The Church in Relationship with the Jews
by Rev. Dennis McManus, PhD
Could the last eighty years have been the most important ever between Jews and Christians? One word summarizes why it might be: the Holocaust. This terrible genocide represents not just a single or discrete event that happened only once and won’t ever be repeated. Instead, the Holocaust is really the culmination of a two-thousand-year history of strife between Jews and every kind of Christian community. Over these many centuries, there have been all too few places free of anti-Judaism (discounting the value of Judaism as a religion) and anti-Semitism (classifying Jews as a race, and an inferior one, at that). The issue today facing both Jews and Christians is this: Have the factors that created the Holocaust really been resolved, or are they still at play, ebbing and flowing in and out of Western and Middle Eastern cultures? Could the Holocaust be repeated? Or can Jews, Christians, and Muslims work at a new relationship that would prevent such a reoccurrence?
Against this background, the Catholic Church has taken a stand, admitting to the guilt of her sons and daughters who engaged in anti-Semitic acts of every kind, who blamed all Jews for the Death of Jesus and then punished them for it. The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document on the Church’s relationship with other religions, known by its Latin title of Nostra Aetate, has clarified Catholic teaching on this topic and now serves as a guide for the way in which Catholics are to love, respect, and befriend our Jewish brothers and sisters. Nostra Aetate’s disavowal of anti-Semitism is not intended as “political correctness,” nor is its message somehow “optional” for Catholics. It is morally urgent, and as Pope John Paul II forcefully put it, anti-Semitism is a sin.
No matter where we turn in Catholic life, we see proof of the Church’s change of heart in this matter. For example, the negative language toward the Jews, as Pope Benedict XVI described it, occasionally found in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, has yielded to a new and appreciative way of praying. For Catholics, Judaism is precious not only because through it come the covenants, the Law of Moses, the prophets, the liturgy, and the city of Jerusalem, but because Jesus is born and raised, and dies, as a Jew. His people remain beloved of God in a covenant never revoked. And while Catholics believe that Jesus, as Messiah, fulfills all that God has promised, there is no correlative belief in the demise of Jews or their religion, as if accursed or abandoned by God.
Religious education also reflects this change. Textbooks based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church are careful not to repeat the ancient defamation against Jews as so-called “Christ-killers.” Instead, Judaism is there described as the foundational religion, so to speak, for Christianity. As Pope Francis has stated, Judaism as the religion of Jesus is at the heart of every Christian. It is worth noting that the reverse is not true: Judaism does not claim to be similarly dependent on Christianity. But between Jews and Christians there can and should be one heart filled with love of God and neighbor, shared in a common spiritual patrimony from Abraham down to our own day. All the more important, then, is the way Catholics educate themselves about Jews and, in particular, about the Jewish context of the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life and teaching. Without a religious education that supports and deepens the Council’s teaching on Jews and Judaism, Catholics could easily find themselves slowly but surely losing touch yet again with the taproot of their own religion in the Judaism of Jesus.
Who can question the sincerity of the four post¬–Nostra Aetate popes that have visited Jerusalem and the major synagogues of Europe as a sign of the Church’s new relationship with Jews? The great apostolic journeys of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now, Pope Francis, have repeatedly given Jews the same message: We come in peace! Such visits to houses of worship help to confirm a new religious friendship that both Jews and Christians can share: blessing the house of God as a common home for all his children.
The shame of widespread Christian complicity in the Holocaust—and in the anti-Judaism that for so many centuries laid the foundation for the Nazi project of extermination—has brought about a real and heartfelt change in the Church. No more will the Church participate in or tolerate the persecution of Jews for any reason, real or imagined. This is an especially important point when today’s anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are often delivered in coded language that demeans Jews or the land of Israel. The commitment of today’s Christian is to the fundamental dignity of the human person, no matter their religion or background. Our Catholic faith affirms that all are created in the image and likeness of God; it is from this creaturehood that human dignity flows and is shared equally by believers and nonbelievers, Jews and Christians alike. As a result, every attack on the dignity of the creature is also an attack against God the Creator.
Indeed, Catholics must join in the cry of John Paul II at Yad Vashem, the great Jerusalem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, where he prayed fervently against the genocide of the Jews: “Never again!” But to share in his prayer, all Catholics must also work to avoid any actions—whether social, economic, racial, cultural, political, or religious—that eliminate the presence of Jews or free exercise of their rights in the world. “Never again!” reminds us that the Holocaust was built upon millions of other acts that made it possible—many of which were done by ordinary people. It is the failure in this kind of “everyday resistance” to bias that John Paul II was referring to in his 1997 remarks on the roots of anti-Judaism, when he bluntly noted that Catholics’ feelings of hostility towards Jews “contributed to the lulling of consciences, so that when the wave of persecutions inspired by a pagan anti-Semitism, which in essence is equivalent to an anti-Christianity, swept across Europe, alongside Christians who did everything to save the persecuted even at the risk of their lives, the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity rightfully expected from the disciples of Christ” (John Paul II, Address, October 31, 1997, www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1997/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19971031_com-teologica_en.html ). To prevent another Holocaust, then, our consciences must be wide awake.
Pope Francis may be the one, however, that Jews most appreciate in his treatment of them as equals, as brothers and sisters, and even as friends. The Holy Father’s remarkable intuitive sense enables him to feel great empathy for what Jews have suffered and, with the eyes of faith, to seek healing and consolation with them inside the bonds of friendship. Last year, in a spontaneous reflection on the suffering of the Jews, the pope remarked to a reporter, “I too, in the friendship I have cultivated in all of these long years with our Jewish brothers, in Argentina, many times while praying have asked God, especially when I remember the terrible experience of the Shoah. What I can say, with the Apostle Paul, is that God has never stopped believing in the alliance made with Israel and that, through the terrible trials of these past centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we will never be grateful enough to them, as the Church, but also as humanity at large. Persevering in their faith in God and in the alliance, they remind everyone, even us as Christians that we are always awaiting the return of the Lord and that therefore we must remain open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already achieved” (www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/09/11/news/the_pope_s_letter-66336961).
The relationship of the Catholic Church to Jews has changed dramatically in the last eighty years. In a post-Holocaust world, four popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis—have led us to see Jews as our “elder brothers” in the faith rather than as enemies or failures. For Christians to rediscover the Judaism of Jesus is to rediscover Jews; but even more, it is to discover that same Judaism as the taproot of their own Christian faith. As Pope Francis has stated, “You cannot live your Christianity, you cannot be a real Christian, if you do not recognize your Jewish roots" (www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-interview-with-la-vanguardia---full-text-45430).
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Excerpt from Pope John Paul II, Address,
October 31, 1997,copyright © 1997, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission.
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