Local Anti-Catholicism

(Response by Seattle P-I Columnist)

Joel Connelly
In The Northwest: The lingering stereotype that needs to be shattered

Wednesday, August 29, 2001


Late-inning Mariner heroics have pushed back dog-walking routines, so it is often past 10 o'clock and a blue van is pulling up at St. Therese Church as our family hounds lead their well-trained owner on his nightly trot.

Months before the Tent City homeless encampment began its monthlong residence in a church-owned lot, the Catholic parish in Madrona was quietly opening its school gym to late-night sleepovers by homeless men under auspices of St. James Cathedral.

The sight of St. James' blue van serves to underscore the church's role as Washington's second-largest social service agency, trailing only state government.

It's also a timely reminder of good works, given the recent working over that the Catholic Church has endured locally.

On issues from AIDS to stem cell research, Catholic teaching and "the Vatican" get described as medieval obstacles to 21st century progress. Archbishop Alex Brunett is wondering whose agenda and what purpose is being served.

"What is it about Catholicism that makes people comfortable calling us names and stereotyping us?" he asked. "Why do people want to stereotype Catholics? Is the Catholic Church the last object of socially acceptable bigotry?"

Brunett is disturbed at the excesses of two recent editorial page columns that condemned the church for opposing use of condoms as a way of dealing with HIV/AIDS in southern Africa.

A P-I piece asserted that "the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church declined to challenge Adolf Hitler as he ran amok through Europe." It likened HIV/AIDS to "a viral version of Hitler," warning of "similar ignominy" if Catholicism fails to give its blessing to condoms.

A Seattle Times columnist argued that this country should "stick to the secular and practical values of human progress." She speared Catholicism repeatedly, blaming the church for the spread of AIDS and giving emphasis to priests dying from the sexually transmitted disease. She claimed that Pope John Paul II is applying 12th century religious doctrine to the life of today.

During the recent House debate on cloning, Seattle's Congressman-for-life Jim McDermott pegged the church in the Middle Ages as he upbraided its opposition to certain forms of stem cell research. McDermott brought up the trial of Galileo, and the 16th century Spanish king who asked the pope if it was all right for humans to drink coffee.

Disagreeing with the pontiff or bishops is one thing. Mockery, and comparisons chosen for purposes of insult, are quite another.

Agree with him or differ, John Paul II is a 20th century man whose view of human dignity and the value of life was shaped by two seminal events, brutal Nazi occupation of his native Poland -- he lived perilously as an underground seminarian -- followed by Soviet-dictated totalitarianism.

What other world leader, spiritual or temporal, can bring these experiences and perspectives to contemporary issues?

To smear the hierarchy with a broad brush as silent in the face of Hitlerism is flat out wrong. Consider events of August 1941 in the German city of Munster.

At the height of its power, the Nazi regime launched a secret euthanasia program that put to death more than 70,000 of Germany's mentally handicapped.

Propaganda schooled the public in a doctrine called "lebensunwertes Leben," roughly translated as life not worth living.

Bishop Clemens August von Galen revealed and condemned the euthanasia program in three sermons from the pulpit of his cathedral. Thousands gathered at Munster Cathedral to show solidarity with him. The sermons were secretly distributed throughout Germany.

The Gestapo and Hitler's top aide Martin Bormann wanted von Galen hanged. But propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels warned the regime would forfeit loyalty of an entire region of Germany.

Von Galen's head-on challenge halted the euthanasia program. He outlived Nazism.

The bishop's sermons have an ongoing resonance six decades later as voters get asked to approve physician-assisted suicide, and scientists talk of human cloning. If "mercy killing" was justified with the mentally ill, von Galen asked, who could say that it would not be extended to wounded soldiers, the physically disabled and the old and infirm?

Locally, recent characterizations raise unsettling questions.

Why do some people still feel free to toss out stereotypes about Catholicism -- and other religions, for that matter -- when ethnic, racial and sexual typecasting has fallen on such disfavor?

"I've spent my life in ecumenism," said Brunett, who is in Ireland this week as co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. "It is work that requires getting rid of stereotypes. Stereotypes create antagonism. You can't have dialogue -- you can't get anything done -- if people don't respect each other."

One particular stereotype needs shattering. The Catholic Church is not just the pope or "the Vatican." The church is the people of God trying to live their faith and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Of course they stumble and err, even those at the top.

Critics might learn from a late-evening walk past St. Therese.

I wrote Mr. Connelly to thank him for the article and ask permission to reproduce it. He wrote back stating it is in the public domain and that he appreciates the additional audience. P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or joelconnelly@seattlepi.com

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