Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Benedict Meets with Ugandan Bishops: Total Silence about Kill-the-Gays Legislation

What I earlier today wrote speaks to the foundations of faith for the community to which I belong—or, at least, this is how I understand those foundations.  But then there’s the everyday reality of that faith as it’s expressed here and now, the frightening everyday reality of what Catholicism is coming to mean to many people around the world today.

And it would be dishonest—I would be shirking my responsibility as a believer to re-member and put the pieces together, fraught and sharp as they might be—if I spoke of those beautiful foundations of faith in complete isolation from how my faith is now expressing itself in the world, through the actions of many leaders and members of my faith community.

Actions that, for me and many other believers, now pose a well-nigh insurmountable obstacle to believing in the foundations themselves . . . .

There’s not only the exceptionally mean-spirited decision of the triumphalistic JPII archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, to put a pre-school boy out of a Catholic school because his parents are a lesbian couple.  That act is, as it should be, now being roundly condemned by many Catholics who find it a betrayal of everything they cherish when they remember Jesus and his life and legacy.

Even more difficult for me, however, is the report that the pope met last Friday with the bishops of Uganda, and said not one word—not a word—about the kill-the-gays bill now under consideration by the Ugandan legislature.

Not a word.  Total silence.

Oh, Benedict wasn’t completely silent.  He did remind the Ugandan bishops that they should protect the sacred right to life and the sacrament of marriage.  As David Gibson’s report of Benedict’s meeting with the Ugandan bishops notes (it’s this report on which I’m relying), these statements are in line with a longstanding papal tradition of touching “typically” on hot-button political and social issues confronting a nation, when the pope meets with that nation’s bishops each five years.

Issues like, say, deliberations by that country’s national legislature about enacting the death penalty for a whole group of people, simply because of who they are . . . .

When I read David Gibson’s report and think about Benedict’s silence re: the Ugandan kill-the-gays bill, how can I not be struck by the parallels, as I see—on the same day—Rabbi Shumley Boteach’s Huffington Post reflection on the legacy of Pius XII.  Whom Benedict is pushing to canonize.

Here’s Rabbi Boteach’s summary of Pius’s legacy:

Pius was, of course, the man who, as Cardinal Secretary of State, became the first statesman, in 1933, to sign an agreement with the man he called “the illustrious Hitler,” sending him a letter expressing his confidence in his leadership. His concordat with Hitler forced the Catholic Centre Party into dissolution, not only removing the last obstacle to Hitler's goal of absolute power in Germany but also destroying any further resistance by Germany's Catholic bishops to the Nazis.

He was the Pope who famously refused, amid unmistakable evidence of thousands of Jews being shipped to slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, to ever speak out against the holocaust. This followed Pius' successful efforts to prevent the publication of an encyclical commissioned by his dying predecessor to condemn Nazi Antisemitism. This is also the Pope who sent Hitler birthday greetings every single year and who refused to excommunicate Hitler or any other top Nazis who were on official Catholic rolls (to give this context, the singer Sinead O'Connor was excommunicated).

He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to denounce the Nazis. He later refused to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning mass murder of Europe's Jews, claiming that he simply could not condemn “particular” atrocities. The most he ever did was a single pronouncement during the war on the murder “of hundreds of thousands.” By then, of course, there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement.

Most infamously, he was silent when the Germans rounded up Rome's Jews in October 1944 for slaughter. They were being processed for extermination in a military school a few hundred yards from his window in St. Peter's. An Italian princess, Enza Pignatelli, forced her way into the Pope's study and warned him about the imminent assault on the city's Jewish citizens. “You must act immediately,” she cried. “The Germans are arresting the Jews and taking them away. Only you can stop them.” The Pope assured her, “I will do all I can.”  He made no protest and nearly all were later gassed in Auschwitz.

Curiously, amid the Pope's inability to find his voice to condemn the extermination of European Jewry, when the Catholic archbishop of Berlin issued a statement mourning Hitler's death, the Pope did not reprimand him.

“I will do all I can,” Pius said.  And then he made no protest and nearly all the Jewish citizens rounded up within view of his windows were gassed in Auschwitz.

Okay, so let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Rabbi Boteach is presenting a highly colored, heavily biased account of Pius’s actions—one we’d expect from a Jewish leader, from one of those many enemies of the church intent on undermining it.

If even one fragment of what Rabbi Boteach says in the preceding summary of Pius’s legacy is correct, why is Benedict now seeking to canonize this man?  And more to the point, how do we go on supporting and promoting and involving ourselves in a faith community whose chief pastor is capable of such behavior?  And whose current chief pastor apparently regards the man as the standard-bearer of holiness?

And the questions simply become more complex, as we now read that Benedict’s brother Georg Ratzinger slapped pupils in the face when he led the Regensburger cathedral choir in the 1960s, and ignored allegations of physical abuse at an elementary school connected to the choir.  Fr. Ratzinger states,

“At the beginning I also repeatedly administered a slap in the face, but always had a bad conscience about it,” Ratzinger said, adding that he was happy when corporal punishment was made illegal in 1980.

Ratzinger said a slap in the face was the easiest reaction to a failure to perform or a poor performance.  How hard it was varied greatly, depending on who administered it.

As Jonathan Luxmoore notes, however, a former pupil of the Regensburger school, Frank Wittenbrink, says that “[t]here was a contrived system of sadistic punishments, connected with sexual desire.” Wittenbrink finds it impossible to imagine that the school’s staff would have been unaware of these punishments—or of routine sessions in which the school’s leader plied schoolboys with wine and then engaged in masturbation sessions with them.

Slapping seems to run in the Ratzinger family.  And if the testimony of a woman whose husband was a member of the Regensburger cathedral choir is to be believed, Fr. Georg Ratzinger is not remembering things correctly, when he now says that he was relieved when corporal punishment was outlawed in German schools.  Frey Ranner’s husband, who was in the choir in the years when Fr. Ratzinger led it, recalls the opposite—his repeated statements that he bemoaned the abolition of corporal punishment.

A tempest in a teapot?  Perhaps.  Vilification being worked up by enemies of the church, which include Jews, liberals, agnostics, gays and lesbians, women, the secular press, individualists, pro-choicers, Democrats, socialists, rebellious Catholics intent on forcing change, Protestants (except for Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Anglicans fleeing ordained women and gays): you name it.  The enemies of the church are legion, in the view of some of its clerical leaders and their apologists.

Perhaps.  Perhaps all these ugly stories are suddenly being worked up by all of these enemies acting in rare collusion.

But perhaps something else is happening in this dark moment in the history of the church.  Perhaps this is a time—an occasion of grace, in fact—for Catholics to stop and think.  About what we’ve become accustomed to.  About what we’ve become used to doing, in the name of Christ.  About what we’ve learned to tolerate and call holy, when someone tells us that our enemies are out to do us in.

About what our church is coming to stand for in the eyes of humane and ethical people.

And about what Jesus stands for in the gospels, by contrast.

Perhaps, in fact, there’s a line of continuity between slapping children in the face and sexually abusing them, and refusing to see Jewish citizens outside our window being carted off to gas chambers.

And refusing to say a word about impending legislation that would put gays to death today.

Even as we demand the canonization of the pope who turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the Holocaust in the middle of the twentieth century.