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VCU Menorah Review Fall 2003
Number 59
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Weighing the Prospects for Dialogue

Catholics and Jews in Twentieth-Century America
by Egal Feldman
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press

A Review Essay by Earle J. Coleman

Asked about interreligious dialogue between Jews and Catholics, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner replied, “The most optimistic sign is that Jews and Catholics are just beginning to talk about the Holocaust seriously.” That this exchange appeared in a recent issue of a Jesuit magazine, America, would further suggest that now is the time for a sustained conversation between Catholics and Jews. In the main, Egal Feldman’s book looks cautiously but sanguinely on such a possibility because events in the 20th century appeared to be uniquely promising to promote enhanced relations between Jews and Catholics, and between Jews and other Christians. In the above-mentioned periodical, a book review discusses David I. Kertzer’s work, The Pope Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Antisemitism, which explores the involvement of the papacy in the growth of anti-Semitism from 1814 to 1939 and the accession of Pope Pius XII. Just a half century ago, such a study, referring as it does to “a pervasive culture of Vatican antisemitism,” could scarcely have been discussed in a Catholic publication.

Early in the 20th century, there were, of course, various grounds of alienation between Catholics and Jews. Clearly, divisiveness between the two is as old as the Catholic conviction that Jews were primarily responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Indeed, embittered Catholics have long described their Jewish neighbors as “Christ killers.” And from the Jewish perspective, deicide was not the only charge that called for refutation because, for example, the Christian characterization of the Pharisees conveyed a false impression of Judaism in the time of Jesus. But much worse for the Jewish tradition, Catholics have long held, and some still maintain, that the arrival of Jesus superseded all of Judaism. Traditionally, Catholic theologians have believed that eventually all Jews would convert to Christianity. Presumably, the purpose of missionaries is to effect or expedite this inevitable process. Feldman observes that many Jews regarded conversion as a kind of spiritual death. Nonetheless, Pope Pius X (1903-1914) declared, “The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own, but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity.” In 1942, David Goldstein, a convert to Catholicism, warned that as long as Jews refused to accept Jesus, anti-Semitism would flourish. In 1954, Father Edward Flannery, at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, stated that “the doctrine of Israel’s final return to the Christ is theologically certain, for it is most firmly anchored in the sources of the Catholic faith.” But in the last quarter of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II repudiated the idea that one testament supersedes the other. Some Catholics had already drawn the inference that converting Jews would be improper. Feldman cites the priest and theologian Michael B. McGarry, “After what some Christians did (and did not do) during the Holocaust, Catholics should have the courtesy to leave the Jews alone.”

Catholic supersessionism was extended to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and all other religions. Ironically, and perhaps predictably, Catholics esteem their faith above all others, even when Catholics are not well informed concerning other traditions. John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, mistakenly declares that the Buddha’s enlightenment reduces to the idea that the world is bad. To the contrary, Buddhism does not teach that the world is bad but that clinging to it yields suffering. And it should not be overlooked that many Buddhists maintain that samsara is nirvana, refusing to distinguish between this world and the ideal condition. It is no wonder that, after the appearace of the above book, a number of Buddhists canceled their plans to meet with John Paul II when he visited Sri Lanka. After all, he asserted the following in his book: “Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end.”

Of course, a turn to history also reveals manifold Catholic offenses against Jews, including massacres, forced baptisms and the burning of Talmudic writings. Feldman deserves credit for noting exceptional Catholics such as Pope Innocent IV, who renounced the claim that Jews were responsible for such offenses as ritual murder (i.e., using blood of murdered Christian children in their religious practices). Typically, a defender of Judaism received scathing criticism, as when the cleric James Cardinal Gibbons spoke on behalf of the Jewish tradition and a French priest, Father Henry Delassus, accused Gibbons of working with the Jews to effect the triumph of the anti-Christ. In 1934, after reciting a list of stereotypes concerning Jews, the priest John F.X. Murphy made the chilling declaration that Hitler might be right in his persecution of them.

One distinguished Jesuit priest and professor of law, Robert F. Drinan, has characterized the Christian response to the Holocaust as tepid, nebulous and overdue. Concerning Pope Pius XII, whom many Jews accuse of inaction during the Holocaust, Feldman notes that many Catholics and even some Jews credit this pope with saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. But most Jews, as well as some Catholics, condemn his silence during the extermination of innocent men, women and children. Also, it is frustrating to learn that John Paul II failed to find fault with Pope Pius XII’s silence. Feldman states that many Jews, as well as some Catholics, are still waiting for a more complete statement on the role of the church during the Shoah. When the Israeli court imposed the death penalty on Adolf Eichmann, the Catholic press passionately condemned the sentence and, as Feldman expresses it, “The state of Israel, according to the Christian press, should have risen to a higher level of behavior, one befitting the ideals of the postwar era.” An eminent rabbi and scholar, Arthur Gilbert, wisely questioned the timing of the Catholic criticism of the death penalty.

When the state of Israel was born in 1948, Catholics tended to be indifferent or opposed to the event, with the Vatican going so far as to declare that “modern Zionism is not the true heir of Biblical Israel, but a secular state … therefore, the Holy Land and its sacred sites belong to Christianity, the True Israel!” Some Catholics questioned Zionism because they interpreted the Diaspora as divine punishment and inferred that until Jews embraced Jesus and converted to Christianity, they would not be eligible for the land of promise.

