The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI

The pope’s reluctance to take a firm stance on sexual abuse by priests is expanding into a crisis for the Catholic Church and fueling outrage over his papacy. Some Catholics are now even calling on Benedict, who has committed a series of gaffes since becoming pope in 2005, to resign.

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass in memory of John Paul II on the 5th anniversary of his death in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 29, 2010. The pope’s hesitant treatment of priest sex abuse scandals is expanding into a crisis for the Catholic Church and fueling outrage over his papacy.

“Lord!” the man begins. It is night, and the torches cast flickering shadows on the ancient walls. “Your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side.” It is a somber statement, particularly coming from a senior member of the Catholic Church. 

The priest continues, speaking of weeds in the fields of the Lord, and of how much “filth there is in the Church,” the result of priests’ betrayal of God. “The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again.” He beseeches God, saying: “Have mercy on your Church; even within her, Adam continues to fall again and again.” 

These were prophetic words. They reflected a bitterness and lack of illusions that could only have been expressed by an experienced cardinal who had exhaustively studied the files outlining the “filth in the Church.” 

The speaker was Joseph Ratzinger. He was chastising his own church during the Easter holiday five years ago, in 2005. It was a bitter indictment by a veteran of the Church, who apparently had little hope and was on the verge of retirement. It was meant as a legacy and as a warning, but what Ratzinger did not do was to specify the actual misconduct. 

At the Center of the Filth 

Five years later, the situation in the Church has caught up with Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The filth in the Church has seeped out of the secret dossiers and hidden corners of vestries, seminaries and schools and has been brought to light. As the head of the Church, the captain of this battered ship, Ratzinger now finds himself at the center of the filth. 

The pope is now confronted with accusations from all over the world, accompanied by increasingly urgent appeals to finally render his ship seaworthy again. The sex abuse cases which were initially a problem only for national bishops’ conferences, particularly in the United States, Ireland and Germany, have merged into a crisis for the entire Catholic Church, a crisis that is now descending upon the Vatican with a vengeance and hitting its spiritual leader hard. Meanwhile that leader seems oblivious to what has happened so suddenly. 

In Germany, churchgoers are demanding to know why Benedict has not said a word about the crimes of priests in his native country. Christian Weisner, a senior member of the reform movement “We Are Church,” is deeply disappointed by the pope. Benedict XVI, says Weisner, has “not understood the true scope of the distress.” 

Demands for Repentance 

The Poles are angry with the pope, because they fear that his inaction in the face of the crisis could harm the reputation of “their” pope, John Paul II, whose beatification they expect to take place soon. “A public mea culpa would have given him credibility in the fight over the purity of the Church,” wrote the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza

The Irish, to whom Benedict wrote a pastoral letter in which he assigned the responsibility for the abuse cases to local bishops and, in what was not exactly a sign of remorse, to the “secularization of Irish society,” were disappointed in the pope. Writing in the Sunday Tribune, an Irish Sunday newspaper, columnist Maurice O’Connell demanded: “Why, for example, can Benedict not jump on a plane, come to Ireland, and, on Maundy Thursday (as he will be doing in Rome), wash the feet of 12 victims?” 

Finally, in the United States, where about 12,000 abuse cases have come to light in the last few decades and the media are already accusing the pope himself of having covered up the scandals, the attorney of one abuse victim even wants to force the pontiff to appear in court. Many Catholics who suffered as a result of the sexual urges of their priests 30 years ago have given up hope that the pope will show any remorse at all. David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), accuses the pope of ignoring the suffering of the victims. “Actions, not words, protect innocent kids and heal wounded victims,” says Clohessy. 

Papacy In Jeopardy 

Suddenly, the worldwide chorus of outrage seems to be putting the German pope’s entire papacy in jeopardy. 

Benedict XVI began his papacy by embarking on a project of reconciliation which went beyond the Church itself. The newly elected pope wanted to rule with the word, and with discourse, not prohibitions. That was what he had been doing for 23 years in his previous position, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). And now he was suddenly advocating an open, self-confident dialogue on several fronts: with the secular world, with Islam, with the Jews and with the traditionalists within the Church. Perhaps even with the followers of Martin Luther. 

Now, after five years in office, Benedict has seen his project fail and himself become a spiritual shepherd lost in a world that no longer understands him. The secular world now views the pope with, at best, indifference, if not downright hostility. The Church’s dialogue with the Jews suffered a serious setback in the wake of the scandal surrounding Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. An icy silence still predominates in parts of the rabbinate, and the planned beatification of Pius XII, whose role during the Nazi era is controversial, will hardly change that. 

Many Muslims have never forgiven Benedict for a lecture he gave in Regensburg in 2006, where he examined the issue of violence and Islam in a bold but ineptly executed move. The speech unleashed a torrent of protests in the Muslim world. 

Even radical opponents of reform, such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalists, have not hurried back to Rome, even though the pope has opened all doors for them, declared the Latin mass to be equally valid and reversed the excommunication of SSPX’s bishops. Meanwhile, Benedict’s gesture of reconciliation toward the extreme right fringe has angered more liberal dioceses in Germany and France. 

Calls for Benedict’s Resignation 

Of course, the office of pope does not exist so that its holder can be loved by the whole world. After Pius IX died in 1881, a number of Rome residents tried to seize the coffin so that they could throw it into the Tiber River. Today, a few days after Easter, only the most devoted pilgrims are rallying around their spiritual leader. The rest of the world, shocked by the sheer scope of the abuse cases, looks to Rome with skepticism, and some are already calling upon Benedict to take responsibility for his sinning priests and resign. 

In the Italian magazine MicroMega, Don Paolo Farinella, a Catholic priest, has already written an example of the kind of statement he believes the pope should make to Irish Catholics: “I come to you with empty hands to beg your forgiveness” — for the strictness of the celibacy, for the conditions in seminaries and for the thousands of cases of child abuse. “I will withdraw to a monastery and will spend the rest of my days doing penance for my failure as a priest and pope.” 

It hasn’t come to that yet, not by a long shot. Some 80 percent of Germans still cannot imagine Benedict following the example of an almost forgotten pope, Celestine V, who resigned in the 13th century because he no longer felt able to perform his office. 

Nevertheless, the question remains as to why nothing seems to go right anymore for this once-celebrated pontiff. 

‘A Humble Worker in the Vineyard of the Lord’ 

It is the tragedy of a man who had set out to write books and, only near the end of his life, was summoned to assume the herculean office at the Vatican. At the beginning of his papacy, Benedict XVI described himself, in all modesty, as “a simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” 

To date, however, Joseph Ratzinger has been more of a hobby gardener in the vineyard, rather than a landscape architect or someone who cuts off fruitless vines. 

He has incurred the suspicions of the secular world and the skepticism of other religions, but he has not found a way to address this opposition. Again and again, after each new scandal, each misunderstanding and each new blunder, his actions seem forced. He lacks his predecessor’s ability to always find the right symbolic gestures. The charismatic John Paul II led the church at the height of the American abuse crisis, but it did not diminish his popularity. Even before his death, as he allowed the world to participate in his process of dying, crowds flooded into St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to be close to him. 

Of course, what English author G.K. Chesterton wrote in the early 20th century still holds true today. “At least five times,” Chesterton wrote, “the Faith has, to all appearance, gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.” 

Some may find comfort in Chesterton’s remark. 

Derision for Religion 

Nevertheless, many Catholics find their pope’s actions painful to watch, not because they consider him incapable or even unlikeable, but because they cannot look on as this extraordinary man gets in his own way. The members of the “We Are Church” movement, in particular, have turned away from Benedict. 

According to a poll conducted for SPIEGEL by pollster TNS Forschung, 73 percent of Germans believe that the pope’s handling of abuse cases in the Catholic Church is “not adequate.” 

Following the revelations about clerical misconduct, the disenchantment has, in many places, turned into aggression, malice and, in some cases, cheap derision against all things religious. In the last few weeks, a tone of contempt for the Catholic Church has emerged in online forums throughout Germany. 

In one forum, a contributor wrote: “The fact that the Church only admits what it can no longer deny shows that the Vatican only regrets one thing, if anything: the fact that the priests were caught.” 

Another contributor wrote: “The institution of the Church is a morally depraved club of old men. One needs to distance oneself from this organization as clearly as possible.” 

What’s Wrong with the Church 

There is also no lack of recommendations relating to the future of the Church, both from believers and non-believers. Suddenly everyone knows what the Church has done wrong in decades gone by: the celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood; the hierarchy of old men and the persecution of any efforts to liberalize the theology; the blind condemnation of contraception and birth control in the poor regions of the world; the eternal lack of understanding of homosexuality; the mistrust of technology and modern culture; and the constant needling and provocation aimed at the Protestant churches, Judaism and Islam. 

Ratzinger the theologian has defended the doctrines and precepts of his church again and again, often cleverly and with exquisite scholarliness. In doing so, he has cited the teachings of the Church fathers, the councils and the entire Holy Scripture. 

For a time, he enjoyed the undivided goodwill of the German press. Even Hamburg’s arch-Protestant weekly newspaper Die Zeit softened its otherwise skeptical view of Rome. 

Nevertheless, Benedict’s message did not reach its intended audience. The pope lost his close connection to his wards. The master of the word failed to convince the public of the legitimacy of even one of his positions. 

This may have something to do with the public — or the positions. 

In any event, the Germans’ goodwill toward “their pope” was short-lived. In fact, most of his fellow Germans have long immersed themselves in their own personal belief system. Although they clearly retain the desire for a metaphysical source of comfort when life becomes difficult, they prefer to dispense with the institution and its requirements. 

‘Weary of Faith’ 

Christendom has “grown weary of faith (and) has abandoned the Lord,” as Ratzinger concluded in his prayers for the Stations of the Cross at the Roman Coliseum in 2005. He spoke of the “banal existence of those who, no longer believing in anything, simply drift through life.” 

But the pope, this owl-eyed old man with a high voice, simply isn’t as adorable as the Dalai Lama. He lacks the clear message of a Barack Obama. And no one would want to be stuck on a deserted island with one of his German propagandists, let alone be guided through the desert by them. 

The days of Vatican chic are over, it seems. 

Germany’s flirtation with this man lasted all of two summers. For a time, it was hip to have read Ratzinger. Authors suddenly began making pilgrimages and the culture sections of magazines wondered if it was time for a return of the sacred. Berlin’s upper middle class sent its children to the Canisius College Jesuit high school, convinced that they were guaranteeing their children’s future. 

Warning Signs 

Nevertheless, the disenchantment quickly set in. The longer Benedict was in office, the clearer it became that he was not interested in the opening up of the Church to the modern world that the public — which had perhaps been fooling itself — had expected of him. 

His revival of the traditional Latin mass, the return of the idea of the controversial prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday prayers, the departure from critical biblical research in his book “Jesus of Nazareth” — these were all relatively minor and inconspicuous steps in the direction of a more traditional Church. Observant church insiders, however, quickly recognized their significance as a warning sign. 

In Germany, in particular, the mood began shifting beyond the Catholic Church when, in 2007, Benedict offended the country’s 25 million Protestants with a verdict from the Vatican, stating that their denominations could “not be called churches in the real sense.” His message of “dogma instead of dialogue” also offended the Catholic base, which, in many places, had long surpassed Church leaders in their ecumenical efforts. Even the then-leader of German Catholics, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, was clearly against the direction Benedict had taken, and tried to soften it somewhat with his own positions. 

‘He Disappointed the World’ 

Swiss theologian Hans Küng, Ratzinger’s old friend from the days of the Second Vatican Council and later his adversary, soberly concluded that his audience with the pope at the beginning of Benedict’s papacy did not, by a long way, signal a new dawn in the Church. “I had assumed that my invitation was the first in a series of bold acts of which the pope was capable. But he disappointed the world. Since then, he has not issued any further signals of renewal. On the contrary, he has, time and again, taken a step backward from the achievements of the Council.” 

In his position as pope, Ratzinger had the chance to strike out in a different direction than in his previous post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was the Church’s supreme commissioner of faith for almost a quarter century. As Benedict, however, he quickly gambled away this opportunity and slipped back into his old role. Ratzinger has therefore become a prisoner of his biography — to the detriment of the Catholic Church. 

Ratzinger’s ‘Rational Adventure’ 

Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, the son of a police officer. Although money was tight, Joseph and his older brother, Georg, attended high school. 

When Joseph, their youngest son, was only in second grade, the parents bought him a missal, the Mass book priests use on the altar. For Ratzinger, religion became what he would later call a “rational adventure.” His Catholicism was never merely incense and naïve faith. 

His school registered him for the Hitler Youth, which was unavoidable, but he rarely attended. He was eventually drafted to serve as a child soldier in Munich. He spent the end of the war in a POW camp near the southern German city of Ulm. 

Ratzinger was consecrated as a priest in 1951. He only worked in pastoral care for a short time, however, meaning he had little first-hand experience with the everyday worries of the faithful. 

Traumatic Experiences 

Instead, he quickly embarked on a career as a theologian. In 1958, at the age of 31, he became a professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology. In 1962, he served as a theological consultant to the Second Vatican Council, where Ratzinger championed views that were both liberal and critical of the Vatican, views that advocated the individual freedom of a Christian and opposed the Roman Curia’s claim to omnipotence. At the time, Ratzinger argued that the Church had “reins that are far too tight, too many laws, many of which have helped to leave the century of unbelief in the lurch, instead of helping it to redemption.” 

After the Council, Ratzinger, together with Hans Küng and Karl Rahner, was considered one of the reformers in the Church. In 1966, he brought his friend Küng to the University of Tübingen in southern Germany as a professor of dogmatic theology. In 1968, Ratzinger and 1,360 other theologians worldwide signed a resolution drafted by Küng, titled “For the Freedom of Theology.” 

In the same year, however, Ratzinger had a traumatic experience that explains his thoughts and actions to this day. During the 1968 revolt, he witnessed his students reviling the image of Christ on the cross as a “sadomasochistic glorification of pain” and chanting “Jesus be damned!” during one of his lectures. In a 1983 SPIEGEL interview, he said that it became clear to him in the lecture halls at Tübingen, then under the spell of the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, that the outcome of the Council had been the “opposite” of what had been intended. 

Guardian of the Truth 

For the 41-year-old cleric, the Tübingen experiences were a deep shock that changed him radically from a cosmopolitan theologian to a timid dogmatist. Since then, the unalterable, God-given truth has meant everything to him. For Ratzinger everything had to be subordinate to this truth. 

Ratzinger also believed that the Catholic Church is the guardian of the absolute moral truth. As archbishop of Munich and Freising, Ratzinger had the motto “Cooperatores veritatis” (“Worker of Truth”) embroidered onto his shoulder shawl. As Ratzinger often points out disdainfully, he believes that the notion that truth only reveals itself in fragments to people, including those who believe in God, and that truth is therefore not a fixed variable but takes on different forms in time and space, depending on culture and tradition, is nothing but condemnable “relativism.” 

In Ratzinger’s world, man is more of an object than an active subject. Critics of this pope have noticed, again and again, that he comes across as distant and cold, even when he turns to people with deliberate affection. He completely lacks the charisma of palpable brotherly love that John Paul II exuded. 

In 1981, John Paul II brought Ratzinger, then an archbishop who had already been elevated to the rank of cardinal, to Rome to head the CDF. At the pope’s request, Ratzinger first turned his attention to Latin America. The Polish pope believed that leftist priests there were trying to lead the faithful astray into Marxist convictions. He pilloried the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and condemned the movement’s commitment, which was based on theology, to a Church of the poor. 

Staunch Crusader 

For more than two decades, Cardinal Ratzinger, from his office in Rome, kept watch to ensure that the faithful around the world — including, in particular, the Church’s functionaries, its priests and bishops — toed the line. His soft gestures, shyness and high voice can be deceptive. In truth, Ratzinger is also a staunch crusader. 

When Ratzinger became pope, he met with nothing but enthusiasm in the first few months of his papacy. Soon, however, he quickly became the target of criticism. His Regensburg speech in September 2006 provoked Islamists around the world to commit acts of violence against Christians. It was only with difficulty that the Church managed to smooth out the waves of outrage Benedict’s words had triggered. Nevertheless, many still believed that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the learned professor had only expressed himself awkwardly when he said, quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” 

The next scandal came in January 2009, when the pope rehabilitated Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, an excommunicated bishop of the Society of St. Pius X, a reactionary faith group that Benedict XVI was determined to bring back into his church. It was all the more controversial because Benedict is German. For fear of a permanent rift, the pope risked the reputation of Catholicism worldwide. 

When Benedict XVI visited Israel a few months later, a trip that was only made possible after a number of pretexts and explanations, his appearance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial was sharply criticized as being “almost sterile,” “unemotional” and simply “disappointing.” Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau had expected to see more human sympathy for the suffering of murdered Jews. Instead, he said, the pope’s speech was “devoid of any compassion, any regret, any pain over the horrible tragedy.” He also criticized the pope for not using the phrase “6 million Jews” in relation to the number of Holocaust victims. 

The False Life of Man 

Ratzinger has always been a shy person. But he came away from his experiences in Tübingen with an insurmountable fear: a fear for the wellbeing of the Church. Ratzinger wrote his dissertation on St. Augustine, the church father who imagined Christ wandering through the world as a stranger, driven by the constant endeavor to work toward a theocracy. 

He also took on Augustine’s repression of sensuality, which the church father made socially acceptable in the church in the 4th century, and his pessimism and rejection of the things of this world. It is a way of thinking that assumes that little good can be expected from the world beyond the walls of the Church and the Vatican. It also holds that if there is a true life within the false life of man, it only exists inside the Church, and that only the walls of the Vatican offer protection. 

Those days are gone. Today, outrage directed at the Church can no longer be kept within the affected dioceses. The public is also demanding an explanation from the spiritual leader in Rome, particularly as the pope himself was confronted with these problems during his spiritual career. During his time as archbishop of Munich, there was the case of the priest Peter H., which has come back to haunt the pontiff in recent weeks. 

The priest had attracted attention in the Diocese of Essen because of child molestation, and the diocese recommended that he undergo therapy under the care of the Archdiocese of Munich. Ratzinger agreed. But after the therapy, his vicar general assigned the man to another parish, allegedly with Ratzinger’s knowledge. Peter H. molested more children in the ensuing years and was only banned from providing pastoral care in 2008. Last week, the Archdiocese of Munich even had to send a priest to the towns of Garching and Bad Tölz to help repair the trail of emotional destruction left by the erring priest. 

‘Too Much Failure’ 

The pope’s most recent pastoral letter on sexual abuse in Ireland was a source of disappointment. “What would it have taken to devote a few sentences to the dramatic developments in Germany?” complained members of the German Catholic youth organization BDKJ. Even the archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, made a penitential pilgrimage through the streets of the German capital. “We suffer from the fact that there is too much failure in the church,” Sterzinsky said. 

For Ratzinger the man, the world outside the Church and the Vatican, the world of power and the power of the worldly, has always been something sinister. Even during his time as prefect of the CDF, he did not take the trouble to develop the network of supporters considered normal for a senior member of the Church. He was not interested in intrigues and tactical maneuvers. The theology professor, who accepts no contradiction between reason and faith, was always confident in the power of arguments. 

He knew that it wouldn’t be easy. “Society hates us because we stand in its way,” he once confided in his biographer, Peter Seewald. Given this mindset, he could not have been truly surprised by the uproar of the past few weeks. 

But it has affected him. 

‘The Human Flesh’ 

In particular, it pained Ratzinger that the person who is probably closest to him, his brother Georg, was cast in a bad light. Georg Ratzinger was director of the Regensburger Domspatzen, the cathedral choir in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, from 1964 to 1994. He was strict and sometimes used corporal punishment. Critics allege that Georg Ratzinger must have known about sexual abuse cases in the boarding school associated with the choir. 

On his name day, the feast of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger was sitting with his brother Georg in the ceremonial hall of the Palace of the Vatican, the Sala Clementina. The pastoral letter to Irish Catholics had just been signed. The two brothers looked fragile, their white hair slightly tousled. The Henschel Quartet was playing Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.” 

“It would have been better to preserve the silence,” the younger of the two brothers, the pope, said after the performance. He was referring to the customary moment of silence after the music ends. But he could not remain silent, and instead spent a full eight minutes talking about doubts and forgiveness and committing oneself to a higher purpose. He spoke about beauty and that difficult material, “the human flesh.” It’s a material which is very foreign to him — and yet it will shape the last years of his papacy. 

It was a moving moment, probably one of the few moments in which the pope was not being driven by his official duties. 

Keeping Quiet about Abuse Cases 

As it happens, there are members of the Church who are far more obstinate than Joseph Ratzinger in keeping quiet about cases of sexual abuse. 

For example, the case of Father Lawrence Murphy from Milwaukee, who molested about 200 boys at a school for the deaf, was not reported to Rome until 20 years after the last incidence of abuse. Under a strict interpretation of church law, that meant that the statute of limitations had already expired. 

Nevertheless, Ratzinger’s CDF supported the initiation of proceedings against Murphy. Ratzinger’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, only recommended that the case be dropped after Murphy, who was already fatally ill, had begged for mercy in a letter to Ratzinger. 

As prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger urged John Paul II, in 2001, to issue the papal letter known as the “Motu Proprio,” which obligated the church to report all abuse cases to Rome and address them there. 

Critics saw this as an attempt to keep the scandals under control and to handle them with the utmost discretion. The Vatican insisted that the requirement of “papal secrecy” was meant solely to protect those involved, and that it never precluded reporting abuse cases to the secular authorities. 

The Vatican’s Worst Nightmare 

Many Catholics questioned whether this was true. After the issuance of the Motu Proprio, however, all dossiers relating to pedophile priests passed across Ratzinger’s desk. No one in the global Church had a better idea of what was really going on in the seminaries and Catholic institutions. And this is precisely why the Catholic Church could very well face proceedings that could expand into Vatican lawyers’ worst nightmare, and could end in the pope having to answer for the charges of abuse in a secular court. 

“I want to know what the Vatican knew and when they knew it,” attorney William McMurry, who is representing three alleged victims of priest sexual abuse in Kentucky, told the Washington Post. Their case has now come before the US District Court in Louisville, and could eventually make it all the way through the courts to the Supreme Court in Washington. The plaintiffs argue that the Vatican can be held responsible for the damage inflicted by its employees. With the suit, the Americans hope to embark on a legal path that seemed off-limits for years: They are determined to assert a direct claim by abuse victims against the Vatican. 

Jeff Anderson, an attorney from Minnesota who has represented hundreds of abuse victims since 1983 and has won millions of dollars in compensatory damages for his clients, has been waiting for such an opportunity to come along. In recent weeks, Anderson made headlines worldwide when he turned over documents about the Father Murphy case to the New York Times. Now he is hoping for the biggest conceivable prize: to subpoena the Holy Father himself. “This is a tipping point,” Anderson told the Associated Press. “I came to the stark realization that the problems were really endemic to the clerical culture, and all the problems we are having in the US led back to Rome. And I realized nothing was going to fundamentally change until they did.” 

Elaborate Defense Strategy 

Although legal experts agree that summoning Benedict XVI to testify before a US court is extremely unlikely, the lengthy legal battle this would entail would be embarrassing enough. 

Ratzinger’s church lawyers have already assembled an elaborate defense strategy. They argue that the pope, as the Vatican’s head of state, enjoys immunity against lawsuits in US courts. They also point out that the American bishops who covered up abuse cases are not employees subject to directives from Vatican City. 

Ironically, Ratzinger has always advocated that his Church take a tough approach toward sinners in cassocks. For him, the ordination of priests is a central sacrament, an office that entails constant self-examination and strict discipline. 

For example, Ratzinger enforced his hard line against the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, a powerful congregation of priests. Maciel Degollado, who died in 2008, allegedly fathered and abused several children. 

Despite the many rumors, John Paul II, who deeply respected Maciel Degollado as a servant of God, dedicated a festive mass on St. Peter’s Square to the Mexican priest in 2001. One of Ratzinger’s first actions in his new office as pope, however, was to banish Maciel Degollado to a monastery. 

