Fight the Real Enemy

I’ll never forget that Saturday Night Live appearance by Sinead O’Connor on October 3, 1992. It was her second performance of the evening, following the (relatively uncontroversial) title track from her recent album, “Am I Not Your Girl?” backed up by her band. This was an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” an extremely powerful song that links war to racism and begins:

Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
Me say war

Marley sang about imperialism in Africa, but the young Irish singer altered the lyrics to her own purposes. Where Marley referred to Angola, Mozambique and South Africa, Sinead surprisingly substituted “child abuse, child abuse” and where Marley referred to “the African continent” Sinead sang “children, children…” before delivering the closing lyric: “We are confident of the victory of good over evil” and producing out of nowhere a photo of Pope John Paul II and ripping it to shreds in the face of tens of millions intoning “Fight the real enemy.

It was bizarre, to be sure. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Stunned silence from the audience as NBC shifted to a commercial. Profuse apologies from the network the next day. Massive indignation at the effrontery of this 26 year old Irishwoman, insulting the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, insinuating his responsibility for child abuse.

Sinead was booed at a Dylan birthday concert in Madison Square Garden two weeks later due to some people’s hostility towards her statement. Kris Kristofferson stood up for her. He hugged her on stage and told her to not let “the bastards get you down.”

(I’d always liked and identified with Kristofferson. We’re both of mostly Scandinavian ancestry, both sons of authoritarian career Air Force officers and both rebelled against that military mindset at a certain point. I was impressed that an ex-Army captain would write “Me and Bobby McGee” and the “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” But I especially admired him then for doing the right thing by Sinead.)

I started buying Sinead’s CDs and was somewhat surprised to find alongside the Marley militancy such things as the most tear-jerking rendition of “Scarlet Ribbons” you will ever hear. This is a woman who’s known adolescent hurt. She’s said that she never experienced “such panic and terror and agony over anything” as her experience at the Grianan Training Centre run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity where she was placed at age 15.

Now it should be clear to everybody that Sinead had a valid point. Clerics of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland were engaging in wide-scale child abuse, and the Church itself was covering it up, for years. This became clear by the mid-nineties in the wake of several scandals, and the evidence has continued to mount. Pope Benedict XVI has just acknowledged the problem in a post-Patrick’s Day letter to the Irish people. It’s a “Pastoral Letter” designed to soothe and edify (and given the doctrine of “papal infallibility” shouldn’t contain any error). It’s interesting if not as exciting as Sinead’s SNL performance.

Joseph Ratzinger is a biblical scholar. The piece is not surprisingly replete with lots of parenthesized scriptural references. For example, he tells the priests of Ireland, “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).” Well that’s comforting to hear, surely, in these troubled times.

Ratzinger tells the Irish he’s met with their clerics, had “frank and constructive” conversations, and decided to write a pastoral letter “considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country.”

(Actually, one problem is the 2001 Vatican edict—for which Ratzinger, as leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was mainly responsible—ordering bishops to report all cases of clerical child abuse to Vatican authorities, as opposed to the national police, under strict secrecy. How could the ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland “respond adequately” when they were forbidden to tell secular authorities that the priests, monks or nuns were hurting children, under threat of excommunication from the Holy Mother Church if they disobeyed? No real believing Catholic wants to get cut off from God forever for telling about a colleague who happened to behave inappropriately with a kid.)

Ratzinger praises the Irish as having endured long periods of persecution, noting however, that “in recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society.” He alludes to the “fast-paced social change” that has been “often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.”

The Pope speaks individually to the abusers, the parents of the abused, the children and the clerics and people of Ireland. To the first he says: “Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.” To the parents: “Be assured that I remain close to you and I offer you the support of my prayers.”

To the children: “I wish to offer you a particular word of encouragement. Your experience of the Church is very different from that of your parents and grandparents. The world has changed greatly since they were your age. Yet all people, in every generation, are called to travel the same path through life, whatever their circumstances may be. We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8). He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart. Together with your fellow Catholics in Ireland, I look to you to be faithful disciples of our Lord and to bring your much-needed enthusiasm and idealism to the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church.”

I’m not sure that addresses the issue, frankly. But His Holiness at the end offers “concrete initiatives to address the situation,” leading off with the following:

“I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I encourage you to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.”

The letter urges Irish ecclesiastical authorities to, “in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence,” as though this has been the status quo, and as though the “civil authorities” might be less competent to deal with a complaint of child sexual abuse than a secret Church proceeding.

I can see why this statement would be profoundly unsatisfying, even for the devout Roman Catholic. “Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility?” asks Hans Kung, the Swiss Catholic theologian. “Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own mea culpa.”

Ratzinger hasn’t said anything yet about the hundreds of abuse cases in Germany occurring under his watch, while he was Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, which have just surfaced in the last few months. The sex-abuse scandal which began in Canada and Australia then moved to the U.S. and Ireland is making its way to the Pope’s own former bailiwick. Georg Ratzinger, Joseph’s older brother and fellow priest, was director of the Regensburger Domspatzen choir from 1964 to 1994, sexual abuse was widespread. Who knows how the investigation of the German situation might affect His Holiness’ reputation?

“We are confident in the victory of good over evil — yeah!” – (Rastaman) Bob Marley.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: