Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Unbalanced consideration

Pope Francis and Rabbi Bergman - march 2013

Those who honour me with reading me regularly know my concern for the situation in the Middle East, especially for the peace and security of Israel and, more widely, the importance that the Jewish people has for me.

On several occasions, alone or with friends, I was prompted to react about unfair or deceptive statements toward Israel, especially when they came from people referring to the church or to Christian organizations. The awareness of the heavy burden that weighs on the Church because of injustices, humiliations and persecutions carried out against Jews in her name for centuries, was a decisive reason for my commitment – modest but determined – on this topic.

I am convinced that, today, this heavy historical responsibility must awaken Christians to vigilance against anything that could lead to anti-Judaism and, a fortiori, of anti-Semitism. Since, for half a century, the Church is firmly committed to ending what Jules Isaac called the "teaching of contempt", Christians can and must do so with renewed determination.

Since Vatican II, many documents, pronouncements, symbolic gestures, on behalf of Church leaders, have clearly shown that the two main grievances which maintained the Christian anti-Judaism, namely the theory of "deicide" and the "theology of the substitution" are unfounded. Furthermore, authorized voices in the Church recognized that Judaism retains its own mission, as a testimony of God's faithfulness to His promise and His alliance. If these major advances seem irreversible, they have not, so far, been fully assumed by all Christians, and the exploitation of the Arab-Israeli conflict offers to those who have not cleared their anti-Judaism a "comfortable" alibi. That is why vigilance remains essential.

Of course, we can expect the Jewish side to welcome these decisive changes in the attitude of the Church and, indeed, many Jewish voices hailed this opening. There is still some way to go however. Once bitten, twice shy, says popular wisdom, and such a recent shift of the Church towards the Jews is not likely to instantly erase the disastrous image she has built up in their memory through the centuries. I just experienced it painfully, here's how.

A few weeks ago, reading a blog, I had the attention drawn by a polemical text. It questioned the sincerity of Christians who show a willingness to dialogue with Jews. I posted a comment regretting this suspicious attitude. The moderator of the blog, a Jew, obviously very educated and intelligent, replied by advancing some relevant arguments. A lively but respectful dialogue was then formed, through the Internet. But, after a few exchanges, the mood began to change. I had just answered favourably to the proposal of my correspondent to be associated with an initiative that he wanted to undertake towards a bishop and, the next day, he published an article in which, to my surprise, he invoked a sentence quoted from an encyclical of Pius XII to affirm that the church had not given up the theology of substitution. Indeed, according to my opinion, Pius XII had used inappropriate words when he spoke of "abolition of the Old Law". I replied that this encyclical and this sentence, secondary with regard to the overall document, were not "infallible" as my opponent asserted it. It was of no use, he came there to accuse me of lying, what, for me, ended the debate.

On the content, I can only maintain my position. I had moreover answered my interlocutor by stating what a friend, a professor of theology, had written to me confirming my statements: the encyclical in question is by no means a text boasting about "infallibility" as it was defined by Council Vatican I. Besides that, a few days ago, I made the effort to question another theologian, without referring to the controversy. I got the same answer. He wrote: "Infallibility defined by Vatican I applies only on very strict conditions, and the pope has never used this power, except to define the Assumption in 1950. An encyclical belongs to the ordinary Magisterium of the Church (even not extraordinary!, So certainly not in the infallible Magisterium)."

But if I have nothing to regret on the content, it is not the case for the form. With hindsight, it seems to me that I did not take enough account of the heightened sensitivity of my interlocutor and of the distrust, fuelled by negative experiences, that asseverations of friendship from Christians arouse in him. I allowed myself to use of a polemic tone that could hurt him, and I regretted it ...

What is the lesson of all this? In the same way that there is no symmetry between the situation of Christianity in relation to Judaism (the first one being entirely "dependent" of the second), there is also no symmetry between the attitude of openness and respect that Jews are entitled to expect from the Christians and the one that Christians hope to meet with the Jews towards them. Let us accept to show patience to them. In any case, it will be without proportion with that which they had, against their will, to demonstrate to us.


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