World history is the history of Israel, argued the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig – not the tiny Jewish nation as such, but the Jewish idea, embraced by billions in the form of Christianity, or parodied and rejected by additional billions in Islam. The trouble is that no one wants to actually be Israel, least of all the Jews, who recite with fervor the prayer of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye: “God of mercy, choose a different people!” Jealousy at Israel’s Election has provoked the persecution of the Jews for millennia, and it is not surprising that many Jews look for safety in insignificance.
Like many Jewish prayers, Tevye’s prayer to be un-chosen also has become popular among some Catholics. The Catholic Church holds itself to be Israel, the People of God descended from Abraham in the Spirit. But many Catholics, including some in leading positions in the Roman Curia, think it an affront to the sensibilities of other cultures to insist on the unique role of the Church. At the other extreme , misnamed traditionalists do not think that the mustard seed of faith is sufficient, and that the Church cannot fulfill its function without returning to the bygone days of state religion. Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has fought manfully against these prospective deserters within his ranks. The tawdry burlesque over the case of the paranoid Jew-hater and Holocaust denier Richard Williamson is a sad gauge of his degree of success.
Benedict’s September 2006 Regensburg address established him as the only leader of the West able to defend the spiritual foundations that distinguish the West from the Islamic world. Since then he has been under continuous fire from defeatists inside and outside the Church. The Regensburg speech offered the prospect of a great papacy (Please see Jihad, the Lord’s Supper, and eternal life, September 19, 2006); the Williamson affair diminishes that hope. If the Vatican retreats from its role as the moral citadel of the West, the consequences will be tragic.
Bad governance and worse public relations explain why a philo-Semitic Pope was pilloried for lifting the excommunication of a schismatic bishop notorious for his lurid hatred of Jews. Twenty years of negotiation prepared a cautious first step towards reconciliation of four bishops of the Society of Pius X, founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. L’Espresso’s veteran Vatican reporter Sandro Magister posted a complete account of the events on February 4 entitled “Double Disaster at the Vatican.”  Concludes Magister, “It is possible that some [officials of the Roman Curia] deliberately oppose this pontificate. It is certain that most of them simply do not understand it, do not measure up to it.”
The Pope responded by reaffirming his support for the Jews, “our brothers of the First Covenant,” and with an admission that he was not informed about Williamson’s lurid anti-Semitism, although it had been a matter of public record for years, and Magister is justified to suggest that the failure to inform the pontiff betrays a malicious intent. Benedict’s enemies inside the Church will wait for additional opportunities to harm his papacy, if they are allowed them. The leaders of the Italian Jewish community contributed incidentally to the disaster, on which more below.
For a millennium and a half, from the conversion of Constantine to the unification of Italy, the Pope reigned not only as a spiritual leader, but also as the monarch of a substantial swath of territory. The central issue to be affirmed at the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, was the abandonment of Christianity as a state religion in favor of a religion of personal conscience.
The “traditionalist” enemies of Vatican II whom the Pope hoped to reconcile stem from a dark corner of European politics, as George Weigel reported in a January 26 Newsweek column . Weigel notes, “[Archbishop] Lefebvre was also a man formed by the bitter hatreds that defined the battle lines in French society and culture from the French Revolution to the Vichy regime. Thus his deepest animosities at the council were reserved for another of Vatican Council II’s reforms: the council’s declaration that ‘the human person has a right to religious freedom’, which implied that coercive state power ought not be put behind the truth-claims of the Catholic Church or any other religious body.”
That is the lost world of “throne and altar” conservatism, the arrangement whereby the Vatican in effect delegated power to the Catholic dynasties of Europe. The term “traditionalist” is entirely misleading, however. France emerged as the dominant European power at the end of the terrible Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, and overthrew Europe’s ancient political order, founded on a universal Christian Empire and a universal Catholic Church. In response, the Vatican reluctantly ceded authority to Catholic monarchs, as Professor Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa has shown . Inevitably, this concession by the Vatican led to nationalist churches, what Hittinger has called “the churches of earthly power” . The Vatican’s response to 1648 contributed to Europe’s descent into nationalism and world war.
