Monday, February 9, 2009

Gerard Henderson, the current Pope, Pius II, the Chaser boys, secularists and papal googling

As is the often the way with Gerard Henderson, any attempt at a sensible column on a serious subject is often confounded by his desire to take sideswipes at leftists and Stalinists.

Take, for example, his desire to exonerate Pope Pius XII from some of his behavior towards Nazis, Jews and the ongoing holocaust during the second world war years. First Henderson sets up a couple of straw arguments - suggesting for example that critics of the church have had success linking the pope to Hitler and the Nazis by devious means. He even berates Chaser 'boy' (note the sniffy denigration, no contemporary historian he) Chris Taylor for allowing the notion to make the final cut in a documentary aired on the ABC on New Year's Day. The scandal of it all.

Well actually critics - some secular, some Jewish - have been aware for some time of Pius's personal antipathy to the Nazis, and Hitler in particular. And they don't have to resort to glib labels like 'Hitler's Pope' to wonder why Pius acted in the way he did, particularly with the knowledge he had of what was going down, knowledge available much earlier than publicly acknowledged by the Vatican.

It's also way too easy to simply say all this critical activity is simply an initiative by Joe Stalin's heirs in Moscow and left-wing playright Rolf Hochhuth The Deputy. It would be just as flip and glib to suggest that Henderson wants to give Pius a 'get out of jail' card because of his staunch anti-communism.

The reality lies somewhere in between, with Pius, an enigmatic figure, moving from his denunciation of the Nazis in 1937 to a refusal later in the war to denounce the Nazis treatment of the Jews, while somehow balancing the books by refusing to denounce the Soviets for their conduct in Poland towards Catholics.

It wouldn't have been an easy situation that Pius found himself in, and his uneasy silences and equivocations are understandable, though some find them disappointing given the ambivalent attitude within the historical church towards the Jews. His powerlessness meant he had to tread a fine line between telling the truth and angering the Nazis and Mussolini, or simply staying silent and doing things behind the scenes. It was a perilous equivocation, a juggling act, that left him open to criticism down the track.

All this is by way of a side path, with Henderson's column Why the Pope should use his Google mainly concerned with tracking the current pontif's stuff up by re-admitting Holocaust denier  Bishop Richard Williamson without doing a check of the SPPX books, an eccentric right wing organisation founded by Marcel-Francois Lefebvre.

Henderson thinks it was a bad call - he should have a chat some time with Christopher Pearson, who thinks it's just a way of broadening the plurality of the church - but along the way he also finds time to excuse Australian Catholics of anti-semitism, simply on the basis of Archbishop Pell condemning Williamson, and Daniel Mannix entering into dialogue with Jews.

Funnily enough, there's actually good cause to thank Pope John II and post-Vatican II thinking for this seismic shift, but it seems few conservatives can find a good word for John and his anti-Latin mass, guitar strumming nuns, hippie 'power to the people' ways.

Perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive and exceptional here, when I recall the nuns that used to assure us that the Jews killed Christ, and were barred from heaven, like all the other unbelievers. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have been taught these Catholic truths, since anti-semitism in the old days wasn't deployed in an aggressive way - it was usually subtle, and it just filtered through the air. It was assumed to be as natural as breathing, no matter what had happened in the war, or what kind of thinking had resulted in the holocaust.

Our response was partly based on profound ignorance - few in the area I lived in had met Jewish people, and few back then really understood the slow growing sense of horror elsewhere at what had actually happened.

In this, Catholic Australians were perhaps no better or worse than other Australians, but it's worth remembering that long before Borat, Roy Rene, himself a Jew, used traditional vaudeville make up in a way that paid homage to the ugly stereotype of the Jew. Max Harris ghost wrote his biography, and noted: 

There he would be, leering, spitting, expostulating, and celebrating every ugly vulgarity to be found in a society rich only in inhibitions, self-delusions and respectable hypocrisies. 'You can laugh at the grotesque in front of you', he seemed to be saying, 'laugh at the sub-human stage Jew, but he is you, and I'm going to prove it'. And he did. He and his audiences laughed at the worst in themselves.

It's impossible to over-state Rene's stardom at the time, though it might seem strange now, since his humor has fallen totally out of fashion (as has radio comedy generally), or the peculiar ambivalence of his Jewishness, a kind of trading off that allowed him and his audiences to have it both ways (without the kind of mad hostility of the League of Rights and suchlike anti semitic fronts).

In much the same way as he gives Australian Catholics a free kick, Henderson also gives the Society of St Pius X a very modest critique, claiming some of its members are essentially good people who disagree with the way in which some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were implemented (they're mebbe just a little upset about the Latin mass). 

But Henderson's been down this path before - back in 2004 while critiquing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as a dangerous guilt trip, he exonerated it of being anti-Semitic and also exonerated Gibson of being anti-Semitic, even if his father was a Holocaust denier.

Henderson didn't have the benefit of a drunken Gibson telling an arresting Jewish cop "Fucking Jews ... Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?", and to be fair, the film is actually more of an example of the deeply disturbing, almost sickening addiction to a physical SM that would have made the Marquis de Sade whimper in fear.

But why, in these strange ways attempt to exude fairness to the likes of a deeply conflicted Gibson (as opposed to snootily dismissing the Chaser boys), or to gild the lily with Pius XII, or tread softly softly with Pope Benedict, as if somehow being a fine theologian in a very strange religion should somehow help the current pope understand the ways of a rapidly changing world? 

For that matter, why bother to excuse the Society of St Pius X, which is in reality not that far from many other fundamentalist extremist groups in its outlook on life. Sure they use fancy concepts but think where the following might lead if implemented:

(While no one can be compelled to embrace the Catholic faith unwillingly), "The civil authority can and ought to procure the intellectual, social and moral conditions required in order that the faithful be able to persevere more easily in the Faith. The civil authority can, in order to protect the citizens against error, regulate and moderate the public manifestations of other cults and defend its citizens against the spreading of false doctrines which, in the judgment of the church, put their eternal salvation at risk.

Well I guess on the upside that means scientology just has to go, but it also means a lot of secularists better look to how they're going to defend their lifestyle choices, and we're not just talking about which cafe latte to drink here.

There's a few subtle clues to Henderson's approach. First of all, it seems he's most disturbed by the rise of secularists. Better the Catholic church than a storm of humanists and atheists, it seems, no matter how badly or ineptly the Church might perform. 

Due to the current surge of secularism in the West, and the high profile of many alienated current and former Catholics who are critical of the church, the Vatican should be extra careful to avoid political errors.

And second of all, he naturally has some advice for the pontiff:

The Pope would be well advised to indicate that Williamson will not be admitted to a position within the Catholic hierarchy while he engages in historical lying.

The absurdity of this advice should be obvious to all bar Henderson. Leopards don't change their spots, and for a denier like Williamson it's not just a matter of historical lying (whatever that might be) but an item of faith in a particularly virulent brand of extremist schismatic Catholicism. And the notion that Lefebvre hadn't had a track record in anti-semitism for a very long time would be quaint in the extreme if anyone tried to whitewash the tone of the organisation he founded, no matter how it's tried to be dressed as a harmless theological dispute.

Williamson should never have been re-admitted, will now always remain a canker near the core, and the tone deaf insensitivity to the meaning of SSPX suggests that at least in Rome half-baked equivocation continues as a way of life.

Whatever. I guess the upside is that it enables our Polonius to claim now that he's an advisor to Popes as well as princes and potentates.

Below, Roy Rene in vaudeville make-up:

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