‘Targeted Campaign’ 

But like the vast majority of bishops in the past (and many today), Ratzinger is also convinced that too much openness only benefits one’s adversaries. 

At the height of the abuse crisis in the United States, on Nov. 30, 2002, Ratzinger answered questions at the Catholic University of San Antonio de Murcia in southeastern Spain. There are, of course, sinners in the church, he explained, “but personally I am convinced that a targeted campaign is behind the constant media reports on the sins of Catholic priests, particularly in the United States.” The goal of this campaign, he said, was to “discredit the Church.” 

The American church paid dearly for its attempted cover-ups. To date, US dioceses have been forced to pay well over $2 billion (€1.5 billion) in compensation for the misdeeds of about 5,000 priests. Some dioceses have had to declare bankruptcy as a result. 

The law of silence regarding abuse cases was still considered unbroken at the time. Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles were members of opposing camps within the Church, Law being conservative and Mahoney liberal. But the two men agreed that the Church’s good reputation was more important than the truth. 

Protecting Believers from Doubt 

This conviction may have been rooted in the widely held belief in the treatability of sexual offenders. The emphasis was placed on the notion that “it was God’s duty to protect ordinary believers from all doubt,” says Jesuit priest Eberhard von Gemmingen. 

The archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, recently offered a deep look into the inner life of the Vatican. When the serious abuse of boarding-school students by Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër came to light in 1995, the officials close to then-Pope John Paul II blocked an investigative commission. The “diplomatic faction” among the pope’s courtiers, Schönborn said, tried to blame everything on the media — against the will of the current pope. “At the time, Ratzinger said to me, sadly: The other party has prevailed.” 

In his pastoral letter to Irish congregations, Benedict XVI went further than any pope before him. “In her (the Church’s) name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel,” he wrote. But it was not the admission of personal failure many had hoped for. Benedict criticized some bishops, but not the entire, authoritarian, fossilized “system of bishops.” He also failed to take the opportunity to go on the offensive, to speak in the first person and to write about his time as archbishop in Munich. 

“Critics will ask: Can Benedict XVI credibly demand greater accountability from bishops, if his own record as a diocesan leader reflects the same pattern of neglect?” writes Benedict biographer John Allen. 

Going on the Offensive 

Meanwhile, the Vatican seems to have emerged from its state of shock. After the days of awkward silence on a constant stream of new revelations, the Vatican is now going on the offensive, and the pope’s defenders are becoming as aggressive as his critics. 

Benedict’s helpers, old, often retired bishops, armed with microphones and contacts to editors-in-chief and television producers, are stepping up to defend the pontiff. According to a Vatican expert at La Repubblica, the wall they are building around the head of the church is as thick as the wall surrounding the Kremlin. 

They are embarking on a defensive war of sorts, a term Antonio Riboldi, the former bishop of Acerra, used when he said that a “war is underway between the Church and the world, between Satan and God.” Anyone who attacks the pope has been instructed to do so by the Devil, claims Father Gabriele Amorth, who has been the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years. 

Shortly before the Easter festivities, Church officials complained about the “stubbornness” of the “anti-Christian hate campaign” in the media, the sole purpose of which, as they argued, is to discredit the pope. 

Praying for the Pope 

The French bishops, who are in a significantly better position in the abuse affair than their German or Irish counterparts, because they took steps early on to ensure that the relevant offenses would be handed over to civil courts, are sending expressions of solidarity to Rome, and bishops are asking Catholics the world over to pray for the Holy Father “in these difficult times, so that God’s grace will sustain him.” 

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has always had a somewhat distant relationship to Ratzinger, conceded, in an interview with the Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera, that the church had been silent on instances of abuse in the past, at least in some cases.” Calling upon the Vatican to put its house in order, he said that the path to renewal is “irreversible, and that’s a good thing.” But he too is convinced that the attacks on Benedict “exceed the limits of fairness and decency.” 

When the pope spoke on Palm Sunday, it sounded as if he were expressing defiant words of comfort for himself. The Christian faith gives us “courage not to be disturbed by the chatter of prevailing opinions,” he said to a crowd of 50,000 supporters on St. Peter’s Square. Was he saying that the cover-up charges are nothing but the gossip of disbelievers? 

‘We Have Betrayed the Name of God’ 

Before giving the sermon, Benedict XVI did something he had avoided on Palm Sundays in previous years. He had himself driven across St. Peter’s Square in his popemobile while the faithful cheered and waved their palm fronds. It was no different a little over 2,000 years ago, when Christianity’s founder entered Jerusalem. But papal spokesman Lombardi was quick to prevent any improper comparisons from being made. The pope, said Lombardi, had no intention of entrenching himself, but wanted to make himself visible, even to the faithful at the back of the crowd. 

One of his closest confidants, on the other hand, has distanced himself from such defiant gestures. On Wednesday, Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, in a penance service in the city’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, offered a confession of guilt: “We confess that we have obscured and betrayed the name of God which means love.” 

It was, at last, the confession the whole world had been hoping to hear from the German-born pope.


Full article and photo:,1518,687374,00.html

The Pope and the New York Times

Cardinal Ratzinger did more than anyone to hold abusers accountable.

Unlike the Roman papacy, in certain circles the New York Times still enjoys the presumption of authority. So when the front page carries a story headlined “Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Deaf Boys,” people notice.

Written by Laurie Goodstein and published March 25, the thrust is twofold. First, that the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, a priest who abused children at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from the 1950s to the 1970s, went unpunished. Father Murphy, she wrote categorically, “was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system.”

This all feeds the kicker: “the effort to dismiss Father Murphy came to a sudden halt after the priest appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.” In other words, Murphy got off scot-free, and the cardinal looked the other way.

Ms. Goodstein cites internal church documents, which the Times posted online. The documents were provided by Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan. They are described as “lawyers for five men who have brought four lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

What she did not tell readers is that Mr. Anderson isn’t just any old lawyer. When it comes to suing the church, he is America’s leading plaintiffs attorney. Back in 2002, he told the Associated Press that he’d won more than $60 million in settlements from the church, and he once boasted to a Twin Cities weekly that he’s “suing the s–t out of them everywhere.” Nor did the Times report another salient fact about Mr. Anderson: He’s now trying to sue the Vatican in U.S. federal court.

None of this makes Mr. Anderson wrong or unworthy of quoting. It does make him a much bigger player than the story disclosed. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone with a greater financial interest in promoting the public narrative of a church that takes zero action against abuser priests, with Pope Benedict XVI personally culpable.

Asked about the omissions in an email, Ms. Goodstein replied as follows: “Given the complexity of the Murphy case, and the relative brevity of my story, I don’t think it is realistic for you to expect this story to get into treating other cases that these attorneys have handled.”

Martin Nussbaum, a lawyer who is not involved in the Murphy case but who has defended other dioceses and churches in sexual abuse suits, emailed me four interesting letters sent to Murphy from three Wisconsin bishops. These documents are not among those posted online by the Times. They are relevant, however, because they refute the idea that Murphy went unpunished.

In fact, the letters from these bishops—three in 1993 and one in 1995, after fresh allegations of Murphy’s misconduct—variously informed the priest that he was not to celebrate the sacraments in public, not to have any unsupervised contact with minors, and not to work in any parish religious education program.

It’s accurate to say Murphy was never convicted by a church tribunal. It’s also reasonable to argue (as I would) that Murphy should have been disciplined more. It is untrue, however, to suggest he was “never” disciplined. When asked if she knew of these letters, Ms. Goodstein did not directly answer, saying her focus was on what was “new,” i.e., “the attempts by those same bishops to have Father Murphy laicized.”

As for Rome, it did not get the case until 1996, when the archdiocese of Milwaukee informed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Back then, the CDF handled abuse cases when they involved a breach of confession (Murphy was accused of using the confessional to solicit boys). At that time, too, the only real option for reducing Murphy to the lay state was a church trial. And the bishops in Wisconsin did begin a trial.

Ms. Goodstein’s original article said simply that Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy halted Murphy’s trial after the priest sent the cardinal a letter saying he was dying and asking for clemency. A follow-up Times article last Thursday clarified that Rome came down the way it did because Murphy had shown “apparent good conduct” for the last 24 years, and “it would be difficult to try him” because “so much time [had] passed between the crimes and the trial.”

Plus, his bishops had already stripped Murphy of his priestly faculties, the equivalent of taking a doctor’s medical license. Does all this really suggest people callously looking the other way?

A few years later, when the CDF assumed authority over all abuse cases, Cardinal Ratzinger implemented changes that allowed for direct administrative action instead of trials that often took years. Roughly 60% of priests accused of sexual abuse were handled this way. The man who is now pope reopened cases that had been closed; did more than anyone to process cases and hold abusers accountable; and became the first pope to meet with victims. Isn’t the more reasonable interpretation of all these events that Cardinal Ratzinger’s experience with cases like Murphy’s helped lead him to promote reforms that gave the church more effective tools for handling priestly abuse?

That’s not to say that the press should be shy, even about Pope Benedict XVI’s decisions as archbishop and cardinal. The Murphy case raises hard questions: why it took the archbishops of Milwaukee nearly two decades to suspend Murphy from his ministry; why innocent people whose lives had been shattered by men they are supposed to view as icons of Christ found so little justice; how bishops should deal with an accused clergyman when criminal investigations are inconclusive; how to balance the demands of justice with the Catholic imperative that sins can be forgiven. Oh, yes, maybe some context, and a bit of journalistic skepticism about the narrative of a plaintiffs attorney making millions off these cases.

That’s still a story worth pursuing.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal


Full article:

It Makes No Sense to Ban the Burqa

Belgium looks set to ban women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public later this month. Although opposition to the Islamic veil is understandable in democratic Western societies, banning it won’t solve fundamental problems of integration.

Islam is essentially whatever Muslims believe. Some believe that their faith is perfectly compatible with beer. Others believe that the only suitable clothing for a woman is a burqa. Most Muslims fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Whether these religious convictions turn into a problem depends on the social context. In Afghanistan, beer is a problem but the burqa is not. In Belgium it is the other way around. There is now a broad coalition in Belgium, including Greens, liberals, Christian Democrats, socialists and the far-right, that wants to impose a legal ban on the wearing of the burqa and the face-covering veil known as the niqab. Such a ban would be enforced by fines or even a prison sentence.

A similar ban has been proposed in France and it would not be surprising if the burqa debate soon grips other European countries, including Germany. And this is despite the fact that very few women living in the West actually wear a burqa or niqab.

Hindering Integration

One of the fundamental tenets of Western modernity is that the world would be a better place if countries were more like Belgium and less like Afghanistan. Men and women should be equal, no one should be excluded or feel excluded, religion should be a largely private affair. And Belgian parliamentarians obviously feel that the burqa and niqab violate these fundamental principles.

That is understandable. By these standards, the practice of making women — but never men — unrecognizable in public is a provocation. And there is often the suspicion that some of these women are forced to wear such coverings. It can also be assumed that children in these families are not being raised with particularly emancipatory ideas. There is certainly little doubt that these veils hinder integration.

Nevertheless, it makes no sense to ban the burqa and niqab. Such a ban would simply be attacking a symptom while ignoring the real problem. At issue is not the veil that covers the head, but the one that is inside the head.

For any woman who is forced to wear the burqa, a ban will just ensure that she will no longer be able to leave the house. No one is seriously suggesting that it will have an instructional or enlightening affect upon her husband. And it is risky to speculate that she will feel supported by this legislative statement.

Bans Don’t Break Down Barriers

It is certainly true that burqas seem out of place in Europe. After all, Europe stands for the idea of a lively, open, democratic society. When part of the society removes itself (or is removed) from these ideals, then that is a problem.

However, bans don’t make these ideals clearer or more palatable, don’t encourage participation, and don’t break down any barriers. They make sense when it comes to concrete actions, like the genital mutilation of young girls or the incitement to violence, neither of which are exclusively Muslim problems.

Those who would like to see the burqa and niqab disappear from Europe’s streets, however, have to look for other solutions. Integration into an open society can only occur through contact and exchange. Compulsory attendance of children in pre-schools would make much more sense, combined with an obligation on the part of both parents to attend parent-teacher evenings. And better to come wearing a burqa than not come at all.

The advantage to these kind of proposals is that they don’t just target women, nor only families in which the woman wears a burqa. Not every woman in a burqa or a niqab feels oppressed. And the prison in which many Muslim women undoubtedly live can also be invisible. It is not made of cloth, but of ideas.


Full article and photo:,1518,687105,00.html

Catholic Abuse Hotline Overrun Amid New Allegations

Images of abuse victims displayed on Wednesday in Berlin by the victims’ group SNAP.

A hotline set up by the Catholic Church in Germany to counsel victims of sexual abuse was overrun on its first day, with almost 4,500 calls. Further allegations have continued to emerge even as Chancellor Angela Merkel says the church is taking “necessary measures.”

It was a much criticized idea. Earlier this month, Germany’s Catholic Church announced that it was planning a hotline for sexual abuse victims to call should they be in need of counselling or advice. Given the ever-increasing wave of abuse allegations being levelled at clerics in Germany this spring, however, many critics doubted whether victims would phone up the organization that was responsible for their suffering in the first place.

The critics were wrong. On Wednesday, the first full day of the hotline’s operation, fully 4,459 people phoned up — far more than the therapists hired to man the phones could handle. Indeed, they were only able to conduct 162 counselling sessions, ranging from five minutes to an hour in length. Andreas Zimmer, head of the project in the Bishopric of Trier, admitted that he wasn’t prepared for “that kind of an onslaught.” Zimmer insisted, however, that those who leave a message will be called back.

The hotline (0800-120-1000, free from within Germany) launched on Tuesday, is just one of many ways that the Catholic Church in Germany is attempting to win back trust even as the flood of abuse allegations shows no signs of receding. Bishops have insisted on full disclosure and have begun the process of reviewing church guidelines on reporting abuse allegations.

‘Necessary Measures’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday evening praised the church’s efforts in an interview with RTL television. She said the hotline was a “very good” development and said she appreciated that German bishops have committed themselves to finding the truth. “There is no alternative to truth and clarity,” she said, adding that the church has taken “the necessary measures.”

This week, however, has been another difficult one for the Catholic Church in both Germany and elsewhere in continental Europe. Germany’s national Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported allegations on Wednesday and Thursday that Augsburg Bishop Walter Mixa beat youth who lived at a children’s home in the Bavarian town of Schrobenhausen when he was priest there in the 1970s. The paper has six declarations under oath of incidents of physical abuse, including slaps and punches to the head. “He punched me in the face with full force,” the paper quotes a former resident, Jutta Stadler, now 47, as saying.

Earlier this week, the bishopric of Trier reported that 20 priests are suspected of having sexually abused children between the 1950s and 1990s. Bishop Stephan Ackermann, who was appointed last year, said on Monday that three of the cases had been passed on to public prosecutors, with two more soon to follow. He has asked potential further victims to come forward. “We want to investigate all leads,” he said, calling the scandal “horrifying.”

‘Person of Faith’

Since initial reports of sexual abuse in Catholic schools emerged in Germany in late January, hundreds of victims have come forward in countries across Europe, including Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. Swiss bishops on Wednesday said that they had underestimated the problem and were now encouraging victims to contact the authorities. In a public admission of guilt, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said in a service at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna that “some of us talked about God, but did terrible things to our charges. Some of us perpetrated sexual violence. For some of us, the appearance of an infallible church was more important than anything else.”

The new allegations come on the heels of a New York Times report last week which indicated that Pope Benedict XVI had known about one particularly egregious case in the United States. The Rev. Lawrence Murphy spent years molesting children at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, but when the case came to the attention of the Vatican many years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope, declined to take action, citing Murphy’s advanced age at the time.

The pope made no mention of the scandal during his pre-Easter mass at the Vatican on Thursday. But in reference to the Times article, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the Associated Press that “the pope is a person of faith. He sees this as a test for him and the church.” The pope was set to wash the feet of 12 priests on Thursday evening in a gesture of humility.

Even as much of the focus of the growing abuse scandal has been on the Catholic Church, cases from secular boarding schools have also been made public in recent weeks in Germany. In addition, more than 25 former residents of former East German children’s homes have reported having been sexually abused during their time in the homes. Manfred Kolbe, a Christian Democratic parliamentarian whose constituency includes a memorial to a former East German youth re-education facility, told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel that sexual abuse in children’s homes “seems to have been widespread.”


Full article and photo:,1518,686985,00.html


An atheist and a Roman Catholic offer a fresh take on an old question

Jesus: A Biography From a Believer. By Paul Johnson. Viking; 242 pages; $24 and £17.99.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. By Philip Pullman. Canongate; 245 pages; $24 and £14.99.

WAS Jesus of Nazareth divine or human, or did he combine both attributes in a unique, mysterious way? On every page of the Gospels there are passages that have been used as evidence on one side or the other of that 2,000-year-old discussion. Traditional Christian theology offers subtle, mind-bending formulas which aim to settle the matter in so far as it can be settled within the limits of human language. But for many ordinary believers, the question is just a paradox that they are forced perpetually to grapple with without ever quite resolving it.

Nowhere is the paradox thrown into sharper relief than in the readings that will be heard by hundreds of millions of people, from Mexico to Vladivostok, on April 4th. (This is a year when the rotating calendars of the Christian West and the Christian East agree on the same date for Easter Sunday.) According to those readings, the resurrected Christ is not a ghost but a flesh-and-blood human being, who breaks bread and consumes fish. But he is not instantly recognisable; it is not his physical attributes but a “burning in their hearts” that tells the world who he is. And when Jesus successfully challenges his sceptical disciple, Thomas, to touch his wounded hand, the gasped response is not simply relief at the return of an old, human friend, but…“My Lord and my God.”

Two new books, one by a British journalist who is a Roman Catholic and the other by an atheist novelist whose cultural reference-points are Christian, offer modern responses to the Jesus paradox.

As a commentator (once on the centre left but now on the traditionalist right) and a writer of big, broad works on history, Paul Johnson has the literary skills to make a compelling narrative out of the Gospels’ disjointed account of the words, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus. As a Catholic, he is committed to the belief that Christ was both “True God from True God” (in the words of the Nicene creed) and a man who experienced sorrow, temptation, loneliness and all the other features of human life. But he explains in the opening pages that he considers it “futile” to delve into divine realities, and will therefore focus on the earthly life of Jesus.

Dedicated to his late mother “who first taught me about Jesus” and with a subtitle that makes his own position crystal-clear, this is a book that some readers—especially non-believers—may find sentimental or cloying. It assumes the Nativity stories are more or less literally true, skirting round the problems posed by differences between the accounts of Luke and Matthew. But there are some good observations about the differences between the Gospels and other contemporary texts; Mr Johnson notes the prominent role played by women and the empathy of Jesus with female dilemmas. He shows how Jesus mixed compassion for children and their parents with insistence that ultimately, obedience to God supersedes family ties.

Philip Pullman addresses the apparent separateness of his subject’s divinity and humanity in a far more provocative way. Brought up by a clerical grandfather, Mr Pullman is a declared adversary of organised Christianity and is best known for his bestselling children’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials”. As he tells the Gospel story, Mary did not have one son but twins—a gifted but pious and humble one called Jesus and his more calculating and sophisticated brother, Christ. Observing his modest sibling, Christ concludes that the story needs to evolve in certain ways if the wandering faith-healer’s work is to become the basis of a world religion. In the end Christ colludes with his brother’s death and helps, directly and indirectly, to construct a new narrative about his resurrection. When the disciples meet their risen master, it is really Christ they are encountering, not his twin, Jesus.

Many Christian readers will recoil in horror at Mr Pullman’s plunge into heresy. But he is wrestling with the same question they are: how divinity and humanity could co-exist in the founder of their religion. Thomas wondered about that, too.


Full article and photo:

The Catholic Church’s Catastrophe

The press and the pope deserve credit for confronting scandal.

There is an interesting and very modern thing that often happens when individuals join and rise within mighty and venerable institutions. They come to think of the institution as invulnerable—to think that there is nothing they can do to really damage it, that the big, strong, proud establishment they’re part of can take any amount of abuse, that it doesn’t require from its members an attitude of protectiveness because it’s so strong, and has lasted so long.

And so people become blithely damaging. It happened the past decade on Wall Street, where those who said they loved what the street stood for, what it symbolized in American life, took actions that in the end tore it down, tore it to pieces. They loved Wall Street and killed it. It happens with legislators in Washington who’ve grown to old and middle age in the most powerful country in the world, and who can’t get it through their heads that the actions they’ve taken, most obviously in the area of spending, not only might deeply damage America but actually do it in.

Pope Benedict XVI meets head of German Bishops’ Conference, Robert Zollitsch in his office to discuss abuse allegations involving the German Catholic Church.

And it happened in the Catholic Church, where hundreds of priests and bishops thought they could do anything, any amount of damage to the church, and it would be fine. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is Mathew 16:18, of course, Christ’s great promise to his church. Catholics in the pews have been repeating it a lot lately as they—we—absorb the latest round of scandal stories. “The old church will survive.” But we see more clearly than church leaders the damage the scandals have done.

It is damage that will last at least a generation. It is an actual catastrophe, a rolling catastrophe that became public first in the United States, now in Europe. It has lowered the standing, reputation and authority of the church. This will have implications down the road.

In both the U.S. and Europe, the scandal was dug up and made famous by the press. This has aroused resentment among church leaders, who this week accused journalists of spreading “gossip,” of going into “attack mode” and showing “bias.”

But this is not true, or to the degree it is true, it is irrelevant. All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press—the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe—has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the church face it. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn’t be saying j’accuse but thank you.

Without this pressure—without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts—the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.

In fact, the press came late to the story. The mainstream media almost had to be dragged to it. It was there waiting to be told at least by the 1990s, but broadcast news shows and big newspapers weren’t keen to go after it. It would take months or years to report and consume huge amounts of labor, time and money—endless digging through court records, locating victims and victimizers, getting people who don’t want to talk to talk. And after all that, the payoff could be predicted: You’d get slammed by the church as biased, criticized by sincerely disbelieving churchgoers, and maybe get a boycott from a few million Catholics. No one wanted that.

An irony: Non-Catholic members of the media were, in my observation, the least likely to want to go after the story, because they didn’t want to look like they were Catholic-bashing. An irony within the irony: some journalists didn’t think to go after the story because they really didn’t much like the Catholic Church. Because of this bias, they didn’t see the story as a story. They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn’t register with them that it was a scandal. They didn’t know it was news.

It was the Boston Globe that broke the dam, winning a justly deserved Pulitzer for investigative reporting. They could have gotten it for public service.

Some blame the scandals on Pope Benedict XVI. But Joseph Ratzinger is the man who, weeks before his accession to the papacy five years ago, spoke blisteringly on Good Friday of the “filth” in the church. Days later on the streets of Rome, the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported, Cardinal Ratzinger bumped into a curial monsignor who chided him for his sharp words. The cardinal replied, “You weren’t born yesterday, you understand what I’m talking about, you know what it means. We priests. We priests!” The most reliable commentary on Pope Benedict’s role in the scandals came from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, who argues that once Benedict came to fully understand the scope of the crisis, in 2001, he made the church’s first real toward coming to grips with it.

As for his predecessor, John Paul the Great, about whom I wrote an admiring book which details some of the scandals—I spent a grim 2003 going through the depositions of Massachusetts clergy—one fact seems to me pre-eminent. For Pope John Paul II, the scandals would have been unimaginable—literally not imaginable. He had come of age in an era and place (Poland in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s) of heroic priests. They were great men; they suffered. He had seen how the Nazis and later the communists had attempted to undermine the church and tear people away from it, sometimes through slander. They did this because the great force arrayed against them was the Catholic Church. John Paul, his mind, psyche and soul having been forged in that world, might well have seen the church’s recent accusers as spreaders of slander. Because priests don’t act like that, it’s not imaginable. And he’d seen it before, only now it wasn’t Nazism or communism attempting to kill the church with lies, but modernity and its soulless media.