Because Archbishop Lefebvre had the Apostolic authority to create other bishops, his four schismatic followers to whom Benedict offered communion in the Church (but not episcopal function) remain bishops, under Canon law. The small Lefebvrist movement is a schism, a wound in the Church that the pontiff must attempt to heal. It complicates matters that Benedict XVI agrees with the Lefebvrists that Vatican II was wrong to remove the Latin mass in favor of a vernacular liturgy. As a universal language spoken by no particular people, Latin embodies the universalism of the Church. By allowing any congregation to return to the Latin mass, Benedict has offered a remedy.
Even though the Lefebvrist association repudiated Bishop Williamson’s anti-Semitism, it is no accident that a paranoid anti-Semite would turn up in their ranks rather than in the Catholic mainstream. Throne-and-altar conservatism embodied some profoundly unpleasant elements, including clergy who supported the pro-German Vichy regime in France, as well as some who supported Adolf Hitler.
The “left” of the Catholic Church agrees in principle with the Lefebvrists that the Catholic Church cannot fulfill its role as the Israel of the Spirit without the apparatus of state power to enforce its social position. Unlike the Lefebvrists, the left of the Church is not caught up in nostalgia for the Catholic past. It is modern, multicultural, open-minded and non-judgmental. It simply isn’t particularly Catholic.
Benedict XVI horrifies the Catholic left. As I reported in June 2008 in The pope, the president and politics of faith, a leading Jesuit Islamologist denounced the Pope in the Order’s Italian-language monthly Popoli for receiving into the Church the Italian journalist Magdi Allam at the Easter Vigil last year. The Curia was aghast at the Pope’s September 2006 criticisms of Islam at Regensburg. But the issue that separates the sheep and the goats inside the Curia is the Jewish issue.
Most of the Curia looks at the State of Israel as a gross inconvenience at best, and as a stumbling-block at worst. The leftist sentiments of the Curia play out in theology: the Catholic left and right never accepted the affirmation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that God’s covenant with the Jewish people never was revoked. Benedict XVI is the most prominent opponent of substitution theology in the Church, and his nuanced and sympathetic understanding of Jewish theology is evident in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth.
As Sandro Magister reports, “In the Catholic camp, not everyone accepts the road marked out by Ratzinger in dialogue with Judaism. It is opposed by the so-called ‘theology of substitution’, both in its ‘left-wing’ pro-Palestinian versions, and in its traditionalist ‘right-wing’ versions. According to this theology, the covenant with Israel has been revoked by God, and only the Church is the new chosen people. For some, this view amounts to a substantial rejection of the Old Testament.” The misnomered “traditionalist”right does not want a People of God, that is, a congregation, but rather the restoration of Catholic theocracy; the left wants a multicultural stew rather than a unified People of God. In a perverse sort of coincidentia oppositorum, the two extremes join in their hatred of the Jews.
Even before the ill-informed decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Williamson, Catholic-Jewish relations were at risk. Cardinal Renato Martino, a prominent Vatican left-winger who heads the Council for Justice and Peace, compared conditions in Gaza during last January’s Israeli incursion to a concentration camp, drawing a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the State of Israel. Although the Vatican quickly repudiated Martino’s outburst, the sting remained.
But the gravest blow to Catholic-Jewish relations before the Williamson incident came from the Italian association of rabbis, who suspended the annual day of talks with their Catholic counterparts in protest over the Pro Judaeis prayer in the new version of the Church’s Latin Easter Liturgy. It prays for the Jews, asking that “God our Lord should illuminate their hearts, so that they will recognize Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” The Jews have the longest memory among the peoples of the world, and scarred into that memory are forced conversions by Christians over the centuries.
Writing in the Jesuits’ Italian-language monthly Popoli, the Chief Rabbi of Venice, Elia Enrico Richetti, had this to say (my translation):
This has been the more or less official response (a response from the Conference of Bishops is lacking): the Jews have nothing to fear, the hope expressed in the prayer “Pro Judaeis” is “purely eschatological,” a hope for the End Times, and not an invitation to active proselytism (which already was forbidden by Paul VI). This response has not satisfied the Italian Rabbinate. If I insist, even in a purely eschatological tone, that my neighbor would have to become like me to be worthy of salvation, I am not respecting his identity. It is not a matter, therefore, of hypersensitivity; it is a matter of the most banal sense of respect owed to the other person as a creature of God.
