Commentary Magazine

American Catholics: A Protestant-Jewish View, edited by Philip Scharper

A Contribution to the “Dialogue”1


In addition to the timeliness of its appearance just before the presidential contest the obvious significance of this volume is its contribution to the “Dialogue.” The participants in the symposium—Stringfellow Barr of Rutgers, Martin E. Marty of the Christian Century, Robert McAfee Brown of the Union Theological Seminary, Arthur A. Cohen of Meridian Books, Arthur Gilbert of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and Allyn P. Robinson of the National Conference of Christians and Jews—enthusiastically endorse the “Dialogue” (only Arthur Cohen, who is himself so engaged, refrains from pressing the point). Perhaps the most fervent appeal for the confrontation of one faith with another is made by Dr. Marty: “It has been dialogue rather than commitment which we have lacked. In the past, Protestants and Catholics have been engaged in successive monologues. Dialogue will profit us both, will enrich our free society, and cannot but lead us both past many of the obstacles which bar a joyful vision of our common history and future as Christians in the American milieu.”

The contributors feel that while the publication of this volume is a hopeful sign, the difficulty of involving Catholics in “Dialogue” constitutes an ever present barrier; they repeatedly stress the need for Catholics to leave what they term a “ghetto” and to engage more freely in discourse with persons of other religions. Their feelings are apparent in Dr. Marty’s declaration: “. . . it is frustrating to be told that the Catholics present [at religious seminars] are not there to discuss theology. They are under orders to discuss social issues of the free society, but must exclude basic religious issues. . . . Were I to state a Protestant ‘dream’—my Protestant dream—for this chapter, it would be that out of this could come from a Roman Catholic bishop the invitation for such sanctioned exchange.” The contributors stress that Catholics and Protestants in certain European countries have engaged in “Dialogue” without disastrous consequences; they seek to allay Catholic anxieties by quoting a priest who said that it is possible “. . . to break down the barriers without disturbing the boundaries.”

This leads us to a consideration of the last chapter of American Catholics: A Protestant-Jewish View. It is entitled “A Catholic Postscript” and is written by the noted theologian, Father Gustave Weigel. Father Weigel is at pains to stress that a Catholic editor of a Catholic publishing house has organized this enterprise, and that consequently the bill of particulars presented by the Protestant and Jewish contributors should not be taken amiss: “They [the contributors] may indeed err in their evaluation of American Catholic reality but this is not a controversy or a debate. We have humbly asked them to state what they see in us, and in kindly fashion they have granted us our petition. To become angry with them because they do us the favor we ourselves have begged is hardly the reaction consistent with our prayer.”

Father weigel does not debate Catholic theology with the contributors or comment on their criticisms of attempts to enforce Catholic morality on non-Catholics, or analyze their citations of Spain and Colombia as examples of what may occur when Catholicism becomes a majority religion. Rather, he asks his fellow Catholics to study the essays so that they may learn how they appear to others. He suggests that the resulting insight might eventuate in Catholics correcting “. . . any angularities which derive from our historical conditioning. Our faith distinguishes us from all those who do not share it, but there are modes and manners which stem not from our beliefs but from the environment which our fathers in part found and in part created. We do not at all want to drop the characteristic marks of our faith, but there is no need to hang on to modal quirks and kinks which might make us stand out as an unpleasant people. . . .”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Father Weigel is interested only in bettering Catholic public relations, or that he seeks even to improve the chances of a Catholic candidate’s winning the nation’s highest office. Rather, he is interested in “Dialogue” because he is interested in Ecumenicalism, and interested in improving the appeal of Catholicism in that movement: “If we are to get into the ecumenical swim, we must get into it. We cannot merely watch it critically from the shore. Once more we must by our actions correct any disagreeable image others may have of us. We must know and be known.” Father Weigel’s purpose is thus not only to increase understanding but to heal a breach in Christendom; taking religion seriously, he is aware that “Dialogue” is capable of disturbing boundaries as well as reducing interreligious tensions.



Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this volume are the contributions of the Jewish authors; after all, a good deal of what the Protestants have to say can be found in other places. While the literature which has emanated from Jewish sources designed to correct Christian misunderstanding of Jews and Judaism is voluminous, the literature on Jewish attitudes toward Catholics and Catholicism is almost non-existent. With the exception of Will Herberg, and to a lesser extent Leo Pfeffer, there has been considerable reluctance to express Jewish attitudes in this area. Not that Jews have been uncritical of Catholicism. Rather, they have thought it wisest to let the Protestants do the talking. What would it profit Jewish status to fish in such troubled waters? Could not efforts aimed at increasing interreligious understanding be handicapped by a frank exposition of Jewish attitudes?

