Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue:
Jewish According to the Flesh

By James W. Bernauer SJ

We are very blessed in being witnesses to the miraculous transformation over the last 40 years in the relationship between Jews and Christians and, as the work of Cardinal Bea at Vatican Council II demonstrated, the Society has certainly been part of this miracle. Pope Benedict XVI seems committed to continuing that transformation. As a sign of our own ongoing commitment, the Society is sponsoring a conference this July in Switzerland on the theme “The Importance of Modern Jewish Thought for Christian-Jewish Dialogue.” Jesuits involved in that dialogue have already had profitable gatherings in 1998 in Krakow, where we were able to visit Auschwitz, and in 2000 in Jerusalem where we focused our conversation on the significance of the State of Israel for that dialogue. However, to my mind, an important element is still missing in the Society’s dealings with the Jewish community up until now, namely, some statement of regret and repentance for our treatment of the Jewish people in history.

I recently wrote an essay in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits (36/2, Summer 2004) in which I gave a brief account of the Church’s growth in its sense of guilt toward the Jewish people and how the Papacy and numerous Episcopal conferences have acknowledged that guilt in a clear penitential voice. I also pointed to some examples of anti-Jewish Jesuit conduct that give a measure of justification for Hannah Arendt’s biting judgment that our special charism was anti-Semitism: “It was the Jesuits who had always best represented both in the written and spoken word, the antisemitic school of the Catholic clergy.”

Our preaching of the Gospel too often turned out to be bad news for the Jews. And we might have expected it to be so different. Perhaps our greatest source of pride as a religious Society is that we carry the name of Jesus himself. We know that Ignatius of Loyola’s desire for intimacy with his Savior even included an actual sharing in the Jewish lineage (“secundum carnem”) of Jesus and Mary. Instead, we excluded Jewish converts from our ranks for over 300 years.

And yet, perhaps, within the perspective of faith, Ignatius’ holy desire may have been granted in a totally unexpected way, because we often came to mirror for our enemies the despised face of the Jew. Jesuits and Jews were the most frequent victims for those who sought a total, diabolical explanation for how history operated. They formed, as one writer has said, a “tragic couple,” both demonized in infamous documents: the Monita Secreta for the Jesuits, the Protocols of Zion for the Jews.

Their diabolical character was charted on the axes of space and time. Spatially, they operated outside of any specific territory and aspired for domination over the world; they lurked behind thrones at the same time that they were quite willing to overthrow those very kings and nations. Jews and Jesuits were preeminently people of the city and, thus, they were accused of being allied to wealth, loose morality and a cunning, deracinated intelligence that was contemptuous of the traditions of the rural past. Temporally, they were at home in periods of decadence and collapse, and thus they were perceived as devotees of modernity: the same spectacles that detected the Jesuits as fathering the French revolution saw the Jews as the creators of the Russian one. This history echoed in Germany in the years leading to and during the period of the Third Reich and it may be a badge of honor for the Society that Hitler carried a hatred for Jesuits that seems even to predate his obsession with Jews. And we paid a price: some 83 Jesuits were executed by the Nazis, another 43 died in concentration camps and 26 more died in captivity or of its results.

Decree 5 of General Congregation 34 (“Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue”) stated that dialogue “with the Jewish people enables us to become more fully aware of our identity as Christians.” Perhaps it also leads into a deeper understanding of ourselves as Jesuits and of Ignatius’s desire for us in relationship to the people of Jesus and Mary. Not recognizing our historical conduct toward that people leaves us in a dangerous darkness about ourselves and our path forward. Not embracing Ignatius’ love of Jesus’ people certainly damaged the Jewish people but, as history has shown, that refusal did not lead us to a safer spiritual, moral or political place for ourselves.

This year there have been many commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of some of the major events that heralded the end of World War II. 2006 will be the sixtieth anniversary of the 29th General Congregation’s abrogation of the exclusion of Jews from the Society. The date of its opening, September 5, might provide an opportunity for special remembrance of our sinfulness in relation to the Jewish people and an appropriate occasion for a statement of penitence.

Bernauer (NYK) is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.

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