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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Window Snapped Shut

The one thing you can say about Pope Benedict XVI is that he is an equal opportunity offender. Last year, he managed to inflame relations with Muslims by quoting 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II from a debate he had with an educated Persian Muslim. Pope Benedict quoted the emperor as saying:

'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."'


At that time, Evangelicals and conservative Protestants, along with their traditionalist Catholic allies, cheered the pope.

Perhaps they’d like to rethink some of their alliances now that they know what this conservative pope and those traditionalist Catholics really think of them and their religion.

On July 10, the pope declared that other denominations could not be considered churches but ecclesiastical communities. Protestant denominations responded with statements of protest. But basically all the pope did was restate what Domine Iesus had said in 2000. Pope John Paul II signed that document but it was Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote it. In Domine Iesus, Protestant denominations were called defective.

This latest slap at Protestant churches came a week after Benedict decided that churches could, at the request of individual parishes, reinstitute the old Latin Mass, which has a passage praying for the conversion of the Jews and saying that they fail to understand the Christian truth. This obviously has put a strain on his relationship with the world-wide Jewish community.

Back in 2000, the current pope also managed to simultaneously insult Jews and Protestants. Then, the issuance of Domine Iesus was proceeded by a storm of controversy surrounding the beatification of Pope Pius IX. He was beatified at the same time that the beloved Pope John XXIII, the initiator of Vatican II, was raised to the status of Blessed, the step before canonization.

Pope John XXIII was fondly remembered, not just by Catholics, but also by people of good will in all faiths, for convening Vatican II with the hope that it would “open a window and let in the fresh air of the Holy Spirit to blow where it will.” In contrast, Pope Pius IX proudly declared himself “the Scourge of Liberalism.”

Vatican watchers believed that pairing the two beatification ceremonies, in 2000, was a way to placate Catholic traditionalists, who have always had trouble accepting much of Vatican II’s liberalizing effects, especially its commitment to ecumenicism.

Pope Pius, however, was about the worst choice for beatification unless you were trying to pick a fight with all but the most conservative Catholics and send everybody else a message that they were no longer welcome in the Catholic Church. It was also a great way to send a message that dialogue with Jews was no longer valued. And Domine Iesus sealed the deal that traditionalist Catholics really felt the same about alliances with Protestants.

Let me tell you why Pope Pius IX was so controversial. Even in his own time, the mid-1800s, he was a divisive figure. But it didn’t start out that way.

He was originally the choice of liberals and moderates from the College of the Cardinals at the papal conclave to replace the arch-conservative Pope Gregory XVI. Pius started out sympathetic to liberalizing trends in Italy and the Church but grew increasingly more conservative after he was deposed from the Papal States in Italy’s revolutions of 1848, which unified that country and turned it into a secular republic.

Pope Pius’s relations with the Jewish community also were ambiguous. Before he was briefly exiled from Rome, he opened the Jewish ghetto, allowed wealthy Jews to move out of it, and repealed laws that forced Jews to attend church four times a year and listen to sermons urging them to convert. He also repealed laws that blocked Jews from entering certain professions. But Jewish testimony remained inadmissible in a court of law, which meant that even if Jews were the victims of a crime, they couldn’t testify against their attackers.

Then after returning to Rome in 1850, he re-instituted the ghetto and many of the harsh laws against the Jews. But the worst transgression against the Jewish community was the kidnapping of a young boy, Edgardo Mortara, which occurred in 1858.

An illiterate young housemaid informally baptized Edgardo Mortara when the child was very ill. The maid, fearing that the boy would die and go to hell, baptized him without the consent of his parents. Indeed, the parents did not even know it. The maid eventually told the story to a priest who reported it to the Inquisition. The Vatican Swiss Guard seized the child and the Pope declared that because he was a Catholic, his Jewish parents could not raise him to be a proper Christian. The parents argued that the child was too young to give informed consent so the baptism should not be considered valid and binding. Indeed, dignitaries and prominent figures from around the world, including Emperor Franz Josef of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Napoleon III of France, protested to the pope.

By 1864, Pope Pius IX was firmly opposed to liberalism, democracy, secularism, freedom of religion, and even rationalism. He convened the First Vatican Council, where he decreed the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Although Pope Pius IX was controversial in life, during a turbulent time in Italy’s – and all of Europe’s – history, few sensible people would fault the modern Catholic Church for its excesses of intolerance in an earlier age when such intolerance was common to most faith traditions.

But the beatification of Pope Pius IX in 2000 brought renewed turmoil and protests from liberal Catholics, from Jewish groups world wide, and from descendants of the Mortara family, who still live in Rome.

Coupled with the issuance of Domine Iesus, a week later, this wasn’t the Church’s finest hour. But it was also no coincidence. Just as it is no coincidence that once again a statement insulting Protestant denominations is paired with a return to the Latin rite, which includes prayers for the conversion of Jews and a reiteration of the belief that Jews are blind to the truth of Christian belief.

Pope Benedict’s fingerprints are all over these couplets, both those of this past week and those of 2000. The Roman Catholic Church is on a retrograde path back into the past at a time when it is losing influence in the West and in Latin America. And that is it’s right, sad as it is to watch.

But don’t look for better interdenominational relationships, greater tolerance, more open ecumenical dialogue, or progressivism any time soon. The few stalwart liberals are gradually dying out, and the window that Pope John XXIII had opened to let in the renewing Holy Spirit has been firmly snapped shut by Benedict.

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