Only they weren’t lies.

There are three great groups of victims in this story. The first and most obvious, the children who were abused, who trusted, were preyed upon and bear the burden through life. The second group is the good priests and good nuns, the great leaders of the church in the day to day, who save the poor, teach the immigrant, and, literally, save lives. They have been stigmatized when they deserve to be lionized. And the third group is the Catholics in the pews—the heroic Catholics of American and now Europe, the hardy souls who in spite of what has been done to their church are still there, still making parish life possible, who hold high the flag, their faith unshaken. No one thanks those Catholics, sees their heroism, respects their patience and fidelity. The world thinks they’re stupid. They are not stupid, and with their prayers they keep the world going, and the old church too.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo:

When Israel and France Broke Up

IN the face of rising tensions between the United States and Israel over housing construction in East Jerusalem, the Obama administration has rushed to reassert what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called the “unshakable bond” between the two countries.

No doubt, that relationship rests on enduring foundations, including broad American public sympathy for a besieged democracy, a mutual strategic interest in resisting Arab extremism and a sense of moral duty to preserve the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

But if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to push his luck on settlements or the peace process, he would do well to remember an unnerving precedent: Israel’s loss, in 1967, of what had been a robust alliance with France.

The French-Israeli relationship began in the mid-1950s, when Israel became a major customer for the French arms industry. But the bond was not merely commercial: at the time France was trying to quash a rebellion in Algeria, and it shared with Israel a strategic interest in combating radical Arab nationalism. In 1956, France and Israel even fought together against Egypt in the Suez crisis.

The tacit alliance, championed by Israel’s deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres, deepened during the late ’50s and early ’60s through military cooperation and cultural exchanges. French technical assistance helped Israel get nuclear weapons, and France supplied the advanced military aircraft that became the backbone of the Israeli Air Force.

The relationship only grew warmer when Charles de Gaulle, the World War II hero, took over as French president in 1959. He recognized the historic justice of a Jewish “national home,” which he saw “as some compensation for suffering endured through long ages,” and he heaped praise on David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, as one of the “greatest leaders in the West.”

The bilateral bonds ran outside the government, too, with strongly pro-Israel public opinion, both among French Jews and non-Jews. But with the end of the Algerian war in 1962, de Gaulle began mending France’s ties to the Arab world and the relationship came under strain. For a while, France tried to balance its relationships: Israeli officials were heartily welcomed in Paris, and de Gaulle continued to speak of Israel as “the ally and friend” of France.

This double game, however, ended when the Six-Day War in 1967 forced France to pick a side. In a shock to its Israeli allies, it chose the Arab states: despite aggressive moves by Egypt, France imposed a temporary arms embargo on the region — which mostly hurt Israel — and warned senior Israeli officials to avoid hostilities.

When Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on June 5, France condemned it — even as Israel’s nearly immediate aerial victory was won largely with French-made aircraft.

A few months later de Gaulle bluntly told reporters that France had “freed itself … from the very special and very close ties” with Israel, nastily adding that Jews were “an elite people, sure of itself, and dominating.”

This was not a sentimental stance: de Gaulle had made a strategic decision to bolster France’s stature in the vast Arab world, which in 1967 meant largely abandoning Israel. France proceeded to make the arms embargo on Israel permanent, sought oil deals with the Arab states and adopted increasingly anti-Israel rhetoric.

Of course, American public support for Israel is even more deeply ingrained than it was in France, and it is hard to imagine that anyone in President Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel White House is contemplating anything like de Gaulle’s sudden reversal.

Still, there are potentially disquieting similarities. Like de Gaulle after Algeria, President Obama understands the strategic importance of improving relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds after years of bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so long as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains stalled, Washington’s relationships with Israel and the Arab states may look to some in the administration like a zero-sum game.

In the same way that many French officials tried to balance France’s relationships in the Middle East after the end of the Algerian war, Mr. Obama undoubtedly hopes that he can reach out to the Arab world without damaging ties with Israel. But this history suggests that Mr. Netanyahu would be wise to ease the strain on the alliance before any words are uttered that cannot be unsaid.

Gary J. Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and the author of “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention.”


Full article:

Vatican Official Defends Pope’s Handling of Case

Cardinal William J. Levada, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in New York in 2008

A top Vatican official issued a detailed defense of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of sexual abuse cases and extensively criticized The New York Times’s coverage, both in its news and editorial pages, as unfair to the pope and the church.

In a rare interview and a 2,400-word statement posted Wednesday on the Vatican Web site, the official, Cardinal William J. Levada, an American who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, praised Pope Benedict for vigorously investigating and prosecuting sexual abuse cases. He said The Times’s coverage had been “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.”

Cardinal Levada singled out several Times reporters and columnists for criticism, focusing particularly on an article describing failed efforts by Wisconsin church officials to persuade the Vatican to defrock a priest who had abused as many as 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1974. The pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office when the case was referred there, in 1996.

He said the article wrongly “attributed the failure to accomplish this dismissal to Pope Benedict, instead of diocesan decisions at the time.” On Wednesday, the archbishop of Milwaukee said the pope should not be held responsible for mistakes that were made in Wisconsin, according to The Associated Press.

The Times article drew on documents obtained from lawyers suing the church that showed that Vatican officials had at first ordered a secret canonical trial, then asked the archdiocese to suspend it after the priest pleaded for leniency to Cardinal Ratzinger. Wisconsin church officials protested the suspension, but followed it. The priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, died a few months later.

News coverage of the abuse has clearly touched a nerve in the Vatican. As the church grapples with abuse cases that have come to light in several European countries, Benedict has come under scrutiny for how he and his subordinates handled sexual abuse allegations against priests while he served as an archbishop in Germany as well as when he was the Vatican’s top doctrinal enforcer.

In 1980, when the pope was archbishop of Munich and Freising, he approved the transfer of a priest who had abused boys to therapy and was copied in on a memo saying that the priest had been allowed to resume pastoral duties shortly after his therapy began. The priest was later convicted of molesting other boys.

“This is different, because it’s the pope and because it’s a pope who is most self evidently beyond accusation, particularly in this area,” said a senior Vatican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Cardinal Levada said he believed that “the evidence is clear” that Father Murphy represented an “egregious case” and deserved to be defrocked.

But he also said he was not second-guessing the decision to suspend the trial. He said a canonical trial would be “useless if the priest were dying.” “Have you ever been to a trial? Do you know how long they take?” he said. “If the man had had a miraculous recovery and doctors said he’d live another 10 years, I’m sure a letter would say fine, ‘Start the trial.’ ”

Sitting in a receiving room at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with a view of Saint Peter’s out the window and an oil portrait of Cardinal Ratzinger on the wall, Cardinal Levada expressed pain at the case of Father Murphy.

“I think the evidence is clear from the documents that he was a serial abuser of children, helpless children often times, he had no respect for the sacrament of confession, even using that to accomplish his abuse,” he said. “It’s one of the saddest and the most egregious cases I’ve seen.”

At that point a canon lawyer who sat in on the interview but declined to speak on the record intervened about the nuances of the unfinished trial, effectively deflecting questions about why it had been suspended.

Cardinal Levada said that although Father Murphy never faced judgment in a criminal or canonical court, the priest had not evaded it altogether.

“As a believer,” he wrote in his statement, “I have no doubt that Murphy will face the One who judges both the living and the dead.”

Cardinal Levada said Benedict had played a “very significant role” as the “architect” of the Vatican’s 2001 norms that sent sexual abuse cases directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and streamlined procedures for bishops to report sexual abuse cases. Those norms ushered in a flood of abuse trials, many of which are still unresolved.

In a related letter in 2001, the future pope reminded bishops to adhere to secrecy in ecclesiastical trials, which caused some confusion about whether clerics should report abuse to the civil authorities. In recent weeks, Benedict and the Vatican have emphasized that the clergy should report evidence of crimes to the civil authorities.

“He was prefect when the church put into place a very important standard and practice for helping bishops deal with these cases,” said Cardinal Levada.

In light of media reports that have questioned what Benedict knew about abuse cases, Cardinal Levada said, “Anyone can say, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ ‘You could have done this better.’ That’s part of life, but certainly it’s not the case to say that he is deficient,” Cardinal Levada said. “If anything, he was the architect of this step forward in the church and I think he deserves his credit.”

Benedict named Cardinal Levada, a theologian, a former archbishop of Portland and San Francisco, and a former chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to succeed him as prefect after he became pope in 2005.

A full 80 percent of the abuse cases to come through the congregation in the past decade are from the United States, according to the head of the internal tribunal that handles abuse cases, Msgr. Charles Scicluna.

Cardinal Levada said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had a staff of about 45 and devoted about a third of its time to disciplinary issues.

“I would say it’s an increasing amount of the work of the congregation,” he said, adding that he anticipated having to expand its staff.

He said it should not be seen as leniency that some 60 percent of the abuse cases that the congregation had considered since 2001 did not result in trials. In cases of “moral certitude” trials aren’t necessary, he said, and other disciplinary measures can be taken, while murkier cases requiring more evidence might require trials.

“A canonical trial is an instrument appropriately used, but it would not be the normal procedure,” he said.

The senior Vatican official said that the pope himself was “serene” in the face of news reports but probably upset on behalf of Catholics. “I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be troubled that the faithful are troubled,” he said.


Full article and photo:

The Demons of Pope Benedict XVI

Stories of abuse in the Catholic Church have dominated headlines in Germany in recent weeks, following similar scandals in the US and Ireland. Victims from other countries throughout Europe have likewise begun to come forward recently.

The case of an American priest who abused deaf children for years has shaken the Vatican. Detailed information about the sexual misconduct of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy went across the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his papacy. Abuse allegations in Italy are also putting the Catholic Church in an increasingly tough spot.

It is late on a Thursday evening at the Vatican and it is already beginning to look like Easter. St. Peter’s Square is brightly lit, and groups attending a world youth forum are in high spirits as they sing and clap to celebrate their pope, clad in immaculate white, who has just spoken about the “Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,” behaving “as if nothing at all had happened.”

These are the words of Peter Isely. Standing on a street corner one block away from the spectacle, he is determined to spoil the pope’s festival of redemption. Isely has come to Rome all the way from Milwaukee, in the US state of Wisconsin. He is a 49-year-old psychotherapist with a buzz cut and a question that has been on his mind since he was 13: “Why is my church the only institution where pedophiles continue to be employed?”

This is Isely’s first visit to Rome. Isely and a handful of abuse victims were already standing on St. Peter’s Square in the morning, holding up photos and adding their contribution to the process of drawing His Holiness into the maelstrom of cover-ups and revelations that has confronted the Catholic Church with its most serious crisis in decades. While pots containing olive trees — for Easter — were being unloaded on St. Peter’s Square, Isely talked about “Father” Lawrence Murphy from Milwaukee: “This priest molested more than 200 boys at my school. Joseph Ratzinger is responsible for the fact that Murphy was never defrocked.” Isely says that he doesn’t want him to resign. “I just want him to acknowledge his culpability.”

He is referring to the current pope. The scandal over child abuse by priests has rocked the Vatican more than the pope’s Regensburg speech, which got him into trouble with Muslims, or the affair involving the Society of St. Pius X and the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

Culprits in the Cassock

“Everyone here is highly alarmed,” says one official at the Curia, adding: “For Benedict, this is the most difficult challenge of his pontificate. This time it’s not about theological or historical interpretation, but about his own outfit.”

And about Benedict himself.

Last Wednesday, the New York Times published documents on the Lawrence Murphy case that Isely’s victims’ rights group had been trying to make public for years. It was only one case among far too many cases. Nevertheless, it is one that casts a light on how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger, showed more concern for the welfare of culprits in the cassock than for the welfare of abused children.

Between 1950 and 1974, Murphy stalked his pupils and molested them in cars, in dormitories and, in some cases, even in the confessional — a doubly serious offence under Catholic Church law.

Murphy would tell the boys to confess to sexual activities with their peers. Then he would begin touching them, using his hand to masturbate them and himself. Murphy pressured the boys to give him the names of other young sinners, whose beds he would then visit at night. There was no need to be quiet about it, because the boys were all deaf.

In 1974, Murphy was removed from the school “for health reasons” and transferred to a parish in northern Wisconsin, where he apparently continued to have contact with children and adolescents. But the civil authorities also did nothing, and all investigations against Murphy were dropped.

Prayed and Went to Confession

It wasn’t until 20 years later that the church hierarchy became active. In 1993, an expert hired by the church concluded that Murphy had no sense of guilt. The priest told her that he had essentially taken on the sins of the adolescents. He said that if he “played” with the boys once a week, their needs would be satisfied and they wouldn’t have sex with each other. “I sensed whether or not they liked it. And if they didn’t push me away, they must have liked it.” After molesting the boys, Murphy said, he always prayed and went to confession.

In June 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, turned to the then chairman of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Even though it wasn’t until 2001 that the church began requiring that all abuse cases in the global church be reported to the CDF, Ratzinger’s office was responsible, because the “sollicitatio,” or solicitation to commit carnal sin, occurred in the confessional, one of the holiest places in the church. The severity of the case, Weakland wrote, suggested that an internal church trial would be the right approach, a trial that could end in exclusion from the priesthood.

Ratzinger didn’t respond.

In December 1996, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee informed Murphy of its intention to investigate the abuse cases. Only after a second attempt did Weakland receive a response from the Vatican, in March 1997, in the form of a letter from Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s then deputy at the CDF. Bertone wrote that he recommended an internal church trial based on the laws of 1962, which protects the participants by applying the “Secretum Sancti Officii,” or secrecy on penalty of excommunication.

‘Kind Assistance’

On Jan. 12, 1998, Murphy appealed directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, asking him to stop the proceedings his archdiocese had initiated. The acts of which he was being accused, he wrote, had occurred 25 years earlier: “I am 72 years of age, your Eminence, and am in poor health. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”

His wish was fulfilled. In April 1998, Bertone dropped the case against Murphy, in the spirit of forgiveness. In his letter to the Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, he wrote: “The Congregation invites Your Excellency to give careful consideration to what canon 1341 proposes as pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.” The letter ends with Bertone’s best wishes for “a blessed Easter.”

Murphy died five months later, in August 1998. Bertone, for whom this meant that the matter was closed, wrote to the Archbishop of Milwaukee: “This Dicastery commends Father Murphy to the mercy of God and shares with you the hope that the Church will be spared any undue publicity from this matter.”

Today, Tarciso Bertone is the Cardinal Secretary of State, which makes him the second-in-command at the Vatican.

Abuse in the Vatican’s Backyard

“Bertone should not have put an end to such a sensitive case without consulting his superior first,” says abuse victim Peter Isely. “Ratzinger must have concealed the cover-up, just as he must have known about the transfer of pedophile priest Peter H. to Bavaria when he was Archbishop of Munich.”

Commenting last week on the “tragic case of Father Murphy,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi merely said that the CDF “was only informed 20 years after the matter.” He also pointed out that there were never any reports to criminal authorities that would have stood in the way of the Vatican’s recommendation to drop the case because of Murphy’s age.

For this reason, the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano denounced the media for what it called “the evident and ignoble intent to wound Benedict XVI and his closest advisers at any cost.”

The Murphy case has clearly struck a nerve. Since it became public, there has been speculation, even within the walls of the Vatican, over Bertone’s possible resignation.

Just Outside the Gates of the Vatican

Benedict’s pontificate set out to strengthen the church through dialogue with the Eastern churches, the traditionalists and Catholics in China. But now Benedict XVI must look on as the temple begins to totter, and as a veritable furor develops against the Roman church, and not just north of the Alps.

A widespread apathy toward all things religious has turned into aggression. Since the most recent revelations, a mood of “reckoning” has prevailed in Italy, writes historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia: “No one is forgiving the priests and the church for anything anymore.”

The Vatican is now deeply concerned that the scandal could continue to spread around the world. Why shouldn’t the abuses that occurred in Irish parishes have happened elsewhere, as well?

The next wave of revelations could begin just outside the gates of the Vatican. Even in Italy, where the majority of youth work is in the hands of the church, the code of silence is beginning to crumble. Victims’ groups have been formed in Sicily, Emilia-Romagna and the country’s northern regions. The groups plan to hold their first conference in Verona in September, under the motto: “I too suffered abuse at the hands of priests.” For years, the Curia in Verona covered up the abuse of deaf-mute children at a school in Chievo on the city’s outskirts.

And what happens if there were also abuse cases in the Diocese of Rome? The pope is the nominal Bishop of Rome. Internet sites are already calling upon Catholics to refuse to pay their voluntary church contribution.

A List of Horrors

A recently published book by an anonymous author, “Il peccato nascosto” (“The Hidden Sin”), enumerates the cases of recent years. It is a list of horrors. For instance, from 1989 to 1994, a priest in Bolzano, Don Giorgio Carli, repeatedly raped a girl who was nine when the abuse began. The relevant bishop refused all cooperation with the courts. Only last year, the priest was declared guilty by a higher court, but by that time the statute of limitations had passed. Today, Don Carli works as a pastor in a village in South Tyrol.

In Palermo alone, a group headed by a priest attended to 824 victims of abuse last year. According to an investigation by the newspaper La Repubblica, more than 40 priests have already been sentenced in sex abuse cases — “and this could be only the tip of the iceberg.”

Nevertheless, Italy’s bishops have yet to form an investigative commission. The “problem was never underestimated” in Italy, a spokesman for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) explained in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, insisting that the situation is “under control.”

Whatever that means.

Benedict’s pastoral letter speaks a completely different language. With unprecedented openness, the pope writes: “In her (the Church’s) name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.” Critics in Ireland and Germany would have preferred a mea culpa.

‘Listen to the Voice of God’

In November 2002, Joseph Ratzinger refused to admit that there was a crisis. He described the abuse debate in the United States as “intentional, manipulated, (and characterized by) … a desire to discredit the church.”

Now the pope writes, in his pastoral letter, that he intends “to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland.” The term refers to a field audit of sorts, which can take months.

Even critical Vaticanologists concede that the pope, in his last few years at the CDW, made an about-face from a silent Saul to a zero-tolerance Paul. It would appear that Ratzinger, as head of the CDW, read too many dossiers to harbor any further illusions about the state of his church.

The turning point in Ratzinger’s thinking can be precisely dated to April 2003, when he banished Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a man held in high esteem by Pope John Paul II, to a monastery. Ratzinger had been told that Maciel had allegedly sexually abused minor seminarians.

The pope began Lent this year by saying that it was a time to “return to ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and find the truth of our being.”

But for the pope, perhaps the most dangerous demons are the ghosts of his own past, in Munich, Regensburg and Rome.

Benedict wants the crisis to be seen as a test, and as a purification and new beginning. He wants to lead his flock through the desert, presumably until the end of his pontificate.

But after everything that has now come to light — the letters, the accusations, his deputy’s entanglement in the Murphy case — it is unlikely to be a feast of redemption for Pope Benedict this year.


Full article and photo:,1518,686495,00.html

The Genesis of a People

A guide to understanding the world’s first monotheistic religion.

Today, as Jews celebrate Passover and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt during the traditional Passover ritual meal, the Seder, they will figuratively re-enact the story of their own creation as a nation. The transition from slavery to freedom—the wandering through the Wilderness, during which the Jews receive the Ten Commandments, and the eventual arrival in the land of Israel—is the dominant historical theme in Judaism. But as David Gelernter explains in “Judaism: A Way of Being,” the Exodus can be understood as a metaphor for the creation of the world. Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea to enable the Jews to flee Egypt and escape bondage, he first divided “the waters from the waters” to create the firmament and make an earthly place for life itself.

The Jewish experience, as Mr. Gelernter shows, echoes profoundly across the wider experience of humanity. “Judaism” itself is a wide-ranging book about the beliefs, practices and philosophy of the world’s first monotheistic religion—a book that Jews and non-Jews alike will find well worth reading. Mr. Gelernter is not shy about explaining why everyone should care about Judaism. It is, he writes, “the most important intellectual development in western history. . . . . It has given morals and spiritual direction to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim society . . . and created the idea of congregational worship that made the church and the mosque possible.” Mr. Gelernter organizes his book along four major themes or images, each intended to provoke answers to basic questions about Judaism.

With “separation” (between Jew and non-Jew, the Sabbath and the weekday, the holy and the impure), Mr. Gelernter explains why Judaism is not just a matter of finding a personal relationship with God but also of leading a life governed by Jewish law, which “covers everything from weddings to legal procedure in criminal cases.” “Veil” is the image Mr. Gelernter uses to explain how Jews can relate to a God who is “abstract and indescribable.” Like the curtains protecting the Torah in a synagogue, or the Western Wall, which shields the public from the Temple Mount (the site of the two, long-destroyed Jewish temples in Jerusalem), a sacred, translucent veil separates God from his people. The Jewish God is thus both ineffable and close at hand. “Perfect asymmetry” is Mr. Gelernter’s phrase for explaining the structure of marriage and family in Jewish life and for defending, against charges of discrimination, a religion that usually forbids women to conduct public ceremonies. Finally, “inward pilgrimage” is his emblem for the effort to meet the challenge of theodicy—how a belief in God can be reconciled with the existence of evil.

Mr. Gelernter’s most moving discourse concerns separation. He argues that “God uses separation as an act of sanctification.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for “holy” (kadosh) is derived from the concept of separation or withdrawal: What is holy is set apart. The work of the creator—creation itself—is the ultimate act of separation, he notes, not merely the act of making order from chaos but even the separation of the individual from the womb. One of the most famous of all biblical commentators (Rashi) interpreted the exhortation in Leviticus to “be holy” as meaning “to separate oneself from immoral sexual conduct.” The broader idea of separation implies a resistance to other ways of being—to the “inevitable rising tide of chaos in the universe.”

Mr. Gelernter’s discussion of the roles of men and women in Judaism is less persuasive. His idea of perfect asymmetry is meant to suggest that man is not complete without woman, and of course he has plenty of scriptural support for this assertion. To Mr. Gelernter, “man is two—not male or female, but male and female.” He criticizes the “modern attempt to make the two sexes interchangeable, shorting out the battery that operates civilization.” Still, many readers will be dissatisfied with his claim that a woman who wants to be a rabbi, or an “openly practicing homosexual who wants the same thing,” is fundamentally ill-suited to the task—like someone “who yearns to be a hazzan [cantor] but lacks the ear or voice for it.” To Mr. Gelernter, perfect asymmetry requires subordination, or inequality, because men and women, though equal in importance, have complementary, not identical, roles.

With his discussion of inward pilgrimage Mr. Gelernter grapples with the baffling existence of evil. He does so by asserting that with the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple—in 70 A.D.—the era of prophecy ended and God withdrew from history. This is certainly an explanation, though it leaves one with a diminished view of God and the usual mystery of why such a withdrawal should ever happen. Mr. Gelernter’s tentative answer, that “maybe God withdrew so that man could grow up,” raises as many questions as it answers. In any case, “the problem of evil is man’s problem,” Mr. Gelernter says; “the central question is not why God hasn’t saved the world but why you haven’t.”

Throughout “Judaism,” Mr. Gelernter uses imagery to amplify understanding. He notes that Judaism is filled with powerful images—the seven-branched Temple menorah, the Star of David, the tablets of the Ten Commandments. To grasp the essence of Judaism is to read the messages of these images or at least to contemplate their potential meaning. When Moses, upon first encountering God, sees a burning bush that is not consumed, Mr. Gelernter infers a metaphor for all of Jewish history: “Jews are slaughtered yet Israel is not consumed.” The book includes images of Mr. Gelernter’s own devising, too: color plates of eight paintings by the author, each named by a Hebrew phrase. Perhaps the most evocative shows orange brushstrokes across a burgundy-and-purple field of Rothko-like color. Hebrew letters spell out a phrase that is sung aloud in synagogue each sabbath at the conclusion of the Torah-reading service. It is from Lamentations and can be translated thus: “Make us new again, as we used to be.”

Mr. Lefkowitz is a lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School.


