Released from any more exalted sense of spiritual mission, in which asceticism occupies a natural place, some began to practice the lax morality their teachers were preaching, living down to the popular image of the repressed celibate who harbors within him the sexual predator. In this unwholesome atmosphere, a handful of genuine pedophiles and a much larger number of active homosexuals could infiltrate the Church, unhindered by bishops who anyway saw their function as bureaucratic and corporate rather than as pastoral and apostolic.
When the abuse scandal hit the headlines, it was defined by the most monstrous cases—in the U.S., John Geoghan, in Britain, Michael Hill—but the fact is that such pedophiles are probably no more common in the Church than in any other comparable institution of society. (Less than 1 percent of child abuse is committed by professionals like ministers, teachers, scoutmasters, etc., while the great majority of cases involve either family members or other juveniles.) In the case of priests, the seduction of prepubescent boys or girls is much less common than that of adolescents and young people, especially young men.
In other words, very few of these priests are, strictly speaking, pedophiles—a fact that, as Weigel points out, in no way mitigates the offense but does help to explain it. Society has given a tacit green light to the two most striking characteristics of the gay subculture: its romanticizing of promiscuity and its cult of youth. In England, where in the name of gay rights the law is due to be rewritten to eliminate any “discriminatory” homosexual offenses, a climate is being created in which the specific danger to teenage boys from predatory older men is no longer officially recognized.
To identify the Catholic crisis with the wider panic about pedophilia is thus to miss the main point, which has to do with the sinister nexus between abusive priests and a socially sanctioned subculture. For the Catholic Church to have immunized itself from that nexus would have required a general and determined effort to resist the spirit of the age—and this, as Weigel shows, is precisely what many priests set out not to do.
What follows? Though Weigel is scathing about the way in which the U.S. bishops allowed the media to make “zero tolerance” the criterion by which the Church’s response to the crisis would be judged, his own criterion is strict enough. A religion of love and forgiveness, which holds that there is literally no sin that cannot be repented and no sinner who is beyond redemption, finds it harder than most to place abusive priests beyond the pale. This is not merely a matter of closing ranks.
Weigel concedes that the collegiate solidarity of priests and their episcopal “clubmen” has contributed to the widespread impression of a Church that looks primarily after its own. But there is, he holds, a deeper, existential reason why the Church is more reluctant to turn its back on a priest accused of sex abuse than a corporation would be to fire an employee accused of a felony. The reason is that ordination to the priesthood, itself a sacrament, can no more be reversed than baptism: even a “defrocked” priest, who is no longer permitted to say Mass, is still a priest.
Nonetheless, Weigel is adamant that the evil spirits should be cast out of the active priesthood. Quite apart from criminal penalties, those guilty of abusing minors should lose their clerical status: their sin is too disfiguring for them to perform their sacramental role. And Weigel goes much farther. Every priest who engages in sexual activity, even perfectly legal consensual intercourse with another adult, is guilty of a mortal sin, a betrayal of his parishioners, his superiors, and his vocation. Although those “lesser” offenders who habitually break their vows and lead unchaste lives must be given a chance to repent and change, a failure to return to celibacy must result for them, too, in loss of clerical status.
Similarly, in Weigel’s view, homosexual candidates for the priesthood must be brought to recognize that their inclinations represent a potential danger to their ministry, and to acknowledge the special difficulties they may face in leading a celibate life. As for those who actively and proudly define the totality of their identity as “gay,” such individuals are not, Weigel thinks, in the right frame of mind to preach or practice the Catholic sexual ethic, let alone to measure up to the “heroic” ideal of the priesthood exemplified and proclaimed by the pope.
If Weigel’s analysis and reform program were to be adopted, one far-reaching consequence would be to recall the Church to its accustomed role as society’s leading advocate of marriage and the family, a role surrendered in many presbyteries and seminaries where activist homosexuals have set the tone. Judeo-Christian morality is unambiguously heterosexual. While there can hardly be any question of a “witch-hunt”—especially in a society that enforces sexual preference as a human right—there is abundant room for a correction that might restore intellectual integrity to a Church whose priests have sometimes resembled Saint Genet (the honorific bestowed by Jean-Paul Sartre on the writer, convicted felon, and homosexual propagandist Jean Genet) more than Saint Joan.
