Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Rare Pope Indeed
By Ken Spiro

From the perspective of the Jewish people Pope Francis is a rare pope indeed.

It would be a huge understatement to say that historically Catholic-Jewish relations haven’t been very good.  It would probably be more accurate to say that the Church is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the horrendous anti-Semitism suffered by European Jewry during the last 2,000 years.

The roots of this tremendous animus go back to the very beginnings of the early church and even earlier.
For two thousand years-from the time of Abraham until the birth of Christianity, Judaism existed alone as the world’s only monotheistic faith. The Jewish people’s unique beliefs and   different lifestyle set them apart from the pagan world and the great classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. The differences led to open hostility toward the Jews and both the Greek and Roman Empires, which occupied ancient Israel, attempted at various times to eradicate Judaism.

Early Christianity began as a splinter sect of mainstream Judaism most-probably sometime in the early 1st century CE. During the second century it continued to evolve and diverge from Judaism, eventually separating completely into a faith that attracted a large number of pagan converts.

Despite numerous attempts by the Roman Empire to eradicate nascent Christianity, in the 4th century CE the Roman emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire. A great leap forward for the spread of monotheism but now traditional Roman animus toward Judaism took on a new theological undertone.
Toward the end of the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire (67-70CE) the Roman legions had burned the Temple in Jerusalem and leveled the city. Centuries later the young Roman Catholic Church put a theological spin on the destruction.  The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple together with the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel was far more than mere- Roman punish for rebellion.  It was divine retribution-The wrath of God.  From the perspective of the church the Jews had rejected Jesus as the messiah and were instrumental in his death.  As punishment for their sins God rejected the Jews, destroyed their temple and caused them to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus.

These unpardonable sins were at the root of the tremendous hostility and suspicion embedded in the collective consciousness of the church and actively spread by the church and the early church fathers to the masses of Christendom.

In the eyes of the church the Jews were perfidious Christ-killers, in league with the devil; poisoners of wells who deliberately spread plagues to destroy Christendom.  They kidnap Christian children and use their blood to bake matzot  (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) while bleeding Christendom dry of  its wealth though their usury, greed and conspiracies.

Church-driven anti-Semitism led to open violence against Jews, especially at the time of the first Crusade as well as constant persecution, punitive taxation, humiliation, ghettoization, expulsions and mass murder.
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment the church’s powerful hold on the masses weakened and anti-Jewish violence in western Europe waned.

 But then came the Holocaust and while Hitler’s attack against the Jews was not specifically theological there is no doubt that he would not have been able to do what he did to European Jewry without building on 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.  At the same time, the role of the war-time Pope Pius XII and his apparent failure to confront the horrors of Nazism remains a dark stain on the history of the church.

Out of the ashes of Auschwitz the State of Israel emerged yet despite the death of 6 million Jews and miraculous re-birth of the Jewish state it took decades for the church to make any major steps in re-evaluating its attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people.

FORGIVENESS-Finally in 1965 the first bold move came at the end of Pope Paul VI’s tenure.  It is known as Vatican II and the document makes three very significant statements about the Jewish people:

-Only a few Jews were involved in the plot to kill Jesus

-No Jew alive today can be held responsible for Jesus’s death

-That the Jews are not rejected by God

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. …Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.  Vatican II –Nostra Aetate

After two thousand years the church was finally able to forgive the Jews for something they never did in the first place.

ACCEPTANCE-The next major step came from Pope John Paul II in 2000 and it was even more significant.  He established diplomatic relations with Israel and visited the country even praying at the Western Wall.  If God had allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and re-unified Jerusalem maybe He hadn't rejected them after all.  This represented a huge shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism.

RECONCILIATION AND LEGITIMIZATION-Pope Francis is proving to be quite a maverick.  He eschews much of the formality and pomp of his office while working hard to rejuvenate the church and reconcile the church not only with modernity but also with other faiths.

Based on past statements made by Francis it could well be argued that he will bring about the greatest shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism in 2,000 years:

We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God was never revoked….With them we believe in one God who acts in history and with them we accept his revealed word.                                                   Pope Francis- Evangelli Gaudium 2013

The notion that the Jewish people’ covenant with God remains intact is truly a radical break with classic Catholic theology and reminiscent of statement made by dual-covenant, pro-Israel, evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee.

This new perspective will hopefully lead to a significant re-evaluation and improvement of the relationship between the Catholicism and Judaism, Catholics and Jews and the Vatican and the State of Israel.

Since the church of Saint Peter was established almost 2,000 years ago there have only been three popes out of 266 brave enough to make significant changes in the relationship between the worlds’ largest faith and one of the smallest.  Let us hope that trend continues. 

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