September 22, 2023 | Rome, Italy

David Ranan

By |2018-03-21T18:38:11+01:00September 17th, 2009|Interviews|
Frederick Barbarossa paying public homage to Pope Alexander III in March 1177. Federico Zuccaro replica of painting by Sant'Angelo in Vado.

first met British author and social critic David Ranan in a Rome bookshop in the summer of 2007. He was spending a few months in the city absorbing the cultural climate of the Vatican’s hometown. He’d just published his first book, Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church,” a critical reflection about Roman Catholic Church history. He was curious to get to know Romans — and their priests — firsthand.

Ranan grew up in Israel and Holland, where he attended an English boarding school. He served in the Israeli Defense Force, later obtaining a BA in economics, an MBA, both of them in Israel, and a PhD in London. He worked as a banker and strategic consultant before turning to research and writing. “There is nothing very titillating about me,” he says.

A tall and weighty man with a big, bellowing voice that betrays strong traces of both Israeli and German accents (he comes from a German-Jewish family), Ranan is an atheist who considers religious belief a curiosity. He speaks with the playful authority of someone who won’t tell all. During his sojourn in Rome, he spent his days attending Mass and approaching Catholic priests on the street, tossing out questions like, “What made you decide to go into the priesthood?”

Since his Rome sojourn, he’s published God Bless America,” a personal and political reflection written in New York City during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. These are excerpts from a recent email exchange.

Were you ever religious?

I didn’t grow up in a religious family, and from childhood on I was very skeptical of the power of religion. I was more than skeptical, indeed I was angry: angry because of the power wielded by the Jewish religious establishment in Israel through the willingness of the secular regime and political parties to coerce the rest of the population into adherence to religious laws.

“Double Cross” draws a poor picture of the Catholic Church and its actions from the early popes through Pope John Paul II. You cite an almost uninterrupted stream of treachery and dishonesty, misconduct and psychological bribery. Why then do so many people — and so many non-Catholics — continue to see the Church as a force for good in the world?

Well, I am not sure that I agree with your statement “so many people…see the Church as a force for good in the world.”

I disagree. I think many people regard it with knee-jerk respect. I’m not talking about Mother Theresa-style charity work, but of seeing nuns or Catholic priests in public and treating them as deserving of a special deference. This is quite curious, no?

I think you have just explained it yourself. To begin with, knee-jerk is just what it is. It’s not logical.

But importantly you are describing respect that is often shown to priests and nuns and not to the Church. This respect is for their willingness to forego pleasures — material and physical — in favor of life a life led according to their values. This in itself is worthy of respect.

When we speak of the Church as a “force for good” we normally think of the charitable work undertaken by members of religious orders and other lay members in areas of health and education. They are driven by their faith and their religious role models to take on social responsibility. This important and often vital work is admirable indeed.

Then there is the emotional sustenance and support that religion and faith in general offer their adherents. These have been proven to be of great importance to millions of faithful of all religions, including the Catholic Church. This may be considered by some as a force for good in the world. I would not consider this to be good caused by the structure (the Church) but rather good caused by faith.

Sam Harris’s very persuasive book The End of Faith” condemns the idea of faith as a force for good. He regards it as a shield for fanaticism. Might the Church be protecting its power behind a mask?

I know the Sam Harris book. His conclusion is that faith is dangerous. But, the fact that faith sometimes shields fanaticism does not mean that it cannot also be a force for good.

I actually spoke about the subjective importance of faith for many who feel they need the support of faith in order to cope with life. To those who need the support and feel they get it from faith — faith is a force for good. Those for whom the vehicle for their faith is the Church, will feel that the Church does them good. The Church, like all institutions, will do whatever it can to protect its power. This naturally includes manipulating faith.

“Double Cross” is not a general history of the Church but rather an investigation into the cost, the very high price that society has been paying for centuries for this “force for good.”

Might there be a good side that outweighs this price?

Can there be a good side that outweighs such evil? I think not … the structure and the rules of the game continue to lead to “evil.” A recent example is the organized cover up of child abuse by Catholic priests.

At the end of your book, you propose a dismantling of the Catholic Church from top to bottom, a drastic measure. Is there any hope that the Church will reform itself without outside interference? Or is this wishful thinking?

My straight answer to your question is that there is no hope for true reform. Anything less should not really be wishful thinking. When I say “true reform” I am talking about democratizing the structure, introducing transparency and changing the basis of faith from devotion to texts, narratives and icons to commitment to values.

The question is whether it would then still be the Catholic Church. It would not. And I believe that the Church’s leadership understands that. And don’t forget, the Catholic Church is the longest surviving power structure in the world. What pope would dare to bring about such change that might cause a total breakup?

How could such a “reform” feasibly come about in your opinion? Do you hold other authoritarian states to the same standard of forced democratization and transparency?

Should we hold authoritarian (and other) states to standards of democratization (not forced) and transparency? Yes, we should. Indeed, it would be nice if we could but we can’t. The global political structure has rules about interference in internal affairs of countries. The Catholic Church, however, is a voluntary organization and as such it is subject to the legal framework we have constructed for non-state organizations.

How deep is the Church’s responsibility for the Holocaust?

The Nazi regime was a secular regime but tens of thousands of willing executioners were the product of generations of dehumanization of Jews by the Church, its leaders and its theologians.

What about efforts at inter-religious reconciliation?

I do believe that there is a genuine wish within the Church leadership to reach reconciliation with the Jewish people. This does not mean a willingness to accept responsibility.

After the Holocaust, the Church could not have important Church Council without talking about the Shoah. But, if you analyze the text of the resultant documents you very clearly see that the Church does not accept responsibility for the anti-Semitism that informed and educated the Christian world, led to hatred and finally to the “final solution.”

In response to Jewish uproar over the infamous “Easter prayer” (which prays for the conversion of the Jews), you wrote: “It is no longer necessary for Jews to appeal to the popes to revoke anti-Jewish legislation or actions.” This surprised me.

There is an important difference between the forced conversions achieved through the state power the Church used to wield and conversions resulting from normal missionary work. People should be free to choose the religion they belong to and if they are convinced by Church propaganda — let them be.

Of course the Church’s attitudes are un-progressive. That is in the nature of religious structures; not only the Catholic Church. I do not think that there is much progressive thinking to be found within ultra-orthodox Judaism or Islam.

About the Author:

Marc Alan Di Martino runs a small language school in Perugia where he teaches English as a Foreign Language. He wrote the "Man About Rome" column from 2008 through June 2013.