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Norman Finkelstein and the Catholic Church

DePaul and the Vatican’s Long Leash

by LYNDA BRAYER

The most recent scandal in American academia is the firing of Dr. Norman Finkelstein by De Paul University, despite the recommendations of his colleagues and peers, students, and his publishing record, all of which would normally assure academic tenure to someone in his position. It seems therefore, that Dr. Norman Finkelstein application failed not because of any professional or personal failings, but rather because of considerations external to his person, none of which have been explained.

To date, the only apparent reason for this outcome is the unremitting public, and no doubt, private, campaign against Dr. Finkelstein’s competence by Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, and one of the leading apologists for Zionism, which, appeared to be motivated by personal pique after Dr. Finkelstein’s painstaking analysis revealed the legal invalidity of Dershowitz’ arguments which support Israeli violations of international law. One would suspect that because De Paul is a Catholic university, continuing charges of anti-Semitism together with the Holocaust culpability accusations, were not left out of this offensive. Those who find Dr. Finkelstein’s firing shocking have attributed weakness of character to the officials at the University for yielding to these pressures.

Before I adduce what I think are other unmentioned, if not hidden, seminal factors contributing to this dismissal, I think it might be worth while to elaborate for purposes of a better understanding of the issues involved, on the work of Dr. Finkelstein and the position of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the world today. Dr. Finkelstein has made significant contributions in the fields of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and established, almost single-handedly, the field of critical Holocaust studies, work which required considerable courage as it is contrary to the political position of the United States and the Israeli/Zionist lobby. It might seem a truism to remark that had Finkelstein confined himself to arcane research minutiae in these fields, publishing only in academic journals, the university might well have been able to continue to employ him. However, it was precisely the critical public light that Finkelstein threw upon issues upon which the United States, and other Western countries have used in pursuit of their interests, that seems to have sounded his academic death knell at De Paul University.

His critique connected anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to Zionist protectionism with respect to Palestinians. For decades Israel and its apologists have insisted that a critique of Israeli policies and practices is always a cover-up for a deeply-seated and incorrigible anti-Semitism, the very same poison that led to the Holocaust. Thus anyone criticizing Israel, the Jewish state, is ipso facto an anti-Semite who wishes to bring about second Holocaust upon the Jewish people. The Roman Catholic Church has been in the Jewish firing line for decades, continuing to be charged with both a historical and an enduring anti-Semitism. That there was both collaboration between the Church and some Nazis, and the official Church afforded protection to Nazis both during and after the war continues to serve Jews as a continuing paradigm. Of course it is also true that the Church and many of its members were persecuted by the Nazis, is not politically advantageous to the Zionists and is therefore relegated out of the public purview. In response to the charges, the official position of the Church now insists that Christianity is a "daughter" religion of Judaism and not a "fulfillment" thereof and has removed all language deemed offensive to Jews from its prayers. More importantly from a Zionist point of view, the Holy See has established diplomatic ties with Israel and promotes cultural and religious dialogues, qua Church and qua individual Catholics, with Israel and leading Israeli-Jewish scholars, despite serious outstanding disagreements between them such as and the continuing tax and visa pressures the Jewish state exerts against Catholic institutions.

There are however, another three factors connected to this scandal which bear mentioning as they might indicate what might develop from the Church, which could have enormous bearing on the political environment of both Europe and the US. Two are intra-Catholic issues: the issue of Catholic university autonomy and the issue and status of liberation theology. The third issue concerns the Church leadership and political Islam. The former may explain how the firing took place, as well as indicate future positions that will be taken in Catholic universities, while the latter two provide two reasons for it.

A point to be emphasized is that De Paul Catholic University is not an independent institution of higher learning. In the Catholic world, there are two types of universities: a pontifical university which falls under direct control of Rome and a Catholic university. Until 1991, a Catholic university enjoyed full autonomy as an independent institution. The scope of the term "Catholic" was fairly fluid, often just meaning that it was founded by Catholics and administered by them. It did not necessarily mean that it explicitly advocated, or acted, with the approval of Rome.