The late Abba Eban quipped that the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. From the Jewish standpoint, the Pro Judaeis offers an unprecedented opportunity, which the Jews have missed. As the head of the Vatican commission for relations with the Jews, Walter Cardinal Kasper, explained, the prayer reflects an eschatological hope for the unity of Israel – the Israel of the flesh and the Israel of the Spirit – in the End Times, not a call for the conversion of today’s Jews.
The indicated Jewish riposte would be to observe that the inclusion of the prayer in the Easter liturgy acknowledges that the Jews of today still are the Israel of the Bible – precisely what the “traditionalist” troglodytes and the pro-Palestinian left refuse to acknowledge. Although John Paul II and Benedict XVI hold this position, it never has been incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the ultimate authority on Catholic doctrine. The Italian rabbis should embrace the prayer, and embrace every opportunity for dialogue, and nag the Church until it amends the Catechism – to the eternal discomfiture of the “substitutionist” theologians of right and left.
Not just obtuseness, but fear prompted the Italian rabbis to step away from dialogue with the Church, as three of Italy’s Jewish leaders explained in a letter to Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, last December 4, under the title, “The Dialogue Should Not Be Anti-Islamic.” The authors write [my translation],
The Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly the dialogue with the Catholic Church, is certainly a most important thing … it is unique and special given and the connection and the long common history of the two faiths; but this, nonetheless, never has been and should not be used as an instrument of the West against Islam … certainly it is necessary to oppose fanatics, but not just ones of Islamic origin! Such an instrumental concept of the dialogue is therefore unacceptable, intellectually, morally and religiously. It should be remembered that relations between Judaism and Islam generally have been more productive and serene than have been relations between Judaism and Christianity … but that’s another story.”
It is true that Jewish relations with Islam in 1492 were better than relations with Christianity, for Spain (and shortly after Portugal) expelled those Jews who refused to convert, and Muslim countries took many of them in. That was a long time ago, and Jews well might ask what the Muslims have done for them lately. One of the three signers of the December 4 letter was Amos Luzzato, a distinguished physician and Jewish scholar, and the scion of one of the great rabbinic families.
Amos Luzzato is not remotely stupid; he has published learned translations and commentaries on The Book of Job and Song of Songs. He is frightened. I wonder how he would render into Italian, “God of mercy, choose another people!”? Alone among the leaders of the Western world, Benedict XVI drew a bright line between Israel – which he understands to be the Catholic Church as well as the physical descendants of Abraham, in some mystical way – and Islam. His Regensburg speech in September 2006 frightened the European Jews more than anyone; after all, the Jews of Europe live in a continent whose Muslim population may become a majority in a hundred years. The Italian Jews have lived there comfortably for centuries; the Luzzato family’s roots in Venice go back to the first half of the 16th century. They do not want to stand with Benedict for the West; they want a deal with the Muslims.
Benedict XVI stands accused of a failure of governance; the leading newsweekly of his native Germany, Der Spiegel, portrayed him in last week’s cover story as “der Entruckte,” literally “the raptured,” with the subtitle, “A German Pope disgraces the Catholic Church.” All of this could have been predicted, Der Spiegel explained, by the Pope’s beastly attitude towards the Muslims:
A conservative lobby has formed around the pope over the years, with considerable influence and abilities to manipulate policy. It includes the members of groups like Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ, the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the SSPX.
When it comes to rapprochement with other religions, they not only delay and debate ad nauseam pending decisions, but they also allow their views to leak to the outside world. One example was the pope’s baptism of a Muslim during the Easter vigil mass in St Peter’s Basilica in 2008. The conservative lay movement “Comunione e Liberazione,” which is highly influential in Italy, orchestrated the baptism.
The demonstrative conversion of a Muslim to Catholicism became an immediate source of indignation among Muslims around the world. Arab dailies wrote that the water that Pope Benedict had poured onto the head of the convert was “like petrol thrown onto the fire of the clash of cultures.” At almost the same time, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden broadcast on the Internet a message critical of the pope, accusing him of playing a key role in a new crusade against Islam.
This comes from the Hamburg liberals who consider the State of Israel a liability, and who now are shocked, shocked to find anti-Semites lurking at the fringes of the Catholic Church. Hell hath no hypocrisy like Hamburg’s.
As Sandro Magister documents, Benedict is more theologian than Rottweiler, despite his reputation, and had delegated too much to subordinates who failed to take charge. But his evident failures of governance must be put in context. The kind of problems that Benedict confronts would tax the social skills of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI.