In retrospect, I realize that one reason that I made a poor Catholic traditionalist was because of my obsessive curiosity and my inability to shut off my mind and my heart to what I believed to be injustice. Even as a young child, I was always a bit of a killjoy who preferred to obsess over the unpleasant aspects of life, even if doing so made me a less than popular presence. For example, when I was in third grade, the Atlanta Braves baseball team suddenly transformed itself from being just another semi-anonymous sports franchise to a major powerhouse team, causing the inevitable “Braves fever” and the “Tomahawk chop” to sweep the school. I remained curiously immune to this particular affliction, reprimanding anyone who would listen that the very concept of naming a sports team after an ethnic group was racist and that all this time and energy that was being expended towards the Braves would be better spent on searching for a cure for cancer. I’ve never been able to understand where a seven year old girl got these fairly sophisticated ideas about race, sports, and society’s misplaced priorities, because my parents were never keen on talking about race and at this point in time I was still apolitical. I can only assume that it stemmed from my own personal readings about our country’s less than stellar treatment of blacks and Native Americans, combined with my lifelong antipathy towards professional sports. Regardless, this was simply the first instance of many in which I preferred to wallow in the unhappy details of history, rather than accept a happy ignorance.
Anyway, back in 2008, I was an intern at the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum and Holocaust Memorial. This institution hosts a yearly week-long workshop that helps K-12 teachers teach the Holocaust, and I sat in on the sessions. Because the my obsession with reading about man’s inhumanity to man, there was very little at the workshop that was truly new to me, but one thing that made me sit up and notice was the presentation on medieval Christian antisemitism, especially the part on the Judensau and the juxtaposition of Ecclesia triumphant and the humiliated Synagoga:
I’ve mentioned before the love among many Catholic traditionalists of all things Gothic, but the presence of these antisemitic carvings jutting right out of the world’s greatest cathedrals is something that seldom if ever gets mentioned when the glories of the “Age of Faith” are mentioned.
The words of supposed “saints” like John Chrysostom’s to prefigure the behavior of the Nazis and it made me sick to my stomach. How could anyone who said such things about anyone be considered worthy of emulation? Filled with confusion, I called one of the priests at St F about how I was supposed to reconcile the “truth” of the Catholic church with the blatant hatred that seemed to be part of the background for thousands of years.
As is often the case in these situations, the priest who picked up the phone, Fr F told me to ignore everything that I had just been told, since the speaker was probably “anti-Catholic.” I didn’t think that was true, since the speaker in question was an active Catholic and a a history teacher at a “normal” Catholic secondary school, but I didn’t tell Fr F this, since I knew that wouldn’t make a difference in his eyes. I then said that I was deeply troubled by the anti-semitic rhetoric of supposed saint John Chrysostom, to which Fr F replied that the Jewish community of the time was probably responsible for whatever misfortunes had befallen them. I questioned how this could be possible, since European Jews were already well on the road to chronic disenfranchisement and were being stripped of whatever power they had vis a vis Christians. Seeing that my mind wasn’t being changed in the way he wanted, Fr F finally said, “Just don’t think about any of this.”
As a rule, the best way to ensure that someone will think about a topic is to tell them to not think about it, and that’s exactly what happened with me. If the Catholic church was “true,” how could it have behaved so evilly against the Jews? Belonging to a group that had also been subjected to ghettoization, discrimination, and outright murder, the idea of “not thinking” about church-sponsored antisemitism was an insult to my intelligence and my sense of morality.
During the same summer that I went through the Holocaust Education workshop, I also read “The Diary of Anne Frank” for the first time, and I finished it in about two days. Out of all of the scenes in the book, the one that really got to me was this one where Anne and her quasi-boyfriend Peter talk about getting baptized after the war is over so they won’t have to deal with anti-semitism anymore. Given that the German churches weren’t even willing to defend those Jews who had converted, I don’t think baptism would have done much to help, but the idea that baptism, which is supposed to be this great sacramental sign of entry into the Church community, was viewed by these kids as a means of survival, made me wonder.
After finishing “The Diary of Anne Frank,” I continued to struggle over the issue of church-sponsored anti-semitism, especially given the antipathy shown towards “the Jews” in many traditionalist circles. You can see it expressed more openly in the SSPX side of things, but it’s definitely there among the FSSP and “mainstream” conservative elements, that Ecclesia rules and Synagoga drools, for lack of a more sophisticated way of phrasing.
For most of my sojourn at St F, I told myself that there were crazy people in all subcultures and that I could just keep what was valuable and ignore the rest, but I eventually realized that I couldn’t do that. The same people who were against “the Jews” tended to be against “the blacks” as well, at least in the sense of not viewing either group as having legitimate grievances. Maybe I always realized that if given a choice between sticking with John Chrysostom and the “splendor of Truth” and having solidarity with Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust that the latter would always win out. I cannot worship, fear, or respect any deity that would throw a child like Anne Frank and millions of other into eternal perdition just because she happened to be of the wrong ethnicity or religion. If believing this sends me to Hell, so be it; I would rather stand with Anne Frank for a billion years in Hell than spend one day in the sight of a god who delights in such capricious suffering.