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Michele Somerville

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Should Susan Sarandon Apologize for Calling the Pope a 'Nazi?'

Posted: 11/01/11 08:09 AM ET

One of my favorite "Catholic" films is Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, based on the true story of Louisiana death row inmate Matthew Poncelet and the Catholic Louisiana nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who ministered to Poncelet. This picture offers a chilling look at a condemned man's life and an exquisite portrait of Catholic devotion. Susan Sarandon plays a the role of a nun who is assigned to minister to Poncelet but feels ill-equipped and afraid in the face of this challenge. Going on nerve and Holy Spirit, she peels away the prisoner's layers of anguish, animal fear and depravity in an effort to--in more ways than one--save Poncelet; the process she unearths the live man (made in God's image) walking with something that looks like dignity to his death. I keep thinking of Sarandon's brilliant depiction as I puzzle over the flak surrounding her bad choice a week or so ago to refer to the pope as a "Nazi."

Here's what Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman had to say:

We hope that Susan Sarandon will have the good sense to apologize to the Catholic community and all those she may have offended with this disturbing, deeply offensive and completely uncalled for attack on the good name of Pope Benedict XVI.

Ms. Sarandon may have her differences with the Catholic Church, but that is no excuse for throwing around Nazi analogies. Such words are hateful, vindictive and only serve to diminish the true history and meaning of the Holocaust.


Foxman is right to point out what is wrong with Sarandon's use of the word "Nazi." "Nazi" is misused with alarming frequency. Using the word "Nazi" in a casual, reductive manner is improper, but so too is (albeit to a lesser degree) criticizing Sarandon without taking a closer look at intent and context. Those who use the word "Nazi" as Sarandon did use it fallaciously, but the actor's misnomer does not automatically suggest "vindictiveness" as Foxman claims. Nor hatred.

One complicating factor in this analysis is language itself. Language morphs. Meanings creep in and leech out. Sometimes language is enriched by evolution; sometimes changes detract from the potency of words. "Nazi" is a word that ought never become dilute; the unfortunate fact is that it has.

While making breakfast for my three adolescent children recently, I heard the a radio ad on a family-friendly drive time radio station in which the speaker said something "sucks." "See, Mom?" one of my adolescent children said, "it's not a curse." When, I wondered, did it become acceptable to "sucks" this way on the radio? The answer is: when the meaning of "sucks" changed. I referred to my child's high school application process as "torture" today. Did I, in saying this, exhibit insensitivity to genuine torture victims?

Susan Sarandon was not gunning for Jews. It's likely she does, however, have a problem with the pope who was, for a time, a member of Hitler Youth.

What Roman Catholic doesn't wish to forget that our top priest was a member of Hitler Youth? (This might be the one thing all Catholics can agree on!) Certainly the fast-waning number of Catholics who continue to regard him as a spiritual leader puts lots of holy spin on the facts of Joseph Ratzinger's Hitler Youth stint, but that our pope was a member of Hitler Youth is a thing (all we) Catholics must never forget. Ratzinger says his service was compulsory. One can, as I do, take him on his word in this. But the troubling fact that the man Sarandon called a "Nazi" was for a brief time in his youth an actual "Nazi" can not be brushed aside as some kind of incidental as we consider Sarandon's remark. Ratzinger claims he had no choice but to serve in Hitler Youth, but his membership in Hitler Youth remains a thing for him to live down. There were Roman Catholics in his midst who, driven by Roman Catholic conscience, found ways to avoid working on behalf of the Nazis. Some worked to thwart the Third Reich in its efforts to exterminate every Jew in Europe; we can not ignore that Ratzinger was not one of those.

I find it ironic that Abe Foxman should rush to defend the "good name" of a man who served for a brief, compulsory time as an actual Nazi, while criticizing Sarandon for her mistake. Foxman knows that on one the most solemn days of our calendar, many (not most) Roman Catholics in throughout the world say the following prayer, which Joseph Ratzinger welcomed back into the (optional) Tridentine (Latin) Good Friday liturgy in 2008:

"Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord Our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men."

Perhaps Foxman is just glad that when updating (retro-dating?) the prayer for the Jews, Ratzinger the "traditionalist" didn't go with the version that characterizes the Jewish people as 'faithless' and blind.

