Catholic Crisis, Jewish Nightmare

The sources of moral anguish are entirely different, and some on each side may reject -- and even resent -- the comparison. But as Catholics confront a sex-abuse scandal in the Church and Jews agonize over events in Israel, there are striking parallels between the moral crises the two groups are experiencing.

A central question in both cases is whether institutions sacred to each group have failed to uphold fundamental ethical principles. And, in each case, the principles at issue have a singular symbolic importance. The Catholic Church has partly defined itself through its rules of celibacy for priests and nuns and its conservative teachings about sexuality. The protection of the young has always been a principal concern. In that context, there could hardly be a more grievous institutional failure than cover-ups by Church authorities of child molestation by priests.

The Jewish tradition has upheld the importance of law, and modern Jewish identity is framed by the experience of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel not only as a Jewish state, but also as a just one. In that context, there could hardly be a more grievous institutional failure than reckless disregard for innocent lives alleged during the recent Israeli military actions in Jenin and elsewhere.

We do not yet know all the facts in these controversies. Day by day, new information appears in the press, and investigations are under way. I do not mean to prejudge the outcome of that process, only to reflect on some of its moral dimensions.

The immediate issue is the conduct of high leadership. The questions here are variations on familiar ones from past controversies: Were crimes committed, and were the people at the top responsible for an overall pattern of misconduct? What did the bishop or the cardinal, the general or the prime minister, know and when did he know it?
The ability to confront such questions honestly and thoroughly is a test for us all -- for the Catholic Church and the State of Israel; for Catholics and Jews generally; and for the wider society and world.

What makes this reckoning with the facts especially hard is that there is real jeopardy to the institutions. In the case of the Church, the liabilities from lawsuits could threaten to bankrupt some dioceses; Catholics already give proportionately less of their income than Protestants do to their churches, and the scandal could dampen contributions further.

For Jews, the risk is to the ability of Israel to defend itself. Many will see any inquiry into Israeli misconduct as unfair, and it will be unfair if it fails to take into account the peculiar conditions created by suicide bombers and other terrorists who present themselves as civilians. But terrorism does not remove all obligations of human decency.

Beyond these questions, however, lies a more fundamental one raised in both contexts. The current crises facing Catholics and Jews are not random events, and even if they are confronted honestly, the underlying reasons for them are unlikely to disappear. At the root of each one is a historic misalignment with the modern world.

In the Catholic case, the misalignment has two dimensions. The Church operates on principles of hierarchical control, secrecy, and male domination in a world where such principles no longer enjoy wide acceptance. And it upholds a sexual regime not only out of alignment with modern life but also no longer approved by large majorities of its own members. Crises over sexual practices and doctrine will quiet down, but they are almost certain to come back.

In the Israeli case, the misalignment involves the continued rule over Palestinians in a world where all forms of colonial control have lost their legitimacy. If Israel is to be the democracy it aspires to be -- if it is to avoid the moral disaster of the recent destruction of Palestinian society -- it has to get out of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. I am not suggesting there is any easy path to that result. Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority is not a trustworthy bargaining partner, nor for that matter is Ariel Sharon interested in any such accommodation. A durable settlement seems far off; for the time being, we will be lucky if the level of violence subsides enough for people on both sides to imagine taking risks for peace.

But the real challenge for Israel, as for the Catholic Church, is much bigger than any potential embarrassment from recent disclosures. They both need to make fundamental changes steadfastly opposed by their current leaders. The debates now in progress among Catholics and Jews ought to look to that long-term prospect.

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