|Last week I wrote about a theory
quietly making the rounds in Rome that one cause of media criticism of
the Catholic Church in the United States resulting from the sexual abuse
crisis is the influence of Jews in the press. I had anticipated, given
the explosive nature of the subject, that I would get lots of mail.
The mail did materialize.
Very little of it, however, actually dealt with the Jewish angle. Instead,
most people wrote to upbraid me for saying in an aside that media focus
on the scandal may indeed have been exaggerated. I had put this in the
context of other stories worthy of attention such as world hunger and AIDS.
The subject line of one
e-mail put the point in especially piquant form: “A chump writes for the
Catholic Reporter!” (When I saw it I could not suppress the quip, voiced
to no one in particular, “Only one?”)
Given the volume of responses,
and the strong feelings they reflect, I decided to present a sampling this
week. Whatever judgment one makes, I believe it is important to know what’s
on people’s minds.
“I can’t help but
see that word ‘denial’ rearing its blatant head again. We’re talking about
a church founded by Jesus and we’re talking about sexual abuse of children
by its clergy. In this instance there is no such thing as ‘overkill.’ Who
are we kidding!”
“Regarding the sexual
abuse of children versus the people dying from hunger, AIDS, etc., in those
calamities there is no concerted action to cover-up … The large difference
is of moral quality for an institution who claims to be in the mission
of saving people and the defenseless. The hypocrisy and duplicity is what
makes the people mostly angry.”
“You and the Europeans
and the bishops in Rome may think this news story is blown out of proportion
to the more ‘important’ problems of the world. A rather hypocritical view
from a group of men who think the most important event in world history
was the death of one uneducated man, who lived 2,000 years ago. God does
not ask us to determine which act of evil is worse, or whose suffering
is more important. He asks us to try and stop all evil, and ease all suffering.
Where we find it, when we find it. The bishops in Rome cannot end the AIDS
epidemic; they can end this scandal.”
“It IS a major story
if the institution that claims for itself the position of being the only
true representative of Christ on Earth is found to be a hotbed of homosexuality
and of the sexual abuse of boys by its priests. Starvation, AIDS, and the
war on terror are perennial — they will be with us for some time, and they
are problems that fall under Jesus’s remark ‘the poor will be with you
always.’ They don’t really have a solution, at least not now. They do deserve
a lot of attention, and they do get it. But if Christ’s alleged representative
is found to be likely to harm many of those under its umbrell— and harm
them in the most intimate and soul-destroying way — there’s no story more
important than that.”
“It is a big deal
to us (U.S. Catholics), and it should be to them (the Vatican). And it
just alienates most of us, when we hear these loose-cannon cardinals …
make these unfounded statements from their Ivory Tower. I think that our
perspective is what matters in this case.”
“Your view has been
‘Romanized’ by the crew that wants to minimize the issue or, as the church
is so capable of doing, undermine addressing the issue since it’s a reflection
of poor leadership. … I think you should be careful not to be a little
taken with what you hear from those who have centuries of Machiavellian
experience in subtly influencing the powers they most detest, such as a
* * *
A few days ago
I was asked by National Public Radio to explain what the Vatican thinks
of the book The Popes Against the Jews (Knopf), by historian David
Kertzer. To prepare myself I made an appointment July 19 to see Jesuit
Fr. Peter Gumpel, the man responsible for the sainthood cause of Pius XII
and the Vatican’s point person on controversies concerning the Second World
In the end, NPR’s
program on Kertzer went in other directions and they did not need Vatican
insight. Nevertheless, I thought readers might find a brief summary of
what Gumpel had to say interesting.
from active Vatican service in 1993, but is still the relator for Pius
XII and a few other causes. He is a German whose family fled to Holland
during World War II to escape the Nazis.
The heart of Kertzer’s
argument is that European anti-Semitism, and hence the Holocaust, was fueled
by Roman Catholic anti-Judaism. Hence, Kertzer believes, the 1998 Vatican
statement We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah took the Catholic
church off the hook too lightly in suggesting that the roots of the Holocaust
were more “sociological and political than religious.”
extensively from L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper,
and Civilità Cattolica, a Jesuit journal reviewed by the
Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication. He notes that both
publications in the 19th and 20th centuries voiced
anti-Jewish sentiments, such as this broadside from L’Osservatore on
the Dreyfus affair in France: “We find the betrayal of one’s country has
been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed.”
“reported” on the ritual murder of a boy in Hungary whose blood had been
allegedly drained by Jews. Such ideas, Kertzer believes, sanctioned by
church authorities, primed the pump for Nazi atrocities.
Gumpel does not
deny the citations, nor does he defend them. He insists, however, they
must be seen in context. When the Papal States fell in 1870, he notes,
the new Republican regime in Italy was often anti-clerical, and some of
its leading figures were Jewish. This led to an overheated climate of antagonism,
Gumpel said, in which Catholic controversialists in L’Osservatore and
Civilità Cattolica spoke in overly broad terms about “the Jews”
and made unfounded accusations.
“We have apologized
for this, as we should,” Gumpel said.
He then added something
he has said many times before, always generating new controversy.
“It is also true that
from the Jewish side, hurtful things have been said and done to Christians.