However, this is no longer the case. In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, known by its introductory latin phrase, Ex Corde Ecclesiae–from the heart of the Church. This has proven to be a telling phrase, as the Constitution subjugates a Catholic university to Rome ­ no doubt the heart of the Church– concerning faith and morals, i.e. doctrine, thus undermining, if not removing entirely, that exercise of freedom necessary for a university to retain its integrity qua university. And it is precisely in those fields which are controversial that controversy is likely to be stifled. This constitution was received with much trepidation in the United States as it was understood as an attempt to extend Rome’s control where it previously had been absent. Pontifical universities or pontifical faculties in secular universities, such as in Germany, had seen their staff fired by Rome for holding opinions or positions that either questioned or contested those of the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. Two examples stand out, although there are many more. During the reign of Pope John Paul II, Prof. Fr. Hans Küng, at Tübingen University in Germany had his faculties as a Catholic theologian removed by Rome for daring to question the issue of papal infallibility, while Prof. Fr. Charles Curran, teaching about homosexuality in a questioning and opening manner that did not contradict any infallible statements made by the Pope, was dismissed from the pontifical Catholic university in Washington DC.

The Finkelstein affaire seems to justify the deep felt fear of those who were originally against Ex Corde Ecclesiae and in a manner possibly more insidious than originally suspected or foreseen. I shall argue that Rome’s reach into the universities is no longer confined to arcane doctrinal issues, as in the cases mentioned above, but to issues of the wider political arena, which the Church hierarchy will either promote or defeat, depending on how it assesses its interests, within Catholic institutions.

It is my contention that the dismissal of Dr. Finkelstein, concerns the fundamental question of how the Church leadership is positioning itself in this changing world. Dr. Finkelstein’s work, both academic and political, relates indirectly to the doctrinal issue of liberation theology, a subject which was deemed almost dead until very recently. Rome had both condemned its focus, its approach and methods and some of its leading exponents. However, it has recently begun to raise its head once again, undoubtedly because the state of affairs that it originally addressed not only has not disappeared, but has worsened exponentially in the more than two decades since it was first censured. Furthermore, it has now been explicitly referred to in the political arena of the new governments, elected by the masses of the poor and underprivileged in South America, and whose programs are threatening the status quo determined by the US.

What was and is Roman Catholic liberation theology? And how does it affect Dr. Finkelstein? Historically the Roman Catholic Church, as a state church, or church of the empire, has been aligned with the rich and the powerful, or what is called at times "law and order". With respect to the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed, it developed the giving of alms or charity in order to relieve their suffering. With the development of sociology in the nineteenth century by Marx, and the modern phenomenon of an urban proletariat in the industrializing cities, a social phenomenon dependent upon capitalism, a new understanding of what it meant to be poor came about. The official Church never chose to understand the poor either as a class, or as a level of society that was the outcome of particular political and social powers, institutions and structures. While Popes have condemned capitalism and communism verbally, they have completely shied away from taking any positions that would either undermine, or at least confront, the human misery that results from particular institutions in the capitalist West, although they did vociferously condemn the atheism of the Soviet bloc countries. For the upper hierarchy, the poor have always just been poor people or individuals. Furthermore, the upper reaches of its hierarchy are completely out of touch with the suffering of hundreds of millions of people in the world. As an institution, it is not democratic, does not hold itself accountable to the masses of Catholics, has a celibate priesthood that functions not unlike a closed and secretive brotherhood which swears loyalty to the Church, and not the Truth. In the West, the vast majority of this class has its material needs and wants satisfied without experiencing any of the agonies of either holding on to, or losing a job, and the need to support a family. Thus its experience differs radically from that of the ordinary person. Furthermore, the Church also exists, and functions, as a political entity, the Vatican State, having diplomatic relations and interests which it seeks to protect and promote, while adopting political alignments it considers beneficial. The theology of this church is sacramental, notional other worldly, with salvation dispensed by the priestly class to the laity.

In contrast to this detached stance, liberation theology began to flourish after Vatican II, which seemed to signal the Church’s confident entry into modern life breaking with its traditional, conservative, pre-modern, pre-industrial and pre-urban past. It also seemed to be a break with the feudal exercise of hierarchical power and authority over its adherents, and gave indications that the laity would take a much greater part in Church life, rather than being the mere recipients of Church favors. It does not seem accidental that Vatican II took place both in the wake of, and during the time which the liberation movements in Africa and Asia brought about the dismantlement of the old empires, followed by the creation of new nation states, in which surged visions of freedom and development for the newly enfranchised populations which had previously experienced oppression, deprivation and dispossession under the yoke of colonialism.

