Since the public announcement of my upcoming meeting with Pope Benedict this Wednesday at the Vatican, courtesy of my friend Gary Krupp, many of my close Jewish friends have expressed not approval but disappointment. ‘They blamed the pedophile priest scandal on Jews and compared the attacks on the Church to anti-Semitism. How could you, Shmuley?’ ‘The Pope was in the Hitler Youth and he wants to make Pope Pius XII, who never condemned the holocaust, into a saint.’ ‘The Church has always been anti-Semitic. You’re being used.’
Come now. Jewish insularity is the ultimate obstacle to the dissemination of Jewish values, while Jewish contempt for the non-Jewish world because of its past immorality and Jew-hatred is itself immoral and hateful. Pope Benedict is being kicked to the curb in nearly every part of the world. But I as a Jew do not forget that for all his failures in properly handing the abomination of pedophile Priests, for which the Church must atone and repent, Benedict has been a great friend to the Jewish community, visiting an unprecedented three Synagogues in four years as well as the State of Israel. And whom does it benefit to see a mighty Church fall? The millions of orphans the Church tends to worldwide? The schools it runs and the pupils it teaches? The hope its Priests give to the poor, especially in the third world?
I have been one of Pope Pius XII’s foremost critics in the entire world. But Benedict is not Pius and before we holler for his demise let’s recall that as the Cardinal Secretary of State he did more to extend the Church’s hand in friendship to other people’s and faiths than nearly anyone who preceded him.
There is much in Jewish law and tradition that could bring healing to the Church, beginning with the Jewish laws of modesty and sexual seclusion. In Judaism a man and woman who are not married are not allowed to be in a locked room together. When I was Rabbi to Michael Jackson I took this law and applied it his special circumstances. I told him that the only way he could rehabilitate his reputation, after the pedophile accusations against him, was to quite simply foreswear ever being alone with a child. I even grabbed Michael’s shoulders and made him promise me he would never seclude himself with a child not his own. And for the two years we were close to he stuck to the script. When he and I launched our initiative to help children, the focus was on working with their parents to prioritize their kids, rather than with the kids themselves. It wasn’t until Michael stupidly disregarded this simple advice and decided to share a bed – however platonically – with a young child and then brag about it on international TV that he was arrested and started the inexorable decline that ended in his death a few years later.
The Church should embrace the same straightforward rule. No priest should be allowed to be in alone with a child. Period. If a Priest needs to speak to a child alone, the door must never be locked and there must always be the possibility that they can be intruded upon by outsiders. If they walk in a park, it cannot be one that is empty of people. This way we’ll know that any Priest who breaks the guidelines will be punished whether or not they abuse a child. It would significantly curb the potential for any act of child molestation and might even discourage pedophiles from entering the priesthood in the first place.
But more importantly, it’s time for Jews and Catholics to work together to promote new values in America. While our country is gripped in an epidemic of materialism and an orgy of greed, the only values religion seems to talk about is opposition to gay marriage and abortion. But the emphasis on the negative is not going to create much that is positive. We need values that promotes family, strengthens marriage, inspires selflessness in children, and advances the cause of a purposeful life that makes us less obsessive about money and career.
This is why I wish to discuss with Pope Benedict the Catholic Church getting behind our ‘Turn Friday Night into Family Night’ initiative, the push for a global family dinner night. Imagine if all the world’s families – Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Atheist, Agnostic – sat down every Friday night and embraced our ‘Triple Two.” Parents giving their children two uninterrupted hours every Friday night, inviting two guests to teach the children sharing and hospitality, and discussing two important subjects rather than a movie or celebrity gossip. And Friday night is the one evening that unites all. It’s sacred already to Jews and Muslims. Up until Second Vatican Council it was a night where Catholics were forbidden to eat meat. And for the non-religious it’s the beginning of the weekend and sets the tone the activities that will follow. If the family gets together on Friday night, chances are they’ll do more stuff together on Saturday and Sunday as well.
This is the right time for the Catholic Church to own a global family dinner night. The pedophile priest scandal has reinforced the conclusion of some that the Church is an old boys club that at best makes concessions to the weakness of human nature by allowing men and women to marry. The ideal, however, is celibacy and childlessness. The Church must return to its previous posture as a champion of family and what better way than to mandate that all Catholic families worldwide do as Jesus did. Put the worldly stuff away on Friday nights and consecrate it as an evening of holiness and togetherness.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. His major book on the universal Jewish values that can enrich the lives of every man and woman, Renewal, will be published by Basic Books on May 14th. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.