I personally believe it would be helpful if the Jewish community would
Among other things, Gumpel
said he believes Jews should apologize for, and disown, passages from the
Talmud that suggest Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman legionary, charges
which are periodically recycled in anti-Christian tracts.
rejected Kerzter’s thesis that Catholic attitudes towards Judaism were
at the root of the Holocaust, arguing that far more important factors included:
• The deportation of Russian Jews into Poland,
and the subsequent resentment and competition this caused in the various
countries in which these Jews eventually settled;
• The Jewish presence both in Lenin’s first government
in Soviet Russia, and among Soviet-style revolutionaries in Eastern and
Central Europe, which caused some to identify the Jews with Communism;
• The post-1929 global economic panic, which caused
many newly impoverished Europeans to resent Jewish socioeconomic success.
In fact, Gumpel
argues, the Nazis saw the Catholic Church as a mortal foe, in part because
of the church’s efforts to defend Jews. To take one instance from the documentation
Gumpel offered, there is a plaque set up by Roman Jews in the Museo
della Resistenza thanking the pope “for the proof of human brotherhood
given by the church during the years of persecution.”
(I’ve been to
this museum on Rome’s Via Tasso. It’s a former Gestapo interrogation center
where the jail cells appear as the Germans left them. One can still see
the heartbreaking messages prisoners carved into the walls in their last
moments before execution. Confirming the point about aid to Jews, one wall
of the museum has a large display listing all the religious houses and
other Catholic facilities in Rome that sheltered Jews during the war. It
is a long, and impressive, list).
As a July 20 piece in
the London Spectator observes, Gumpel is an erudite man whose exquisite
manners belie his image as the Darth Vader of Catholic attitudes towards
Jews. He says he regrets the “asperity” of much of the debate over Pius
XII, and one believes him.
Yet Gumpel is also not
one to shy away from statements that seem destined to re-open wounds.
One example from
our interview: “I am all in favor of yearly memorials of the Shoah.
But there are other things to be considered as well, others who suffered,
50 million people died in the war. Poles were killed, gypsies were killed,
homosexuals were killed, 3,000 Catholic priests were killed. We should
not single out a particular group.”
Gumpel added that he
is confident Pius XII will eventually be declared a saint, but he has no
new information as to when.
* * *
My next book for
Doubleday will be on the Roman Curia, under the title All the Pope’s
Men. To begin the research for it I recently set up an appointment
with Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the prefect of the Vatican library,
who has served in the papal bureaucracy in one way or another for 25 years.
Mejia’s sense of humor
is legendary. When I told him that I want to explain the curia to the non-expert,
he scoffed: “That’s like trying to explain leukemia to the non-expert!”
I asked Mejia to tick
off a few of the qualities that allow someone to succeed in the Roman Curia.
He listed efficiency, work ethic, a clear view of reality, and the courage
of one’s convictions (to say more than “yes” to a superior when problems
have to be analyzed).
I observed that he hadn’t
“Of course a man must
be spiritual,” Mejia said. “But not so much so that you don’t know where
you are in this world.”
Who does he think
in recent Vatican history best exemplified these qualities?
Mejia talked about Rafael
Merry del Val, the legendary secretary of state of Pius X, a Spaniard whose
niece was a friend of Mejia’s mother in Argentina. Even more emphatically,
Mejia pointed to Giovanni Bennelli, who had been Paul VI’s right-hand man
before becoming the cardinal of Florence and a serious contender to be
pope himself in 1978.
“He was terribly diligent,”
Mejia recalled. “He had three or four secretaries just to keep up. His
office light often stayed on until 2:00 am, and at least one of those secretaries
had to be with him. Today, nobody stays until 2:00 am.”
What about negatives
in the curia?
“Corruption is a terrible
malady, and we have to be very careful that it doesn’t exist,” Mejia said.
By “corruption,” Mejia didn’t mean taking bribes, but allowing one’s judgment
to be swayed be the desire for promotion, or adopting a solution not for
the general good but for the good of one’s friends and allies.
Curial officials should
also live simply, he said. “We all have to be thrifty. We don’t have much
Mejia said he
believes there is less careerism in the curia today than 20 years ago,
a change he attributes to John Paul II. “This kind of thinking is so alien
to him, and he creates a certain climate,” he said.
I asked Mejia about the
curia’s reputation for secrecy.
“If I tried to look at
it from the outside, I suppose I would see a certain confidentiality,”
Mejia said. “But since I’ve been here, things have changed. It’s much more
open, and I wouldn’t say that’s always desirable. You can’t just say everything
to everybody. An institution also has a right to privacy.”
I asked what he had in
“Navarro says a lot,
doesn’t he?” Mejia said, referring to Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the
head of the Vatican press office.
When I said that some
journalists actually find Navarro a bit elusive, Mejia simply rolled his
We had to cut the interview
short because the outgoing ambassador of Argentina and his wife were arriving
for a farewell lunch. As I was preparing to leave, Mejia said that perhaps
the next time we could talk about some of the virtues he believes he’s
learned in the Roman Curia.
Could he give me a hint
of what they might be?
“Humility,” he said,
“Patience, certainly patience. And taking pleasure in the promotion of
I’ll pass along the fuller
version when I get it.
* * *
My new book Conclave: The
Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday)
is available at http://www.amazon.com/
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111