Liberation theology, the tools of which were developed in Europe, received its huge impetus from Spanish-speaking theologians of Central and South America, many, if not most of whom, were originally trained in Europe. As a theology, it went far beyond traditional metaphysical doctrines in its search of liberation of the individual. It recognized that if poverty, deprivation and oppression were the material conditions of a person’s life, then such a life could never be free, and it set as its goal to analyze the society in which such lives were lived. Liberation theology, by exposing and critiquing the concentration and control of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the top of the political, economic and social pyramid, showed how the structures and institutions of capitalist society resulted in both a dispossessed, impoverished, oppressed and powerless rural peasantry and the creation of an impoverished urban proletariat. Using Marxist tools of analysis, these studies revealed that these social conditions of poverty were the deliberate and predictable results of the structures and institutions of capitalist society, and not mere accidents. That is to say, that human destruction and suffering produced in these economies was was both intentional and unavoidable, and not merely an undesirable by- product of their functioning.

It was this analysis which brought about a new attitude towards and understanding of the class of the poor, seeing them not as backward, incompetent lazy people, who brought their fate upon themselves, but rather as victims of institutional violence. This understanding led to new focus in theology called a "preferential option for the poor" which developed the social doctrine of serving "the poor and the oppressed." It was both the exposure to the suffering of the poor and the findings of this theology which moved priests to side with the people. The focus of salvation swung from the priest and his administration of the sacraments to consciousness-raising of the poor, to the creation of base communities of support and co-operation in which the poor began to be empowered by running their own lives. They began to read the bible for its message of liberation, and began to understand themselves as actors, to subjects, becoming co-workers with Christ towards their own human salvation within life-giving communities of support. Liberation theology led to an empowerment of the poor, and thus had the potential of confronting the rich and powerful to demand a change in the institutional structures. Given that South America’s economies were dominated by a capitalist United States, working in cohorts with local powerful wealthy ruling groups and manipulating political power in their favor, it is not surprising that such socio-economic critiques of Central and South America would cause more than one confrontation: with the local ruling powers, with the upper hierarchy of the Church, and not far behind, the United States government, which represented big business interests.

Two historical events occurred in the Church to bring to a halt the spread of liberation theology and its political concomitants: the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, and his appointment, in 1981, of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly referred to as the Holy Inquisition. Both men were intractably anti-Communist and identified Marxism with the communism of the Soviet Union: the Pope from his experience living in Communist Poland, and Cardinal Ratzinger as a result of the student uprising in Tübingen University in 1968, an experience which indelibly affected his approach to life, placing him firmly on the right in the conservative camp. Here the term "conservative" means the conservation of those structures of power that already exist for the sake of order.

In the late 1970’s, first under Carter, and then under Reagan, the United States began covert persecutions of political liberation movements, informed by liberation theology, in Central and South America, in particular Nicaragua and then El Salvador. The collapse of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua as a result of the exposure of its huge corruption with respect to the funds that had poured into the country to aid in the reconstruction, following an earthquake that devastated the capital Managua and the failure of a rightist, repressive, pro-US government to take power, occasioned the persecutions. The Sandinistas, with Catholic priests in leadership positions, espoused a political program to benefit the poor through government programs for literacy, medical care, housing, etc. and aided by Cuba, led the struggle for power in Nicaragua and won. In El Salvador, the violence of the right-wing, repressive government was being exposed by the leading church figure, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had originally been a pro-government conservative bishop. However, the horror of the violence brought about his political conversion, and adopting a liberation theology stance, he used his church forum in the struggle against the government’s violence. He was subsequently assassinated by government soldiers.

Against the background of these struggles to be rid of these oppressive regimes, a fateful convergence took place in the early 1980’s. The Reagan government saw the liberation movements as being against the interests of the US, which, of course, they were, and he labeled them both "communist" and "terrorist", the slogans used to categorize the "enemies" of the United States. Not long thereafter, Rome began to seriously question liberation theology. And it is important to remember that at this time, the non-Communist trade union in Poland, led by Lech Walesa, was being supported openly by the Pope, support that was later said to have contributed to the collapse of Communism in Poland. Those who were writing with this focus were aggressively examined, questioned and warned, putting them on the defensive. This assault led, in 1984, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Ratzinger, issuing its first Instruction against liberation theology. It was a strong censure against its tools of analysis, particular in its repudiation of Marxist analysis, while accusing it of neglecting the divine Jesus. This first official damper was subsequently followed by a second Instruction in 1986, which put it on the defensive. The effect of these two instructions was to maintain the status quo of the Church which continued therefore to serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, almost by definition. The poor were to continue to receive charity, or handouts. What the Church did not, and would not, conceive, or maybe just not concede, is that the interests of the rich conflict, even unto death, with the interests of the poor, and because the socio-economic political framework permits and protects this arrangement, this becomes a theological issue because it goes to the heart of the question as to what it means to be human. And it is at this point precisely that liberation theology picks up the challenge, and focusing on the problem of humanity uses the template of Jesus’ humanity to explicate more fully the basics of our humanity.

