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Jewish Journal

A Fallible Pope, an Imperfect Church

by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

April 12, 2010 | 12:17 am

The only institution worse at PR than Israel is the Catholic Church. Never in my life have I seen such a formidable world power handle a crisis more catastrophically than how the Vatican is handling the current scandal of pedophile priests. And the sad thing is that the weakening of the Church in general, and this pope in particular, is bad all round. The Church does incalculable good throughout the world with innumerable orphanages, schools, and hospitals. And for Jewish-Catholic relations Benedict has been a godsend (pardon the pun).

For most of its two thousand years the Catholic Church has been anti-Semitic, responsible for horrific atrocities against Jews and others who branded heretics. But in the latter half of the twentieth century the Church repented of its past due to the courage and spiritual integrity of three special men: John XXIII, the greatest of all modern Popes, John Paul II, a leader of extraordinary humanity and humility, and Joseph Ratzinger, the cerebral Cardinal largely responsible for the theological underpinnings that served as John Paul’s foundation in reaching out to the Jews. In the five short years of his pontificate Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has visited Synagogues in Germany, New York, and Rome, not to mention his much-heralded visit to Israel last year.

Which begs the question why the Church would itself undermine this impressive record first with Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, comparing the attacks on Benedict to that of Pius XII. Pius was the highly impious, amoral pontiff, who signed a Concordat with Hitler in 1933 and never once directly condemned Nazi anti-Semitism or the holocaust. In October, 1943, he watched literally as the Jews of Rome were rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz and did not publicly protest.

But rather than unnecessarily alienating the Jews by comparing the attacks on the Church over pedophilia to anti-Semitism, as the Pope’s personal preacher Raniero Cantalamessa did in the Pope’s presence, it would be wise for the Church to learn the following from their Jewish friends: don’t be afraid to be fallible and human.

The principle difference between the Catholicism and Judaism is the former’s emphasis on the perfection of Jesus and the infallibility of the Pope versus the latter’s insistence that no human is divine and no Biblical figure is perfect. While people are not prepared to forgive the infractions of the perfect, they are extremely understanding of the failings of humans when they apologize sincerely for their failures and take full responsibility for their actions.

Later this month I am scheduled to meet the Pope through Gary Krupp, with whom I have sparred over Pius’s legacy but who has since become a friend. I wish I could impress upon the well-intentioned leader of the Catholic Church the need to come clean with the public. Face the people and tell them how you never wished for any children to be harmed and it breaks your heart to see how your inaction and obstruction may have led to more kids being violated. But you made the colossal error of moving slowly and cautiously because you feared what public exposure and the defrocking of criminal Priests would do to the reputation of the Church. You erred hugely in putting the needs of an institution ahead of the safety of the individuals that institution is meant to protect. Explain how you further erred by accepting the prevailing psychiatric opinion of the time that pedophiles could be reformed through counseling and you thought that after extreme therapy these Priests were cured. Admit you screwed up and ask forgiveness for your failures. Human beings forgive the flaws of other human beings. But they don’t forgive gods. Pledge the remainder of your days to helping heal the victims, making reasonable restitution, and declare unequivocally that henceforth the Church will hand over all priests guilty of molestation to the authorities for prosecution.

As the author of Kosher Sex, a pivot in the intersection between faith and sexuality, I would counsel the Church to announce a conclave examining the effects, if any, of clerical vows of celibacy on pedophilia in the clergy. Some would argue there is no connection. But few would deny that an announcement of this magnitude by the Pope would demonstrate the seriousness with which he is addressing the issue and his preparedness to take unprecedented action to heal the Church.

But the Pope is not the only one who needs to apologize. Many in the media have gone beyond all reason in their attacks. Maureen Dowd, who is Catholic, offered the unbelievable comparison of the Church’s refusal to ordain women or place them in positions of leadership with Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses of women. Are you kidding? The Saudis, in 2002, allowed 15 High School girls to burn to death rather than run out of their smoldering school without a head covering. Amnesty International accuses the Saudis of subjecting women to “arbitrary arrest…  torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the use of the death penalty” for religious infractions, like meeting with men in public. Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special representative on violence against women, visited Saudi Arabia and reported ‘the domestic abuse [women] systematically encounter with little prospect of redress.’ She added that the Muttawa, the Saudi religious police, are “responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.” And then there are the continued reports of female genital mutilation that is practiced in northern Saudi Arabia.

And I thought it’s only we Jews who can be so self-hating.

The Western world suffers from an epidemic of materialism, divorce, broken families, and celebrity obsession, the most effective antidote for which is more spirituality and a stronger religious presence. The Catholic Church might be terrible at crisis management and the pope may not be perfect. But what might emerge from this dark episode is a more transparent, more accessible, and more sensitive Church which, in its humanity, might just begin to connect with the eighty percent of lapsed Catholics who pay only lip-service to the Church throughout the Western world. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough.’ Folllow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” whom The Jerusalem Post lists as one of the...

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