CONTENT WARNING: RACIST AND ANTI-SEMITIC TROPES AND LANGUAGE.
Hope In Fools
Dr. Janet E. Smith recently announced her decision to withdraw from the Hope Is Fuel conference. Hope Is Fuel was put together by Patrick Coffin, a professional apologist formerly associated with Catholic Answers (and, as of the last few years, a public sedevacantist1). Dr. Smith is a respected conservative theologian, with a specialty in bioethical issues, particularly contraception. Other speakers slated for the conference included—and to my knowledge still include—Christopher West, Abby Johnson, Peter Kwasniewski, and Tim and Stephanie Gordon.2 Others have withdrawn, many of them for the same reason cited by Dr. Smith: the presence on the list of speakers of E. Michael Jones, a prolific author, right-wing commentator, and notorious anti-Semite.
To be clear, this is not merely my personal opinion of Jones. He has said himself that “every Christian, insofar as he is a Christian, must be anti-Jewish”; he is brimful of Elders-of-Zion3 style conspiracy theories about the Jewish people, and habitually associates with other anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Of course, like most anti-Semites, Jones is eager to split hairs, e.g. to explain that anti-Jewish is different from anti-Semitic—which is technically correct (the best kind of correct); indeed, the martyrdom of St. Edith Stein hinged upon the distinction4; I hope that it keeps Mr. Jones “warmed and filled.”
Excursus on the Children of Israel
Let’s ignore every other reason that anti-Semitism (no matter what name it prefers to parade itself under) is a vile, ridiculous, puerile assault on anything that can meaningfully be called Christian doctrine—and on top of that, ignore the Satanic monstrosities that have been perpetrated in living memory on its behalf. I would still point out that St. Paul states categorically in Romans 11 that “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew … as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” Moreover, he draws the timely conclusion: “Do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”
Christianity does involve the thesis that, insofar as Judaism includes the belief “Christianity is false,” it is to that extent incorrect. (Logic is a harsh mistress.) Strictly speaking, a Christian does not have to believe there is anything else about Judaism as a faith to take issue with—still less, about the Jews as a people.
Conversely, a Christian must insist that Judaism is substantially correct about a vast proportion of its claims: that there is one God, that he is the God of Israel, that he gave Israel the Torah, and that he promised them a Messiah, just to start with. Christianity in any form (and, I’d argue, Catholic Christianity especially, given the Biblical background to offices like the Theotokos and the papacy5) is sheer nonsense otherwise. “The root supports you.”
To be clear, this isn’t me trying to get the Church a pass for her actual history. Christians as a group have been a major force behind anti-Semitism (indeed, almost certainly the single largest—the only reason I say “almost” is that I don’t know exactly how to weigh the badness of modern non-religious anti-Semitism, which definitely killed more people, against the badness of historical religious anti-Semitism, which definitely shaped and contributed to the non-religious kind). This is especially true about the Catholic Church. And yes, we have done so from beneath the cloak of religious pretexts. But no matter how we have rationalized it, it was and remains sin—and a peculiarly disgusting, nonsensical sin. The fact that lots of people have endorsed nonsense over the centuries doesn’t make it stop being nonsense. Anyone who raises violent hands against the Jewish people, or encourages others to do so, commits sacrilege against God and the Mother of God.
A Catholic Answers
I am naturally pleased to hear that Dr. Smith and the others who have withdrawn from Hope Is Fuel find Jones’ beliefs objectionable! She and they have made the right decision. I applaud them for that.
Unfortunately, and despite that good outcome, the piece she wrote and published via Crisis Magazine is a study in the self-inflicted blindness of so many Christians in this country about anti-Semitism, and racism more generally. I’ve therefore decided to fisk the piece (which can be found here).
I feel a little bit bad doing this, because she seems like a genuinely nice person. But nice doesn’t cut it, not when people’s lives and safety are at stake—and when we’re talking about an ideology like Jones’, especially in a political environment like this one, and especially with an institutional history like the Catholic Church has, I don’t believe the danger of violence is far off. (It’s remarkable how utterly people seem to have memory-holed things like Pulse, Charlottesville, and the January 6 riots.) Let’s get to it.
