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Pope Benedict's Crusade Against Atheism

November 30, 2007

Sounding more like Bill O'Reilly or Bill Donahue than the leader of the world's one billion Catholic faithful, Pope Benedict XVI today issued a stinging critique of atheism. In the encyclical titled Saved by Hope, the Pope assigned atheism responsibility for some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" in human history. But given his own history, Benedict might want to reread his admonition that "we must do all we can to overcome suffering."
Attacking the bogeymen of the French Revolution and Marxism, Pope Benedict declared of the atheism he claimed they spawned:

"It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope."

While leaving aside the essential roles played by the Enlightenment and western liberal democracy in advancing human dignity, enshrining individual liberty and reducing mass suffering, Benedict's history is apparently obscures the role of his own church. Charity, as the saying goes, begins at home.
After all, when it comes to the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice," the Crusades would surely appear on anyone's Top 10. Almost from the inception of his papacy, Benedict has also sent strong signals that he would not continue his predecessor's policy of dialog with and outreach to other faiths. In September 2006, Benedict created an uproar throughout the Muslim world with his Regensburg University speech approvingly citing a quote from 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus which derided Islam as "evil and inhuman." Despite a later apology of sorts, that episode was not the best start for someone looking to make historial amends.
Joseph Ratzinger's personal history should also give readers of Saved by Hope pause. Not because of the role young Ratzinger's church may or may not have played in abetting Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust or his own brief membership in the Hitler Youth. (Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League defended Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II alike, noting " While growing up, both of them experienced what hate can do, what totalitarianism can do, what ant-Semitism can do. Whatever those years were, they certainly haven't and aren't impacting on him negatively.")
No, it is Benedict's deep involvement in helping conceal some of the worst episodes of the global Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis. Since the 1990's, the plague of sex abuse cases has cost the Catholic Church in America almost $2 billion in settlements and led to the bankruptcy of five dioceses in the wake of the fist revelations in Boston. Yet, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II right-hand man on doctrinal matters, who brought Boston's disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law to the comfort - and cover - of the Vatican. Despite Law being implicated in the protection and relocation of 80 child abusing priests, Ratzinger brought Law to the Holy See, where he remains "a highly respected member of the Catholic Church's hierarchy in Rome." Apparently, Ratzinger believed his 2002 recommendation of a public day of penance by U.S. bishops was sufficient to cleanse the stain of clergy sexual abuse.
Given the magnitude of the ongoing scandal in the U.S. church, one might expect particular sensitivity by the Pope when it comes to domestic American politics. Yet despite all the sins of the American Church, Benedict instead seems focused on ensuring his conservative footprint in the U.S. In 2004, then Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed that pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry should not receive communion. (Ironically, Pope John Paul II himself had offered communion to the pro-choice mayor of Rome in 2000.) And just this May, Pope Benedict reiterated his policy of withholding communion from American Catholic politicians such as Rudy Giuliani, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson who fail to oppose abortion rights.
As the leader of his Church, Pope Benedict XVI by all means should speak to atheists around the world. It is only natural that the Vatican should concerns itself with their spiritual lives, even if only as potential members of the Catholic faith. But for this church and this Pope to lay history's greatest crimes and violent tragedies at the doorstep of atheism is, to quote Pope Benedict, a "violation of justice."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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