George Weigel is hardly alone in thinking that the culture of dissent introduced into the Church after the Second Vatican Council proved to be, in reality, a Trojan horse. One of the Church’s greatest strengths has always been its ability to combine repentance and renewal, to correct past errors without imperiling the depositum fidei, the “deposit of faith” accumulated over 2,000 years. This was the obvious intent of Pope John XXIII when he convened the Council. But adaptation and evolution are not the same thing as deconstruction and revolution—and revolution, or something close to it, is what occurred. The entire papacy of John Paul II since his elevation in the late 1970’s has represented a gigantic effort to counter the devastating effects of this revolution within Catholicism and the Church, even as he has also striven to ensure that the Church continues to make itself at home in the world. Along with Weigel, hundreds of millions of Catholics everywhere have placed all their hopes for an honorable religious future on the success of this effort.
But these are not, by and large, the people whose voices are making themselves heard in the current fray. In stark contrast to Weigel, for example, stands the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, who for many years has been a prominent spokesman for the Catholic “culture of dissent.” Three years ago, Wills turned his guns on the Vatican in Papal Sin, a catalogue of the corruption wrought by absolute ecclesiastical power; in a sign of where things stand within the Church’s teaching institutions, this book has become a standard text in many Catholic colleges, several of which have awarded honorary degrees to its author. Now Wills has unleashed another broadside in Why I Am a Catholic.2
It is a curious mongrel of a book: part memoir, part polemic, part apologia. Like so many of the better-known Catholic dissenters, Wills is himself a failed priest, and one whose rebelliousness against Mother Church and (especially) Holy Father manifests all the parricidal rage and self-absorption of an aging adolescent. As he tells the story here, Wills entered a Jesuit seminary during the mid-1950’s, a period that even he admits was one of blessed tranquility for American Catholics. Personal and intellectual factors combined to prevent him from completing his novitiate, though for a long time he remained both theologically orthodox (his first book was an early contribution to the cult of G.K. Chesterton in the U.S.) and politically conservative (he was a contributor to William F. Buckley’s National Review).
At this point in the book, however, the autobiographical narrative peters out, and we never learn how or why Wills turned against the Church that had educated and nurtured him, or even why he came to support the antiwar protests of the 60’s and so broke with Buckley and the conservatives. Instead, the polemical aspect takes over.
Again like other dissenters, Wills confidently identifies his own doubts and resentments with those of Catholics in general, even as he simultaneously denigrates these Catholics for continuing to revere the papacy. Indeed, the papacy is his obsession, and the subtext of Why I Am a Catholic might be taken to read as follows: if I am a Catholic, it is despite the iniquities of that “deeply flawed” institution, which should render thanks to heaven that a serious intellectual like me still takes its “morally repulsive” authority seriously enough to debunk it. Yet why a book ostensibly devoted to justifying Catholic belief should concern itself so largely with the papacy is not at all clear; when Catholics ask themselves why they belong to this Church rather than any other, the pros and cons of this or that pope hardly come into it. Nor do the book’s final chapters, an exegesis of the Apostles’ Creed that constitutes Wills’s apologia, gain anything from the potted and on the whole meretricious history of the popes that precedes them, whose slant is well conveyed in high-voltage chapter titles like “War on Democracy,” “Reign of Terror,” and the like.
Aside from the ventilation of one man’s fury, one is entitled to ask what exactly is going on here. This brings us back to Weigel—or rather to the dividing line between those, like Weigel, who trace the Church’s troubles to the culture of dissent and those, like Garry Wills, who trace it to the Vatican and more specifically to the pontificate of John Paul II. This debate is, in turn, a continuation by other means of the struggle that has raged since the 1960’s over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. One might even characterize the two parties to the struggle as “Weigel Catholics” and “Wills Catholics.”
Such a debate might well be healthy, provided that the losing side did not try to provoke a schism. Wills likes to call his side a “loyal opposition,” though a question might legitimately be raised as to whether the dissenters are in fact loyal to the Church as it is, despite its faults, or to a Utopian Church of their imagination. As it happens, Weigel Catholics are at least as critical of those faults as are Wills Catholics, and, to judge by Weigel himself, can hardly be charged with failing to criticize Church authorities, up to and including the Vatican. But they conspicuously keep faith with the teaching authority of the Church, and no less conspicuously refrain from using clerical misconduct as a means of undermining orthodoxy.
