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In Defense of Bob Jones

March 16, 2000

As a Catholic, I can’t get mad at Bob Jones University, except in the sense that I’m mad at Martin Luther. True, it’s not nice to call the Pope the Antichrist, but there are more important things than being nice.

The claim of the Catholic Church is that the Pope is the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ. Quite a claim. If not true, it’s, to say the least, presumptuous. I believe it’s true. But if I didn’t, I’d have to believe something like what Bob Jones University believes.

That’s what the Reformation was all about, and any literate person must recognize the position of Bob Jones as standard Reformation polemics. Unlike most contemporary theology, Bob Jones is still arguing about fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants as if they mattered. From my own side of the Catholic-Protestant divide, I respect that.

[Breaker quote: The 
human need for the divine]I respect it more than I do the ecumenical spirit that tries to ignore basic differences for the sake of politeness. I certainly respect Bob Jones’s fundamentalist passion more than I respect the urbane evasiveness of, say, Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame or the journalist Garry Wills, neither of whom seems to believe the papal claims any more than Bob Jones does, but who still insist on calling themselves Catholics. Their god may not be dead, but he is awfully limp, and it would be hard to pin the Ten Commandments on such a tolerant, undemanding deity.

The liberal god isn’t into commandments. He forgives everything; or rather, he doesn’t have to forgive anything, because he never condemns anything in the first place, except perhaps sexism and homophobia. One imagines Mr. Wills making his confession to Father McBrien: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I have committed homophobia.” “How many times, my son?”

An age that despises theology is bound to be theologically illiterate. Consider Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. Foxman declares himself “saddened and disappointed” — translation: mad as hell — that Pope John Paul II, in his Lenten prayer for forgiveness of the historic sins of Catholics, “stopped short in addressing specific Catholic wrongs against the Jewish people, especially the Holocaust.”

Mr. Foxman seems unaware that, being a prayer, the Pope’s plea was addressed to God, not to the Anti-Defamation League, and that Catholics still make a distinction between the two. For Mr. Foxman to criticize a Catholic prayer is as presumptuous as it would be for me to demand alterations in the Kaddish or the Kol Nidre. Not that he is one to let that stop him from telling us Catholics how we ought to worship.

It also seems to have escaped his notice that the Holocaust was not a “specific Catholic wrong against the Jewish people.” It was the Nazi government of Germany, not the Catholic Church, that persecuted the Jews during World War II. In fact the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, was so deeply moved by the efforts of Pope Pius XII to protect Jews that he converted to Catholicism, taking Pius’s baptismal name — Eugenio — as his own. When Pius died in 1958, Golda Meir and other Jewish leaders paid tribute to him with unstinting gratitude. They would be shocked by Mr. Foxman’s malicious libels. It is enough to say that if he were a gentile, he would make an excellent anti-Semite.

My estimable friend, the respected sociologist of religion John Murray Cuddihy, has shown how America’s “civil religion” — a “religion of civility” — mutes and domesticates the shocking claims at the heart of every religion. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have toned down their ancient claims to be the Chosen People, the One True Church, and the Only Way to Salvation. Even theology yields to “good manners.” But religion, thus liberalized, loses its urgency, its logic, its raison d’être — its original and animating fire.

Religion, in its essence, is a matter of falling in love with the divine. Like other passionate loves, it tends to excess. It can easily become fanatical, which is especially frightening to people who have never had the experience. But I do know this: the human without the divine is never fully human.

Joseph Sobran

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