By Michael Deschamps.
The Roman Catholic Church is an institution with nearly two thousand years of history. As far as religious institutions go, it is rather unparalleled; most religions have survived through the centuries through their followers but the institutions surrounded them have long ago crumbled.
As such, the church carries a great deal of contradiction as it juxtaposes itself against the centuries of history that it carries. Naomi Klein noted in her article in The New Yorker about her invitation to the Vatican that it seemed as if Francis and many in his realm were pushing toward a “new theology” with ecology and stewardship of the world at the forefront. All of this would be unsurprising if it came from a newer, obscure Christian sect but an absurd clash does seem apparent as Francis walks around in the robes and attire of medieval times while talking so boldly and prophetically.
Of the many burdens that Francis carries as the leader of such an ancient institution is anti-Semitism. The Catholic Church was not only a major force for anti-Semitism, it’s entirely possible there’d be no anti-Semitism without it, or at least not on the level that it grew toward.
In his book The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, Garry Wills writes that “that the Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant, was for so long anti-Semitic is a tragic absurdity. The church in all its branches was and is itself Semitic. Its sources and forms were and are Jewish.”
Jesus clearly was a Jew—“King of the Jews.” He chose twelve disciples to judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He talked about Jews as a collective that he belonged to as evidenced in John 4:22, “You Samaritans worship what you do not understand; but we [Jews] worship what we do understand, since Rescue is from the Jews.” Paul, likewise, cites himself as a Jew multiple times in Romans and cited the mission of Christ as admitting non-Jews in to the privileges of the chosen people.
The reinforcement of anti-Semitism came over millennia. The medieval church reiterated the idea of Jews as Christ-killers and many in the church played a role in segregating the Jewish population, which had become dispersed throughout Europe as a result of the Roman empire. Karl Adam, a prominent theologian during the 1930s, adored Hitler; Wills cites his influence as the Christian reinforcement of Nazi ideology, which was largely rooted in eugenics and racialism but did adopt and utilize old anti-semitic stereotypes and hatred. Jews had been an “other” in Europe for so long that it didn’t take much to include them in Nazi racialism. Despite that, Nazism was an entity unto itself with a truly evil ideology, one that used whatever ideas it could for its own ends.
This is a long legacy and one that Pope Francis is very well aware of. Francis has been quoted as saying, “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which [the Jews] have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.”
Francis is not just talking hollow words; he has a noted and fruitful relationship with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Sorka, with whom he authored On Heaven And Earth. That book operated as a host for many complex, sensitive subjects ranging from geopolitics to the Holocaust. Skorka is known for issuing statements just as bold and controversial as those of Francis, such as when he proclaimed that Jews are “too focused on past tragedies.”
Nathan Guttman, with the Jewish Daily Forward, said “that through official statements and in his personal gestures” many Jews have come to think well of Francis due to his “strong stance against anti-Semitism” and “his more flexible approach to some social and political issues on which most Jews take a liberal stand.”
Francis’s trip to the United States coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christians that was released by the Second Vatican Council. That document officially rejected “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Francis, in many ways, has been what Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate (and a Jew himself), called him—“a miracle for humanity.” His interfaith gestures have not ended with Judaism; he prayed in a mosque in Istanbul, with his head bowed toward Mecca, and he made a visit to a Buddhist temple while in Sri Lanka. These are the kind of acts of surprising respect that can take the air out of resentment and distrust.
His encyclical Laudato Si addressed global warming within the context of moral dimensions in a unique way, and his criticism of unrestrained capitalism has had no small part in spurring unapologetic left wing movements throughout the developed world. Many of the softer, more liberal elements of Francis’s message had been in the Catholic canon for some time but Francis gave them far more emphasis and weight than any of his predecessors. Interfaith work is a proven means of coalition building and healing in this wounded world. As Francis visits our country, we should honor him for his bold efforts in building partnerships across religious lines.
Michael Deschamps is a professional author and contributor to journals such as Tikkun, Truthout, and the Hampton Institute. He is currently preparing a book for publication with the Hampton Institute. He lives in Seattle, Washington.