Even a pope needs friends

Pope Benedict XVI has been a great friend to the Jewish community.

pope benedict xvi 311 (photo credit: AP)
pope benedict xvi 311
(photo credit: AP)
Since the announcement of my upcoming meeting with Pope Benedict many of my Jewish friends have expressed disappointment. “They blamed the pedophile-priest scandal on Jews, and compared the attacks on the Church to anti-Semitism. How could you, Shmuley?” “The pope was in the Hitler Youth and wants to make Pope Pius XII, who never even condemned the Holocaust, a saint.” “The Church has *always been anti-Semitic; you’re being used.”
Come now. Jewish insularity is the ultimate obstacle to the dissemination of Jewish values, while Jewish contempt for the non-Jewish world because of its past immorality and Jew-hatred is itself immoral and hateful. Pope Benedict is being kicked in nearly every part of the world. But I as a Jew do not forget that for all his failures in properly handing the abomination of pedophile priests, Benedict has been a great friend to the Jewish community, visiting an unprecedented three synagogues in four years, as well as the State of Israel. And who benefits by seeing a mighty Church fall? The millions of orphans it tends to? The schools it runs? The hope its priests give the poor, especially in the Third World?
I have been one of Pope Pius XII’s foremost critics. But Benedict is not Pius, and before we holler for his demise let’s recall that as the cardinal secretary of state he did more to extend the Church’s hand in friendship to other peoples and faiths than nearly anyone who preceded him.
There is much in Jewish law and tradition that could bring healing to the Church, beginning with the Jewish laws of sexual seclusion. In Judaism a man and woman who are not married are not allowed to be in a locked room together. When I was rabbi to Michael Jackson, I took this law and applied it to his special circumstances. I told him the only way he could rehabilitate his reputation after the pedophile accusations was to simply forswear ever being alone with a child. I even grabbed Michael’s shoulders and made him promise me he would never seclude himself with a child not his own. And for the two years for which we were close, he stuck to the script. When he and I launched our initiative to help children, the focus was on working with parents to make their kids a top priority, rather than with the kids themselves.
It wasn’t until he stupidly disregarded this simple advice and decided to share a bed – however platonically – with a young child and then brag about it on TV that he was arrested, and so began the inexorable decline that ended in his death a few years later.
THE CHURCH should embrace the same straightforward rule. No priest should be allowed to be alone with a child. Period. If a priest needs to speak to a child alone, the door must never be locked and there must always be the possibility that they can be intruded upon. If they walk in a park, it cannot be one that is empty. This way we’ll know that any priest who breaks the guidelines will be punished, whether or not he abuses a child. It would significantly curb the potential for child molestation, and might even discourage pedophiles from entering the priesthood.
But more importantly, it’s time for Jews and Catholics to work together to promote new values in America. While our country is gripped by an epidemic of materialism and an orgy of greed, the only values religion seems to talk about is its opposition to gay marriage and abortion. But this emphasis on the negative is not going to create much that is positive. We need values that promote family, strengthen marriage, inspire selflessness in children and advance the cause of a purposeful life – one less obsessed with money and status.
This is why I wish to suggest to the pope that the Catholic Church get behind our “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” initiative – the push for a global family-dinner night. Imagine if all the world’s families – Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, agnostic – sat down every Friday night and embraced the “Triple Two.” Parents giving their children two uninterrupted hours every Friday night, inviting two guests to teach the children about hospitality and discussing two important subjects rather than a movie or celebrity gossip. Friday night could be the one evening that unites all. It’s sacred already to Jews and Muslims. Up until the Second Vatican Council it was a night on which Catholics were forbidden to eat meat. And for the nonreligious it’s the beginning of the weekend. If a family gets together on Friday night, chances are it will do more stuff together on Saturday and Sunday.
This is the right time for a global family-dinner night. Thepedophile-priest scandal has reinforced the conclusion of some that theChurch is an old boys’ club that at best makes concessions to theweakness of human nature by allowing men and women to marry; the ideal,however, is celibacy and childlessness.
The Church must returnto its previous posture as a champion of the family, and what betterway than to require that all Catholic families worldwide do as Jesus’did?
Put the worldly stuff away on Friday night and consecrate it as an evening of holy togetherness.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network. His book, Renewal, will be published by Basic Books on May 14.