Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jewish-Catholic relations

Two Righteous Men Among the Nations

The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

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The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

The role that John Paul II played in the struggle against Communism is well known. The first Polish pope was a symbol of the fight for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If Stalin famously and satirically asked “how many divisions” did the pope have about one of John Paul’s predecessors, then the Soviet tsar’s successors found how just how powerful a man of faith could be. If in the medieval era and specifically in the 19th century, the church was viewed by many as an ally of the established order in Europe against the cause of liberty, John Paul II made it clear that in the 20th century, Catholics were on the front lines in the battle for individual liberty against the toxic influence of totalitarianism.

That stand by itself would have secured John Paul’s place in history. But he also deserves enormous credit for transforming Catholic-Jewish relations. While some in the media took a cynical view of Pope Francis’s effort to highlight the similarities between John XXIII, who is viewed as the hero of church liberals, and John Paul II, who is depicted as the champion of conservatives, there is no question that they shared a common agenda when it came to revolutionizing relations between Catholics and Jews.

John XXIII is best remembered for his convening of the Second Vatican Council that led to changes in Church doctrine and practices. Most importantly for Jews, it ended the teaching of the deicide myth, effectively acquitting the Jewish people of a role in the killing of Jesus. He also ended the use of the word “perfidious” with respect to Jews in Catholic prayers. But even long before this important work, John XXIII earned the gratitude of the Jewish people for his role in saving many Jews from the Holocaust while serving as papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece. After the Shoah, while serving in the same capacity in France he refused orders not to return baptized Jewish children to their surviving parents. He is also believed to have helped influence Pope Pius XII to remain silent about the question of partition of Palestine thus making it easier for Catholic countries to vote for the creation of a Jewish state.

Pope John Paul II built on the good work of Pope John XXIII with regard to interfaith relations. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue as well as the one who finally recognized the State of Israel. His advocacy for treating Jews as brothers in faith rather than rivals or enemies marked a turning point for the relationship between the two faiths and in the way Catholics were educated by their church. Under his leadership, the church became a bulwark in the struggle against anti-Semitism in a manner that it had never before assumed. Just as important, his personal example of friendship with Jews with whom he had grown up in Poland and suffered under Nazi rule ended forever the notion of a natural antagonism between Catholics and Jews.

No person, even a saint, is perfect, and it is possible to construct a critique of John Paul II’s papacy in terms of its slow reaction to the pedophile scandal that rocked Catholicism on his watch. But that is a problem that predated his papacy and cannot be ascribed to the Vatican as it can to specific individuals or institutions. Whatever we may think about the church’s past failures in that regard, it does not erase his or any other pope’s good work.

Thus, while I cannot venture an opinion as to the qualifications of either man (or anyone else for that matter) for Catholic sainthood, I can say that both John XXIII and John Paul II stand as two of the most important positive figures in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. They are richly deserving of the title of Righteous Among the Nations, the name of the honor given by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. May the memories of both these popes be for a blessing. 

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Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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John Paul, Benedict and the Modern Papacy

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

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The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

On this score, Benedict who labored under the stigma of his German birth and brief service in Hitler’s army did not get as much credit as he deserved. Though nothing he did matched the symbolism of the way the first Polish pope embraced the Jewish people in a heartfelt manner, his service to John Paul and his actions while leading the Vatican, Benedict carried on his predecessors work on this issue.

Benedict was criticized for his efforts toward reinstating the Latin mass, which in one part contained a prayer for the conversation of Jews that most Jews thought offensive. But Benedict was quite clear that this was not a license to reinstate the Church’s abandoned efforts to proselytize Jews. Those who wished to judge Benedict harshly for this should have remembered that Jewish tradition instructs us to judge people by their deeds and in that respect, Benedict’s efforts to continue John Paul’s work was largely exemplar. Catholic doctrine about what will happen at the end of days should be of as little concern to Jews as Jewish ideas about the Messianic era should be to Catholics.

It should also be stated that under both John Paul and Benedict, the Papacy has been a bulwark of support for the cause of freedom against tyranny. In the battle against the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, the Pope’s divisions, as Stalin would have put it, were formidable assets in the struggle to overthrow Communism. Whatever changes occur in the Church in the future under the next pope, we hope that it will remain true to the legacy of John Paul and Benedict in this respect.

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