There are other differences, some of them already rehearsed. Whereas Wills Catholics insist that the buck stops with the present Pope and his “reactionary” curia—above all the guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, Cardinal Ratzinger—Weigel Catholics trace the present crisis to complacent and complaisant bishops, themselves the products of the permissive “spirit of Vatican II.” Whereas Wills Catholics think that propensities to pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse could be diminished by abandoning the ideal of a male, celibate priesthood, Weigel Catholics think the main problem is that priests are not celibate enough. Whereas Wills Catholics assert more generally that human sexuality is a personal issue about which the Church has no business being “judgmental,” Weigel Catholics see sexuality in sacramental terms, interpreted through John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” and as part of a moral continuum that takes in such contested issues as abortion, euthanasia, and genetic engineering.
As in medieval scholastic disputation, the sic et non style of this dialectic may seem arid to outsiders: a prime example of such sterility was the hatchet-job on Weigel’s book and on Weigel himself that Garry Wills contributed to a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. But the stakes are very high, and a very great deal rests on the outcome of this internal struggle—now being played out, thanks to the sex crisis, before the eyes of the world. And the stakes have been raised still higher, as I mentioned at the outset, by the fact that the Church is being forced to fight on a second front: renewed accusations concerning its behavior during the Holocaust.
Central to this second story is the role of the wartime pope, Pius XII, who as Eugenio Pacelli had formerly served as a papal nuncio in Germany and who has been portrayed by his critics as a pro-German anti-Semite. Pius XII’s “silence” concerning the persecution of the Jews provoked controversy already in the early 1960’s, when Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy caricatured the then recently deceased pope as a callous bigot. Since then, a voluminous literature has developed whose main themes and findings have been dealt with extensively in COMMENTARY and elsewhere.3
To this literature must now be added Daniel Goldhagen’s new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair,4 the most comprehensive indictment of the Catholic Church so far. Not content to build up the case against Pacelli, Goldhagen argues that Catholic collaboration with the Nazis extended right across occupied Europe, and that the institutional anti-Semitism of the Church, manifest throughout its history up to and including the present, begins already with the Christian Bible.
Goldhagen’s critique culminates in a program to “repair the harm.” This would require the Church to commit itself to reforms as radical as those that transformed the defeated Third Reich into the present-day German Federal Republic. In particular, it would mean expurgating “anti-Semitic” passages from the New Testament, unless some editorial ingenuity could render them harmless; abolishing the “authoritarian” structure of the Church, including the doctrine of papal infallibility and the special political status of the Vatican; and initiating far greater efforts to uncover, acknowledge, and do penance for the Church’s crimes against the Jewish people.
Goldhagen’s earlier bestseller, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), made a colossal impact in Germany—thanks to its moral intensity rather more than to the quality of its historical scholarship. Millions of ordinary Germans, he argued there, and not a handful of psychopathic Nazis, made the Holocaust happen; and in acting as they did, they were motivated by the belief that eliminating the Jews was right and proper. His present book follows a roughly similar outline. It is an indictment of an entire religion, clergy and laity, over two millennia. But A Moral Reckoning has enjoyed nothing like the impact of Hitler’s Willing Executioners. That may be because its author wields the blunt instrument of political science to hack through the delicate theological-political membranes of the oldest surviving institution on earth; or simply because, when all is said and done, there is really nothing new in the indictment.
Many others have denounced Pius XII over the decades—Hitler’s Pope, by the former priest John Cornwell, being only the most recent and sensationalized example. In particular, though Goldhagen does not mention him, the Austrian Catholic Friedrich Heer long ago said all that needed to be said against Pius and the pre-conciliar Church, deploying the erudition of a great intellectual historian of medieval and modern Europe in support of the thesis that Hitler was an entirely typical product of the “political religiosity” of his day, and that the Church failed to resist him because it had too much in common with him. As for Goldhagen’s case against the Gospels, that, too, is hardly novel, relying heavily as it does on the biblical scholarship of Geza Vermes, a former Catholic priest who has returned to the Judaism into which he was born and has written several remarkable books on Jesus from a Jewish perspective.