In this context it is encouraging to note that one of the two Jewish contributors to this volume is a staff member of an important Jewish agency. If Rabbi Gilbert’s participation is symptomatic of a diminishing Jewish reticence about speaking freely on sensitive matters, it is indeed a hopeful sign. In any case, Mr. Cohen’s fascinating essay contains a note rarely sounded in these discussions: “The myth (and I do believe that it is a myth) of the Judeo-Christian tradition obscures the vast chasm of being which separates the two faiths.” He further states that “It should not surprise reflective Catholics to discover that Jews are, by and large, suspicious—if not openly hostile—toward the Catholic Church.” He traces Jewish hostility in part to the “. . . historical anguish of the Jewish people amid the Christian nations of Europe. It is a record of exclusion, disability, dislocation and death.” He thinks that “historical anguish” is felt even by the marginal Jew: “It might be imagined that as assimilation takes its course, Jews might forget the wound of history. It is, however, the irony of Jewish destiny and an adumbration of its divinity that where Jews have forgotten all—all belief, all conviction, all practice—they remember the outrage of history.”

Cohen distinguishes between what he calls the “natural Jew” (“liberal, secular intellectual, a latter-day caricature of the minor prophets”) and what he terms the “supernatural Jew.” His religious convictions are revealed in his statement that: “The natural Jew is reminded by history that he cannot erase the mark of supernatural destiny. As natural Jew—divested of supernatural motive and intention—he still comes before the church in questioning incredulity.”

Rabbi Gilbert takes a much different starting point. Confessing his surprise at having encountered social science materials which contradict the notion he had that anti-Semitism was much stronger among Catholics than Protestants, he has formulated a number of questions: “Why is there a conviction among some in the Jewish community that the Catholic Church stimulates anti-Semitism? Is there a vigorous anti-Catholicism in the Jewish community? What is the image of the Catholic in the Jewish mind?” In the course of answering these questions, Rabbi Gilbert presents valuable material, much of which cannot be found elsewhere. His difficulty, however, resides in the fact that he hesitates to distinguish between the “natural Jew” and the “supernatural Jew,” that he is loath to explore these positions and point out the poignancy of each. On the one hand he cannot but commend the Roman Catholics: “Catholic abhorrence of the secularization of both our society and our religious institutions is inspiring.” This is the “supernatural Jew” talking. But in much of his exposition, he must tell of the feelings of “natural Jews”—an influential segment of the Jewish community. Here Rabbi Gilbert treads rather warily. He does not emphasize the belief of the “natural Jew” that secularism is the hope of mankind; he does not point up that some of his hostility to Catholicism can be traced to his feeling that the church is the prime anti-secular force in our world. Believing that the less religion the better the society, the “natural Jew” sees Catholicism as uniquely working to increase the role of religion in society, and thus tragically dividing an already fragmented mankind.

The pity of it is that because of the status of religion in American culture, the “natural Jew” cannot present his secularism as secularism. Rather, he purports to be a true friend of religion: “Most Jews believe that the First Amendment established a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state. This principle Jews judge to be essential in maintaining religious freedom, keeping our religions strong and vital, and insuring amicable relations between the various faith groups.” Rabbi Gilbert is of course right—Jewish emancipation resulted from the secularization of society and thus Jewish security (and even the practice of the Jewish religion) is guaranteed best in a society where there is a “high wall” between church and state. But this recognition should not confuse the differing stances of “natural Jew” and “supernatural Jew.” And here is the Jewish dilemma. For strategic reasons the “supernatural Jew” is forced to adopt the position of the “natural Jew”; he must mount the barricades in defense of secularism. The hesitancy of the “natural Jew” is all the more poignant. Rather than stressing that Jewish self-interest is involved, and that the natural is always preferable to the supernatural, he swears his loyalty to the objective of keeping religion “strong and vital.” His true feelings can only be displayed within the privacy of the Jewish community. There he also insists that the “high wall” be maintained—that funds raised from the Jewish community at large not be used to support Jewish parochial schools, and that Jewish hospitals not be required to serve kosher food as a matter of course.

Though Father Weigel has not specialized in the study of American minority problems, I suspect that much of this is apparent to him—in his postscript, he makes a cryptic statement: “The Protestant writers do not show as much nervousness about their own groups as do the Jewish essayists.” Tercentenary or no, Jewish insecurity is still apparent to those outside as well as inside the Jewish community. But we must remember that the present book is one of the first Jewish attempts at “Dialogue.” The pioneers are to be commended on their accomplishments; our obligation is twofold: to tender them our thanks as well as to encourage their successors to surpass them.




1 A review of American Catholics: A Protestant-Jewish View, edited by Philip Scharper (Sheed & Ward, 235 pp., $3.75).

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