But the official church chose to forego this option, and through its Instructions, which are in essence condemnations, de-legitimized liberation theology. Although it has remained the most vital and meaningful understanding of God for the poor, providing them hope and inspiration, it was relegated to the margins of theological discussion by those in power. This intellectual marginalization however was not accompanied by an inactivity on the part of the Magisterium, the Inquision. It sent out warnings that those theologians who insisted on continuing in this field that could be up for censure. Over the years many theologians were persecuted by the church, resulting, in one spectacular case, in the defection from the order of Franciscan Friars and the priesthood, Leonardo Boff, one of the leading Brazilian liberation theologians, after he was silenced more than once by the Church.

Until very recently liberation theology seemed to have been in the doldrums, but a recent condemnation has broken the silence. It appears that liberation theology has come back to haunt the official Church, and this time, not by theologians, but by politicians. But what the latest event reveals is the continuing rejection of by the present Pope and his Magisterium, or teaching body, reminding those who might have forgotten, that the Roman Catholic Church remains one of the main players on the world stage, which can still, and will, bring its weight to bear where it so desires. Ignorance of its power and interests creates a vacuum in both political analysis and then political programs, which affects profoundly those whose views and visions are in opposition to it, without their even being aware of the source of this counter-point power.

The most recent theologian to be condemned is Fr. Jon Sobrino, sj, (a Jesuit) one of older and more prominent liberation theologians who did not stop his work despite being warned repeatedly by Rome. In December, 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under its new prefect, the American, William Joseph Cardinal Levada, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as his replacement, issued a Notification against Fr. Sobrino concerning arcane theological formulations about Jesus’ divine nature, as opposed to His human nature, formulations that have no bearing on the life of an ordinary Catholic, let alone on the lives of those who not only continue to be "poor and oppressed" but to all those who have joined their ranks as a result of the unchecked, rapacious, capitalist imperialist policies of the US, Europe and their client states, such as Israel.

Why was Sobrino censured at the end of December 2006 for some ideas he had originally published in 1992 and 1999 especially since these books are in circulation even now? What served as the provocation at this time? When the Holy See issues such Notifications, it does not explain itself beyond the actual text that it publicizes. The same principle worked when De Paul University gave no explanation for the dismissal of Dr. Finkelstein. I however, would like to surmise, believing that the Church does not act, at least with regard to the Pope, without a policy, even if that policy and vision is not spelled out.

The immediate effect of this censure on Sobrino is that his bishop removed his teaching faculty as a Catholic theologian, but given the historical context, there is a much broader thrust to this Notification. Fr. Sobrino is a Basque theologian who has been teaching in the Jesuit University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, where four Jesuits, with whom he was living, were killed by an assassination squad in 1989, as part of the US supported murderous political repression of indigenous political liberation movements in Central and South America. Sobrino escaped that particular horrific event because only because he was out of the country at the time. However, Sobrino continued his work in liberation theology, remaining on the side of the poor, a focus which is reflected in these new regimes in South America.

Therefore the timing of the censure is not accidental. It comes at a period when indigenous governments are actually standing up the United States in the interests of their own populations and whose economic policies do not serve US interests. First and foremost of these leaders is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has already been overthrown once by pro-US forces, but who was voted back into power. He has been followed in other countries by Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Although Luis da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile were elected on similar tickets, they have not been as confrontational as Chavez. However, none of these governments represent the interests of the rich and powerful, although some might be too weak at this time to stand up to these forces. In all of these countries the vast majority of the population is Catholic, and Chavez has not hesitated to call upon the Jesus of liberation theology in support of his socio-political goals. That this can have a domino effect upon the people can already be seen. To use a phrase coined by Chomsky, these governments are providing the "threat of a good example" that is, an example for the poor of the world to attempt to wrest their fate out of the rapacious grip of US capitalism. The stakes are enormous and therefore the counter-force that these examples will inevitably produce will be extremely dangerous.

This is what happened with Saddam Hussein who had both modernized and strengthened Iraq such that he anticipated being a regional power, and thereby influencing the surrounding countries. But this is precisely what the US could not permit, and the outcome is well known. Therefore we have to understand that the confrontation of power that is lining up in South America is not for amateurs as it involves the very highest stakes which have served as the motivation for Western imperialism–the control of resource and markets.

Given the attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it is reasonable to assess that the intention of Sobrino’s censure is to condemn these new leftist leaders in Central and South America, while aligning the Church and its considerable sphere of influence with the US.

