Vatican’s Vile Rhetoric

The Roman Catholic Church faces a credibility crisis of historic proportions. Tens of millions of Catholics in the United States, Ireland and even Pope Benedict XVI’s home country of Germany are completely frustrated with the church’s response to the appalling behavior of priests who abused children and the bishops who covered up the crimes.

Criticism has been loud, pointed and utterly deserved. But apparently some in the Vatican simply don’t get it. The pope’s personal preacher, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, compared criticism of the church to anti-Semitism during a high-profile homily in Rome just before Easter. The pope was in the congregation when the reverend made his vile comparison.

Anti-Semitism was responsible for the slaughter of six million Jews during World War II and the abuse and murder of millions more through the ages. Casual anti-Semitism is part of everyday conversation in far too many places in the world, and it continues to inspire crimes against Jews in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

The Vatican is not unaware of the cost of anti-Semitism. The current pope’s predecessor, John Paul II, publicly and repeatedly apologized for centuries of prejudice directed at Jews—some of that prejudice fanned by Catholic clergy. (The famed radio priest of the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, delivered anti-Semitic diatribes that would not have been out of place in Hitler’s Germany.) Anti-Semitism, John Paul preached, is a sin that far too many Christians (and others) have indulged in for far too long.

John Paul’s words and actions helped heal some ancient wounds between Jews and Catholics. Many honorable Catholics have heeded the late pope’s words. But apparently some in the Vatican haven’t been paying attention. To suggest that criticism of the Catholic Church, which has admitted to covering up the crimes of pedophiles, somehow is akin to anti-Semitism, a hatred that has killed millions, is nothing short of outrageous.

Fortunately, calmer voices have stepped in to heal wounded feelings. Abraham Foxman of the Ani-Defamation League wisely chose not to reply in kind, saying, with great dignity, that he considered Father Cantalamessa’s comments a blip on the radar screen, that Jews and Catholics will continue to build on interfaith conversations that have been taking place for decades.

One can only hope. But if the reverend’s remarks suggest that the Vatican is clueless about the crimes of anti-Semites, the conversation between Jews and Catholics can’t help but be strained.

Here in New York, it’s hard to imagine a Catholic prelate trivializing anti-Semitism, thanks in great measure to the work of Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who died almost exactly a decade ago. Cardinal O’Connor reached out to New York’s Jewish community as no Catholic clergyman had before, and the legacy of that relationship continues to enrich the Catholic-Jewish encounter in this city. Perhaps Pope Benedict should send Father Cantalamessa on an all-expenses-paid trip to Manhattan, where he could visit the Holocaust museum downtown. He’ll surely come away with a new understanding of anti-Semitism, and how different it is from mere (and justified) criticism.