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The Church: For Better and for Worse

In response to:

Jesuits Admirable and Execrable from the February 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Garry Wills’s fascinating article on the Jesuits [“Jesuits Admirable and Execrable,” NYR, February 9] brings to mind the intervention of Pope Leo XIII in the seating of Karl Lueger as the mayor of Vienna in 1897. Lueger’s use of populist political anti-Semitism, which influenced Hitler, helped him to win elections, but Emperor Franz Joseph refused three times to allow Lueger to be seated, and he did so only after Pope Leo XIII intervened on Lueger’s behalf.

Daniel Berrigan, a later Jesuit, looked to the social activism of priests who put themselves at risk in order to help the oppressed. Nevertheless, he seemed indifferent to the fate of Israel when it was attacked by Syria and Egypt during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Speaking to the Association of Arab American University Graduates on October 19, 1973, while Israel was fighting the two-front war, Berrigan castigated Israel as “a criminal Jewish community,” leading the organization Promoting Enduring Peace to consider withholding the Gandhi Peace Award, which Berrigan then rejected in advance. His partisanship at this juncture led to many rebukes for ignoring the dangers Israel faced. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of the American Jewish Congress said that Berrigan’s speech was grounded in “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism.” Berrigan maintained that he was wounded by this charge, and had simply wanted to explore the issue of militarism.

As for Berrigan’s relationship to the established Catholic Church, he wrote to me in 1976 that he felt considerable alienation. In answer to a query I had made with respect to Henry Thoreau’s rejection of established religion, he replied:

I think I’ve made a break with “formal” religion no less clean than Thoreau; I don’t make an issue of it because there are more serious tasks than beating on the church, which but for its real estate and buildings, is already dead on its cloven feet. As far as Christianity is concerned, I love the new Testament, and have some good friends who believe with that and who lay something out in consequence. I guess that’s all one can reasonably expect these days. Indeed, maybe it was never much different than that.

Laraine Fergenson
Bronx Community College, CUNY
Professor Emerita
Tenafly, New Jersey

Garry Wills replies:

Many people protest the treatment of Palestinians without being anti-Semitic—including Jimmy Carter and Jews for Justice for Palestinians. And many of us Catholics who believe in the church as “the people of God” know that the institutional church has often protected the unjust (including anti-Semites). As Philip Berrigan used to say, “Mother Church is a whore—but she is still our mother.”