Full article and photo:

A Former Slave’s Long Road to Sainthood

A generous, devout hairdresser may be canonized

Pierre Toussaint has been inching toward sainthood ever since his death in 1853. A one-time slave and devoted churchgoer, he would be the fourth black saint in the history of the Catholic Church.


A watercolor of Pierre Toussaint based on an 1825 painting.

In 2000, the Archdiocese of New York presented the Vatican with evidence that a miracle occurred through his intercession (he cured a 5-year-old boy suffering from advanced scoliosis). He was soon thereafter declared a candidate for beatification—one step short of canonization. Once he is beatified, the Vatican will still require proof of an additional miracle attributable to Mr. Toussaint before he’ll be eligible to enter the register of the saints.

The path to sainthood used to be easier—before the 10th century, the public was able to anoint a deserving individual through sheer acclamation. Now the power rests with the papacy. Popular sympathy for the February earthquake in Haiti is unlikely to galvanize Mr. Toussaint’s cause; rarely is the Catholic Church swayed by political correctness.

Mr. Toussaint’s cause was recently given a jolt when the committee steering the proposed renovation of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the New York church where Mr. Toussaint’s body was buried before its 1990 translation to the glitzier St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, began making noises for the return of its star inhabitant.

Mr. Toussaint was born in 1766 in what was then St. Dominigue, a French-run Haitian slave colony. In 1787, his masters brought him to New York, where he was apprenticed to a hairdresser. In 1806, despite his official status as a slave, he took over his boss’s business. He came to develop a wealthy Protestant clientele keen on the elaborate hairdos that were popular with aristocratic women of western Europe.

Mr. Toussaint was a good hairdresser and a very good listener. His client list read like a Who’s Who of 19th-century New York society. A French speaker, he was especially popular with the French aristocrats in New York who had escaped Napoleon.

Mr. Toussaint was brilliantly disciplined, a daily 6 a.m. Mass attendant for 60 years—in good and bad weather, in good and bad health.

His arthritis worsened over time, but that didn’t stop him from walking every morning from his house on Reade Street to Saint Peter’s church on Barclay Street, and then on to his many appointments. He returned to church every evening.

He saved money and was a philanthropist. He is said to be the founder of the now-world-wide Catholic Charities. He bought the freedom of his bride-to-be, Juliette Noel, before their marriage in 1811. They adopted his deceased sister Rosalie’s tubercular young daughter, Euphemia.

His business continued to thrive and his philanthropic activities grew. In 1842 he was able to pay $6,000 in cash for a bigger house on Franklin Street. His career began to wind down in the late 1840s, as his health was giving out.

His 1853 funeral was filled with Protestant New York aristocracy. Black and Catholic mourners squeezed in wherever they could. The New York Post wrote, “Toussaint is spoken of by all who knew him as a man of the warmest and most active benevolence.” He was buried between his wife and niece in the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Mr. Toussaint’s legacy resurfaced 90 years after his death, when Father Charles McTeague, a New York priest who had been asked by a few black students if there was a black saint in heaven, researched the black hairdresser he’d heard of who was known as “saintly Pierre.” He located Mr. Toussaint’s grave and took it upon himself to bring Mr. Toussaint’s story to light.

In 1990, Mr. Toussaint’s body was moved to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that Mr. Toussaint was venerable.

In 2000, there was buzz about Mr. Toussaint curing that 5-year-old Maryland boy of scoliosis. His mother had invoked Venerable Pierre for his help and said that everybody at Johns Hopkins Hospital was stunned to see that the scoliosis had all but disappeared. There had been no medical intervention to pin this on.

In 2003, the Vatican accepted this as a genuine miracle. Today, we still await word of a second miracle by Mr. Toussaint’s intercession.

Canonization is an exceedingly costly endeavor. Another hurdle: a large proportion of canonizations are of religious figures. Mr. Toussaint suffers from the same handicap that held up St. Juan Diego’s canonization for nearly 500 years: He was a layman.

Yet hope is not lost. Providence will get Venerable Pierre to the top, his supporters say, and should he have to wait 500 years, so be it.

Norman Darden is a former director of the Pierre Toussaint Guild. He is working on a novel on Pierre Toussaint


Full article and photo:

The origins of a holy book

Using ancient texts, scholars have begun an audacious effort to unravel the story of the Koran. What will they find?

Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran.

The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.

But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical

commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.

Critical editions — usually books rather than websites — are a commonplace in academia. University bookstores do a brisk business in critical editions of the world’s best-known literary works, from “The Iliad” to “Hamlet” to “Das Kapital.” As labor-saving devices for scholars and teaching aids for students, they can be invaluable. Presenting a novel or manifesto or play in its historical context helps readers to see the ways it was shaped by contemporaneous events and local attitudes, how it was built from the distinctive cultural building blocks at hand. Embedding a work in critical commentary — and critical editions often include essays that are sharply at odds with each other — gives readers a sense of the richness of possible readings of the text.

But the form takes on a special significance with holy books, where millions of people order their lives in accordance to what they see as divine language. Standard versions like the King James Bible or the regularized Cairo Koran (the version, first printed in 1924, that most Muslims have today) help to unite the faithful in one common reading of their holy book. A critical edition, on the other hand, by its nature, highlights the contingency of a text’s creation and gives readers the tools to interpret it for themselves.

Among Koranic scholars, there’s a great deal of excitement about the Corpus Coranicum, which will help them make better sense of a text that — despite the fact that millions regularly recite from it and live their lives according to its precepts — remains something of a historical and theological puzzle.

“I think it is a big deal,” says Jane McAuliffe, the editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an and the president of Bryn Mawr College, “it’s a wonderful opportunity to do something that the field of Koranic studies has wanted to do for a long time.”

At the same time, the impending publication of the Corpus has set off a small stir outside the scholarly world. Islam has a long and lively tradition of theological debate, but in recent years revisionist scholars in the Muslim world have been threatened, branded heretics, and even attacked for their work. Already, the creators of the Corpus Coranicum, in response to press coverage in Germany, have felt the need to publicly insist on al-Jazeera and in visits to Muslim countries that they have no intention of undermining the faith. In part what’s to blame is the strict, austere form of Islam that is dominant in some parts of the world, but the friction also stems from the relationship all Muslims have to the Koran. To a mainstream Muslim, the Koran is not merely a divinely inspired text put together by disciples, as most modern Christians believe the Bible to be. It is the literal word of God, dictated directly to Mohammed. To question that is to insult the faith.

The fact that it will be born on the Web makes the Corpus Coranicum seem a quintessentially 21st-century project, but its roots actually extend back to the 1930s. Then, as now, Germany produced some of the world’s leading Koranic scholars — proteges of the great 19th-century linguist, historian, and “Semiticist” Theodor Noldeke.

The archive that was to become the Corpus Coranicum was started by the German Arabist Gotthelf Bergstrasser, who traveled through Europe and the former Ottoman Empire photographing the old Korans he turned up. After Bergstrasser’s death in a mountain climbing accident in the Alps, a colleague named Otto Pretzl took over, before he died in a plane crash while serving in World War II. That left the photo archive in the hands of a young scholar named Anton Spitaler.

Then, in a mystifying twist detailed in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, Spitaler began to claim, falsely, that the photo archive had been destroyed in 1944 by an Allied bombing raid. Spitaler kept up this deception until the early 1990s, when he revealed to a former student of his named Angelika Neuwirth that he still had all 450 rolls of film. He offered to give them to her — she is today the head of the Corpus Coranicum project — and he died a decade later without explaining himself.

According to Islam, the Koran is a series of revelations Mohammed was given through the Angel Gabriel, starting in 610 AD and ending with Mohammed’s death two decades later. Those revelations were recorded and compiled by Mohammed’s followers. In the religion’s early years, little need was seen for a standardized text — Mohammed and most of his followers were illiterate and as a result the Koran was meant to be recited rather than read (a tradition that remains central to Islam). Transmission was mainly oral, with written texts simply an aid. But within decades of Mohammed’s death, conquests had ballooned the size of the Muslim empire and many of the original disciples were themselves aging and dying, and one of Mohammed’s successors decreed a standard written version to unify the growing faith. In a pre-printing-press world, however, the process took time, and alternate versions continued to be written and read for decades, and perhaps centuries.

The value of the earliest surviving Korans, then, is that they show both the roots of the text and the ways it evolved during the window between its birth and its standardization — a time when what to include was still in dispute.

Though the publication of the first section of the Corpus is only the beginning, it’s possible to see in it the outlines of its larger ambitions. The goal, essentially, is to place the text in a historical context. “We want to frame the Koran as a text of late antiquity,” says Michael Marx, the project’s research director. “We put stress on the links that the Koran has to other Near Eastern religions: Christian sources, rabbinic sources.”

For instance, in one of the parallels that the researchers will post, they compare one of the most important passages in the entire Koran — “He is God, one, God the absolute, He did not beget nor is He begotten, And there is none like Him” — to nearly identical passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Nicene Creed (the profession of faith in many Christian liturgical services). Both the Bible and the Creed long predate the birth of the Koran. To Marx, this demonstrates the extent to which the Koran, a text that proclaims itself immutable and eternal, is in fact a recognizable product of the particular historical moment in which it was created.

“Once you have all the texts on the table,” he says, “it’s possible to make quite clear that the Koran has a history, that it is interacting with human history.”

Marx doesn’t argue that the Koran’s history necessarily undercuts its claim to divinity, nor that it is a derivative text. Instead, he sees the parallels between it and other scriptures as evidence that it was seeking to insert itself into the religious debates of its day. If anything, he argues, the links should highlight how intertwined the West’s own religious traditions are with those of Islam.

“It shows how closely the text is related to our own identity. One could, bluntly speaking, talk about a European approach to the Koran,” he says.

Other contemporary scholars take things further. Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.

“For Muslims, the word of the Koran is eternal, it predates the Old Testament, it predates history itself,” Puin says. “But from a Western point of view, you could say, OK, this is a clear reliance of the Koran on the Old Testament because the Old Testament was there earlier.”

It’s up for debate when the first true critical edition of the Bible was created, but one candidate is the Dutch theologian Erasmus’s 1516 Novum Instrumentum omne. That text, by challenging aspects of the existing Latin translation and providing Christians with the tools to interpret the text for themselves, helped pave the way for the violent convulsion of the Reformation.

No mainstream Koranic scholars see the Corpus Coranicum, or work like it, triggering a Muslim Reformation. So far, the debates over the roots of the Koran have remained within academia, and most scholars don’t see that changing.

“Most Muslims simply don’t care about this sort of work, any more than most Christians care about the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Walid Saleh, an Islamic scholar at the University of Toronto specializing in the history of Koranic interpretation. “This is a Western academic enterprise, this critical historical study.”

Nonetheless, scholars offering revisionist readings of the Koran have run into trouble in the Muslim world in recent years. The Egyptian theologian Nasr Abu Zayd was branded an apostate by a court in his homeland and ordered to divorce his Muslim wife. The liberal Islamic scholar Suliman Bashear was attacked and thrown out a second-story window by his students in the West Bank. One of the most controversial revisionist Koranic scholars is a German man who writes under a pseudonym, “Christoph Luxenberg,” out of fear for his safety — his best-known claim is that the heavenly virgins who await Islamic martyrs are the result of a mistranslation and are actually “white grapes.”

Some Koranic scholars, both in and out of the Muslim world, emphasize that it’s important not to make too much of these incidents. In fact, they argue, there is a proud tradition of dissident Muslim theology.

“There are some spectacular exceptions, but in general it’s very hard to find [Muslim] heretics who didn’t die in their beds,” says Caner Dagli, an Islamic scholar at the College of the Holy Cross and co-editor of a forthcoming annotated translation of the Koran.

Still, questioning the origins of the Koran itself, he adds, is a special case. Most Christians believe that, while the Bible is holy scripture, it was written by various prophets and disciples. To Muslims, the Koran is different.

“For Muslims, the Koran is the literal word of god,” says Dagli. “They don’t consider Muhammad to be the author of the Koran. It came straight down from heaven, and you won’t find a Muslim who would say otherwise. That’s non-negotiable.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.


Full article and photo:

Federally funded abortions are in our future

Health care is the next-to-last thing I want to write about. The last thing is abortion, so this column is a banquet of tortures.

Usually, I would not return so soon to a topic that I tend to associate with the pleasures of head-banging, but broad misunderstanding about what’s in the health-care-reform law justifies another lap.

Still cloudy is whether the new law of the land allows funding for abortions and whether President Obama’s executive order is of any real (judicially enforceable) value. The answer to the latter is in little dispute. It is no. An executive order cannot override a statute.

As to the funding issue, well, it’s intentionally complicated. And suffice to say, it shouldn’t be.

Defenders argue that: (1) nowhere does the bill say funds will go toward abortion; (2) the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, applies.

Both assertions are true — up to a point. The issue isn’t what the bill says; it’s what it doesn’t say.

No one should apologize for being confused, by the way. If not for the patient tutoring of brilliant lawyers, Capitol Hill staffers, medical experts and others, I would be hugging my knees alternately muttering “Who’s Jacob?” and “Ibid, Subsection C (1)(a).”

To the first argument: Of course the bill doesn’t explicitly state that it appropriates abortion funding. In fact, it takes pains to use terminology that seems to explicitly forbid it. But other areas are swampier. And, indeed, funds could be used to pay for abortion under circumstances that predictably will evolve.

History and precedent tell us this much.

For one thing, the Hyde Amendment is a rider that must be lobbied and attached each year to the annual Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill. Under its terms, the amendment applies only to those funds.

Rather than following the usual course of funding community health centers (CHCs) through the Labor/HHS budget, the health-care-reform measure does an end run around Hyde by directly appropriating billions of dollars into a new CHC fund.

Because the Obama administration’s “fix-it” bill did not include the abortion-ban language proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), those billions appropriated to CHCs simply are not covered by Hyde.

Now, the president’s executive order purports to address this gap by extending the Hyde Amendment to these dollars as well. The problem is that, regardless of Obama’s stated intentions, he can’t actually do this without an act of Congress.

As Dorinda Bordlee, an attorney with the Bioethics Defense Fund, wrote: “If a president could do that, there would be no need to have a majority of Congress pass the Hyde Amendment each and every year to prevent abortion funding using Medicaid dollars for low-income government health care. Instead, we could have simply prevailed on each president to issue an executive order saying agencies can’t use Medicaid money for abortion. Congress controls the purse strings, not the president. That’s Civics 101.”

It is telling that the nation’s largest abortion provider — Planned Parenthood — is claiming “victory” because “we were able to keep the Stupak abortion ban out of the final legislation and President Obama did not include the Stupak language in his executive order.”

Several supporters of the bill have argued that this debate is otherwise irrelevant because abortions aren’t performed at CHCs. While currently true, this doesn’t mean that CHCs wouldn’t like to offer abortion among their reproductive services.

Under the new law, they can. There’s nothing to stop them.

Here’s why. By statute, CHCs are required to provide all “required primary health care services,” defined to include “health services related to . . . obstetrics or gynecology that are furnished by physicians.”

Federal courts long have held that when a statute requires provision of health services under such broad categories, then the statute must be construed to include abortion unless it explicitly excludes it. Voilà.

One may believe that poor women should have affordable access to abortion. This is a reasonable position and it is likely to be the result of this bill. But it is not what Americans have been led to believe is true, nor is it what most want. A January Quinnipiac University poll found that 67 percent of Americans oppose public funding for abortion, down from 72 percent in December.

Prediction: Abortions will be performed at community health centers. You can bet your foreclosed mortgage on that. There was always a will by this administration, and now there’s a way.

In a recent column I wrote that Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She was the first elected to both houses. The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Caraway of Arkansas.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post


Full article:

A Papal Conversion

IN light of recent revelations, Pope Benedict XVI now seems to symbolize the tremendous failure by the Catholic Church to crack down on the sexual abuse of children. Both the pope’s brief stint as a bishop in Germany 30 years ago and his quarter-century as a top Vatican official are being scoured for records of abusive priests whom he failed to stop, and each case seems to strengthen the indictment.

For example, considerable skepticism surrounds the Vatican’s insistence that in 1980 the pope, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, was unaware of a decision to transfer a known pedophile priest to his diocese and give him duties in a parish. In some ways, the question of what he knew at the time is almost secondary, since it happened on his watch and ultimately he has to bear the responsibility. However, all the criticism is obscuring something equally important: For anyone who knows the Vatican’s history on this issue, Benedict XVI isn’t just part of the problem. He’s also a major chapter in the solution.

To understand that, it’s necessary to wind the clock back a decade. Before then, no Vatican office had clear responsibility for cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, which instead were usually handled — and often ignored — at the diocesan level. In 2001, however, Pope John Paul II assigned responsibility to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s all-important doctrinal office, which was headed by Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal.

As a result, bishops were required to send their case files to Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. By all accounts, he studied them with care, making him one of the few churchmen anywhere in the world to have read the documentation on virtually every Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse. The experience gave him a familiarity with the pervasiveness of the problem that virtually no other figure in the Catholic Church can claim. And driven by that encounter with what he would later refer to as “filth” in the church, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have undergone a transformation. From that point forward, he and his staff were determined to get something done.

One crucial issue Cardinal Ratzinger had to resolve was how to handle the church’s internal disciplinary procedures for abusive priests. Early on, reformers worried that Rome would insist on full trials in church courts before a priest could be removed from ministry or defrocked. Those trials were widely seen as slow, cumbersome and uncertain, yet many in the Vatican thought they were needed to protect the due process rights of the accused.

In the end, Cardinal Ratzinger and his team approved direct administrative action in roughly 60 percent of the cases. Having sorted through the evidence, they concluded that in most cases swift action was more important than preserving the church’s legal formalities.

Among Vatican insiders, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith became the primary force pushing for a tough response to the crisis. Other departments sometimes regarded the “zero tolerance” policy as an over-reaction, not to mention a distortion of the church’s centuries-long legal tradition, in which punishments are supposed to fit the crime, and in which bishops and other superiors have great leeway in meting out discipline.

After being elected pope, Benedict made the abuse cases a priority. One of his first acts was to discipline two high-profile clerics against whom sex abuse allegations had been hanging around for decades, but had previously been protected at the highest levels.

He is also the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did in the United States and Australia in 2008. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States. And he became the first pope to devote an entire document to the sex-abuse crisis, his pastoral letter to Ireland.

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

Be that as it may, Benedict now faces a difficult situation inside the church. From the beginning, the sexual abuse crisis has been composed of two interlocking but distinct scandals: the priests who abused, and the bishops who failed to clean it up. The impact of Benedict’s post-2001 conversion has been felt mostly at that first level, and he hasn’t done nearly as much to enforce new accountability measures for bishops.

That, in turn, is what makes revelations about his past so potentially explosive. Can Benedict credibly ride herd on other bishops if his own record, at least before 2001, is no better? The church’s legitimacy rests in large part on that question.

Yet to paint Benedict XVI as uniquely villainous doesn’t do justice to his record. The pope may still have much ground to cover, but he deserves credit for how far he’s come.

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”


Full article:

Is the Supernatural Only Natural?

Religion tastes sweet to the brain—especially the remarkable idea of an afterlife.

At least 80% of human beings, some five billion souls, are affiliated with one or another of the 4,200 religious organizations statisticians have identified. Most are confident of the singular superiority of their group. But where does the basis for religious conviction come from? Clearly, it depends more on the imaginative and deeply felt assertions of thinkers and advocates than on the kind of tough evidence, for example, required in a legal trial for fraud.

Yet as we’ve seen throughout history and in today’s headlines, the interactions between groups defined by supernatural religion often provoke astonishingly harsh outcomes in the natural world: terrorist attacks, internecine wars, and even genocide.

What then is the difference between Sunni and Shiite, Baptists and Methodists, or Orthodox Jews and Hamas fundamentalists? Doctrinal differences loom large in the notions of decency and appropriate behavior of groups at loggerheads. These may range from majestic, as in the case of the Trinity, to petty, as in dietary laws about acceptable foods.

But they are always associated with membership in particular groups and their particular practices. Certainly there is an important element of private spirituality in the major religions. But the essence of religious identity is social.

What if it is discovered that the source and essence of this identity results not from theological commitment and texts but from operations of the brain? That religion is a product of neurophysiological engagement? The drastic view of Darwinism as a decisive disproof of human Godly origin has occupied intellectuals for a century and a half. But there are now more immediate, relatively friendly challenges to religious supernaturality from research on the links between the brain and religious experience in studies by such noted researchers as Claremont University’s Paul Zak and the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg.

Are people religious because they find a particular theology convincing? Some converts might, though they are a tiny number of believers. Far more likely is that their faith emerges from the group with which they are affiliating and in which they are likely to have been born and raised. Religious groups are intensely social, and hitherto unexpected links between social behavior and brain chemistry are now almost routinely identified.

One such connection, identified at UCLA Medical School by Michael Mcquire, is between secretion of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the sense of status an individual possesses—which for well or ill led to psychoactive drugs such as Prozac.

Other researchers, such as USC’s Antonio Damasio and former University of Mexico faculty member Jay Feierman, have combined interests in neurophysiology and the sources of social cohesion to explore the fundamental nature of religion. And it seems morally responsible and scientifically necessary to do so without standing in the “Pro” or the “No” line.

There is little utility in the notion presented with varying acerbity and intensity by writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who announce that believers in religion are deluded or intellectually defective. This cavalier disrespect of the mass of humankind contains a biologically fatal if not foolish idea: that the vast majority of our species is somehow missing the boat of survival.

We’re still on the boat, however rocky it is. In fact, there is a strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another. There may or may not be such a world, but our sapient brain finds the idea easy to learn and entertain. Religion tastes sweet to the brain—especially the remarkable idea of an afterlife that holds people accountable for their sweaty and ambiguous earthly lives and rewards or deprives them elsewhere.

Any thoughtful answers to questions about the nature of religion must account for the fact that for centuries and everywhere human beings have created and sustained a set of ideas well outside the realm of daily experience—ideas claimed as versions of that supernature that persists in the different flavors and textures of contemporary religions.

The scientific conclusion may be that religion is a natural system that replaces what we can call “brainpain,” which everyone experiences, with its antidote, “brainsoothing.” This can result from exercise or meditation or perfume or simply chatting with friends. The evidence of millennia is that it also can result from going to a house of worship on a regular basis and communing with the almighty and a group of fellow believers.

The stunning possibility is that religion will find its sturdiest roots in the natural, not the supernatural. Many people will reject this given the hectoring sense of their own perfection many religions have declaimed so loudly and so forever. Nevertheless, the increasingly convincing research concerning the moist meat in our skull suggests that it is so.

Mr. Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers, is the author, with Michael McGuire, of “God’s Brain,” just published by Prometheus Books.


Full article:

Stupak’s fall from pro-life grace


Etymology: Eponym for Rep. Bart Stupak.

Function: verb

1: In a legislative process, to obstruct passage of a proposed law on the basis of a moral principle (i.e., protecting the unborn), accumulating power in the process, then at a key moment surrendering in exchange for a fig leaf, the size of which varies according to the degree of emasculation of said legislator and/or as a reflection of just how stupid people are presumed to be. (Slang: backstabber.)

Poor Bart Stupak. The man tried to be a hero for the unborn, and then, when all the power of the moment was in his frail human hands, he dropped the baby. He genuflected when he should have dug in his heels and gave it up for a meaningless executive order.

Now, in the wake of his decision to vote for a health-care bill that expands public funding for abortion, he is vilified and will forever be remembered as the guy who Stupaked health-care reform and the pro-life movement.

Of all the disappointed activists, Brian Burch, president of and creator of, was perhaps the most demonstrative in his support of pro-life Democrats. He even created a video with a remake of the final battle scene from “Braveheart.”

A helmeted British Barack Obama says, “Our cavalry will ride them down like grass. . . . Full attack!” Whereupon, Stupak, eyeglasses incongruously perched on his blue-painted face, commands his pitchfork army, “Steady. . . . Hold, hold, hold.”

Alas, Stupak couldn’t hold.

