Delegitimizing Catholicism is no better than delegitimizing Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-11-10

That Israel’s rise has unleashed new waves of hatred against Jews, with Israel as the prime target, is one of Zionism’s greatest disappointments. Our enemies’ injustice and the world’s hypocrisy can be overwhelming. Yet we cannot become addicted to our indignation. Even as the media hypes controversies, we should not take offense at every slight. For that reason, unlike, apparently, most Jews, the sermon by the “Preacher of the Pontifical Household,” Father Raniero Cantalamessa, comparing the attacks on the Catholic Church amid the sexual scandal with the “collective violence” against Jews, made me sad, not angry.

Let me be clear. Priestly sexual abuse is evil. As a professor, a parent and a human being, I am disgusted by the breach of trust, the violence, the perversion and the despicable cover-up. As someone who always keeps my doors open during office hours, and will not even clasp a distressed student’s shoulder to avoid any mixed messaging, I cannot fathom how a preacher or a teacher would abuse the trust invested in us by individuals, their families and society. I am also appalled by the old-boys’ network that enabled these crimes to occur again and again and again.

As both a McGill professor and a Jewish community activist I cannot imagine covering up for any colleague who would sin, let alone so outrageously. I believe in shunning people who behave badly, and have shunned people for much milder offenses. I feel diminished by the priests’ actions and their superiors’ inaction. As a traditionalist I also feel compromised by their crimes, watching the delight too many modern secularists take in seeing the Church supposedly exposed as corrupt.

But all this media and mainstream schadenfreude, the pleasure too many take in the Church’s agony, gives me pause. For starters, I confess to being bemused that the Pope’s preacher so internalized the evil of anti-Semitism he invokes it as the ultimate symbol of persecution. We have come a long way from the Auto de fé – burning Jews at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. We should thank the late Pope John Paul II and many others for freeing Catholicism from the historical grip of anti-Semitism, so that the Pope’s preacher rails against Jew-hatred instead of practicing it.

Beyond that, I think of my Catholic friends, and especially about my college roommate, Justin Whittington, who became a Jesuit priest. That despite his life of self-sacrifice and piety he is viewed suspiciously hurts me, as it must him. Jews should take this opportunity to reach out to our Catholic friends, individually and communally, hear their pain, share their concerns, help them sort out justifiable anger at some leaders’ betrayal from repudiating their entire belief system and network of good works.

I do not believe the evil of priestly child abuse is inherent in Catholicism. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI and the rest of the Church hierarchy must lead more boldly yet humbly in defeating this scourge. Nevertheless, the Church passes my Tikun Test. “Tikun” means fixing, but implies a redemptive repair. When an institution or a state fails – which, as a collection of imperfect human beings it inevitably will – we must also judge it by its stated ideals and its ability to reform, not only by its mistakes, or even its crimes. These priests and their enablers are deviants, violently violating core Church values.

Similarly, democratic countries, from the United States to the United Kingdom, from India to, yes, Israel, frequently pass this Tikun Test by preserving defining liberal ideals and demonstrating both institutionally and popularly the tools for Tikun – embarrassment, indignation, flexibility, adaptability, meaning the ability to reform and progress. I would rather have a hypocrite, who at least has worthy ideals to fail to live up to, than a nihilist. One of the great failures of Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism is the violence, the rejection of humane ideals, coursing through too many foundational documents and honored acts. Hamas cannot reform when its covenant is anti-Semitic and demands Israel’s destruction. The Palestinian Authority cannot reform as long as it names streets after terrorists – which even Barack Obama’s State Department has denounced, although most media outlets ignored the condemnation.

And as we discuss this, person to person, and institution to institution, Catholics and Jews should bond over our shared commitment to tradition and the shared pain of delegitimization. While the offenses are not comparable, Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s unfortunate analogy was reacting to the way some critics jump from attacking the Church’s sins in these deplorable cases to repudiating Catholicism itself. Similarly, many Israel supporters are reeling from watching so many people jump from debating Israeli policies to repudiating Israel, Zionism and the rationale for a Jewish state. Democracies – and vibrant modern religions – thrive on discussion, debate and dissent. To criticize, and especially to be embarrassed, reflects a sense of belonging in a community. In his monumental work Justice the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes: “Pride and shame are sentiments that presuppose a shared identity.”

Unfortunately, in the modern politically correct world, certain institutions, religions and states are more targeted for delegitimization than others. Jewish nationalism is targeted, Palestinian nationalism is not. Catholic sins are frequently seen to reflect mainstream Catholicism, while Islamist violence is deemed a rare deviation from Islam, “the religion of peace.” Similarly, conservative criticism of liberal critics gets labeled McCarthyism; liberal criticism of conservatives is merely free speech. The calculus of delegitimization reflects a moral hierarchy rooted in New Left sensibilities, refined in universities, spread by much of the media.

Zionism should be politically correct. The attempt to make democratic, egaliatarian and Jewish values bloom in the Middle East’s rocky soil should excite liberals, academics, sophisticates the world over, just as Israel’s illiberal, authoritarian enemies who have repeatedly rejected peace should appall them. In sharing our Catholic friends’ pain we should not allow the delegitimizers to conflate Zionism and Catholicism or the Church and Israel. But having been on the receiving end of so much hypocrisy and hatred we should see through the distortions to help heal our fellow monotheists – and their embattled institutions.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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