The Catholic Church and the Jews
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Moshe Grylak, the esteemed editor-in-chief of Mishpacha, wrote about the Pope’s visit to Israel. He wrote that the Pope undoubtedly had a difficult time on his trip, seeing first-hand the return of the Jewish people to their Land, and all the signs of their sovereignty. This, he claimed, was a huge affront to Catholic teaching, to the point of calling into question his entire foundation of belief.
I almost always agree with Rabbi Grylak, but that particular piece struck me as factually incorrect, even dangerous. The Church officially changed its attitude towards Jews over forty years ago. Believing Christians constitute the largest consistent group of Israel’s supporters today. Even non-Cathoics would be offended by Jewish inability to recognize the positive measures many have taken to extend themselves in the cause of Israel and the Jewish people.
I communicated with Mishpacha, and they readily agreed to publish a piece I would write. Once I turned it in, Rabbi Grylak exercised his right to respond, and Mishpacha a week ago published a four page debate between the two of us. I am grateful to Mishpacha (whose readership now exceeds that of Yated and Hamodia combined) for the extraordinary level of cooperation they showed.
It would have been my preference to publish Rabbi Grylak’s rejoinder to me at the same time. Mishpacha agreed, but was only able to provide me with a pdf of the article, rather than text. I have no place to park a pdf where I can link the url so that readers can get to it. I’ve told that to them, and I will wait a bit longer to see if they will send his piece in a different format. If not, I will paraphrase it – and of course relate why I thoroughly disagree with him.
I was struck by the fact that Mishpacha apparently had no problem presenting two conflicting and passionately argued points of view. We do not see very much of that in the right-of-center Orthodox world. This is a very welcome development, one that could yield rich dividends to a Torah world in which many people find an aggessive absolutism and extremism uninviting.
Right idea, wrong decade.
Rabbi Grylak (POV, 5/20) (whose words I always eagerly consume first with each issue of Mishpacha) correctly expressed the feeling of satisfaction that we Jews should feel for changes in the Church. For close to two thousand years, Christians were certain that Jews would wander homelessly until the end of time. More recently, Jews about to be shot by Nazi tormentors stared them down with the words, “We will outlive you!” Similarly, the Jewish people can look back at the last two millennia with pride that, b’chasdei Hashem, we outlived all those who were certain we would soon vanish.
Rabbi Grylak is a bit behind the times, however, when he writes that this statement “made silently by Pope Benedict…cost him no small measure of pain,” which is understandable because “it’s difficult for the Church to confess in public that it’s been wrong for two thousand years.” This is not true. Remarkably, the Catholic Church long ago confessed to the error of its old claim. It did so publicly in 1965 in its authoritative document, Nostra Aetate, published under the aegis of Pope Paul VI. It is no longer painful for Church representatives to repeat the confession. We should give the Church credit for its cheshbon ha-nefesh.
Most religious Jews know little about Christian belief, which is halachically the way it should be. The downside, however, is that sometimes we project our own beliefs on others. Since our Torah is immutable, we reason that time-honored teachings in other faiths are seen the same way, and that if Church teachings can be shown to be wrong, it will shake the foundations of Christianity.
Most Catholics, however, including leaders and theologians, have no problem analyzing the writings of the early church fathers and attributing their attitudes to the culture of their times. They are not reluctant to say that we possess new insight today, and reject the old. Change comes slowly, sometimes glacially, but it does occur, except in matters of core dogma.
In the fourth-century, Augustine taught the terrible idea that, like Kayin, it was God’s will for Jews to be scattered in exile until they convert to Christianity, and that their exile was living testimony to the truth of Christianity. This teaching was taken for granted by generation after generation of Catholics, and it played a large part in the persecution of our people throughout history. However popular, it never became core dogma. In time, it could change.