What, it may be asked now, is the connection between Dr. Finkelstein, a Jew, and liberation theology? Well, the problem for Dr. Finkelstein is that in the context of Palestine/Israel, he has addressed the same questions that liberation theology addresses, and has also taken the side of the "poor and the oppressed." It needs only a small amount of imagination to draw the same damning assessment of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its ally, the US, as liberation theology draws about the oppressive regimes of Central and South America and their ties with the US.

Here, surprisingly, there appears to be a lacuna in global comparative political analysis. It has not been remarked that there is an almost virtual identity of the repressive and violent Central and South American governments and the repressive and violent Israeli government. These governments have not confined their persecution within their own borders, or even the borders of militarily occupied territory, but have not hesitated to conduct attacks in neighboring countries to either undermine or to uphold governments, depending on the particular situations.

At the same time, it would not be unreasonable to expect progressive Arab and Palestinian movements to begin to make common cause with forces with the progressive governments of South America, although one can well imagine that everything will be done to prevent this from occurring by the establishments of the US, Europe and the official Roman Catholic Church.

This nexus continues to maintain that Zionism is not colonialism, is not an integral part of the capitalist-imperialist hegemonic outreach in the Middle East, nor is it a loyal client for other capitalist ventures, eg Iran-Contra affair. In order to maintain the bluff of a legitimate Jewish state in Palestine, the Zionist/Holocaust narrative is promoted with full force against those who challenge its veracity, both historically and politically. The fact that the Holocaust cannot be challenged in Europe, on pain of imprisonment, seems to prove this point. After all, pace Galileo, why should it be a crime if I say that the world is flat?

Norman Finkelstein has challenged these positions. He has also challenged one of its supreme spokesmen, Alan Dershowitz. But that he has done this now, at this critical juncture in world politics, is what caused De Paul University, and the Catholic Church, to either go along with Dershowitz or hide behind the proverbial petticoat, achieving, in either case, its desired outcome. Had Finkelstein come up for tenure five years ago, De Paul might not have fired him. Yet timing is all.

The third factor which plays into his firing is one that has not been mentioned at all, and yet, taking the overall position of the Church, it certainly makes sense. It is by now, a well-known fact that "Islamic fundamentalists" were invented originally by the US, in order to discredit and prevent the spread of Arab democratic secularism, which spearheaded Arab liberation movements. They naturally posed a threat to the capitalist, imperialist ambitions, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East, just in the same manner as the South American liberationist governments are doing at this time, because liberation movements demand that the resources and their benefits of these resources of a country remain in that country. However, it turns out that the Islamic liberationist movements are no less anti-US than the secular democratic ones were and therefore have been attacked with virulence by spokespeople and governments of Europe and the US, and Israel. This anti-Islamic stance, exacerbated after September 11, 2001, carries with connotations of an anti-arabism perforce because the Arabs have so much of the oil, has found a very deep resonance in the pronouncements of Pope Benedict XVI. He called Islam a "violent" religion, contrasting it, no doubt, with a peaceful Christianity. Furthermore, this Pope has stated on more than one occasion that Europe is a "Christian" continent, and therefore there it is most inappropriate for Turkey, a Muslim country, to join the European Union. This is a political position of the right which is echoed in the profound anti-Muslim feelings that have erupted in France, with a former President of France, Giscard D’Estaing expressing exactly the same view.

It should be no surprise that this condemnation of Islam finds a resonance in attitudes towards Palestine, where the democratically elected Islamic Hamas government has been attacked and mortally undermined by Israel, the US and Europe. What has not been re-iterated is that Hamas was elected because of the corruption of the pro-Western Fatah leadership. Furthermore, Hamas seems to function in Palestine pretty much as liberation theology functions in South America, serving society at its most basic level, providing material and communal services, while condemning the US-backed Israeli onslaught. Furthermore, I was personally informed by Christians that many of them voted for Hamas because they are not corrupt and have been serving the people who they say they represent.

Thus we have several interests converging in the demise of Dr. Finkelstein: the loss of autonomy of Catholic universities, the anti-liberationist position of the Church and its lining up with Western capitalist global interests and an anti-Islamic stance which harks back to a xenophobia one would have wished had disappeared from the world. Is it any wonder, then, that Dr. Finkelstein was booted from De Paul Catholic University?

LYNDA BRAYER is an Israeli human rights lawyer who represented Palestinians in the Israeli High Court of Justice for twelve years. She can be reached at lyndabrayer@yahoo.com