Ultimately, he was weak and overwhelmed by raw political power. History is no stranger to such moments, but this one needs to be understood for what it was. A deception.

The executive order promising that no federal funds will be used for abortion is utterly useless, and everybody knows it. First, the president can revoke it as quickly as he signs it.

Second, an order cannot confer jurisdiction in the courts or establish any grounds for suing anybody in court, according to a former White House counsel. The order is therefore judicially unenforceable.

Finally, an executive order cannot trump or change a federal statute.

One can reasonably surmise that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, is well aware of the uselessness of his promise. Perhaps this is why he didn’t mention it during the bill-signing ceremony Tuesday.

Stupak, too, knew that the executive order was merely political cover for him and his pro-life colleagues. He knew it because several members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explained it to him, according to sources. The only way to prevent public funding for abortion was for his amendment to be added to the Senate bill.

Clearly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president didn’t want that. What they did want was the abortion funding that the Senate bill allowed.

Thus, the health-care bill passed because of a mutually understood deception — a pretense masquerading as virtue. No wonder Stupak locked his doors and turned off his phones on Sunday, according to several pro-life lobbyists who camped outside his office.

The ticktock of what transpired during the final 72 hours before the vote will keep political science students — and psychologists — happily lost in research for years. Meanwhile, whatever Americans feel about the health-care bill and its relative merits, they should disabuse themselves of any idea that this was an honest play.

Ironically, the day before the vote, Obama said: “We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

Democrats were bound to win, all right, but truth and light had nothing to do with it.

Stupak’s clumsy fall from grace is a lesson in human frailty. In a matter of hours, he went from representing the majority of Americans who don’t want public money spent on abortion to leading the army on the other side.

Something must have gone bump in the night.

Whatever it was, demonizing Stupak seems excessive and redundant given punishments to come. Already he has lost a speaking invitation to the Illinois Catholic Prayer Breakfast next month. His political future, otherwise, may have been foretold by a late-night anecdote.

After the Sunday vote, a group of Democrats, including Stupak, gathered in a pub to celebrate. In a biblical moment, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner was spotted planting a big kiss on Stupak’s cheek.

To a Catholic man well versed in the Gospel, this is not a comforting gesture.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post


Full article:

Pope’s Letter ‘Will Not Dispel Dark Clouds’ Over Church

Over the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI finally issued his letter of apology relating to the sexual abuse scandal in Ireland. German commentators welcome the move, but argue it is not enough. The pope, after all, still hasn’t commented on the abuse scandal in his homeland.

On Sunday, the waiting for Ireland’s Catholics came to an end. In a letter read aloud at weekend masses across the country, and handed out to churchgoers in printed form, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “shame and remorse” for the “sinful and criminal” sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy in Ireland for decades.

Though highly anticipated, the apology was not well received. Many slammed the letter for not including a requirement that Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Irish church, step down. Requirements that other church leaders be punished were likewise missed by victims groups. “It is one scandal on top of another,” Hugh Keogh in Dublin told the New York Times. “I do not think we have seen the last of this.”

In Germany, however, expectations that the pope might finally break his silence on the church abuse scandal that has shaken the country in recent weeks remain unfulfilled. Hundreds of people have come forward since the end of January with stories of sexual maltreatment perpetrated by priests and by teachers at Catholic boarding schools.

Of particular concern are allegations that the pope, back when he was the Bishop of Munich in the 1980s, knew of one particular abusive priest from Essen, who had forced a young boy to perform oral sex before being transferred to Munich. According to SPIEGEL information, the pope, then called Joseph Ratzinger, was aware of the church’s decision not to turn the priest over to the police. Just weeks later, the abusive priest was once again working with children, a fact which Ratzinger may also have known about.

German commentators on Monday take a look at the pope’s weekend letter and at the ongoing abuse scandal in Germany.

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

The pope “has done little to indicate the way forward for churches in Ireland or Germany, so that they may atone for past wrongs as well as avoid doing harm in the future. Nonetheless, the experiences of churches in North America and England provide a clear blueprint. It includes lessons regarding the standards for the training of priests; the necessity of breaking with the widespread past practice of showing more concern for the perpetrators than for the victims; and establishment of reporting centers that are institutionally independent of the church.”

“It is high time that investigation into these issues no longer depends solely on the willingness of victims to come forward or the reporting abilities of the press. Rather than a ’round table’ organized by the church itself, the inevitable task of victim compensation would best be done by a commission that brought together scientific expertise, integrity and social authority. In this way the pope’s suggested triad — ‘healing, renewal and compensation’ — could also become an initiative for church reform on all levels.”

Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

“The central issues of the scandal will remain. Now, as before, and despite all his warm words for the victims, the pope shies away from any debate about sexual morality in the church. And one can only hope that his public silence about the abuse cases in Germany, is not because the pope himself was unhappily involved in such a case when he was the archbishop of Munich.”

“To put it delicately, what the pope writes in his pastoral letter also applied back then — in the gospel according to John (John 8:31-32): “the truth will set you free.” Even though, in his letter, he only seeks to apply the principle to others.”

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“All of this is not just the result of the pressure of new incidents of clerical abuse. For years Joseph Ratzinger has said that the church should come out, clearly and definitely, against sexual abuse. In the Vatican he has not spared powerful church leaders like the founder of the reactionary Legion of Christ, when accusations of the abuse of minors against him emerged. In the face of this history, the letter to the Irish Catholic church is completely respectable. Never before has a pope made it so clear that such sexual abuse of those entrusted to the care of the church, strikes at the heart of all spiritual belief. Despite all this though, the letter is not going to rescue the church from the crisis it is currently enmeshed in. The letter will not do this because it is addressed to the Irish church only. The letter localizes a problem that actually affects the church throughout the world.”

“And the pope’s letter is also problematic when it tries to come to grips with the reasons for the abuse. Benedict XVI suggests that these problems arose because of a moral laxness in the clergy and church that arose after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (eds note: the 1960s reforms that the church brought about in acknowledge of the changing modern world). The pope says these were mistakenly interpreted as a softening of moral standards. With respect, this is nonsense. Many of the cases from the more distant past, which are currently coming to light, demonstrate this.”

“Pope Benedict XVI is merely viewing the abuses from his own belief system. And this is the real and far-reaching weakness of his well-intentioned words. According to this view, the abuse of children and youths is a result of a relativism of values, which has also crept into the church. This is, however, at odds with the real world.”

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

“Had the pope actually said anything about the occurrences in his homeland, the letter’s impact on the church worldwide would doubtless have been greater. Even without that, the text is explosive.”

“That bishops protected perpetrators, that camouflage and concealment were not exceptions: The head of the Catholic church has never been as clear about any of this before. His call for the church to be subject to the law of the land is an unmistakable instruction to all who abide by the church’s rules. But his pastoral letter will not dispel all of the dark clouds hovering over the Catholic church. Nor will it put to rest the debate over celibacy, that so many in the church find so troubling.”

“The church has a long road ahead of it, during which it must explain a lot as well as renew itself spiritually. And that counts for Ireland, Germany and the rest of the world. The church must travel this road with courage, so that doubts about men of the cloth and any negative impressions of a religious elite are dispelled. Traveling this path timidly will help as little as blaming the media of a plot against the church.”


Full article:,1518,685003,00.html

Fair play

The origins of selflessness

It is not so much that cheats don’t prosper, but that prosperity does not cheat

FOR the evolutionarily minded, the existence of fairness is a puzzle. What biological advantage accrues to those who behave in a trusting and co-operative way with unrelated individuals? And when those encounters are one-off events with strangers it is even harder to explain why humans do not choose to behave selfishly. The standard answer is that people are born with an innate social psychology that is calibrated to the lives of their ancestors in the small-scale societies of the Palaeolithic. Fairness, in other words, is an evolutionary hangover from a time when most human relationships were with relatives with whom one shared a genetic interest and who it was generally, therefore, pointless to cheat.

The problem with this idea is that the concept of fairness varies a lot, depending on which society it happens to come from—something that does not sit well with the idea that it is an evolved psychological tool. Another suggestion, then, is that fairness is a social construct that emerged recently in response to cultural changes such as the development of trade. It may also, some suggest, be bound up with the rise of organised religion.

Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues wanted to test these conflicting hypotheses. They reasoned that if notions of fairness are, indeed, calibrated to the Palaeolithic, then any variation from place to place should be random. If such notions are cultural artefacts, though, they will vary systematically with some aspect of society. In a study just published in Science, Dr Henrich and his team looked at the relationship between notions of fairness and two social phenomena: the degree to which a society is economically integrated and how religious the individuals within it are.

Play up, play up and play the game

To do the study Dr Henrich recruited 2,148 volunteers from 15 contemporary, small-scale societies. The societies in question included the Dolgan (hunters in Siberia), the Hadza (foraging nomads in Tanzania) and the Sanquianga (fishermen in Colombia).

First, the volunteers were asked to play a series of games that would measure their notions of fairness. One of these is called the dictator game. In it, two players (who do not actually meet) are given a sum of money. One of them then divides the money and gives whatever fraction he chooses to the other. Not much of a game, perhaps, but it provides a good measure of the first player’s sense of fairness, since he has the power to be as unfair as he likes.

Another game the researchers asked participants to play was more subtle. In it, the second player has the opportunity to reject the sum offered by the first, in which case neither player receives anything. In this version, however, the second player must decide what offer he would accept (within a 10% margin of error), and do so before he hears what the offer actually is. That provides a measure of willingness to punish, even at a cost to the punisher. Yet another game looked at interactions with third parties.

Having established prevailing notions of fairness in each of the societies they were examining, the researchers then calculated a measure of that society’s market integration. They arrived at this by working out the percentage of a household’s total calories that were purchased from the market, as opposed to being grown, hunted or fished. The volunteers were also asked whether they participated in a world religion (rather than a tribal one).

The results back a cultural explanation of fairness—or, at least, of the variable levels of fairness found in different societies. In fact, those societies that most resemble the anthropological consensus of what Palaeolithic life would have been like (hunting and gathering, with only a modicum of trade) were the ones where fairness seemed to count least. People living in communities that lack market integration display relatively little concern with fairness or with punishing unfairness in transactions. Notions of fairness increase steadily as societies achieve greater market integration (see chart). People from better-integrated societies are also more likely to punish those who do not play fair, even when this is costly to themselves.

For progressives, this finding brings great comfort. It suggests that people are, if not perfectible, at least morally malleable in positive ways. If economic integration is the driving force for fairness then it may make sense to view it as something like a type of technology. As societies have become more complex, those that have developed systems of sanitation, transport, energy and so on have been more successful than those which have not. It may be that the notion of fair play is an intangible equivalent of these systems.

Dr Henrich also, however, found that the sense of fairness in a society was linked to the degree of its participation in a world religion. Participation in such religion led to offers in the dictator game that were up to 10 percentage points higher than those of non-participants.

World religions such as Christianity, with their moral codes, their omniscient, judgmental gods and their beliefs in heaven and hell, might indeed be expected to enforce notions of fairness on their participants, so this observation makes sense. From an economic point of view, therefore, such judgmental religions are actually a progressive force. That might explain why many societies that have embraced them have been so successful, and thus why such beliefs become world religions in the first place.


Full article and photo:

Crimes and sins

The pope should say plainly and loudly that sexual abuse of children is not just sinful. It is criminal

IT COULD hardly get worse. Sex scandals are breaking over the Catholic church with such fury that the Vatican has felt bound to defend Pope Benedict XVI himself. Children at some Catholic schools in Germany have been systematically abused; paedophiles were transferred to other jobs, rather than dismissed or prosecuted. Abuse has surfaced in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate, has admitted that he was present in 1975 when two teenage boys were persuaded to sign oaths of silence about their abuse by Father Brendan Smyth. The church defrocked Smyth, but nobody, including Cardinal Brady, told the police about his crimes and he remained free to abuse boys for two decades.

Yet denial still reigns. Bishop Christopher Jones, head of the Irish episcopate’s committee on family affairs, has complained that the church is being singled out, when most abuse happens inside families and other organisations. “Why this huge isolation of the church and this huge focus on cover-up in the church when it has been going on for centuries?” he asked.

He is right that other secretive outfits (orphanages in authoritarian countries, say) are home to shameful abuse, but that misses the point. No church can expect to be judged merely against the most depraved parts of the secular world. If you preach absolute moral values, you will be held to absolute moral standards. Hence, for Catholics and outsiders alike, the church hierarchy’s inability to deal with the issue is baffling. The church now has exemplary child-protection rules—so strict, in fact, that they sometimes stifle healthily affectionate behaviour. It is the scandals from the past that are so toxic.

Applying modern standards to conduct long ago is tricky. The hierarchy in the past often saw paedophilia not as a crime with victims but as a sin that endangered the perpetrator’s soul: along the lines of alcoholism, or pilfering church funds. A priest who “erred” deserved a rebuke, pastoral attention (perhaps) and a fresh start. The dreadful damage done to the victims of the abuse was not appreciated, or was ignored.

A second delusion—still lingering in some church circles—was the conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality. A sexual relationship between a priest and a teenage boy was regarded as wrong, just as a liaison between two priests would be. But it did not count as a revolting abuse of trust.

Some add celibacy to the charge list. Those cut off from family life may not appreciate the horror parents feel about abuse. In a sex-obsessed age abstinence sounds unnatural and thus a cause of sexual deviancy. Yet a moment’s reflection shows how unfair that is. The childless care about children too. Parents are some of the worst child-abusers. And nobody has shown a statistical link between celibacy and paedophilia.

As in so many scandals, the cover-up compounds the original sin. The guilty secrets of the past must be flushed out. And bishops must admit their part in them. It is odd that an institution founded on honesty and penitence should struggle so. Today’s Catholic leaders might also recall that clerical abuses of power, defended by legalistic quibbling, greatly angered an itinerant preacher in Palestine two millennia ago.


Full article and photo:

Merkel Calls Church Abuse ‘Abhorrent’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called the sexual abuse of children “abhorrent.”

After weeks of keeping silent on the issue, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday spoke out on the mounting allegations of sexual abuse within the German Catholic Church. Also on Wednesday, a Church representative admitted that some cases of abuse had been suppressed.

The complaints keep coming. By the end of last week, some 200 people claiming to be victims in Germany had approached a Berlin attorney engaged by the Jesuits to look into cases of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy. A further 150 went public with stories of mistreatment at the monastery school in Ettal. And 15 former choirboys came forward with grievances relating to their time as members of the famous Regensburg choir called the Domspatzen.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented on the abuse scandal for the first time. Speaking to the German parliament, the Bundestag, during a debate on the country’s 2010 budget, Merkel said that “sexual abuse of children … is an abhorrent crime.” She went on to say that “there is only one possibility for our society to come to grips with these cases: truth and clarity about all that has happened.”

Prior to Wednesday’s comments, Merkel had been criticized for not having spoken up about the cases, which have been generating headlines in Germany ever since the first revelations, about abuse at a Jesuit school in Berlin, were revealed at the end of January. Since then, former students of predominantly Catholic boarding schools — but also from Protestant and non-denominational institutions — have come forward complaining of having been victims of sexual and physical abuse.

Many of the cases stem from decades ago, meaning that the statute of limitations precludes the prosecution of those responsible. There have been calls to revisit Germany’s statute of limitations laws, an appeal that Merkel supported on Wednesday. “We have to talk about the statute of limitations, restitution can also be discussed,” Merkel said.

Church Cover Up

The chancellor’s comments came on the same day that Bishop Stephan Ackermann, appointed by the Catholic Church to look into the abuse allegations, admitted that the Church had known about some of the abuse cases, but had covered them up.

“According to what we now know, there were instances of suppression. That is something that we have to painfully acknowledge,” Ackermann told the Rhein Zeitung in an interview published on Wednesday. “I have learned in recent days that we were too focused on protecting the perpetrators…. We showed improper deference to the reputation of the Church….”

Germany’s Justice Ministry is establishing a round table to look into the abuse cases, a move that Merkel threw her support behind on Wednesday.

Pope Benedict XVI has so far remained silent on the string of abuse allegations in Germany. He met last Friday with the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Robert Zollitsch and Catholic leaders in Germany expect the pope to comment this week. The pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, has been implicated by some former choirboys from the Domspatzen, who have accused the pope’s older brother of having thrown chairs at the children in fits of rage. Once, former chorister Thomas Mayer told SPIEGEL, he became so angry “that even his false teeth fell out.”

Did the Pope Know?

There has been speculation that the pope himself may have known about cases of sexual abuse during his tenure as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. A priest named Peter H. was transferred to Munich from Essen after having forced an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex. In 1980, as a member of the Diocese Council, Joseph Ratzinger was involved in a decision to grant Peter H. accommodation in a parsonage.

Shortly thereafter, the man was again involved in pastoral duties, with no restrictions whatsoever. In 1986, a court in Ebersberg gave H. an 18-month suspended prison sentence because he had once again sexually abused a minor, this time in the Bavarian town of Grafing. It has been alleged that the pope knew nothing about the case.


Full article and photo:,1518,684169,00.html

Pope Remains Silent as Abuse Allegations Hit Close to Home

Pope Benedict XVI attending a concert by the Regensburg Domspatzen with his brother Georg Ratzinger at the Vatican. Ratzinger claims never to have known about sexual abuse that took place at the choir school just prior to the time when he took over the school’s leadership.

Allegations of sexual abuse in the German Catholic Church continue to surface. Questions have been raised about what Pope Benedict XVI may have known about specific incidents of abuse and his brother, Georg Ratzinger, is also under fire. The pope, however, has so far remained silent.

Georg Ratzinger came clean about his transgressions. Indeed, it seemed to be the end of the matter — one which placed him squarely in the center of Germany’s ever expanding Church abuse scandal.

“In the beginning, I slapped (the boys) in the face on a number of occasions,” said Ratzinger, who, for decades, was the director of the Regensburger Domspatzen, one of the most renowned boys’ choirs in Germany. But he stopped the practice back in 1980, he says, because the state had banned corporal punishment. He says that he “strictly” observed the new law.

Former choirboys tell a different story. They still shudder when they recall the reverend’s severity — and his tendency toward violence, even in later years.

“Ratzinger was extremely choleric and quick-tempered during choir practice,” says Thomas Mayer, who was a student at the choir boarding school from 1988 to 1992. “On a number of occasions, I saw him get so angry that he threw a chair into our group of singers.” Once Ratzinger flew into such a rage during choir practice “that even his false teeth fell out,” says Mayer.

Ratzinger, 86, now lives in a monastery and has declined to comment further. Clarification of the matter has now been left to his younger brother: Pope Benedict XVI.

Last Friday, Benedict XVI met in the Vatican with the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Robert Zollitsch, to talk about violence and sexual abuse carried out by Catholic priests in his native Germany. Just like his older brother, the pope would like the world to believe that the Church has changed its ways. Benedict XVI and Zollitsch vowed to shed light on cases of abuse and assist the victims.

How Sincere?

But shortly after Zollitsch left for Germany, the pope found himself haunted by his own past as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising. His former archdiocese admitted to the center-left German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that a pedophile priest had been reinstated to a Catholic parish in Munich during Ratzinger’s tenure.

What does the pope know from personal experience about the abuse problem? And how sincere is his promise to finally clear up the allegations of abuse?

Hardly anyone in the inner circle of the Vatican is better informed on Catholic sex scandals than His Holiness the Pope. Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formally known as the Inquisition. Reported cases of abuse automatically landed on his desk. Since 2001, as the Church’s most powerful cardinal, and subsequently as the pope, Ratzinger has spearheaded the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to shed light on this troublesome issue.

Nevertheless, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has continued to regularly generate headlines. First, there were the waves of scandals in the US and Ireland. Now, hardly a day goes by in Germany without a new story on further allegations of abuse.

By the end of last week, some 200 presumed victims had contacted Ursula Raue, a Berlin attorney engaged by the Jesuits to handle abuse cases — and complaints are pouring in from all areas of the Church. Some 150 people have come forward with stories of abuse at the monastery school in Ettal, and roughly 15 former choirboys have grievances relating to the Regensburger Domspatzen.

Complex Nature of the Problem

On top of this, there have been reports from other areas of society. Cases have surfaced virtually everywhere: in the Protestant Church, in secular boarding schools like Odenwaldschule and in children’s homes in the former East Germany. The numbers are still a far cry from those linked to the Catholic Church, but they do reveal the complex nature of the problem.

It is a scandal the likes of which German society has not seen for years, and it will likely be months before it fades. Nonetheless, it is being inadequately addressed — often to a shocking degree.

This is true of the Catholic Church, which continues to damage itself as it hesitates between calls to clear up cases of abuse and the urge to hush things up. But it is also true of the state, as members of the government either let things take their course or drone on about the latest toothless initiative.

Should there be roundtable talks reserved only for members of the Catholic Church, or should they be open to a wide range of social groups? This question alone kept German ministers Kristina Schröder (family affairs), Annette Schavan (education and research) and Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (justice) squabbling for days — while Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed clear of the fray. A “broad and intensive debate” is required as a preliminary step, said Merkel’s spokesman.

At the same time, the German school system has been severely shaken. Former students at the secular Odenwaldschule in Hesse describe systematic abuse that continued until at least the 1990s. Eight former teachers, one of whom taught there until 2003, are the subject of serious allegations made by nearly three dozen former students.

Laid Him on the Bed

One former student says that he was only allowed to call his parents twice a week — and to do this, he had to use the phone in Gerold Becker’s bedroom. Becker was the school principal from 1971 to 1985. When the student was sad about the end of his telephone call, he says that Becker laid him on the bed, undressed him, touched the boy’s crotch, and then masturbated.

Another former student told of his fear of being the last one in the shower room with Becker after gym class. Yet another said that he was forced to engage in oral sex. “There was no way of avoiding them,” says Gerhard Roese, 48, who now lives in the German city of Darmstadt. He says that he was repeatedly forced to stimulate his music teacher’s genitalia with his hand. Distraught over the incidents, the boy confided in the school principal, but he only “smirked, hemmed and hawed, and said something about the Greeks,” says Roese.

Becker refuses to comment on the allegations. But questions have also been aimed at Hartmut von Hentig, 84, the doyen of Germany’s progressive education movement — and Becker’s long-time companion. Von Hentig has been pursued by journalists for days, he says. SPIEGEL was only able to submit questions to him in written form — and he faxed back his answers.

In his response, von Hentig warned against false allegations and underscored that so far, “statements have only been collected, they have not yet been verified.” He himself visited the boarding school on a number of occasions. Did he not find cause for suspicion?

“No,” he replied. When he stayed overnight at Odenwaldschule, he “usually” slept in the official guest room. “The only time I actually saw Gerold Becker interact with the boys and girls at the school was when we all took our meals together in the dining hall or when we walked across the school grounds, and they jumped up to him and he fended them off in a friendly manner: ‘You can see that I have a guest.'”

Did the Pope Really Not Know?

Von Hentig doesn’t blame himself for not having noticed anything. “I of course observed constantly and very carefully: filled with envy of this man who managed to relate so well to children, to explain things to them, to divert their attention or patiently coax them in order to keep them from getting into some kind of mischief. Filled with envy of ‘his’ wonderful school.”

Why do those in positions of authority, including supervisors and witnesses, tend to have such difficulty getting to the bottom of these allegations, as is the case with von Hentig? Why are the state and the Church so helpless when it comes to the abuse of minors?

The Irish have demonstrated that it is possible to break through the wall of silence. For years, Yvonne Murphy, a judge acting at the behest of the government, headed an independent commission investigating how the Irish Roman Catholic Church handled complaints of clerical child sexual abuse.

Her report, released last November, concluded that “the vast majority (of priests) simply chose to turn a blind eye” to abuse.

‘No Concern for the Abused Child’

The commission also found that the Church failed to act internally and ignored its own rules relating to priests suspected of abusing children. “For many years offenders were neither persecuted nor made accountable within the Church,” the report says, citing an “obsessive concern with secrecy” and concluding that “there was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child.”

