Recent Crisis in
What does it mean to be excommunicated and for excommunication to be withdrawn? A conversation in my Boston College classroom last spring revealed that Catholic undergraduates can’t answer these questions. To one student, excommunication meant eviction from the Church and effectively undoing one’s baptism. The student had no understanding that baptism is permanent, that excommunication, literally being outside the communion, is censure by exclusion from the sacraments -- with the exception of reconciliation, the path to readmission to communion.
If Catholics don’t understand excommunication, then it is even less likely that Jews do. It is precisely this lack of understanding that led to a recent crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations. On January 21, 2009, Pope Benedict remitted the excommunication of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, recognizing their penitent desire to accept the papal authority that they had rejected by receiving unapproved ordination from Archbishop Lefebvre as bishops. The Jewish world heard “excommunication withdrawn,” and “restored to communion” and presumed that the Vatican was expressing officially that it approved the teachings of these bishops, which include refutation of the teachings of Vatican II, especially about Jews and Judaism. In addition, one bishop, Richard Williamson, had been recorded on Swedish television only the previous week stating, “Between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber.” How could a Holocaust denier be reconciled with the Church? Could one deny the Holocaust and be a good Catholic? Jewish groups raised their voices in protest; the Italian rabbis, the Israeli rabbis, and others broke off dialogues with the Vatican.
Relatively quickly, on February 4, the Vatican’s Secretary of State clarified that this remission was only an initial step, and without full acceptance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and all popes since then, including Bishop Williamson’s full retraction of his Holocaust denial, there could not be full integration into the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, addressing Jewish leaders on February 12, expressly reaffirmed Catholic commitment to both Nostra aetate and to Holocaust memory. His explanatory letter to Catholic bishops on March 10 reiterated these points. The Vatican statements succeeded in drawing official Jewish groups back into dialogue, but unfortunately, news outlets barely acknowledged the complexities. The issue remained alive throughout the spring.
Why? One factor, certainly, is that this affair taps into a fundamental insecurity in the Jewish community. Is the radical transformation in Catholic teaching about Jews and Judaism permanent? What is the implication of statements, like that in the Pope’s March letter to the bishops, that assert that “…some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the [Second Vatican] Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.” That pre-conciliar faith was supersessionist and left no theological space for the ongoing validity of Judaism. The consequences included a popular anti-Semitism that expressed itself regularly in violence. Does the Church’s new thinking about Jews and Judaism find coherent expression in all its teachings, or does it find voice only in official and perhaps superficial disavowals of anti-Semitism?
The Williamson affair followed the Pope’s 2007 permission for wider use of the 1962 Tridentine rite with its Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. In February 2008, the Pope personally revised this text, removing its offensive references to Jews as having veiled hearts, being blind and in darkness, but it remained a prayer that Jews come to accept Christ. To Jews, this communicates that, in the eyes of the Church, Judaism is deficient. Eventually, there was official clarification through Cardinals Kasper and Bertone, that this prayer “is not intended to promote proselytism to Jews, … and it opens up an eschatological perspective. Christians, however, cannot but bear witness to their faith, … and this leads them also to pray that all will come to recognize Christ.” This perhaps answers the immediate practical problem of coexistence, but not the deeper question of theological respect.
Jewish concerns only deepened on June 18, when the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Covenant and Mission. In 2002, the USCCB Dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues had issued a joint text, Reflections on Covenant and Mission. The Catholic section of this document, drawing carefully on post-Nostra aetate teachings, explored the consequences of the new teaching of the enduring validity of God’s covenant with Israel for traditional understandings of Christian mission. It suggested that a Catholic conversionary mission to the Jews was no longer appropriate, and that evangelization could be expressed by bearing witness to one’s own faith in dialogic encounters. Now, seven years later, the Bishops’ Committees on Doctrine and on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs released a criticism of the text and a clarification of doctrine. To Jewish eyes, the most important point in the Note is its insistence that proclamation and invitation to baptism must be core elements of interreligious dialogue because Judaism is inherently deficient. When Jews hear “proclamation,” they recall pre-Vatican II Catholic attitudes that led to forced instruction and other violent behavior. “Invitation to baptism” recalls days when the Church actively sought Jewish converts, encouraging rebellious teenagers to snub their parents by converting or victims of economic anti-Semitism to end their woes. These sorts of intentions undermine the trust necessary to the dialogic encounter. On August 18 a coalition representing Jews from across the religious spectrum issued a statement that objects in no uncertain terms to participation in dialogue that involves even an implicit invitation to baptism. It also expresses profound disappointment with the documents disavowal of the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with Jews and deep concern about the future of dialogue under these conditions.
This spring’s public crisis was only underscored by this somewhat quieter and theologically more sophisticated crisis this summer. That a very similar set of discussions has been occurring in recent months in Germany makes it even more alarming. While this spring’s crisis included simple elements of miscommunication, both the spring and the summer’s events point to a desperate need for Catholics and Jews of good will to search for theologically authentic paths to express and teach coherently and consistently the legitimacy of the other before God.
Ruth Langer is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Theology Department; and Associate Director, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, both at Boston College.
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