How I almost became a Catholic, and why I am angry with the Catholic Church

Just as I crossed the threshold of the cathedral, the travertine and basalt starkly alternating in white and black horizontal stripes, my open soul was stricken.

August 13, 2015 21:23
4 minute read.
holy fire jerusalem

Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A miracle occurred as I entered the soaring Orvieto Cathedral one fiercely hot day in Umbria last week. I am a rationalist. Yet a bolt of awe and of mystery took my soul in its divine grasp as I entered the cool interior, stark in its majestic simplicity.

As the door swung slowly back into place, the beloved notes of Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio” swelled through the vast Gothic national monument. Albinoni’s Adagio is that beloved creation which our rabbi had permitted to be played as Henrietta and I were married so many years ago. Now it filled the great cavern with the powerful reverberation of the more than 1,500 pipes of its magnificent organ.

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Just as I crossed the threshold of the cathedral, the travertine and basalt starkly alternating in white and black horizontal stripes, my open soul was stricken. That timing could only have been a miracle.

A miracle, until the organist segued into the “Lohengrin Wedding March.”

End of miracle. Finito il miracolo! The cathedral, except for its chapels, has been decommissioned.

The organist was practicing for a wedding ceremony to be held that day in one chapel, which is ornate and blatantly opulent – in total contrast to the dozens-of-meters-high Gothic masterpiece, whose form is its adornment.

Well yes indeed, Maimonides had warned us that miracles occur in consonance with nature, that is with reality.

The miracle thus explained does not help respond to another question which has haunted me as long as I have visited Italy along the decades. There is no gainsaying the absolute genius of the architects, sculptors, stone masons, builders and carpenters who have made Italy the richest repository of overwhelmingly beautiful churches, cathedrals and papal residences.

How could the popes and bishops and cardinals endow such magnificent buildings with wealth garnered from the poor peasants and toiling townspeople and doing this “ad majorem Dei gloriam.” For the greater glory of God.

That Church which relates its beginnings to the family of a carpenter of Nazareth forgot its origins. If the Temple of Jerusalem became an ornate display of wealth and power, there was nevertheless only one in all of Israel.

One which became as corrupt as all centers of immense wealth and power must become in an iron law of history.

But to build hundreds of such centers, thousands perhaps, in Europe and eventually across the seas and oceans to all continents? How many workers were killed in their construction? How many evil rulers bribed the Church – they thought – to ensure their place in heaven, while creating hell on earth? Now of course it is not only the Catholics who have exploited the poor, and the trusting, in order to build their power. The same could be said of the Eastern Orthodox rites, and the Catholic spin-off Anglicans, etcetera. And, to be fair, many voices within Christianity have been raised in search of greater social justice, with the newest pope, Francis, a refreshing voice carrying a courageous message.

But, what business do I, a Jew, have to speak of the hypocrisy of other faiths, when there are sorry examples in our own ranks? Fair question. If we can put aside the historic record of the Church and the Jews of Europe, it is as an Israeli Jew that I find cause to be angry at the Catholic Church.

For decades, the Church, along with most mainline Protestant American churches, willfully closed its eyes to the forcible removal of the Christian populations of the Middle East Islamic states. They closed their eyes to the Islamic pressures on the Christians of the Galilee, on their professing members in Bethlehem and in other areas of the Palestine Authority.

Church leaders explained their timorousness as a result of the fear of inciting more pressure on the Christians.

Now, far too little, much too late, as ISIS kills Assyrian and Nestorian Christians, and Hezbollah and other Shi’ite extreme groups target Maronites, the churches have suddenly found a voice. The lions have mewed.

The fact is that for years the Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land was an out-and-out hater of Jews, whose Arab Christian nationalism has been characterized by a Catholic commentator as a “spiritual Shoah” because it denies Jewish rights and the Jewish presence here.

This column is written out of deep love of Italy and its great cultural treasures, which soar over those of all other countries, just as the great cathedral of Orvieto crowns the volcanic tufa which raises Orvieto above the surrounding gentle hills. But it is written with seething anger at the little smug Jewish gangsters who burn churches in Israel, and the big smug Catholic leaders who – correctly – rush to complain to the world about this crime. These, though, are the same leaders or their successors who held their silence when the Arab terrorist fighters occupied the Church of the Nativity, holding 200 monks hostage, This Arab desecration of the major Christian holy place in Bethlehem in 2002 not only went undenounced, it was Israel that the Churches rushed to blame for keeping the terrorists under siege.

Come, come, gentlemen of the clergy: Without Israeli power, the Middle East would be as Christianrein as is Saudi Arabia, Why not speak the truth? It is time to end the double standard.

Speaking the truth is a Judeo-Christian virtue. Is it not? As the prophet Zechariah said: Truth and peace shall ye love.

Just in case you forgot, dear clergy, here it is in the Vulgate: “Veritatem... et pacem diligite.”

Avraham Avi-hai served in major Israeli government roles in the 1950s and 1960s and then as a member of the WZO-Jewish Agency Executives. He is a professed Italophile. Much of his novel A Tale of Two Avrahams takes place in medieval and modern Italy and in Venetian-controlled Crete.

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