In sum, A Moral Reckoning is lacking both in nuance and in breadth of learning. If the book is nevertheless important, it is for a different reason: in one place, and between two covers, it manages to amalgamate a critique of the Catholic Church as the historical font of anti-Semitism with the critique of the papacy as an authoritarian theocracy and the critique of the Church as a reactionary holdout from liberal modernity.
The combination is a powerful one, lending aid and comfort to the entire “culture of dissent.” Secularizers and Wills-style Catholic modernizers would likely agree with Goldhagen that the Church must not only apologize unreservedly for fomenting anti-Semitism—most Weigel Catholics would endorse this, too—but rigorously purge anti-Semitic passages from its canonical texts and, above all, dismantle the surviving “structures of deceit.” Like Goldhagen, Wills Catholics also demand the demolition of papal supremacy, the “patriarchal” priesthood, the doctrinal exclusivity of Catholicism, and everything that prevents the Church from accommodating itself to the modern world. The only difference is that Goldhagen makes these demands as a Jew, whereas others put them forward as a condition for their remaining in the Church.
But is Goldhagen correct that Catholic anti-Semitism is still a serious threat to Jews? And even if he were, does it follow that a Church that “embraced” the modern world would represent less of a threat? It was, after all, Pope John XXIII, an old-fashioned ultramontane Catholic, who was able to carry the 1964 Vatican Council with him, not least in breaking decisively with the past and repudiating once and for all the idea that the Jewish people bore collective guilt for the death of Jesus. And it has been John Paul II, the “anti-modern” and “anti-democratic” Pole, who has devoted so much energy to acts of reconciliation with Jews. Had the present pope not been equally intent on preserving his office intact, with all its magisterial authority, would he have been able to confront anti-Semitism within the Church with any hope of delegitimizing it?
The Vatican’s recognition of Israel; the first papal visit to a synagogue, at which John Paul II paid tribute to “our elder brothers”; the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with the prayer lodged in the Western Wall and the visit to Yad Vashem; the 1998 document We Remember, in which the Church pledged that “the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart”; and most recently the partial opening of Vatican archives on World War II—however belated or equivocal, these statements and gestures, along with many others, have brought about a historic shift in attitude. If not quite the total “moral reckoning” that Goldhagen and others demand, it is something no less extraordinary and arguably more valuable: Catholic anti-Semitism is withering away, while Catholic thought has rediscovered the Jewish core of Christianity and the Jewish identity of the Christian messiah.
“When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, ‘the first to hear the Word of God.’ ” This sentence from John Paul II’s catechism places Judaism on a higher metaphysical plane than other non-Christian religions. No orthodox Catholic can treat Judaism as equivalent to Christianity, for the same reasons that no believing Jew can treat Christianity as equivalent to Judaism. Although Goldhagen castigates Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope’s closest adviser, for having recently reasserted the old patristic doctrine that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” this does not mean, as Goldhagen imagines, that Catholics believe, or are required to believe, that Jews are destined for hell. It is an expression of the Church’s claim to absolute truth—a claim that Judaism also makes, and a claim that on neither side excludes mutual respect and even reverence.
It is true that the Church is catholic—i.e., universal—and that, unlike Judaism, it sees itself as “the sacrament of the unity of the human race,” with a mission to gather together humanity. But this mission is eschatological, destined to be fulfilled only at the end of time, when the Church transcends history. From a temporal perspective, the distinction between Gentiles and Jews, between church and synagogue, must remain a mystery, whose full significance will emerge only with the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Anti-Semitism, which scars the history of Christianity like the proverbial mark of Cain, gives the drama of redemption a tragic dimension. Primeval fratricide is implicit in the pope’s recognition of the Jews as “elder brothers.” By the same token, Jewish-Christian brotherhood is as essential to the credibility of the Church as it is in our age to the survival of the Jews. One wonders whether this cause would be furthered by a Church that was—as Goldhagen and so many dissenters demand—all things to all people, and had nothing to say to anybody in particular.
