Against Interfaith Upbringing

This past October, to mark the Feast of the Holy Rosary, one of my Facebook friends posted a link G.K. Chesterton’s braying ode to the Holy League’s 1571 naval victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto. Here’s a taste:

Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Calloo, callay, indeed. Very stirring stuff. And properly timed — the Feast of the Holy Rosary, originally named the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, was instituted for the purpose of recognizing the Blessed Mother’s role in determining the battle’s outcome. But, beneficial though that outcome undoubtedly was for Christendom, it was perhaps less so for the Jews. Spain, which had furnished the flotilla with ships and commanders, expelled its Jews in 1492; Pope St. Pius V, who took the lead in forming southern Europe’s maritime nations into a coalition, followed suit with most of his dominion’s own Jews in 1569. It was the Ottoman sultans who welcomed them, permitting them to settle in, among other places, Jerusalem.

I’m a Catholic, an adult convert from unreligion. My father, though raised and buried Jewish, suspended religious observance at nearly all points in between. One fringe benefit of that suspension — at least for my purposes — was his marriage to my mother, herself in flight from the Catholic Church. Though I’ve never practiced Judaism (apart from dozing or fidgeting through Shabbos services at a Jewish summer camp), my connection to my father has left me with fraternal feelings for the Jewish people perhaps profounder than those of the average Christian committed to inter-religious bridge-building. At moments like these, that sense of kinship can make life mighty awkward.

Susan Katz Miller has been plugging “interfaith” upbringings, where children of Jewish and non-Jewish parents receive catechesis in both parents’ traditions, with decisive preference given to neither. She herself was born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother and identifies as Jewish. However, as she carefully observes:

Simultaneously, I claim the “interfaith” label—the synergy produced by the confluence of religious cultures, and immersion in the commonalities, differences, and entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. Rather than defining me as a “partial” or “half” Jew, the interfaith label gives equal weight to both sides of my heritage.

Synergy, hell — the idea of being fully Christian and fully something else sounds like a kind of intellectual hypostasis. It also sounds impossible. And indeed, judging by the cases Katz Miller cites in Salon from her book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, interfaith upbringings tend to have messy outcomes. Of a sample consisting of 50 self-selected graduates of several interfaith schools, more than a quarter chose to label themselves “interfaith” (not surprisingly), and over 80 percent of these expect not to settle on a single religion. And many do refuse even the most elastic of labels. Responded one participant: “I don’t think the label is as important as what you actually believe, and what I believe probably has some aspects that are Christian, some that are Jewish and some that are neither or a blend of the two.” Did I say hypostasis? I meant intellectual polyamory.

In blazing the interfaith trail, Katz Miller may have had to show some grit. As she reminds us, having a Christian mother has meant “having to defend my Jewish identity to my fellow Jews throughout my lifetime.” But to hear professor of Jewish history Jack Wertheimer tell it, many synagogues now see accommodating intermarried couples as the path of least resistance. “Already,” he writes, “Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues around the country proclaim their warm embrace of all kinds of families, and many Conservative synagogues are competing to be equally hospitable.” If they resist interfaith education per se, it doesn’t sound as though they’ll hold out much longer. Katz Miller’s research subjects report that Catholic parishes have made few bones. If ever there was a battle, her side’s all but won.

As Moses used to say, cui bono? If it’s interfaith couples who just can’t help themselves marrying and having kids, okay. For obvious reasons, I’m biased on that score. Beyond the facts of my birth, I’m a firm believer in romantic love — probably one reason I never married. Not everyone whose tastes roam outside the fold can be so lucky as my parents were in losing their faith first. If neither will yield to the other…well, as a last resort, maybe interfaith is better than no faith at all.

But as Herod used to say, think of the children. Even people who don’t value orthodoxy for its own sake should pause to ask themselves whether the benefit of religious affiliation gains more from its variety or from its depth. Me, I’m a depth man. In my experience, attaining real depth means moving beyond the use of text and ritual as a roadmap to the divine, or even as a blueprint for a solid moral foundation. It means throwing in your lot with a community, adopting its view of history as your own. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it means choosing a bloody side.

Living with the implications of that choice isn’t always easy. Chesterton beating up on orientals on Rosary Sunday is kids’ stuff. Far more bracing is getting to know people who see 13th-century Europe as the apogee of civilization, the Society of St. Pius X as the guardian of Catholic authenticity, Joe Sobran as a misunderstood and maligned genius, and Hitler as…well, not a nice guy, by any means, but a damn sight better than Stalin. If these people seemed to dislike Jews or subscribe to negative stereotypes regarding them, that would make everything very neat and very easy. But as far as I can tell, most don’t. They simply root for the Church’s interests to win out over the Jews’, without apology or hesitation, whenever the two appear to come into conflict.

Fortunately, this orientation is too vague to have been defined infallibly, but it makes sense. Though I can’t quite pretend to find it appetizing, coming to recognize its logic has forced me to stretch myself intellectually. So has recognizing that the people who hold to it are, through the sacrament of Baptism, my real peeps now. Once my viscera catch up with my brain, I’ll no longer fear running into them on Good Friday, after they’ve been hitting the plum brandy, and getting my throat slit for my troubles.

But choosing a single faith doesn’t mean smothering any sense of affinity with others. It needn’t mean rewriting personal or family histories. Simcha Fisher, another Patheos blogger, has called herself a Hebrew Catholic. If I’m getting this right, she and her family converted from Judaism when she was very young and continued observing those Jewish customs that are congruent with Catholicism. As she writes: “All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder.” She went on to earn a Bachelors in literature from St. Thomas More College, and uses it to defend the Catholic faith. (For the record, she has, as of this writing, borne nine kids, an accomplishment that would earn the same plaudits on Mea Shearim as it would in Ave Maria, Florida.)

As for me, well, my patrilineal descent has always complicated my relationship with Jewish tradition, especially where it relates to questions of Jewish personhood. “Fraternal” doesn’t always mean “harmonious,” as Abel and Joseph would readily attest. Becoming Catholic has helped me exorcize the bitterness I’d sometimes felt over being a bar sinister who could never become a bar mitzvah. “Hah! Big shots!” I now get to say. “Full-fledged member of a royal priesthood and the people Israel right here!” Nostra Aetate describes the gentiles as “wild shoots” grafted onto the well-watered Jewish olive tree. Disraeli would have had my mother’s family swinging from trees — probably after nipping at the Jameson’s — so I consider the Council’s view a step forward.

On the surface, being raised interfaith and remaining so after the Katz Miller fashion would seem to offer some of the same opportunities for intellectual enrichment and identity-resolution. There’s nothing wrong with either goal, provided neither is the end all-be all. But it sounds to me like that’s exactly what they are here. Nowhere in Katz Miller’s program do I see any space reserved for surrender, and without surrender, is faith even faith? One respondent to her survey predicts his affiliation “will probably always be changing, evolving, discovering, diving in, easing out, going up, going down, spinning around, running around, sitting down, and last but not least, floating.”

It should be pointed out that this came from a 14-year-old, whose views may well mature along with the rest of him. But in the absence of longitudinal data (and, for that matter, a control group of kids raised single-faith), I’ll say this sounds like a bad trip, man. I’d urge coming down with all deliberate speed.

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