After the Holocaust, the Church realized the horrible consequences of its teachings about Jews and Judaism and realized it had to change those teachings. Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) stood previous Catholic teachings towards Jews on their head. It rejected the idea of collective guilt for the sin of deicide, which was probably the most important basis for Christian anti-Semitism. It spoke of the continuing covenant between G-d and the Jews, rejecting the “replacement theology” that God’s promises to Abraham and our people were taken over by the Church. Today, the Church teaches that Jews are still the people of God’s covenant and it condemns all forms of anti-Semitism in any place for any reason. Even before its release, Paul VI ruled in 1964 that “On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to G-d, for G-d does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.”
Since that time, a pope visited a shul in Rome, calling Jews, in his church’s name “our elder brother.” He visited the Kotel, and there publicly (without apparent shame) asked G-d’s forgiveness for the way the Church had treated Jews. Building on the changed attitude and relationship, the Church officially recognized Israel and it has been unequivocal and public in rejecting any Holocaust revisionism. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, years before he became the present-day pope, wrote a meditation in December, 2000, that appeared on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Listen to these excerpts, and see if you hear the same voice as that of our earlier oppressors: “The task of the Chosen People is, therefore, to make a gift of their G-d – the one true God – to every other people….We are the inheritors of their faith in the one G-d. Our gratitude, therefore, must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this G-d right up to the present, and who witness to it in the sight of those peoples who, lacking knowledge of the one G-d, dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death….A new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born… it must begin with a prayer to our G-d, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people – the people of Israel – to whom belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law…”
Fortunately, the public confession that Rabbi Grylak is looking for has been made so often that it is no longer painful.
There still is resistance to the new teachings in some traditional Catholic circles, still much work to be done to erase old ideas. But two generations of Catholic children have been taught in many schools and churches that Jews are still the people of God’s covenant, and that anti-Semitism is sinful in the eyes of the Church. They study the history of the Holocaust. To be sure, the Shoah was a factor in this dramatic reversal. Many other Christian denominations were stung by the Holocaust and the role of classic Christian anti-Semitism in readying Europe for the war against the Jews. They, too, rethought their relationship with the Jews. Unlike Catholics, however, none of them have a central authority. A change in favor of Jews can vanish as quickly as it is made. Indeed, some of the mainline Protestant denominations are once again – prodded by Palestinians who do not want to see any link between the Bible and the Jews – flirting with new replacement theologies.
Which kind of Catholic Church do we prefer to see for its 1.1 billion adherents? The old instigator of anti-Semitism, or the new defender of Jews? Islamofascism is growing, anti-Semitism is skyrocketing around the globe, and contempt for Israel is widespread. In this time of danger for Jews, we should accept all who want to be our friends—and the Church wants deeply to reconcile with our people. For centuries, Jewish shtadlanim used the intervention of Catholic individuals who were favorably disposed towards us. Should we not do the same when the Pope and his officials are similarly disposed, and Catholics no longer ask us to pay for their support with apostasy, r”l ?
For many, it is easier to hold on to simple labels than to admit change. There is “us” and there is “them.” There are Yaakov and Esav, locked eternally in battle. But history is not frozen. Commenting on the encounter between Yaakov and Esav, the Netziv speaks of times when the older brother would indeed fall on the shoulders of the younger with love and contrition. At those times, says the Netziv, Jews respond positively.
We study history because the Torah commands us: binu shenos dor vador – understand the passing of the generations. The word shenos, observes Sefer Menachem Tzion, also means change. We must understand that times change, that there are differences between one generation and another. We do not know why change has come in our lifetimes, or how long it will last. Perhaps it is part of Hashem’s plan that those who were responsible for spilling so much Jewish blood should now become instruments in defending it. We ought to own up to the change, both because it is proper to admit to the truth, and also to insure that as many Catholics as possible incorporate it in their lives. People are people. They appreciate acknowledgment, and they detest being kicked for a good deed.
The title of Rabbi Grylak’s essay asks a crucial question: What do you say when you’ve been wrong for two thousand years? I would humbly suggest that we need to ask a more important question. What do we say when others openly admit that they have been wrong for two thousand years? The answer to my question is simpler. We should say “Thank you!”