In Germany, federal and state governments would still rather leave it up to the bishops to clear up the allegations, despite the fact that these patriarchs of the Church have not indicated that they are genuinely capable of tackling the issue. Many Catholic leaders see incidents of abuse as unfortunate isolated episodes — and not as a systemic problem.

Such an attitude disregards the fact that this has been a problem for the clergy right from the start — and throughout 2,000 years of church history. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,” it is written in the Gospel of Matthew. In his Epistles to the Corinthians, even Paul inveighed against “boy prostitutes” and “pederasts.”

Throughout the centuries, popes have threatened priests with punishment should they sexually abuse children. Such members of the clergy “shall be released from the priesthood or locked away to do penance in monasteries,” wrote Pope Alexander III (1159 to 1181). They should be “punished according to Church or state laws,” threatened Pope Leo X (1513 to 1521).

Despite these condemnations, Germany’s bishops today still tend to turn a blind eye to “pederasts” in the clergy.

A Number of Hurdles

To the German Catholic Church’s credit, however, Archbishop Zollitsch recently appointed the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, to look into abuse cases. Ackermann promptly received a flood of phone calls, letters and e-mails from alleged victims. Still, he faces hurdles before he can begin his work. The German Bishops’ Conference first has to decide where his office will be — in Trier or Bonn? How many staff members is he allowed to have? What kind of equipment? How large will his budget be?

Fundamentalist bishops like Gerhard Ludwig Müller from Regensburg would rather adopt a more confrontational approach. Müller accuses SPIEGEL of “abusing the freedom of the press” in its reports on the Church, and he says that the magazine “is guilty of violating the human dignity of all Catholic priests and members of the order.” He compares today’s “anti-Catholic media campaigns against celibacy and Catholic sexual morals” to the “infamous speech by the master of sedition held in Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in 1937″ — a reference to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ attack on the Church. For Müller, in other words, critical reporting on the issue is far worse than the beating, rape and humiliation of children.

Meanwhile, new reports of horrendous abuse continue to pour in from his diocese — primarily from the Regensburger Domspatzen.

From 1953 to 1992, Monsignor Hans Meier ruled with an iron fist over generations of choirboys who were under his tutelage in the Etterzhausen boarding school, a preparatory school for younger pupils from which the choir draws its recruits.

Religious services were held three times a day. Afterwards, in rows of two, the young boys would march from the church to the dining hall. When mail was distributed, the boys were forced to stand lined up in rank and file, and they often received severe beatings.

‘Nothing that Merited My Attention’

Christian Wilbrand began attending the school at the age of nine in 1966. He recalls:

The idea was to shatter the personalities of us children. Brutality and our own fear were pervasive. Tortures included beatings with willow branches on the fingertips or the backside, punches to the head, pulling pupils up by their hair and hitting them with books. It didn’t take long to beat the childhood right out of us; I often felt like I was on the verge of dying. Once my homeroom teacher hurled me with such force against the blackboard that I lost consciousness. Etterzhausen was a planet of horrors.

Is it conceivable that Georg Ratzinger knew nothing about this? As director of the cathedral choir, he took in the children from the fifth grade up, who then lived in his boarding school in Regensburg. He says: “When we were on concert tours, pupils would tell me about what life had been like for them at Etterzhausen. But their stories didn’t strike me as anything that merited my official attention.”

In 1971, when Ratzinger had already been the choir director for seven years, a local priest was sentenced to 11 months in prison for sexual abuse. The man in question was both the institution’s music prefect and the head of the boarding school. Georg Ratzinger had an apartment in the building that housed the Domspatzen, and his brother Joseph often visited him there. Did they never hear anything about this case?

Former choirboy Mayer, who accompanied a large number of concert tours, says that he also witnessed widespread sexual and physical violence until he left the boarding school in 1992. He says that he himself was raped by older fellow students. Mayer also claims that anal sex took place between students on a number of occasions in a prefect’s apartment, right next to the rooms used by the senior classes. “They simply passed on the pressure of a totalitarian system,” he says.

Allegedly Knew Nothing

The Regensburg Diocese has refused to comment on any of the allegations — and Georg Ratzinger is now remaining silent as well.

And what of Benedict XVI? Publicly he has not uttered a single word about the allegations against his brother.

Indeed, he has still refrained from commenting on the cases dating back to his tenure as Archbishop of Munich. The priest Peter H. first came to the attention of the diocese in Essen after he forced an 11-year-old boy to engage in oral sex. He was sent to Munich for therapy. In 1980, as a member of the Diocese Council, Joseph Ratzinger was involved in a decision to grant Peter H. accommodations in a parsonage.

Shortly thereafter, the man was again involved in pastoral duties, with no restrictions whatsoever. In 1986, a court in Ebersberg gave H. an 18-month suspended prison sentence because he had once again sexually abused a minor, this time in the Bavarian town of Grafing.

H. was nevertheless reinstated and he held holiday services with children from the Heart of Jesus Daycare Center in Garching, and had numerous contacts with minors.

Just last Friday, he was scheduled to attend the ITB Berlin tourism trade show and take part in a panel discussion on “pilgrims’ paths, village churches and monastery vacations.” H. canceled at the last minute.

“Reassigning H. to pastoral ministry was a serious mistake. I take full responsibility,” says former Munich Vicar-General Gerhard Gruber.

The pope allegedly knew nothing about the entire case.


Full article and photo:,1518,683582,00.html

Lords a-leaping

Even for the lords spiritual, the times are changing

TO OUTSIDERS, one of the oddest features of Britain’s semi-theocracy is that 26 Anglican bishops have the right to sit in the upper chamber of the legislature, even though their church can claim the active adherence of less than 5% of citizens. But the “lords spiritual” still have clout, especially when the established church acts as an advocate for religion in general. That became clear in February, when the government backed away from a confrontation over the question of whom churches should employ—and, in particular, over which posts can be barred to gays.

The government’s hopes were fairly modest. It was not questioning the right of religious bodies to follow their own beliefs when hiring priests or imams; it merely wanted to clarify that, in recruiting for non-religious jobs (accountants, for example), churches must obey the law and refrain from discrimination against gays. But pursuing even this cautious aim was deemed unwise at a time when many religious leaders, including Pope Benedict, were opposed (and perhaps considering how their flock should be encouraged to vote).

Things are quite different when the lords spiritual have no clear line. On March 2nd the House of Lords voted by 95 to 21 for an amendment to a wide-ranging equality bill that would allow civil partnerships to be celebrated in religious venues with religious language. Such unions have been possible in Britain since 2005 but their character has hitherto been strictly secular.

On the face of it, the measure, introduced by Lord Alli, a peer of Muslim background who is gay, simply permits religious groups who so wish—until now just Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews—to solemnise unions between partners of the same sex. Conservative prophets of doom saw a slippery slope that would ultimately oblige Anglicans, Catholics and others to consecrate same-sex unions on their premises. The measure could, they feared, deprive bishops of any legal means to discipline a rebel priest who carried out such ceremonies against church rules. Or it could open the way for same-sex couples to allege discrimination if they were turned away from one of England’s ancient places of worship. Given that Catholic and Anglican priests act as registrars (in other words, the rite they perform has legal effects as well as spiritual ones), would-be partners in a same-sex union could claim they were just exercising their right to “service delivery” by state functionaries on equal terms with everybody else, a matter on which the new law has much to say.

One Anglican bishop, Michael Scott-Joynt of Winchester, voiced his enormous regret over the vote—but the retired bishop of Oxford, Lord Richard Harries (a peer in his own right), said he backed the measure because it was a simple question of religious liberty. Sooner or later, he thinks, the established church will have to recognise new social realities, including the fact that thousands of same-sex couples are in lifelong relationships.

Realities are indeed changing, even in the most conservative corner of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland. In recent weeks, none of Ulster’s regular prelates has drawn a fraction of the attention enjoyed by Pat Buckley, a Catholic cleric who styles himself a bishop even though the Vatican has defrocked him. In the mainly Protestant port of Larne, he cheerfully weds same-sex couples and divorcees.

He announced at the beginning of the year that he was about to marry his own partner, a Filipino chef. The turbulent priest refuses to leave the fine church house that he has occupied for years; and as it licks its wounds from sex-abuse revelations, Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy will find it hard to discipline or evict him.


Full article:

Mass-Market Epiphany

Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.

This democratization has been in many ways a blessing. Our horizons have been broadened, our religious resources have expanded, and we’ve even recovered spiritual practices that seemed to have died out long ago. The unexpected revival of glossolalia (speaking in tongues, that is), the oldest and strangest form of Christian worship, remains one of the more remarkable stories of 20th-century religion.

And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.

What’s more, it’s possible that our horizons have become too broad, and that real spiritual breakthroughs require a kind of narrowing — the decision to pick a path and stick with it, rather than hopscotching around in search of a synthesis that “works for me.” The great mystics of the past were often committed to a particular tradition and community, and bound by the rules (and often the physical confines) of a specific religious institution. Without these kind of strictures and commitments, Johnson argues, mysticism drifts easily into a kind of solipsism: “Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shariah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming.”

Most religious believers will never be great mystics, of course, and the American way of faith is kinder than many earlier eras to those of us who won’t. But maybe it’s become too kind, and too accommodating. Even ordinary belief — the kind that seeks epiphanies between deadlines, and struggles even with the meager self-discipline required to get through Lent — depends on extraordinary examples, whether they’re embedded in our communities or cloistered in the great silence of a monastery. Without them, faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns.

Without them, too, we give up on what’s supposed to be the deep promise of religious practice: that at any time, in any place, it’s possible to encounter the divine, the revolutionary and the impossible — and have your life completely shattered and remade.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


Full article:

Learning From the Sin of Sodom

For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Senator Jesse Helms calling them “money down a rat hole.”

Over the last decade, however, that divide has dissolved, in ways that many Americans haven’t noticed or appreciated. Evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.

A pop quiz: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization?

It’s not Save the Children, and it’s not CARE — both terrific secular organizations. Rather, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.

World Vision now has 40,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries. That’s more staff members than CARE, Save the Children and the worldwide operations of the United States Agency for International Development — combined.

A growing number of conservative Christians are explicitly and self-critically acknowledging that to be “pro-life” must mean more than opposing abortion. The head of World Vision in the United States, Richard Stearns, begins his fascinating book, “The Hole in Our Gospel,” with an account of a visit a decade ago to Uganda, where he met a 13-year-old AIDS orphan who was raising his younger brothers by himself.

“What sickened me most was this question: where was the Church?” he writes. “Where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? Surely the Church should have been caring for these ‘orphans and widows in their distress.’ (James 1:27). Shouldn’t the pulpits across America have flamed with exhortations to rush to the front lines of compassion?

“How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand?”

Mr. Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy. He writes laceratingly about “a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics.”

In one striking passage, Mr. Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn’t so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49.)

Hmm. Imagine if sodomy laws could be used to punish the stingy, unconcerned rich!

The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses. One study cited in the book found that even among churchgoers ages 16 to 29, the descriptions most associated with Christianity were “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “too involved in politics,” and “hypocritical.”

Some conservative Christians reinforced the worst view of themselves by inspiring Ugandan homophobes who backed a bill that would punish gays with life imprisonment or execution. Ditto for the Vatican, whose hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic. But there’s more to the picture: I’ve also seen many Catholic nuns and priests heroically caring for AIDS patients — even quietly handing out condoms.

One of the most inspiring figures I’ve met while covering Congo’s brutal civil war is a determined Polish nun in the terrifying hinterland, feeding orphans, standing up to drunken soldiers and comforting survivors — all in a war zone. I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.

Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.

Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensible networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.

If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times


Full article:

Danish Paper Settles Muhammad Cartoon Issue

Politiken Corrects

The Muslim world was outraged when the Muhammad cartoons first appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten.

The Danish daily Politiken, which partners with SPIEGEL ONLINE, has reached a settlement with the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, apologizing for the offence caused by the Muhammad caricatures republished by the paper. Not all politicians in Denmark support the move.

As the first newspaper to do so, Politiken has reached a settlement with descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in connection with the affront its reprint of drawings of the Prophet Muohammad in 2008 may have caused Muslims.

The settlement was reached between Politiken and eight organisations representing 94,923 descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in a move Politiken‘s Editor-in-Chief Tøger Seidenfaden says shows that dialogue is the way forward.

“The settlement looks ahead and expresses very sensible views. It may possibly reduce the tensions that have shown themselves to be so resilient. It gives us hope that relations between Denmark, and not least its media, and the Muslim world can be improved,” Seidenfaden says, adding he does not believe Politiken’s move is a freedom of speech sellout.

Under the settlement, Politiken has not given up its right to publish the cartoons and does not apologize for having printed them, but rather expresses regret for the affront felt by some Muslims.

Lawyer Faisal Yamani, who entered into the settlement on behalf of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad says the settlement is a good one.

‘It’s Crazy’

“This is a good settlement. It would be wrong to speak of a victory. Both parties have reached the point where they understand the background to what has happened. Politiken is courageous in apologizing, even though its was not their intention to offend anyone,” Yamani says.

Several Danish politicians have condemned the move.

“It’s crazy. The media carries offensive material every day. That is what freedom of speech is about,” says Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Socialist People’s Party leader Villy Søvndal says that “freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.”

The Danish People’s Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard says she is “speechless” in finding words to express how absurd the situation is.

“It is deeply, deeply embarrassing that Tøger Seidenfaden has sold out of Denmark’s and the West’s freedom of speech. I cannot distance myself enough from this total sell-out to this doctrine,” Kjærsgaard says.

Neither the prime minister nor the foreign minister have had the opportunity to comment on the issue, but the Liberal Political Spokesman Peter Christensen says “it is strange that Politiken felt the need to apologize. I don’t see what there is to apologize for.”

A World Full of Conflict

The former Liberal Chairman and Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, however is positive. “The paper loses nothing by apologizing. In a world full of conflict, where too many paint themselves into a corner, it would be good to see more of these types of attempts to reach a common understanding,” Ellemann-Jensen says.

In August last year, a total of 11 Danish newspapers were approached by Yamani with demands that the cartoons be removed from Internet pages, that media apologize and that they promise not to re-print the cartoons in question, or others, again.

Politiken is the only newspaper that has chosen to reach a settlement, at the same time avoiding attempts by the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad to sue the newspaper.

Jyllands-Posten, the paper which first printed the Muhammad caricatures, has also received a letter from the lawyer Yamani. But the paper told Politiken that it has no interest in a settlement which involves an apology.

Jyllands-Posten’s Editor-in-Chief Jørn Mikkelsen says it is regrettable that Politiken has folded, instead of maintaining solidarity with the other newspapers. “Politiken has betrayed the battle for freedom of speech. They’ve given up and bowed to threats. That is, of course, disgraceful,” Mikkelsen says.


Full article and photo:,1518,680591,00.html

Christianity’s Modern-Day Martyrs

Victims of Radical Islam

The rise of Islamic extremism is putting increasing pressure on Christians in Muslim countries, who are the victims of murder, violence and discrimination. Christians are now considered the most persecuted religious group around the world. Paradoxically, their greatest hope could come from moderate political Islam. By SPIEGEL staff. 

Kevin Ang is cautious these days. He glances around, taking a look to the left down the long row of stores, then to the right toward the square, to check that no one is nearby. Only then does the church caretaker dig out his key, unlock the gate, and enter the Metro Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. 

The draft of air stirs charred Bible pages. The walls are sooty and the building smells of scorched plastic. Metro Tabernacle Church was the first of 11 churches set on fire by angry Muslims — all because of one word. “Allah,” Kevin Ang whispers. 

It began with a question — should Christians here, like Muslims, be allowed to call their god “Allah,” since they don’t have any other word or language at their disposal? The Muslims claim Allah for themselves, both the word and the god, and fear that if Christians are allowed to use the same word for their own god, it could lead pious Muslims astray. 

For three years there was a ban in place and the government confiscated Bibles that mentioned “Allah.” Then on Dec. 31 last year, Malaysia’s highest court reached a decision: The Christian God could also be called Allah. 

Imams protested and disgruntled citizens threw Molotov cocktails at churches. Then, on top of everything, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that he couldn’t stop people who might protest against specific developments in the country — and some took that as an invitation to violent action. First churches burned, then the other side retaliated with pigs’ heads placed in front of two mosques. Sixty percent of Malaysians are Muslims and 9 percent Christians, with the rest made up by Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. They managed to live together well, until now. 

It’s a battle over a single word, but it’s also about much more than that. The conflict has to do with the question of what rights the Christian minority in Malaysia is entitled to. Even more than that, it’s a question of politics. The ruling United Malays National Organization is losing supporters to Islamist hardliners — and wants to win them back with religious policies.


The rise of Islamic extremism is putting increasing pressure on Christians in Muslim countries, who are the victims of murder, violence and discrimination. Here, Indonesian worshippers pray during a Christmas Eve mass in Jakarta.

Members of the Indonesian Muslim extremist group Laskar Jihad wave their swords during a demonstration in Jakarta in this April 2000 photo. Christians are now considered the most persecuted religious group around the world.

A church in the Pakistani city of Sukkur was attacked in February 2006 after accusations that a local Christian man had burned pages from the Koran. In 2009, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row.

This Feb. 20, 2006 photos shows the church in Sukkur the day after it was attacked.

Christians celebrate Easter in a church in Istanbul: Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Islamic world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population.

The last Iraqi census in 1987 showed 1.4 million Christians living in the country. At the start of the American invasion in 2003, it was 550,000, and at present it is just under 400,000. Experts speak of a “creeping genocide.” Here, a US soldier patrols in front of a Christian church in Tal Kaeef, Iraq, in November 2008.

This Greek Orthodox church in the West Bank was set on fire in September 2006 amidst a wave of anger at Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam.

South Korean Roman Catholics pray during a mass in Seoul. North Korea is the country which most persecutes Christians, according to the Christian NGO Open Doors.

Six Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt on Jan. 6, 2010 as they left a Christmas Eve mass.


Those policies are receiving a receptive welcome. Some of Malaysia’s states interpret Sharia, the Islamic system of law and order, particularly strictly. The once liberal country is on the way to giving up freedom of religion — and what constitutes order is being defined ever more rigidly. If a Muslim woman drinks beer, she can be punished with six cane strokes. Some regions similarly forbid such things as brightly colored lipstick, thick make-up, or shoes with clattering high heels. 

Expelled, Abducted and Murdered 

Not only in Malaysia, but in many countries through the Muslim world, religion has gained influence over governmental policy in the last two decades. The militant Islamist group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while Islamist militias are fighting the governments of Nigeria and the Philippines. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have fallen to a large extent into the hands of Islamists. And where Islamists are not yet in power, secular governing parties are trying to outstrip the more religious groups in a rush to the right. 

This can be seen in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia to some extent, and also Malaysia. Even though this Islamization often has more to do with politics than with religion, and even though it doesn’t necessarily lead to the persecution of Christians, it can still be said that where Islam gains importance, freedoms for members of other faiths shrink. 

There are 2.2 billion Christians around the world. The Christian non-governmental organization Open Doors calculates that 100 million of them are being threatened or persecuted. They aren’t allowed to build churches, buy Bibles or obtain jobs. That’s the more harmless form of discrimination and it affects the majority of these 100 million Christians. The more brutal version sees them blackmailed, robbed, expelled, abducted or even murdered. 

Bishop Margot Kässmann, who was head of the Protestant Church in Germany before stepping down on Feb. 24, believes Christians are “the most frequently persecuted religious group globally.” Germany’s 22 regional churches have proclaimed this coming Sunday to be the first commemoration day for persecuted Christians. Kässmann said she wanted to show solidarity with fellow Christians who “have great difficulty living out their beliefs freely in countries such as Indonesia, India, Iraq or Turkey.” 

There are counterexamples as well, of course. In Lebanon and Syria, Christians are not discriminated against, and in fact play an important role in politics and society. And the persecution of Christian is by no means the domain of fanatical Muslims alone — Christians are also imprisoned, abused and murdered in countries such as Laos, Vietnam, China and Eritrea. 

‘Creeping Genocide’ against Christians 

Open Doors compiles a global “persecution index.” North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians are serving time in work camps, has topped the list for many years. North Korea is followed, though, by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Maldives and Afghanistan. Of the first 10 countries on the list, eight are Islamic, and almost all have Islam as their state religion. 

The systematic persecution of Christians in the 20th century — by Communists in the Soviet Union and China, but also by Nazis — claimed far more lives than anything that has happened so far in the 21st century. Now, however, it is not only totalitarian regimes persecuting Christians, but also residents of Islamic states, fanatical fundamentalists, and religious sects — and often simply supposedly pious citizens. 

Gone is the era of tolerance, when Christians enjoyed a large degree of religious freedom under the protection of Muslim sultans as so-called “People of the Book” while at the same time medieval Europe was banishing its Jews and Muslims from the continent or even burning them at the stake. Also gone is the heyday of Arab secularism following World War II, when Christian Arabs advanced through the ranks of politics. 

As political Islam grew stronger, devout believers’ aggression focused not only on corrupt local regimes, but also more and more on the ostensibly corrupting influence of Western Christians, for which local Christian minorities were held accountable. A new trend began, this time with Christians as the victims. 

In Iraq, for example, Sunni terrorist groups prey specifically on people of other religions. The last Iraqi census in 1987 showed 1.4 million Christians living in the country. At the start of the American invasion in 2003, it was 550,000, and at present it is just under 400,000. Experts speak of a “creeping genocide.” 

‘People Are Scared Out of Their Minds’ 

The situation in the region around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq is especially dramatic. The town of Alqosh lies high in the mountains above Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Bassam Bashir, 41, can see his old hometown when he looks out his window there. Mosul is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, but inaccessible. The city is more dangerous than Baghdad, especially for men like Bassam Bashir, a Chaldean Catholic, teacher and fugitive within his own country. 

Since the day in August 2008 when a militia abducted his father from his shop, Bashir has had to fear for his and his family’s lives. Police found his father’s corpse two days later in the Sinaa neighborhood on the Tigris River, the body perforated with bullet holes. There was no demand for ransom. Bashir’s father died for the simple reason that he was Christian. 

And no one claims to have seen anything. “Of course they saw something,” Bashir says. “But people in Mosul are scared out of their minds.” 

One week later, militiamen slit the throat of Bashir’s brother Tarik like a sacrificial lamb. “I buried my brother myself,” Bashir explains. Together with his wife Nafa and their two daughters, he fled to Alqosh the same day. The city is surrounded by vineyards and an armed Christian militia guards the entrance. 

Tacit State Approval 

Bashir’s family members aren’t the only ones who came to Alqosh as the series of murders in Mosul continued. Sixteen Christians were killed the next week, and bombs exploded in front of churches. Men in passing cars shouted at Christians that they had a choice — leave Mosul or convert to Islam. Out of over 1,500 Christian families in the city, only 50 stayed. Bassam Bashir says he won’t return until he can mourn for his father and brother in peace. Others who gave up hope entirely fled to neighboring countries like Jordan and even more to Syria. 

In many Islamic countries, Christians are persecuted less brutally than in Iraq, but often no less effectively. In many cases, the persecution has the tacit approval of the government. In Algeria, for example, it takes the form of newspapers reporting that a priest tried to convert Muslims or insulted the Prophet Mohammed — and publishing the cleric’s address, in a clear call to vigilante justice. Or a public television station might broadcast programs with titles like “In the Clutches of Ignorance,” which describe Christians as Satanists who convert Muslims with the help of drugs. This happened in Uzbekistan, which ranks tenth on Open Doors’ “persecution index.” 

Blasphemy is another frequently used allegation. Insulting the core values of Islam is a punishable offense in many Islamic countries. The allegation is often used against the opposition, whether that means journalists, dissidents or Christians. Imran Masih, for example, a Christian shopkeeper in Faisalabad, Pakistan, was given a life sentence on Jan. 11, according to sections 295 A and B of Pakistan’s legal code, which covers the crime of outraging religious feelings by desecrating the Koran. A neighboring shopkeeper had accused him of burning pages from the Koran. Masih says that he only burned old business records. 

