Give Me a Bigoted but Honest Rabbi or Priest Before a Phony Pope Like Francis

One especially pities American liberals who took him to their hearts, disregarding his canonization of a priest who, 250 years ago in California, took part in the genocide of native Americans.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Pope Francis stands in the popemobile during a parade in Philadelphia September 27, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Psychiatrists over the years have struggled to define the point when religious passion and ecstasy become a psychological pathology that necessitates professional treatment. Like so many other fields and disciplines where science, religion and politics clash, the classification of a disorder is often more a matter of belief and opinion than rigorous methodology. And when that is the case with individual members of faith groups, sects and cults, it is even more true when entire nations are gripped by sudden religious fervor.

It was breathtaking last week to see how the United States, undoubtedly the greatest nation ever to exist in the history of mankind, uncritically gave itself over to papalmania during the visit of the 78-year old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or, as his followers call him, Pope Francis. While the reaction of practicing Catholics is of course understandable, what makes much less sense is the number of Americans, and non-American onlookers who were swept away by Bergoglio’s impish smile and folksy ways. It included even normally level-headed and hard-nosed journalists and columnists, masters of cynicism in their daily work, who rhapsodized over the authenticity of Francis, the dialogues he opened and good causes he advanced and how he spoke truth to power, particularly when appearing before the U.S. Congress, on crass materialism and rampant capitalism.

Politicians everywhere are pretty awful, but have things got so bad in American that intelligent observers rejoice at the sight of a man, elected by a self-selected conclave of a couple of hundred cardinals, all of them “princes of the church,” lecturing elected officials who actually have to go out regularly and win the votes of real people?

Rank hypocrisy

Pope Francis is of course a fascinating figure. His encyclical Laudato Si, on the challenges of environmentalism and capitalism in our age, is an eloquent and thoughtful text, of the kind rarely found in any religion today. It’s also rank hypocrisy, since he fails to confront the central flaw in any claim by the Catholic church to be fighting poverty – its prohibition of birth control. But then that is the point of religion anyway — embracing the contradictions, absurdities and hypocrisies, and why those of us living in democracies are fortunate not to have a pope, ayatollah or chief rabbi, no matter how saintly their demeanor is, deciding for us.

Bergoglio with his humility, his refusal except as an archbishop in Buenos Aires and a pontiff in Rome to live in palaces, his washing the feet of convicts, his refreshing lack of protocol, is the best PR the church has had since public relations were invented, but he is no different from any other priest or rabbi having to preach immutable truths.

One especially pities American liberals who took him to their hearts, disregarding his canonization of a priest who, 250 years ago in California, took part in the genocide of native Americans, and how before an emotional meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests, he first congratulated the U.S. bishops on their “courage” in the ongoing saga, which of course includes decades of cover-ups. That these liberals can somehow ignore, but then it began to emerge that during his visit he had privately met Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who went to jail rather than register same-sex marriages, and had embraced her and thanked her for her “courage.” I wonder how they feel now that they know the man they had looked to as all that it is enlightened actually feels closer to the woman who has become for them the symbol of all that it is bigoted. And how devious of him to meet her in private and not allowing it to get out until he took off back to Rome.

Contrast Francis’ conduct with that of the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar. In an interview earlier this week, the rabbi launched a broadside against gay people in general (though he wouldn’t even mention them by name). “This is a phenomenon that will diminish and disappear of its own accord, because most of the public is disgusted by it and shuns it. They are trying to legitimize it today in the parliament and courts, but it is unnatural and abnormal.” Amar made it clear that he wasn’t inciting to physically harm gay people, calling the stabbing attack on the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, in which Shira Banki was murdered, “a terrible act of bloodshed and nothing can justify it.” But the basic motivation was right, he said. “The Torah calls it an abomination and we need to find the right ways to fight it in a more calculated form.”

So far, so reprehensible to our enlightened ears, but you have to give Amar credit for setting out his views in an open way. He didn’t try to sugarcoat or hide anything. Some would argue that even if you have a prejudice against a certain group in society, if you privately harbor the belief that there’s something wrong with Jews, black, gays or other minorities (or majorities for that matter), it would be better if you didn’t go putting it on show. But such advice is right for private individuals, not for religious leaders and others in positions of power and influence. If they have an agenda, we should know about it.

And since this individual and his agenda isn’t just a private belief, but in many cases a state-supported and funded cause, we should be constantly aware of this. Amar is a former chief rabbi of Israel and, as Jerusalem chief rabbi, he still receives a government salary and platform. His brand of Orthodox Judaism is Israel’s officially sanctioned state religion. He is authentic Israel just as much as gay-friendly, partying Tel Aviv is. So unlike Francis, who indulges gay-bashers in private, he meets them out in the open. Somehow, Amar strikes me as worthy of respect for at least being honest.

The same goes for Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Synodal Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society in the Russian Orthodox Church, and one of his country’s most famous and influential men of cloth. Chaplin, under the pseudonym Aron Shemaiyer, writes apocalyptic novels on how a horde of Muslims, Ukrainians and gays will one day destroy Moscow, and this week bestowed on Vladimir Putin’s vicious air campaign against the Syrian rebels the benediction of a “sacred war.”

Holy, dirty wars

Not that Putin needed his blessings, but Archpriest Chaplin is simply saying what many Christians, Muslims (Sunni and Shia) and Jews fervently believe — that there is a holy aspect to the dirty wars in the Middle East and it means defending members of your religion and killing the heathen unbelievers of the other ones.

In the West we don’t like to talk about religious wars, instead it's called “sectarianism,” and Pope Francis holds pointless prayers for peace like the one last year to which he invited presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas. Chaplin is not a saintly man like Francis, but he’s at least honest on what he thinks the Syrian war is about: protecting the local Christians — “who are now facing a real genocide,” he says — from the murderous Islamist hordes by killing them first.

Pope Francis is not a corrective to the Amars and Chaplins and all the other bigoted and hate-filled men (it’s always men) of the cloth — he is their foil. And one doesn’t have to be a militant atheist to realize that. Our faith and religion is our identity and history and culture, as much as any other national or ideological affiliation. It can also be a source of great comfort in times of trouble. But we should never entertain the dangerous illusion that religious leaders, no matter how benign they seem, are worthier than our accountable elected leaders.