I want to be as fair as possible to E. Michael Jones (who does unearth some amazing historical facts unknown to many of us) and Patrick Coffin (who is a wonderful interviewer and hosts important conferences). After all, the term “antisemitic” can be as problematic as the term “the Jews” which causes so much trouble.
Uh … what? “The term anti-Semitic can be as problematic as the term the Jews“? Excuse you, Dr. Smith?
Just to highlight what is so atrociously wrong with this, let’s play on hard mode: I won’t allude to any history from the year 1933 forward. With that limit in mind, pray point me to the historical period in which anti-Semites were required to wear distinctive clothing, barred from certain trades and professions, or restricted to dwelling in designated parts of cities—when they were permitted to live in that city or indeed country in the first place. In what period did the worst blood libels against anti-Semites take place, accusing them of kidnapping, murdering, and cannibalizing Christian children? And while I admit I can contemplate the thought of a bonfire of anti-Semitic books with immense pleasure, I can’t actually think of a time when such a thing has, you know, happened. Can you?
She may mean something non-obvious by the word “problematic.” Presumably she has in mind the way “anti-Semitic” can be used to smear and discredit people. Even if this is the case, I would consider it grossly unrealistic and in shockingly bad taste. Then again, someone who “want[s] to be as fair as possible to E. Michael Jones” on the grounds that he “does unearth some amazing historical facts unknown to many of us” may possibly have been misled into the belief that accusations of anti-Semitism do commonly bring about social and professional ruin.
A Minor Point
I approached Coffin about Jones and was satisfied with the reasons he gave for inviting him; he did not believe him to be an antisemite. But when some readers of my Facebook posts challenged me to take a closer look, I watched Dr. Michael Brown’s interview of Jones … I certainly may have missed some important statements by Jones and hope I don’t have to make another statement if so; I have already spent too much time on this matter.
I’ll be frank, I don’t love this either. I share Dr. Smith’s exhausted distaste for having to investigate such things, since anti-Semitism should ideally merit nothing more than a rude laugh. But this seems to suggest the issue is too trivial, rather than too despicable, to be worth examining. However, her actions (and the account she gives of them here) speak better of her than that, so perhaps this was only unfortunate wording, or I’m not reading her quite fairly.
F***ing Anti-Semitism, How Does It Work
I do not believe that Jones can be accused of being an antisemite in the sense of hating all Jews and wanting them to be killed, harmed, confined to ghettoes, or discriminated against.
To speak bluntly, I’m not prepared to believe that a man who contentedly and publicly labels himself “anti-Jewish” is being frank with us about everything else he thinks! And how many anti-Semites would qualify as such, under such a restrictive definition? Hell, a favorite well-actually of Nazi whitewashers in the last few years has been that Hitler’s chauffeur was an eighth Jewish—ergo he can’t have been prejudiced against people with Jewish ancestry as such.
Now, as I’ve both said and implied, I don’t trust E. Michael Jones to tell the truth about his views in the first place (not according to a definition that ordinary people would call “the truth,” anyway). If we were holding a trial, that distrust would be of no consequence: the law must operate on strict proof, and we must let go of our reasonable doubts, in order to avoid turning our mere personal feelings into “reason”; that’s the price of the presumption of innocence.
But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a legal fiction. It exists to safeguard the law from injustice masquerading as wisdom—it is not wise in itself. It is superfluous and dreadfully stupid to treat all interactions as if they are trials! Taking people at their word is not always obligatory, and in some cases it isn’t smart.
Excursus on Dante’s Virgil
In the Divine Comedy, Virgil represents, in a word, humanism: intellect, art, philosophy, statecraft, natural good will. He is Dante’s guide through hell; allegorically, this is meant to suggest that even natural reason will show us the evil-ness of evil. But since this is hell—the abode of devils and monsters, as well as the damned—Virgil sometimes needs help. In one famous passage in the Eighth Circle (where sins of Fraud Simple are punished6), Virgil and Dante run all but afoul of a group of demons. One of them is forced by the holy mission Virgil invokes to give the two men directions, and does so; later, while speaking with the damned soul of a hypocrite, it transpires that the demon was lying.