It’s a typical case for Pakistan, where the law against blasphemy seems to invite abuse — it’s an easy way for anyone to get rid of an enemy. Last year, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row. 

‘We Don’t Feel Safe Here’ 

Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Muslim world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population — but are discriminated against nonetheless. The persecution is not as open or as brutal as what happens in neighboring Iraq, but the consequences are similar. Christians in Turkey, who numbered well over 2 million people in the 19th century, are fighting for their continued existence. 

It’s happening in the southeast of the country, for example, in Tur Abdin, whose name means “mountain of God’s servants.” It’s a hilly region full of fields, chalk cliffs, and centuries-old monasteries many. It’s home to the Syrian Orthodox Assyrians, or Aramaeans as they call themselves, members of one of the oldest Christian groups in the world. According to legend, the Three Wise Men brought the Christian belief system here from Bethlehem. The inhabitants of Tur Abdin still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus of Nazareth. 

The world is much more familiar with the genocide committed against the Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915 and 1916, but tens of thousands of Assyrians were also murdered during World War I. Half a million Assyrians are said to have lived in Tur Abdin at the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are barely 3,000. A Turkish district court threatened last year to appropriate the Assyrians’ spiritual center, the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel monastery, because the monks were believed to have acquired land unlawfully. Three neighboring Muslim villages had complained they felt discriminated against by the monastery, which houses four monks, 14 nuns, and 40 students behind its walls. 

“Even if it doesn’t want to admit it, Turkey has a problem with people of other faiths,” says Ishok Demir, a young Swiss man with Aramaean roots, who lives with his parents near Mor Gabriel. “We don’t feel safe here.” 

More than anything, that has to do with the permanent place Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Catholics and Protestants have in the country’s nationalistic conspiracy theories. Those groups have always been seen as traitors, nonbelievers, spies and people who insult the Turkish nation. According to a survey carried out by the US-based Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Turks see Christianity as a violent religion. In a more recent Turkish study, 42 percent of those surveyed wouldn’t accept Christians as neighbors. 

The repeated murders of Christians come, then, as no surprise. In 2006, for example, a Catholic priest was shot in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. In 2007, three Christian missionaries were murdered in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey. The perpetrators were radical nationalists, whose ideology was a mixture of exaggerated patriotism, racism and Islam. 

Converts in Grave Danger 

In even graver danger than traditional Christians, however, are Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam, is punishable by death according to Islamic law — and the death penalty still applies in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

Even in Egypt, a secular country, converts draw the government’s wrath. The religion minister defended the legality of the death penalty for converts — although Egypt doesn’t even have such a law — with the argument that renunciation of Islam amounts to high treason. Such sentiments drove Mohammed Hegazy, 27, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church, into hiding two years ago. He was the first convert in Egypt to try to have his new religion entered officially onto his state-issued identity card. When he was refused, he went public. Numerous clerics called for his death in response. 

Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Arab world and around 8 million Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church. They’re barred from high government positions, diplomatic service and the military, as well as from many state benefits. Universities have quotas for Coptic students considerably lower than their actual percentage within the population. 

Building new churches isn’t allowed, and the old ones are falling into disrepair thanks to a lack both of money and authorization to renovate. When girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted, the police don’t intervene. Thousands of pigs were also slaughtered under the pretense of confining swine flu. Naturally all were owned by Christians. 

The Christian Virus 

Six Copts were massacred on Jan. 6 — when Coptic celebrate Christmas Eve — in Nag Hammadi, a small city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Valley of the Kings. Predictably, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, called it an “individual criminal act.” When he added that the perpetrators wanted to revenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, it almost sounded like an excuse. The government seems ready to admit to crime in Egypt, but not to religious tension. Whenever clashes between religious groups occur, the government finds very secular causes behind them, such as arguments over land, revenge for crimes or personal disputes. 

Nag Hammadi, with 30,000 residents, is a dusty trading town on the Nile. Even before the murders, it was a place where Christians and Muslims mistrusted one another. The two groups work together and have houses near each other, but they live, marry and die separately. Superstition is widespread and the Muslims, for example, fear they could catch the “Christian virus” by eating together with a Copt. It comes as no surprise that these murders occurred in Nag Hammadi, nor that they were followed by the country’s worst religious riots in years. Christian shops and Muslim houses were set on fire, and 28 Christians and 14 Muslims were arrested. 

Nag Hammadi is now sealed off, with armed security forces in black uniforms guarding roads in and out of the city. They make sure no residents leave the city and no journalists enter it. 

Three presumed perpetrators have since been arrested. All of them have prior criminal records. One admitted to the crime, but then recanted, saying he had been coerced by the intelligence service. The government seems to want the affair to disappear as quickly as possible. The alleged murderers will likely be set free again as soon as the furor has blown over. 

More Rights for Christians? 

But there are also a few small indications that the situation of embattled Christians in Islamic countries could improve — depending on the extent that nationalism and the radicalization of political Islam subsides again. 

One of the contradictions of the Islamic world is that the best chances for Christians seem to crop up precisely where a major player actually comes from the political Islam camp. In Turkey it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist and now the country’s prime minister, who has promised Turkey’s few remaining Christians more rights. He points to the history of the Ottoman Empire, in which Christians and Jews long had to pay a special tax, but in exchange, were granted freedom of religion and lived as respected fellow citizens. 

A more relaxed attitude to its minorities would certainly signify progress for Turkey. 


Full article and photos:,1518,680349,00.html

How Christian Were the Founders?

Montage by Carin Goldberg – Original Image: “‘Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull/The Bridgeman Art Library

LAST MONTH, A WEEK before the Senate seat of the liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy fell into Republican hands, his legacy suffered another blow that was perhaps just as damaging, if less noticed. It happened during what has become an annual spectacle in the culture wars.

Over two days, more than a hundred people — Christians, Jews, housewives, naval officers, professors; people outfitted in everything from business suits to military fatigues to turbans to baseball caps — streamed through the halls of the William B. Travis Building in Austin, Tex., waiting for a chance to stand before the semicircle of 15 high-backed chairs whose occupants made up the Texas State Board of Education. Each petitioner had three minutes to say his or her piece.

“Please keep César Chávez” was the message of an elderly Hispanic man with a floppy gray mustache.

“Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world and should be included in the curriculum,” a woman declared.

Following the appeals from the public, the members of what is the most influential state board of education in the country, and one of the most politically conservative, submitted their own proposed changes to the new social-studies curriculum guidelines, whose adoption was the subject of all the attention — guidelines that will affect students around the country, from kindergarten to 12th grade, for the next 10 years. Gail Lowe — who publishes a twice-a-week newspaper when she is not grappling with divisive education issues — is the official chairwoman, but the meeting was dominated by another member. Don McLeroy, a small, vigorous man with a shiny pate and bristling mustache, proposed amendment after amendment on social issues to the document that teams of professional educators had drawn up over 12 months, in what would have to be described as a single-handed display of archconservative political strong-arming.

McLeroy moved that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics,” that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” following Jimmy Carter’s presidency and that students be instructed to “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” The injection of partisan politics into education went so far that at one point another Republican board member burst out in seemingly embarrassed exasperation, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!” Nevertheless, most of McLeroy’s proposed amendments passed by a show of hands.

Finally, the board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.

This is how history is made — or rather, how the hue and cry of the present and near past gets lodged into the long-term cultural memory or else is allowed to quietly fade into an inaudible whisper. Public education has always been a battleground between cultural forces; one reason that Texas’ school-board members find themselves at the very center of the battlefield is, not surprisingly, money. The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State. California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead. Texas, on the other hand, was one of the first states to adopt statewide curriculum guidelines, back in 1998, and the guidelines it came up with (which are referred to as TEKS — pronounced “teaks” — for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) were clear, broad and inclusive enough that many other states used them as a model in devising their own. And while technology is changing things, textbooks — printed or online —are still the backbone of education.

The cultural roots of the Texas showdown may be said to date to the late 1980s, when, in the wake of his failed presidential effort, the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition partly on the logic that conservative Christians should focus their energies at the grass-roots level. One strategy was to put candidates forward for state and local school-board elections — Robertson’s protégé, Ralph Reed, once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members” — and Texas was a beachhead. Since the election of two Christian conservatives in 2006, there are now seven on the Texas state board who are quite open about the fact that they vote in concert to advance a Christian agenda. “They do vote as a bloc,” Pat Hardy, a board member who considers herself a conservative Republican but who stands apart from the Christian faction, told me. “They work consciously to pull one more vote in with them on an issue so they’ll have a majority.”

This year’s social-studies review has drawn the most attention for the battles over what names should be included in the roll call of history. But while ignoring Kennedy and upgrading Gingrich are significant moves, something more fundamental is on the agenda. The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The Christian “truth” about America’s founding has long been taught in Christian schools, but not beyond. Recently, however — perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists — some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”

Imet Don McLeroy last November in a dental office — that is to say, his dental office — in a professional complex in the Brazos Valley city of Bryan, not far from the sprawling campus of Texas A&M University. The buzz of his hygienist at work sounded through the thin wall separating his office from the rest of the suite. McLeroy makes no bones about the fact that his professional qualifications have nothing to do with education. “I’m a dentist, not a historian,” he said. “But I’m fascinated by history, so I’ve read a lot.”

Indeed, dentistry is only a job for McLeroy; his real passions are his faith and the state board of education. He has been a member of the board since 1999 and served as its chairman from 2007 until he was demoted from that role by the State Senate last May because of concerns over his religious views. Until now those views have stood McLeroy in good stead with the constituents of his district, which meanders from Houston to Dallas and beyond, but he is currently in a heated re-election battle in the Republican primary, which takes place March 2.

McLeroy is a robust, cheerful and inexorable man, whose personality is perhaps typified by the framed letter T on the wall of his office, which he earned as a “yell leader” (Texas A&M nomenclature for cheerleader) in his undergraduate days in the late 1960s. “I consider myself a Christian fundamentalist,” he announced almost as soon as we sat down. He also identifies himself as a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago. He went on to explain how his Christian perspective both governs his work on the state board and guides him in the current effort to adjust American-history textbooks to highlight the role of Christianity. “Textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict,” he said. “But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.”

For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing.”

“This” — the Texas board’s moves to bring Jesus into American history — has drawn anger in places far removed from the board members’ constituencies. (Samples of recent blog headlines on the topic: “Don McLeroy Wants Your Children to Be Stupid” and “Can We Please Mess With Texas?”) The issue of Texas’ influence is a touchy one in education circles. With some parents and educators elsewhere leery of a right-wing fifth column invading their schools, people in the multibillion textbook industry try to play down the state’s sway. “It’s not a given that Texas’ curriculum translates into other states,” says Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division for the Association of American Publishers, which represents most of the major companies. But Tom Barber, who worked as the head of social studies at the three biggest textbook publishers before running his own editorial company, says, “Texas was and still is the most important and most influential state in the country.” And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”

Every year for the last few years, Texas has put one subject area in its TEKS up for revision. Each year has brought a different controversy, and Don McLeroy has been at the center of most of them. Last year, in its science re-evaluation, the board lunged into the evolution/creationism/intelligent-design debate. The conservative Christian bloc wanted to require science teachers to cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution, language they used in the past as a tool to weaken the rationale for teaching evolution. The battle made headlines across the country; ultimately, the seven Christian conservatives were unable to pull another vote their way on that specific point, but the finished document nonetheless allows inroads to creationism.

The fallout from that fight cost McLeroy his position as chairman. “It’s the 21st century, and the rest of the known world accepts the teaching of evolution as science and creationism as religion, yet we continue to have this debate here,” Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group, says. “So the eyes of the nation were on this body, and people saw how ridiculous they appeared.” The State Legislature felt the ridicule. “You have a point of view, and you’re using this bully pulpit to take the rest of the state there,” Eliot Shapleigh, a Democratic state senator, admonished McLeroy during the hearing that led to his ouster. McLeroy remains unbowed and talked cheerfully to me about how, confronted with a statement supporting the validity of evolution that was signed by 800 scientists, he had proudly been able to “stand up to the experts.”

The idea behind standing up to experts is that the scientific establishment has been withholding information from the public that would show flaws in the theory of evolution and that it is guilty of what McLeroy called an “intentional neglect of other scientific possibilities.” Similarly, the Christian bloc’s notion this year to bring Christianity into the coverage of American history is not, from their perspective, revisionism but rather an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed. “I don’t know that what we’re doing is redefining the role of religion in America,” says Gail Lowe, who became chairwoman of the board after McLeroy was ousted and who is one of the seven conservative Christians. “Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation.”

Plenty of people disagree with this characterization of the founders, including some who are close to the process in Texas. “I think the evidence indicates that the founding fathers did not intend this to be a Christian nation,” says James Kracht, who served as an expert adviser to the board in the textbook-review process. “They definitely believed in some form of separation of church and state.”

There is, however, one slightly awkward issue for hard-core secularists who would combat what they see as a Christian whitewashing of American history: the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on their side.

IN 1801, A GROUP of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Conn., wrote a letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, congratulating him on his victory. They also had a favor to ask. Baptists were a minority group, and they felt insecure. In the colonial period, there were two major Christian factions, both of which derived from England. The Congregationalists, in New England, had evolved from the Puritan settlers, and in the South and middle colonies, the Anglicans came from the Church of England. Nine colonies developed state churches, which were supported financially by the colonial governments and whose power was woven in with that of the governments. Other Christians — Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers — and, of course, those of other faiths were made unwelcome, if not persecuted outright.

There was a religious element to the American Revolution, which was so pronounced that you could just as well view the event in religious as in political terms. Many of the founders, especially the Southerners, were rebelling simultaneously against state-church oppression and English rule. The Connecticut Baptists saw Jefferson — an anti-Federalist who was bitterly opposed to the idea of establishment churches — as a friend. “Our constitution of government,” they wrote, “is not specific” with regard to a guarantee of religious freedoms that would protect them. Might the president offer some thoughts that, “like the radiant beams of the sun,” would shed light on the intent of the framers? In his reply, Jefferson said it was not the place of the president to involve himself in religion, and he expressed his belief that the First Amendment’s clauses — that the government must not establish a state religion (the so-called establishment clause) but also that it must ensure the free exercise of religion (what became known as the free-exercise clause) — meant, as far as he was concerned, that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

This little episode, culminating in the famous “wall of separation” metaphor, highlights a number of points about teaching religion in American history. For one, it suggests — as the Christian activists maintain — how thoroughly the colonies were shot through with religion and how basic religion was to the cause of the revolutionaries. The period in the early- to mid-1700s, called the Great Awakening, in which populist evangelical preachers challenged the major denominations, is considered a spark for the Revolution. And if religion influenced democracy then, in the Second Great Awakening, decades later, the democratic fervor of the Revolution spread through the two mainline denominations and resulted in a massive growth of the sort of populist churches that typify American Christianity to this day.

Christian activists argue that American-history textbooks basically ignore religion — to the point that they distort history outright — and mainline religious historians tend to agree with them on this. “In American history, religion is all over the place, and wherever it appears, you should tell the story and do it appropriately,” says Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History and perhaps the unofficial dean of American religious historians. “The goal should be natural inclusion. You couldn’t tell the story of the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Dutch in New York without religion.” Though conservatives would argue otherwise, James Kracht said the absence of religion is not part of a secularist agenda: “I don’t think religion has been purposely taken out of U.S. history, but I do think textbook companies have been cautious in discussing religious beliefs and possibly getting in trouble with some groups.”

Some conservatives claim that earlier generations of textbooks were frank in promoting America as a Christian nation. It might be more accurate to say that textbooks of previous eras portrayed leaders as generally noble, with strong personal narratives, undergirded by faith and patriotism. As Frances FitzGerald showed in her groundbreaking 1979 book “America Revised,” if there is one thing to be said about American-history textbooks through the ages it is that the narrative of the past is consistently reshaped by present-day forces. Maybe the most striking thing about current history textbooks is that they have lost a controlling narrative. America is no longer portrayed as one thing, one people, but rather a hodgepodge of issues and minorities, forces and struggles. If it were possible to cast the concerns of the Christian conservatives into secular terms, it might be said that they find this lack of a through line and purpose to be disturbing and dangerous. Many others do as well, of course. But the Christians have an answer.

Their answer is rather specific. Merely weaving important religious trends and events into the narrative of American history is not what the Christian bloc on the Texas board has pushed for in revising its guidelines. Many of the points that have been incorporated into the guidelines or that have been advanced by board members and their expert advisers slant toward portraying America as having a divinely preordained mission. In the guidelines — which will be subjected to further amendments in March and then in May — eighth-grade history students are asked to “analyze the importance of the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Virginia House of Burgesses to the growth of representative government.” Such early colonial texts have long been included in survey courses, but why focus on these in particular? The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut declare that the state was founded “to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The language in the Mayflower Compact — a document that McLeroy and several others involved in the Texas process are especially fond of — describes the Pilgrims’ journey as being “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” and thus instills the idea that America was founded as a project for the spread of Christianity. In a book she wrote two years ago, Cynthia Dunbar, a board member, could not have been more explicit about this being the reason for the Mayflower Compact’s inclusion in textbooks; she quoted the document and then said, “This is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.”

In the new guidelines, students taking classes in U.S. government are asked to identify traditions that informed America’s founding, “including Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law),” and to “identify the individuals whose principles of law and government institutions informed the American founding documents,” among whom they include Moses. The idea that the Bible and Mosaic law provided foundations for American law has taken root in Christian teaching about American history. So when Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., testified at the board meeting last month in opposition to the board’s approach to bringing religion into history, warning that the Supreme Court has forbidden public schools from “seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through the curriculum,” and in the process said that the founders “did not draw on Mosaic law, as is mentioned in the standards,” several of the board members seemed dumbstruck. Don McLeroy insisted it was a legitimate claim, since the Enlightenment took place in Europe, in a Christian context. Green countered that the Enlightenment had in fact developed in opposition to reliance on biblical law and said he had done a lengthy study in search of American court cases that referenced Mosaic law. “The record is basically bereft,” he said. Nevertheless, biblical law and Moses remain in the TEKS.

The process in Texas required that writing teams, made up mostly of teachers, do the actual work of revising the curriculum, with the aid of experts who were appointed by the board. Two of the six experts the board chose are well-known advocates for conservative Christian causes. One of them, the Rev. Peter Marshall, says on the Web site of his organization, Peter Marshall Ministries, that his work is “dedicated to helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations through preaching, teaching and writing on America’s Christian heritage and on Christian discipleship and revival.”

“The guidelines in Texas were seriously deficient in bringing out the role of the Christian faith in the founding of America,” Marshall told me. In a document he prepared for the team that was writing the new guidelines, he urged that new textbooks mold children’s impressions of the founders in particular ways: “The Founding Fathers’ biblical worldview taught them that human beings were by nature self-centered, so they believed that the supernatural influence of the Spirit of God was needed to free us from ourselves so that we can care for our neighbors.”

Marshall also proposed that children be taught that the separation-of-powers notion is “rooted in the Founding Fathers’ clear understanding of the sinfulness of man,” so that it was not safe for one person to exercise unlimited power, and that “the discovery, settling and founding of the colonies happened because of the biblical worldviews of those involved.” Marshall recommended that textbooks present America’s founding and history in terms of motivational stories on themes like the Pilgrims’ zeal to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the natives.

One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great. Peter Marshall is himself the author of a series of books that recount American history with a strong Christian focus and that have been staples in Christian schools since the first one was published in 1977. (He told me that they have sold more than a million copies.) In these history books, he employs a decidedly unhistorical tone in which the guiding hand of Providence shapes America’s story, starting with the voyage of Christopher Columbus. “Columbus’s heart belonged to God,” he assures his readers, and he notes that a particular event in the explorer’s life “marked the turning point of God’s plan to use Columbus to raise the curtain on His new Promised Land.”

The other nonacademic expert, David Barton, is the nationally known leader of WallBuilders, which describes itself as dedicated to “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.” Barton has written and lectured on the First Amendment and against separation of church and state. He is a controversial figure who has argued that the U.S. income tax and the capital-gains tax should be abolished because they violate Scripture (for the Bible says, in Barton’s reading, “the more profit you make the more you are rewarded”) and who pushes a Christianity-first rhetoric. When the U.S. Senate invited a Hindu leader to open a 2007 session with a prayer, he objected, saying: “In Hindu [sic], you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, did the Declaration when they talked about Creator.”

In his recommendations to the Texas school board, Barton wrote that students should be taught the following principles which, in his reading, derive directly from the Declaration of Independence: “1. There is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature. 2. There is a Creator. 3. The Creator gives to man certain unalienable rights. 4. Government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual. 5. Below God-given rights and moral laws, government is directed by the consent of the governed.”

A third expert, Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor of justice, law and society at American University who has written extensively on First Amendment issues, stressed, in his recommendations to the guideline writers about how to frame the revolutionary period for students, that the founders were overwhelmingly Christian; that the deistic tendencies of a few — like Jefferson — were an anomaly; and that most Americans in the era were not just Christians but that “98 percent or more of Americans of European descent identified with Protestantism.”

If the fight between the “Christian nation” advocates and mainstream thinkers could be focused onto a single element, it would be the “wall of separation” phrase. Christian thinkers like to point out that it does not appear in the Constitution, nor in any other legal document — letters that presidents write to their supporters are not legal decrees. Besides which, after the phrase left Jefferson’s pen it more or less disappeared for a century and a half — until Justice Hugo Black of the Supreme Court dug it out of history’s dustbin in 1947. It then slowly worked its way into the American lexicon and American life, helping to subtly mold the way we think about religion in society. To conservative Christians, there is no separation of church and state, and there never was. The concept, they say, is a modern secular fiction. There is no legal justification, therefore, for disallowing crucifixes in government buildings or school prayer.

David Barton reads the “church and state” letter to mean that Jefferson “believed, along with the other founders, that the First Amendment had been enacted only to prevent the federal establishment of a national denomination.” Barton goes on to claim, “ ‘Separation of church and state’ currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant.” That is to say, the founders were all Christians who conceived of a nation of Christians, and the purpose of the First Amendment was merely to ensure that no single Christian denomination be elevated to the role of state church.

Mainstream scholars disagree, sometimes vehemently. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and writer of the documentary “Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham,” told me: “David Barton has been out there spreading this lie, frankly, that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation. He’s been very effective. But the logic is utterly screwy. He says the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution. He’s right about that. But to make that argument work you would have to argue that the phrase is not an accurate summation of the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson, who penned it, thought it was.” (David Barton declined to be interviewed for this article.) In his testimony in Austin, Steven Green was challenged by a board member with the fact that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution. In response, Green pointed out that many constitutional concepts — like judicial review and separation of powers — are not found verbatim in the Constitution.

In what amounts to an in-between perspective, Daniel Dreisbach — who wrote a book called “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State” — argues that the phrase “wall of separation” has been misapplied in recent decades to unfairly restrict religion from entering the public sphere. Martin Marty, the University of Chicago emeritus professor, agrees. “I think ‘wall’ is too heavy a metaphor,” Marty says. “There’s a trend now away from it, and I go along with that. In textbooks, we’re moving away from an unthinking secularity.” The public seems to agree. Polls on some specific church-state issues — government financing for faith-based organizations and voluntary prayer in public schools — consistently show majorities in favor of those positions.

Then too, the “Christian nation” position tries to trump the whole debate about separation of church and state by portraying the era of the nation’s founding as awash in Christianity. David Barton and others pepper their arguments with quotations, like one in which John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson, refers to American independence as having been achieved on “the general Principles of Christianity.” But others find just as many instances in which one or another of the founders seems clearly wary of religion.

In fact, the founders were rooted in Christianity — they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition — and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason. “I don’t think the founders would have said they were applying Christian principles to government,” says Richard Brookhiser, the conservative columnist and author of books on Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington. “What they said was ‘the laws of nature and nature’s God.’ They didn’t say, ‘We put our faith in Jesus Christ.’ ” Martin Marty says: “They had to invent a new, broad way. Washington, in his writings, makes scores of different references to God, but not one is biblical. He talks instead about a ‘Grand Architect,’ deliberately avoiding the Christian terms, because it had to be a religious language that was accessible to all people.”

Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

THE TOWN OF Lynchburg, Va., was founded in 1786 at the site of a ferry crossing on what would later be called the James River. During the Civil War, it was a Confederate supply post, and in 1864 it was the site of one of the last Confederate victories. In 1933, Jerry Falwell was born in Lynchburg, the son of a sometime bootlegger. In 1971 — in an era of pot smoking and war protests — the Rev. Jerry Falwell inaugurated Liberty University on one of the city’s seven hills. It was to be a training ground for Christians and a bulwark against moral relativism. In 2004, three years before his death, Falwell completed another dream by founding the Liberty University School of Law, whose objective, in the words of the university’s current chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., is “to transform legislatures, courts, commerce and civil government at all levels.”

I visited the law-school building in late fall, with the remnants of Hurricane Ida turning the Blue Ridge Mountains skyline into a series of smudges. The building’s crisp, almost militaristic atmosphere bespeaks a seriousness of purpose; and the fact that it houses, as one of its training facilities, the only full-scale replica of the U.S. Supreme Court chamber points to the school’s ambitions.

I had come to sit in on a guest lecture by Cynthia Dunbar, an assistant law professor who commutes to Lynchburg once a week from her home in Richmond, Tex., where she is a practicing lawyer as well as a member of the Texas board of education. Her presence in both worlds — public schools and the courts — suggests the connection between them that Christian activists would like to deepen. The First Amendment class for third-year law students that I watched Dunbar lead neatly merged the two components of the school’s program: “lawyering skills” and “the integration of a Christian worldview.”

Dunbar began the lecture by discussing a national day of thanksgiving that Gen. George Washington called for after the defeat of the British at Saratoga in 1777 — showing, in her reckoning, a religious base in the thinking of the country’s founders. In developing a line of legal reasoning that the future lawyers in her class might use, she wove her way to two Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, in both of which the court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. A student questioned the relevance of the 1777 event to the court rulings, because in 1777 the country did not yet have a Constitution. “And what did we have at that time?” Dunbar asked. Answer: “The Declaration of Independence.” She then discussed a legal practice called “incorporation by reference.” “When you have in one legal document reference to another, it pulls them together, so that they can’t be viewed as separate and distinct,” she said. “So you cannot read the Constitution distinct from the Declaration.” And the Declaration famously refers to a Creator and grounds itself in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Therefore, she said, the religiosity of the founders is not only established and rooted in a foundational document but linked to the Constitution. From there she moved to “judicial construction and how you should go forward with that,” i.e., how these soon-to-be lawyers might work to overturn rulings like that against prayer in schools by using the founding documents.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal center, told me that the notion of connecting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is “part of a strategy to give a clear historical understanding of the role of religion in American public life” that organizations like his have been pursuing for the last 10 or 15 years.

Besides the fact that incorporation by reference is usually used for technical purposes rather than for such grandiose purposes as the reinterpretation of foundational texts, there is an oddity to this tactic. “The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.

And here again there is a link to Texas. David Barton specifically advised the writers of the Texas guidelines that textbooks “should stipulate (but currently do not) that the Declaration of Independence is symbiotic with the Constitution rather than a separate unrelated document.”

In 2008, Cynthia Dunbar published a book called “One Nation Under God,” in which she stated more openly than most of her colleagues have done the argument that the founding of America was an overtly Christian undertaking and laid out what she and others hope to achieve in public schools. “The underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes. “Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview.”

Then she pushes forward: “We as a nation were intended by God to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world.” But the true picture of America’s Christian founding has been whitewashed by “the liberal agenda” — in order for liberals to succeed “they must first rewrite our nation’s history” and obscure the Christian intentions of the founders. Therefore, she wrote, “this battle for our nation’s children and who will control their education and training is crucial to our success for reclaiming our nation.”

After the book came out, Dunbar was derided in blogs and newspapers for a section in which she writes of “the inappropriateness of a state-created, taxpayer-supported school system” and likens sending children to public school to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” (Her own children were either home-schooled or educated in private Christian schools.) When I asked, over dinner in a honky-tonk steakhouse down the road from the university, why someone who felt that way would choose to become an overseer of arguably the most influential public-education system in the country, she said that public schools are a battlefield for competing ideologies and that it’s important to combat the “religion” of secularism that holds sway in public education.

Ask Christian activists what they really want — what the goal is behind the effort to bring Christianity into American history — and they say they merely want “the truth.” “The main thing I’m looking for as a state board member is to make sure we have good standards,” Don McLeroy said. But the actual ambition is vast. Americans tell pollsters they support separation of church and state, but then again 65 percent of respondents to a 2007 survey by the First Amendment Center agreed with the statement that “the nation’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation,” and 55 percent said they believed the Constitution actually established the country as a Christian nation. The Christian activists are aware of such statistics and want to build on them, as Dunbar made clear. She told me she looks to John Jay’s statement that it is the duty of the people “of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers” and has herself called for a preference for selecting Christians for positions of leadership.

Dunbar’s book lays out the goal: using courts and public schools to fuse Christianity into the nation’s founding. It may be unlikely that it will be attained any time soon, in which case the seeding of Texas’ history-textbook guidelines with “Christian nation” concepts may be mostly symbolic. But symbols can accumulate weight over time, and the Christian activists are in it for the long haul. Some observers say that over time their effort could have far-reaching consequences. “The more you can associate Christianity with the founding, the more you can sway the future Supreme Court,” Martin Marty says. “That is what Pat Robertson was about years ago. Establish the founders as Christians, and you have it made.”

“BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, What Do You See?” It’s not an especially subversive-sounding title, but the author of this 1967 children’s picture book, Bill Martin Jr., lost his place in the Texas social-studies guidelines at last month’s board meeting due to what was thought to be un-American activity — to be precise, “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.” Martin, the creator of 300 children’s books, was removed from the list of cultural figures approved for study by third graders in the blizzard of amendments offered by board members.

Over all, the TEKS guidelines make for impressive reading. They are thoughtful and deep; you can almost feel the effort at achieving balance. Poring down the long columns and knowing that the 1998 version of these guidelines served as the basis for textbooks in most U.S. states, you even begin to feel some hope for the future.

What is wrong with the Texas process, according to many observers, is illustrated by the fate of Bill Martin Jr. The board has the power to accept, reject or rewrite the TEKS, and over the past few years, in language arts, science and now social studies, the members have done all of the above. Yet few of these elected overseers are trained in the fields they are reviewing. “In general, the board members don’t know anything at all about content,” Tom Barber, the textbook executive, says. Kathy Miller, the watchdog, who has been monitoring the board for 15 years, says, referring to Don McLeroy and another board member: “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history. Last year, Don McLeroy believed he was smarter than the National Academy of Sciences, and he now believes he’s smarter than professors of American history.” In this case, one board member sent an e-mail message with a reference to “Ethical Marxism,” by Bill Martin, to another board member, who suggested that anyone who wrote a book with such a title did not belong in the TEKS. As it turned out, Bill Martin and Bill Martin Jr. are two different people. But by that time, the author of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” was out. “That’s a perfect example of these people’s lack of knowledge,” Miller says. “They’re coming forward with hundreds of amendments at the last minute. Don McLeroy had a four-inch stack of amendments, and they all just voted on them, whether or not they actually knew the content. What we witnessed in January was a textbook example of how not to develop textbook standards.”

Before the January board meeting, one of the social-studies curriculum writers, Judy Brodigan, told me that she was very pleased with the guidelines her team produced. After the meeting, with its 10-hour marathon of amendments by board members, she spoke very differently. “I think they took a very, very good document and weakened it,” she said. “The teachers take their work seriously. I do believe there are board members on the ultraright who have an agenda. They want to make our standards very conservative and fit their viewpoint. Our job is not to take a viewpoint. It’s to present sides fairly. I thought we had done that.”

Regarding religion, the writing teams had included in their guidelines some of the recommendations of the experts appointed by the Christian bloc but had chosen to ignore most. I was led to expect that the January meeting would see a torrent of religion amendments, in which Don McLeroy would reinsert items that the team failed to include, just as he did with other subjects in the past. Last November, over dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from the Texas A&M campus, McLeroy vowed to do so, saying, “I’ll get the details in there.” At that time, he and others were full of information and bravado as they pushed toward the “Christian nation” goal. But at the January meeting, while there were many conservative political amendments, there were only a few religion amendments. When I talked to him afterward, he shrugged it off in an uncharacteristically vague way. “We’re basically happy with things,” he said.

It’s possible a wave of religion amendments will come in the next meeting, in March, when American government will still be among the subjects under review. But the change of tone could signal a shift in strategy. “It could be that they feel they’ve already got enough code words sprinkled throughout the guidelines,” Kathy Miller says. The laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Moses and the Bible “informing” the American founding. “The Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” as America’s original purpose. “We’ve seen in the past how one word here or there in the curriculum standards gets seized upon by the far-right members at adoption time,” Miller says. “In the science debate, the words ‘intelligent design’ did not appear, but they used ‘strengths and weaknesses’ as an excuse to pitch a battle. The phrase became a wedge to try to weaken the theory of evolution, to suggest that scientists had serious problems with it. We’ve seen the board use these tiny fragments to wage war on publishers.”

This squares with what Tom Barber, the textbook executive, told me: that in the next stage in the Texas process, general guidelines are chiseled into fact-size chunks in crisp columns of print via backroom cajoling. “The process of reviewing the guidelines in Texas is very open, but what happens behind the scenes after that is quite different,” Barber says. “McLeroy is kind of the spokesman for the social conservatives, and publishers will work with him throughout. The publishers just want to make sure they get their books listed.”

To give an illustration simultaneously of the power of ideology and Texas’ influence, Barber told me that when he led the social-studies division at Prentice Hall, one conservative member of the board told him that the 12th-grade book, “Magruder’s American Government,” would not be approved because it repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “living” document. “That book is probably the most famous textbook in American history,” Barber says. “It’s been around since World War I, is updated every year and it had invented the term ‘living Constitution,’ which has been there since the 1950s. But the social conservatives didn’t like its sense of flexibility. They insisted at the last minute that the wording change to ‘enduring.’ ” Prentice Hall agreed to the change, and ever since the book — which Barber estimates controlled 60 or 65 percent of the market nationally — calls it the “enduring Constitution.”

Last fall, McLeroy was frank in talking about how he applies direct pressure to textbook companies. In the language-arts re-evaluation, the members of the Christian bloc wanted books to include classic myths and fables rather than newly written stories whose messages they didn’t agree with. They didn’t get what they wanted from the writing teams, so they did an end run around them once the public battles were over. “I met with all the publishers,” McLeroy said. “We went out for Mexican food. I told them this is what we want. We want stories with morals, not P.C. stories.” He then showed me an e-mail message from an executive at Pearson, a major educational publisher, indicating the results of his effort: “Hi Don. Thanks for the impact that you have had on the development of Pearson’s Scott Foresman Reading Street series. Attached is a list of some of the Fairy Tales and Fables that we included in the series.”

If there has been a shift in strategy, politics may have brought it about. The Christian bloc may have determined it would be wiser to work for this kind of transformational change out of the public gaze. Of the seven members of the Christian bloc, Ken Mercer is in a battle to keep his seat, Cynthia Dunbar recently announced she won’t run for re-election and after 11 years of forceful advocacy for fundamentalist causes on the Texas state board, during which time he was steadfastly supported by everyone from Gov. Rick Perry — who originally picked him as chairman — to tea-party organizers, Don McLeroy is now facing the stiffest opposition of his career. Thomas Ratliff, a well-connected lobbyist, has squared off against McLeroy in the Republican primary and is running an aggressive campaign, positioning himself as a practical, moderate Republican. “I’m not trying to out-conservative anyone,” Ratliff told me. “I think the state board of education has lost its way, and the social-studies thing is a prime example. They keep wanting to talk about this being a Christian nation. My attitude is this country was founded by a group of men who were Christians but who didn’t want the government dictating religion, and that’s exactly what McLeroy and his colleagues are trying to do.”

Ratliff has received prominent endorsements and has outraised McLeroy in the neighborhood of 10 to 1. But hard-core conservatives tend to vote in primaries. Anyone looking for signs of where the Republican Party is headed might scan the results of the Texas school-board District 9 Republican primary on the morning of March 3. If Don McLeroy loses, it could signal that the Christian right’s recent power surge has begun to wane. But it probably won’t affect the next generation of schoolbooks. The current board remains in place until next January. By then, decisions on what goes in the Texas curriculum guidelines will be history.

Russell Shorto is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most recent book is ‘‘Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.’’


Full article and photo:

The war of French dressing

France’s ban on the burqa

A plan to ban the wearing of the burqa in public stokes new controversy

FOR American commentators who like to denounce European complacency in the face of an increasingly assertive Islam, France is an intriguing test-case. It is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, numbering some 5m-6m, and it unapologetically expects Muslims to adapt to French ways. In 1994 the government began clamping down on religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, in state schools. Ten years later it banned all “ostentatious” religious signs, including the veil, from state schools and other public buildings. Now yet another tightening is in the works: a proposed ban on wearing the burqa in any public places.

Jean-François Copé, parliamentary leader of the ruling UMP party, this week submitted a draft law stating that “nobody, in places open to the public or on streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face”. A few exceptions would be made, he said, such as for carnivals. At other times, anybody refusing to take off a face-covering could be fined €750 ($1,090). He hopes parliament will debate the draft at the end of March, shortly after the regional elections.

The move by Mr Copé, an ambitious politician, is a parliamentary not a government-led initiative. Yet it has broad backing. President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last year that the burqa was “not welcome on French soil”. François Fillon, the prime minister, said this week that he backed the idea of a ban. Mr Copé says that he already has 220 deputies supporting him.

When the French refer to the burqa, they do not mean the Afghan outfit, with a cloth grille over the eyes, which is not seen in France; they mean the niqab, the head-to-toe covering that leaves a narrow slit open for the eyes, which is traditionally found in the Gulf. Ten years ago, even this garment was virtually unknown in France, since most French Muslims originate from north Africa, where traditionalists cover only the hair, not the face. Today, according to intelligence estimates, some 1,900 women wear the niqab in France.

Yet even this number is tiny, so why are the French so exercised? One reason is their century-old secular tradition, which fiercely defends the separation of faith and state, and makes most French people uneasy about conspicuous religion. Nativity plays or carol concerts in state primary schools are unthinkable, as would be the swearing-in of presidents over the Bible. When the Swiss voted recently to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, Mr Sarkozy urged believers of all faiths in France to “practise their religion with humble discretion”. Liberal outsiders see this as intolerance. But to the French, who fought hard-won battles against authoritarian clericalism, it stems from a secular wish to keep religion in the private sphere.

Yet today’s concerns about the niqab go far beyond secularism. “The burqa is not a religious sign,” Mr Sarkozy said last year, but rather a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” of women. For six months, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry has been holding hearings about the burqa. One by one, French Muslim figures have filed in to state that, as Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque put it, “neither the burqa, nor the niqab, nor any all-over veil, are religious prescriptions of Islam.”

Moreover, as Dounia Bouzar, a French Muslim anthropologist, pointed out to the commission, most of the women she sees wearing the niqab are young. Intelligence sources suggest that 90% of them are under 40. Two-thirds are French nationals, half of them second- or third-generation immigrants, and nearly a quarter are converts. In other words, this is not an influx of women from the Gulf, but a statement by young French Muslim women, whose own mothers did not cover their faces. Mr Boubakeur and other mainstream French Muslim leaders are clear about its origins: it is “an invasion of salafism”, an ultra-puritan branch of radical Islam.

French politicians of many stripes are keen to draw a firm line in order to thwart further proselytising, particularly in the heavily Muslim banlieues. The (communist) chairman of the parliamentary commission, which is due to report at the end of January, favours a burqa ban. So do Eric Besson, a former Socialist who is now minister for immigration and national identity, and Fadela Amara, a Muslim minister and former campaigner for abused women, who once called the burqa a “prison”.

Yet even if it is justified on security grounds, a ban would still be controversial. The opposition Socialist Party opposes the burqa but frets that outlawing it may be counterproductive. The French Council of the Muslim Faith, an official body, fears that a ban would stigmatise Islam. As it is, Mr Besson has caused unease by launching a national consultation on what it means to be French that has unleashed a torrent of anti-Muslim commentary. Some argue that a ban would play into the hands of those who spread hardline propaganda. Others worry that women, who are often under domestic pressure to wear the burqa, would be unfairly punished. “France would be the only country in the world that sends its policemen…to stop in the street young women who are victims more than they are guilty,” wrote Laurent Joffrin, editor of Libération.

Mr Fillon said this week that he wanted first to pass a parliamentary resolution to condemn the wearing of the burqa; legislation could follow, but only after considering its compatibility with European law and with the French constitution. Under the 2004 law, the burqa is already banned in public schools, as it is on identity cards. Since last year, the wearing of balaclavas can also be banned during or near protests. The planned burqa ban would forbid the covering of the face even in the street, but not the wearing of an all-over veil that leaves the face exposed.

France is likely to come in for much outside criticism for its burqa ban. It will be accused of illiberalism, and disregard for freedom of expression, or of imposing a Western interpretation of women’s oppression. In his speech in Cairo last year, America’s Barack Obama said that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.” Yet all liberal democracies have to make compromises to balance freedom and security. France will argue that this is not a campaign against Islam, but an effort to uphold its values when they are being tested as never before. The world may not see it that way.


Full article and photo:

Let’s Talk About Faith

Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.

That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.

A week ago, Brit Hume broke all three rules at once. On a Fox News panel, Hume suggested that the embattled Tiger Woods consider converting to Christianity. “He’s said to be a Buddhist,” Hume noted. “I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.”

A great many people immediately declared that this comment was the most outrageous thing they’d ever heard. Hume’s words were replayed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, to shocked laughter from the audience. They were denounced across the blogosphere as evidence of chauvinism, bigotry and gross stupidity. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann claimed, absurdly, that Hume had tried to “threaten Tiger Woods into becoming a Christian.” His colleague David Shuster suggested that Hume had “denigrated” his own religion by discussing it on a talk show.

The Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, mocked the idea that Christians should “run around trying to drum up new business” for their faith. Hume “doesn’t really have the authority,” Shales suggested — unless of course “one believes that every Christian by mandate must proselytize.” (This is, of course, exactly what Christians are supposed to believe.)

Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.

No doubt many would. The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.

But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

If we tiptoe politely around this reality, then we betray every teacher, guru and philosopher — including Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha both — who ever sought to resolve the most human of all problems: How then should we live?

It’s reasonable to doubt that a cable news analyst has the right answer to this question. But the debate that Brit Hume kicked off a week ago is still worth having. Indeed, it’s the most important one there is.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


Full article:

The God Gene

How is a church like a can opener? Among the pleasures of using evolutionary logic to think about matters nonbiological, one is getting to ask questions like that. The evolutionary take on a cultural fact like religion or warfare can cut through the fog of judgment and show how a social institution solves some mechanical problem of human co-existence. What function did intergroup violence serve? What are gods good for?

Nicholas Wade’s book “The Faith Instinct” is at its best when putting us through such exercises and sidelining the by-now tiresome debates about religion as a force for good or evil. According to Wade, a New York Times science writer, religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.

Wade holds that natural selection can operate on groups, not just on individuals, a contentious position among evolutionary thinkers. He does not see religion as what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called a spandrel — a happy side effect of evolution (or, if you’re a dyspeptic atheist, an unhappy one). He does not agree with the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer that religion is a byproduct of our overactive brains and their need to attribute meaning and intention to a random world. He doesn’t perceive religious ideas as memes — that is to say, the objects of a strictly cultural or mental process of evolution. He thinks we have a God gene.

So how did this God gene flourish? Wade’s counterintuitive answer repurposes an old social-scientific analysis of religion as a saga of biological survival. Rituals take time; sacrifices take money or its equivalent. Individuals willing to lavish time and money on a particular group signal their commitment to it, and a high level of commitment makes each coreligionist less loath to ignore short-term self-interest and to act for the benefit of the whole. What are gods for? They’re the enforcers. Supernatural beings scare away cheaters and freeloaders and cow everyone into loyal, unselfish, dutiful and, when appropriate, warlike behavior.

Wade walks us briskly through the history of religion to show how our innate piety has adapted to our changing needs. Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian and, shamans aside, had direct access to the divine. But when humans began to farm and to settle in cities and states, religion became hierarchical. Priests emerged, turning unwritten rules and chummy gods into opaque instruments of surveillance and power. Church bureaucracies created crucial social institutions but also suppressed the more ecstatic aspects of worship, especially music, dance and trance. Wade advances the delightfully explosive thesis that the periodic rise of exuberant mystery cults represent human nature rebelling against the institutionalization of worship: “A propensity to follow the ecstatic behaviors of dance and trance was built into people’s minds and provided consistently fertile ground for revolts against established religion,” he writes.

There’s a safari-hatted charm to Wade’s descriptions of what he calls, a little jarringly, “primitive” religion, filled with details of the rites of tribes cut off from the modern world but still available for anthropological observation. But his ­sketches of Judaism, Christianity and Islam rush by quickly and confusingly and offer only superficial accounts of the spread of those faiths, which was in each case a dicier process than Wade makes it sound. (What if Constantine had held out against the Roman Empire’s Christian factions, instead of converting?) Judaism’s strict moral codes, he argues, held together the rival states of Israel and Judah in Biblical times and provided comfort to Jews in exile, but failed to accommodate the more diverse Jews of the first-century Hellenic world. Early Christians adapted Judaism’s attractive but exclusivist mores to a society that had outgrown tribalism, succeeding “so well that they captured an empire and defined a civilization.” Wade embraces a radically revisionist approach to Islam, which holds that it evolved out of a Syriac branch of Christianity whose members believed that Jesus was human and rejected the Trinity. This sternly monotheistic remnant was Arabized when a new dynasty needed to differentiate itself from a previous one. If the revisionist version of Islam is correct, Wade writes, it “furnishes a case study of how a religion can be adapted with great success to a state’s purposes.”

Wade would probably deny that being adaptive makes any religion better in a non-evolutionary sense than any other. His scientist’s neutrality slips toward the end of the book, however, when he starts making the case for Religion with a capital R. Like Robert Wright in “The Evolution of God,” Wade wants to defend religion from so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, who see it as a malignant illusion. In chapters on religion and trade, religion and warfare, religion and nation, and the “ecology” of religion — the way in which religion regulates fertility and population size — Wade argues that our religious disposition can enhance social and national unity, manage scarce resources, even solve the tricky problem of how to get young men to die for the greater good when that’s called for. But Wade also knows that the faith-based preference for the group has engendered genocide, mass suicide and maladaptive cargo cults. Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.

In any case, Wade says, religion is not going away, because it’s imprinted on the human genome. The first part of this claim is hard to argue with. The second part is probably true, too, but raises the question of how. Wade’s vision of religion as a socializing force is persuasive, but he does not do enough to distinguish socially efficacious religious beliefs from, say, socially efficacious political ideologies. There are biologically or at least neurologically grounded accounts of religion, like Boyer’s, that more successfully capture the weird particularity of religious experience while also revealing its tentacles in many other facets of mental and emotional life. Ask yourself: Why are our gods always equipped with recognizably human minds, even when they’re animals? How do sacred stories differ, if they do, from fairy tales, or from novels? What are holiness, impurity and ritual, exactly, and are they religious in essence, or categories implicated in everything we think and do?

The problem, to my mind, is not that Wade has overambitiously linked genetics and religion. It is that he has underambitiously portrayed religion as less encompassing and consequential than it is. Can we really isolate as distinct adaptations the magnificently bizarre and oddly satisfying behaviors and feelings crammed into that drab pigeonhole of a word, “religion”? I would have thought that would amount to explaining what makes us human.

Judith Shulevitz’s book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” will be published in March.


Full article and photo: