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Both Brandeis and the Vatican are making bad decisions

Published: February 6, 2009
Section: Opinions


Can I just say how much I adore the Catholic community at Brandeis? There are so few people, but they are all friendly and amazing, giving the whole idea of Catholicism at Brandeis a sort of “early Christians in Rome” feel, without the persecution. I also love mass more than any other activity Brandeis has ever offered. So last week was pretty terrible: I felt rather emotionally frazzled, and everyone around me was merely contributing to my poor mood. Church on Sunday, always the ultimate highlight of even the best of weeks, should have provided a brief respite from my worldly concerns, right? Unfortunately, no.

Things started out well enough: some singing, some praying, some Nicene Creed. But then the liturgy had to go and harsh my buzz. Although Father Cuenin gave his sermon with his usual mix of eloquence and familiarity, the subject matter was far too troubling to ignore. In a blow for fans of Jewish-Christian dialogue everywhere, our pope has made a close-minded, rash decision that will have serious repercussions. Before we get into the details, I just want to express my admiration for Father Cuenin, for saying that although the pope is the Lord’s direct representative on Earth, one must question when he makes questionable and disrespectful decisions.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI reinstated four previously excommunicated right-wing bishops. This act on the surface may seem like an exercise in tolerance, but it is far more dangerous than that. These bishops were excommunicated because they were ordained by an archbishop who did not agree with the wonderful, sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and who did not seek Vatican approval for his appointments. As far as excommunication goes, claiming to be a bishop when the pope has no say in the matter seems like a pretty good reason for it to happen. You cannot have a powerful secret society that directly disagrees with the mandates of the Vatican, like Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve did with the Society of Saint Pius X, and not expect some sort of serious repercussions. Vatican II is one of the main reasons that the Church is still relevant today, and to speak against it displays a great degree of ignorance about the Church’s place in the modern world. Who knows the state of affairs we would be in as a worldwide community if such a powerful governing body could not accept the possibility of anything but utter damnation for all those of other faiths, not to mention that whole vernacular mass thing.

I support people with the constitution to follow the rules and regulations of old school Catholicism. I can certainly understand the point of view that abortions and premarital sex are wrong, although I personally do not share such beliefs. I am a little less open to the arguments against evolution and Harry Potter-inspired Satanism, but these are still opinions that could possibly be valid (you never know, right?). I cannot accept when people blatantly disregard fact, especially in such a hurt and dangerous manner. One of the reinstated bishops, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier. In an interview available at news.bbc.co.uk he claims that there is no historical evidence that any Jews ever died in gas chambers, and that he and leading scholars believe that at most 300,000 Jews died in all of Nazi Germany. This disgusting display is not merely some pet belief about not eating kosher food that many older Catholics I know share. Holocaust denial drastically harms international relations, and this man’s words work to ruin the credibility of the Church, which is already suffering due to the fact that Pope Benedict was in the Hitler Youth.

Another of those appointed, Father Gerhard Maria Wagner, believes that Hurricane Katrina is the Lord’s punishment for the immorality of New Orleans. While this belief is sad and disturbing, it does not touch the levels of Williamson’s folly. Saying a high ranking member of the Catholic Church is homophobic is a little like saying that they are male. Since Jesus handed St. Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (it’s a pun, based on the name Peter coming from the word for rock), people have expected the Church to be against gay rights; the Church has never wavered on its position and probably will not any time in the future. It is also not surprising that a conservative steeped in biblical lore would blame a natural disaster on immorality. And Katrina apparently destroyed a number of abortion clinics. Not just the Church, but radical Christians of all denominations would see that as divine intervention. Sadly, the Church was getting more liberal about Christian-Jewish relations, with Pope John Paul II working tirelessly to establish a viable and productive dialogue. There is already a huge backlash in the Jewish community, as there should be.

This decision of reinstatement is an attempt to reconcile a schism within the Church, which is seeking to fix internal problems before it faces the growing problems of the world around it. Personally, I think it is a mistake. If you want to reconcile with a group of Catholics, why not look to the left and not the right? A belief in using condoms and maybe killing a few unwanted babies (to use their terms) is far less aggressively dangerous than a rejection of the Holocaust and the importance and struggles of the Jewish people as a whole. How about a gay priest or a lady priest? The same amount of controversy would be stirred, but all of Israel would not be rightfully furious. This decision also irks me because it seems ideologically related to another controversy that happened a little closer to home last week. What other decision was made rashly as an attempt to salvage a suffering institution, without forethought and consideration of its effects on the public’s perception and the backlash from the Jewish community?

Oh yes, the closing of the Rose Art Museum. Internal stability and viability are reasonable goals, which is clearly what the Brandeis Board of Trustees and the Pope and his bishops and cardinals were thinking. Yet such decisions cannot be made without input from all those affected, who may see drastic problems that were overlooked in the name of reuniting the Church or balancing the budget. So these are clearly strange times we live in when Brandeis and the Vatican make comparably bad decisions.