Pope John XXIII, who lived through the opening years of the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II (1962-1965), worked heroically to save Jews from being sent to death camps. He also insisted that the expression “unbelieving Jews” be excised from the Good Friday service. Thus John XXIII became known as the pope who threw open the windows of the church to admit fresh air and many Catholics believed these windows could never be shut completely again. As for Vatican II itself, Arthur Gilbert was among many Jews and Christians alike who maintained that it created a more open atmosphere for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Its “Declaration on the Jews” (Nostra Aetate, No. 4) categorically denied that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. A more recent and popular statement appeared in Time magazine, April 4, 1994. As early as 1964, Cardinal Albert Meyer of Chicago issued a sweeping call for the church to specifically acknowledge the great harms that it had done to Jewish people throughout the centuries. On the Jewish side of dialogue, the American Jewish Committee advised participants to receive Catholics “in the fullness of their differences.” Openness was in, proselytizing was out. There was a special interest in the potential of dialogue for eliminating fallacious ideas about Jews from Christian doctrine. Accordingly, Feldman states “that thoughtful Catholic thinkers have agreed to examine their sacred scriptures as an inspiration for crimes against the Jewish people is evidence of the distance traveled since the 1965 Vatican council.”

From 1969 to 1971, various documents, which were intended to foster better relations between Jews and Christians, were developed by the archdioceses of New York, Cincinnati and Galveston-Houston. The latter guidelines warned, for example, that Judaism should not be characterized as a legalistic religion that lacks the call for love of God and neighbor. Among the most promising of post-Vatican II events was the signing of a “Fundamental Agreement” by the Holy See and the state of Israel (1993) in which both parties pledged to fight anti-Semitism and to protect Catholic shrines. Mark L. Winer, a Jewish speaker at the Jerusalem symposium, attributed great historical and theological import to the document, called it the fulfillment of the promises of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and he further affirmed that “it acknowledges the eternal nature of the Jewish people’s covenant with God.”

Feldman devotes a chapter to the pitfalls of dialogue, for like anything promising interfaith conversation is not free of risks. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for instance, asks how one can balance loyalty to his own religion with reverence toward different traditions. Other thinkers are concerned that dialogue can culminate in relativism, a view that flourishes in secular thought. Feldman observes that the rapid growth of secularism, a threat to Judaism and Catholicism, convinced some members of both traditions of the need for interreligious dialogue. While allowing that Catholics and Jews were on parallel paths, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, an esteemed rabbi and head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, expressed reservations about dialogue and insisted that one must remember that the two faiths are unique (i.e., fundamentally opposed). He concluded that inter-faith discussion should focus on common social-political issues and exclude the distinctive theological beliefs of the participants. Jacob Neusner, a prominant scholar of rabbinic Judaism, also questioned the usefulness of dialogue between Christians and Jews. One answer to such questioning might come from other religions that have enjoyed highly successful conversations for decades. The Buddhist-Christian Society has been meeting long enough that participants from both faiths know the basic tenets, sub-tenets and philosophical underpinnings of the other tradition. Each party knows a great deal about the religious life and thought of the other. While they continue to meet for cognitive reasons, fellowship is sometimes, at least, as important to them. In short, they meet for the joy of encountering each other and for the joy of establishing and sustaining I-Thou relations. Some readers of the periodical Christian Jewish Relations would surely affirm such possibilities. The Jewish theologian Richard L. Rubenstein expresses a related idea, “If we concentrate less on what our religious inheritances promise and [focus] on the human existence which we share through the traditions, we will achieve the superlative yet simple knowledge of who we truly are … the community of men is possible only through the encounter of persons rather than of myths and abstractions.”

As Catholics and Jews come to know more and more about each other’s traditions, their dialogue may extend beyond the cognitive to the existential meeting in which each come to know and care about the other; and both participate in a fellowship that is mutually enriching. Improved relations between Catholics and Jews have not, of course, prevented subsequent controversies between them. For example, in 1984, when Carmelite nuns elected to erect a convent on the edge of the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jews demonstrated and John Paul’s intervention effected a resolution but only after five years had past. The annoucement of the proposed canonization of Pope Pius XII, who reigned during the Holocaust and was accused of ignoring it, was stronly contested by Jews and some Catholics.

Catholics, who consider Feldman’s account, will hardly be in a position to defend Catholicism against his numerous and far-reaching charges. Rather they should feel great remorse for the many inhumane acts performed by Catholics, and especially members of the hierarchy, against the Jewish people. Still, the Catholic reader may wish to advance one critical point, which is no mere cavil, by challenging Arthur Gilbert’s request that Catholics stop praying for the conversion and salvation of all Jews. For if Catholics (or Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or Hindus) sincerely believe their path is best and if they want the best for their non-Catholic brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t Catholics pray that others would join their religion? Indeed, the Catholic may think he has a moral obligation to win others to his faith. In the words of Father John Pawlikowski, who was struggling with the propriety of conversion, “I still believe that Christians have a responsibility to present the meaning of the Christ event to the world, including Jewish people.” Of course, overt conversion efforts are one thing and the most interior act of praying is another; human beings determine the success of the former but only the divine determines the success of the latter.

Earle J. Coleman is Professor of philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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