Commentary Magazine


Anti-Catholicism

To the Editor:

In the October 1992 issue, a number of letter writers responding to George Weigel’s “The New Anti-Catholicism” [June 1992], appear eager to downplay the phenomenon itself as part of American history. Indeed, they seem to argue that to the extent to which anti-Catholicism has existed in America, Catholics have deserved it, because of what was done to Jews by Catholics over the course of European history.

With regard to the former point, I would invite them to revisit the question. In actual fact, American Catholic and American Jewish immigrant experiences have been quite similar in this country, beginning with disenfranchisement in the colonial period and continuing through social, educational, and economic discrimination right up to the present. If anything, Catholics have borne the brunt more often of physical attacks (in at least one case a virtual pogrom), perhaps only because of their larger numbers.

Secondly, I would invite readers to contemplate the ethical implications of the collective-guilt thesis embedded in these letters. The American Catholic community, especially a quarter-century after the Second Vatican Council, deserves to be looked at on its own merits, as do contemporary Catholic-Jewish relations in this country. One can disagree with George Weigel, I believe, without denigrating his faith.

Eugene J. Fisher
Director for Catholic-Jewish Relations
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Washington, D.C.

_____________

 

To the Editor:

COMMENTARY’s letters section provides an extraordinary forum for discussion and debate. I was, therefore, disappointed that George Weigel was so offended by the tone of some of his interlocutors’ comments that he missed the opportunity to address their substance: that American anti-Catholicism represents a political response to the Church’s political activism, and so cannot be dismissed as mere religious or social prejudice.

Mr. Weigel’s rather startling reference to “the centrality of the notions of election and chosenness to Jewish self-understanding” suggests that he simply overlooks this distinction between the public and private dimensions of religious belief. A more appropriate comparison, for Mr. Weigel’s case, is surely the role of Zionism in American political debate: less central than the Church’s influence on the abortion question, but similarly broadly resented.

The Jewish conception of “chosenness” in fact works in the opposite direction, restraining private religious belief—however fervently held—from engendering political activity. To adopt a structural anthropological perspective, the idea that the Jewish people has been “chosen” by God is the only structural alternative to the obligation of evangelical action, for a religion which claims to be more than a ritual of tribal identity. Judaism defines itself as a universalist religion, whose commandments are morally (and not just socially) binding. Jews are nevertheless not required to impose God’s commandments on other people; it is for God to choose how and where to give His law.

This core, anti-activist premise of Judaism lends itself to tendentious misconstruction (apparently by Mr. Weigel also) arising, perhaps, from the importation of an anachronistic social-hierarchical context. To be “chosen” seems to suggest the sort of divine election claimed by kings and aristocrats in the European tradition. A more accurate analogy would be the Puritan social context: to be chosen by God is to be given no special privilege but that of obeying His law. It is this understanding of the essentially mysterious relation of God and man which has preserved Judaism from the Church’s generalized political activism, as well as from the evangelistic imperative to which some of Mr. Weigel’s respondents object.

Clare Wolfowitz
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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George Weigel writes:

In her thoughtful and provocative letter, Clare Wolfowitz seems to suggest that the Jewish concept of “chosenness” carries with it no public consequences. At the risk of presumption, may I say that this strikes me as not altogether satisfactory.

It is true that the concepts of “election” and “chosenness” have not been generally understood by Jews to require public proselytizing, in the sense of active recruitment leading to conversion. On the other hand, I do not think it is quite right to imply that Jewish religious belief is a merely private matter. Jewish Americans make all sorts of public moral arguments based on what they understand to be the demands of ethical monotheism—and more power to them for doing so. Furthermore, democratic political activity that draws on explicitly Christian warrants for its moral foundations should not be understood as “proselytizing” or “evangelism,” but rather as—well, as political activity. That was certainly Martin Luther King’s understanding of what he was doing, as it was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sense of what King was doing: which, among other things, helps us understand the character of Heschel’s friendship with and support for King in the cause of securing basic civil rights for black Americans.

Moreover, there is another point of tangency between Jewish and Christian understandings of the relationship between personal religious conviction and the public realm: both Jewish and Christian ethicists have long claimed that revelation gives a distinctive insight into the natural law—the universal moral law, if you will—and its public applications. We do not abandon our Jewishness or our Christianity when we enter the public square; rather, we can (or should) celebrate the moral insight that can be brought into complex issues of the common good by people of religious conviction—even as we defend the principle that the state has no business declaring one or another religious conviction its favored child.

Thus the matter of the “public and private dimensions of religious belief” remains a tangled business, for Jews as well as Christians. Moreover, if I understand Mrs. Wolfowitz correctly, she seems to argue that the current rash of anti-Catholic agitation is somehow related to untoward forms of ecclesiastical politicking. I am not persuaded. Leaving aside the question of precisely how bishops making public moral arguments constitutes “political activity” in any invidious (or undemocratic) sense, I find it hard to believe that the two most recent anti-Catholic outrages—Sinead O’Connor’s shredding of a portrait of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, and HMV’s use of a mock “confessional” as part of its advertising blitz on behalf of Madonna’s “book,” Sex—have all that much to do with the Catholic Church’s position on the moral issues engaged by certain contentious questions of public policy. They are, rather, assaults on the very notion of a moral order. Such exercises in debonair nihilism ought to be profoundly troubling to anyone who cares about democracy, much less democratic civility.

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