I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.
Cantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.
On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.
I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.
When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”
On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:
“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”
On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”
Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”
What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.
Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.
John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.
What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.
For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”
All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?