Allegorically (as either Dorothy Sayers or Charles Williams points out, but my books are packed up at the moment and I can’t easily check!), this suggests how humanism, left to itself, has a strong tendency to underestimate and be baffled by the deliberate will to evil. I think that this is very much at work, in the massive un-response of even consciously non-racist Christians to the upsurge of public, explicit racism in this country over the last decade.
Having replied to so little of Dr. Smith’s words, it feels ridiculous—but, having written so much, I must declare this a to be continued …
1For those who may have run across this term without being clear on its meaning, sedevacantism is a type of schism that claims the current pope is not genuine, and that the office is therefore vacant (in Latin, sede vacante). Sedevacantists are sometimes nicknamed “sedes.” Exactly why a given person or group disputes the legitimacy of a given pope varies. Until last year, some people in revolt against Francis’ papacy—Patrick Coffin, for instance—were able to pretend that they were not sedevacantists, by arguing that Benedict’s abdication was invalid; his death naturally closed this loophole.
2Christopher West is one of several popularizers of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He has been criticized in some quarters for giving the work an unduly sexual interpretation, and has remote ties (largely through the Courage Apostolate) to the discredited and abusive practice of ex-gay conversion therapy.
Abby Johnson is a former Planned Parenthood employee who became a pro-life activist and a Catholic. Her memoir, Unplanned, has been challenged by investigative journalists as containing inaccuracies and possible fabrications. She denounced the vaccines against COVID-19, and stated in a YouTube video (since deleted) that racial profiling on the part of police was “smart,” using her own mixed-race adoptive child as an example.
Peter Kwasniewski is a Catholic author and composer. He is known for his promotion of the book In Sinu Jesu; this book came out of Silverstream Priory, which shortly thereafter became embroiled in controversy over accusations of severe spiritual abuses on the part of its founder.
Tim Gordon is another Catholic Answers alumnus. He and his wife Stephanie have moved in a decidedly right-wing direction since the mid-2010s: they have published such titles as The Case for Patriarchy and Ask Your Husband (the latter of which was withdrawn by the publisher due to a charge of plagiarism from Tim’s brother).
3The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a standard work of twentieth-century anti-Semitism. Composed in Russia shortly after 1900, it spread throughout Europe and the Americas over the next two decades; despite being promptly debunked in the early 1920s, it was highly influential in the Third Reich.
4To pacify churches, Nazi leaders sometimes compromised on deportation orders by sparing Jewish Christians. In 1942, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference released a statement condemning Nazi racism; the occupiers retaliated by rounding up the Jewish Christians that had been hitherto let alone. Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, German Jews who had converted to Catholicism and become Carmelite nuns, were among those deported. (Edith is the better known of the two, both due to her academic career and to her somewhat controversial cause for canonization, which reached its completion in 1998.) About a week later, they were gassed at Auschwitz.
5The notion that the Theotokos is an intercessor and advocate for all the faithful before God echoes the role accorded to the queen in the Ancient Near East. The queen in these realms was usually the dowager, rather than a wife of the king. Queens were therefore ideally placed to hear petitions from the people: less august than the king, but with fairly free access to him. We see Bathsheba playing exactly this role with Solomon—albeit without success—in I Kings 2.13-25. Esther’s role in the book bearing her name is similar, though in a Persian idiom (where the queen is a “chief wife”); indeed, to the extent that “all the things in the Scriptures” concern Christ, Esther seems to me to be a clearly Mariological book.
The Petrine office of “chief steward” in the king’s absence is also a familiar feature of courts from the Ancient Near East. In particular, the text of Matthew 16.13-16 (the famous on this rock passage) alludes to Isaiah 22.15-25, which is a warning addressed to one Shebna, then the keeper of the royal treasury of Judah.
6Fraud Simple means those sins which prey upon the good faith of humanity in general. This contrasts with Treachery, the sin punished in the Ninth Circle: this preys upon those who have special reason to trust the traitor, and whom the traitor has a special duty to cherish and protect.