Players: Susan Sarandon, actress and liberal activist; The Catholic League of America run by Bill Donohue, which despite pointing out that "doesn't speak for the Catholic church" is famous for loudly defending it and The Anti Defamation League of America, which keeps watch for media anti-Semitism.
The Opening Serve: Newsday reported that while Sarandon was discussing her film Dead Man Walking at the Hamptons Film Festival over the weekend she mentioned she had sent a copy of the book to the pope. "The last one," said Sarandon referring to John Paul. "Not this Nazi one we have now," she said, referring to the German-born Ratzinger. Fox News reports that Sarandon repeated her comments again at a party later that day.
The Return Volley: The Catholic League of America was quick to respond to Sarandon's remarks. "She's a despicable person to make these kinds of despicable remarks," said Bill Donohue, the league's president to E! News. Adding that, "it is very hard to find someone dumber than [Sarandon]." He clarified that "Ratzinger deserted the Hitler Youth at the first moment," Donohue said. "[Sarandon] doesn't know what she's talking about ... To blame him for something that he was never responsible for; he was forced to join as every boy his age was. Unlike the others, he deserted." Pope Benedict XVI himself called his Hitler Youth experience, which he joined when he was 14, "a dark time" in a USA Today report this year. Sarandon's comments also spurred the Anti-Defamation League to comment. "Ms. Sarandon may have her differences with the Catholic Church, but that is no excuse for throwing around Nazi analogies," said ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman in an LA Times report. "Such words are hateful, vindictive and only serve to diminish the true history and meaning of the Holocaust." Notably, the last time we heard from Susan Sarandon she was at Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, a movement which has since been endorsed by the American Nazi Party.
What They Say They're Fighting About: The Pope's moral stances. Sarandon obviously prefers the previous pope to Pope Benedict XVI (with or without the vivid language). Pope Benedict's tenure as pontiff hasn't been without controversy (his stance on abortions, gays and lesbians, Harry Potter, Islam, etc.) and Sarandon was seeking to distance this pope from the one area that liberal advocates like herself and staunch Catholics tend to find themselves in agreement: abolishing the death penalty.
What They're Really Fighting About: The word "Nazi." Sarandon's remarks are mostly remarkable because she is a famous actress most of us have seen in at least one film. And the Catholic League and the ADL are both groups that thrive on media controversy. Thus when a famous person is quoted insulting the pope or throwing around the Other N-word, they both have to act. Sarandon happened to do both, landing herself in the sweet spot where celebrity culture meets political outrage.
Who's Winning Now: Pope Benedict XVI, but it's not hurting Sarandon as much as you'd think. Sarandon isn't exactly getting the Hank Williams Jr. treatment (the crowd apparently laughed at her comment). Why? Well it helps that Sarandon is an independent contractor who can't really fire herself and that Pope Benedict has a history with the Hitler Youth. Which means that unlike other disputes over the word "Nazi," this one is grounded in some facts -- either he was or he wasn't -- and not sensationalist metaphor. Still, Sarandon has become known as an actress that speaks her political mind, and getting in a jab against a pope who's had his fair share of controversies isn't necessarily going to change anyone's mind either way (whether you love her or hate her). Benedict does benefit from being a victim of a controversy that he didn't start and drudging up his Hitler Youth past is better than rumors and half-truths flying around about him a Nazi. It almost doesn't matter that both the Catholic and the Anti Defamation league are both trigger-happy when it comes to outrage.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.