Restoring prayers that call for the spiritual cleansing of the Jews strikes me as being at least as offensive as the careless use of the word "Nazi." Ratzinger's choice in 2008, restore a toned- down version of Good Friday prayer for the Jews reveals a lot. How can the church as a whole every truly be absolved of the atrocities we, historically, inflicted upon the Jewish people, when our leader, a former member of "Hitler Youth" lends his imprimatur to reviving and restoring a suppressed prayer that calls for the Jews to wise up to Moshiach Jesus?

In a Washington Post blog entry, Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe reminds us, most eloquently, of what is wrong with Sarandon's employment of the word "Nazi:"

Unless you are an enthusiast for genocide you do not qualify [as a Nazi]. Unless you believe that large segments of humanity are intrinsically inferior you do not qualify.

Might not praying for the spiritual improvement of Jews (via Jesus) be tantamount to viewing "large segments" of Jewish "humanity" as, spiritually and metaphysically speaking, "intrinsically inferior" to the extent that their beliefs and tradition warrant (spiritually) elimination. Maybe Sarandon sees it that way too.

Rabbi Wolpe's summary about what Nazis are and do packs a wallop, but he generalizes and, even exaggerates for effect. People speaking extemporaneously on subjects they are passionate about tend to use hyperbole. It is not just poets who use poetic license. Not every member of the Nazi party threw a baby against a brick wall. Not every Nazi wanted every homosexual wiped off of the face of the earth. (Some were homosexual.) Rabbi Wolpe's impassioned generalizing in no way undermines the truth he sets out to convey. Indeed his broad brush delivers us a fuller picture of the truth.

My guess is that Sarandon was also generalizing--and exaggerating for effect. My guess is that she made the "Nazi" remark without the slightest ill will toward any Jew, but with some ill feeling for a man much of the world believes regards "large segments of humanity" as "intrinsically inferior." My guess is that Sarandon might believe that Ratzinger views women and gay people as inferior. I'd add Jews to that list.

Sarandon's use of the word "Nazi" is very different from that used in the "The Soup Nazi" episode of the Seinfeld television show although both do trivialize the term. (Is everyone who thought that show funny a Holocaust diminisher? I don't think so.) The man Susan Sarandon called "a Nazi," stands credibly accused of systematic and widespread sex crimes against children internationally. Amnesty International (AI) has condemned the Vatican for its laxity in the face of crimes against children, many of which AI classifies as torture. The Vatican's alleged tyranny consistently makes front-page news throughout the world, and though the pontiff is certainly not a Nazi, allegations of Vatican wrongdoing do have bearing in the analysis of Sarandon's characterization. Susan Sarandon may believe the man she erroneously called a "Nazi" is guilty of having abetted the abuse of tens of thousands of children. She may believe that forbidding Catholics to use condoms in nations where between 15 and 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV and AIDS imperils the lives of "large segments of humanity." She may regret the many abortions that are the result of the Vatican ban on contraception. If she does hold such beliefs about the Roman Catholic pontiff, she is not making light of the word "Nazi" when she applies it to Ratzinger; she may be using the word inaccurately, but is not, in so using it, the least bit cavalier.

My favorite radio personality used the word "paddywagon," recently, to describe the police vehicle that transports groups of newly arrested prisoners. "Paddywagon" derives from "Paddy," a derogatory word for Irish people. I'm Irish. It bothers me that this word is still used with impunity. I encounter Catholic-bashing regularly too. I don't like it, and I don't let it slide. But calling Ratzinger a "Nazi," is pontiff-bashing, not Catholic-bashing. The Vatican is not the church; Ratzinger is one Catholic, and as a religious leader, he is a Catholic who is widely ignored, dismissed, disrespected distrusted by a vast number of active Roman Catholics who, like me, renounce him as a matter of conscience.

I hope that Susan Sarandon will have the good sense to apologize to and all those she may have offended through her use of the word "Nazi," but to demand her apology without taking a good look at the partial truth her erroneous diction reveals is to decline to learn from her mistake.

I give Susan Sarandon a pass--My guess is that there isn't an anti-Semitic bone in her body. Furthermore, I suspect any actor who could capture Sister Helen Prejean so well must have a hell of a lot of Holy Spirit within.

 

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