The demise of John Paul II has been predicted so often, sometimes with barely concealed glee, that one is tempted to ascribe his longevity in part to the determination of a stubborn Pole to prove his detractors wrong yet again. Even so, Catholics are preparing themselves for what will be, for most of them, more akin to a personal bereavement than the death of a public figure. To lose the incomparably greatest pope of the modern age would be a severe test at any time. To lose him in the midst of a crisis of confidence in the Church will be harder still.
John Paul II may have canonized more saints than any of his predecessors, but, in the eyes of many, his own example counts for more than any of them. If the free world already owes him a debt of gratitude for his indispensable role in the victory over Communism, it will soon owe him another, perhaps posthumously, for his unique achievement in recalling to global consciousness the values of Judeo-Christian civilization. The West is slowly realizing that these values are not universally shared, and that they must be defended rather than negotiated away. The Catholic Church has always been an integral part of that civilization, but it is the pope who has made its presence felt again. As Catholics wonder how they will surmount their present ordeal, they must also be lifting their eyes to the eastern horizon, where the storm clouds of Islam loom.
It is a paradox of our time that, just as the ideologies of atheism are losing their stranglehold on humanity and religion is reasserting its claim to be the decisive factor in our destiny, the legacy of secularization has left most people helpless to understand what is happening or why. An observant Jew or a practicing Christian in North America or Western Europe at the dawn of the 21st century is a one-man rebellion against the most dominant, the most ubiquitous, and the most profane culture the world has ever known. To live according to the Law of Moses, or to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is to court hostility, ostracism, or ridicule in those places, preeminently the universities but also in every other advanced institution—including many churches and synagogues—where cultural standards are promulgated and transmitted.
This has particular relevance to the confrontation between Islamism and the West. Our cultural arbiters do not like to view that confrontation in terms of political theology, as a working out through history of rival revelations and incompatible prophecies. Nor do they take seriously the radical distinction made by Muslims between the nation of Islam and the world of infidels, preferring instead a simple contrast between modernity and fundamentalism—a contrast that incidentally allows such phenomena as Orthodox Judaism and the Catholic Church to be relegated to the category of the retrograde and the benighted.
In the meantime, the thriving market for the supernatural, the miraculous, and the occult testify to widespread and unsatisfied spiritual desires, while other manifestations of faith, from good works to acts of worship, go unremarked. It is easy not to notice “denominations” that know their place and are not importunate—and most churches or faiths are indeed content to be ignored so long as they are not actively impeded.
The Catholic Church, however, is not one of those churches. It cannot be ignored; nor is its mission to covet a seat on the sidelines of the public square. It stands, in a resonant pontifical phrase, as a massive “sign of contradiction,” challenging the assumptions of its environment not merely by what it does but by what it is—and, until fairly recently, there has been little reason to doubt what the Church is. In the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, there can have been few more recognizable brand-names.
I speak here, of course, as a Catholic. But for that very reason it may be fitting to give the last words to a distinguished American Jewish author, nonobservant himself but sympathetic to modern religious orthodoxy, and long alert to the potential threat from what he once called “an upsurge of anti-biblical barbarism that will challenge Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization altogether.” In 1979, addressing the situation of Catholicism on the eve of John Paul II’s ascension to the papacy, Irving Kristol wrote:
If I may speak bluntly about the Catholic Church, for which I have enormous respect, it is traumatic for someone who wishes that Church well to see it modernize itself at this moment. . . . The Church turned the wrong way [in the 1960’s]. It went to modernity at the very moment when modernity was being challenged, when the secular gnostic impulse was already in the process of dissolution. Young people, especially, are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones. They should not have to invent new ones; the old religions are pretty good.
No one who has not blinded himself to the movement of history and politics in our era can fail to acknowledge the urgent truth behind these words.
1 Basic, 208 pp., $22.00.
2 Houghton-Mifflin, 390 pp., $26.00.
3 For recent treatments in COMMENTARY, see “What the Vatican Knew About the Holocaust, and When” by Kevin Madigan (October 2001) and “The Pope, the Church, and the Jews” by Robert S. Wistrich (April 1999).
4 Knopf, 362 pp., $25.00.