Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 13, 2003
Love our Jewish brethern
Antisemitism slags Christianity’s spirit
By JULIEN HAMMOND
Special to the WCR
On December 15, 1961, the Catholic Star Herald of Camden, New Jersey, printed the following editorial comment:
“As we recall the bitter and black memory of our age, let us recognize the duty to wash away any trace of anti-Semitism in the hearts of the young. A future generation may forget incredible cruelties if we are not at pains to instruct them in love for our Jewish brethren.”
Ironically, almost 41 years to the day after this comment first appeared, Canadians witnessed in the abysmal remarks of a celebrated compatriot, an attack against the Jewish people that seemed to prove the accuracy of this point.
How can we possibly arrive at a future that does not repeat the incredible cruelties of the past if we are not at pains to instruct the next generations in the gospel of love, in this case “in love for our Jewish brethren?”
Troubled by this thought, I spent time over the holidays reviewing the Catholic Church’s recent teachings on antisemitism and found in them cause to hope for a better tomorrow.
From Vatican II to the present, the Holy See has issued in every decade a document concerning the Church’s relationship to the Jewish people in general, and an instruction condemning antisemitism in particular.
The first such document was published in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council, in the form of a Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (more commonly known by its Latin title, Nostra Aetate).
This document reminds us that Christians share a common spiritual heritage with Jews stemming from Abraham, Moses and the prophets, and continuing through Jesus of Nazareth, his Blessed Mother, the Apostles and “most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ to the world.”
Bound to Judaism in this way, the Church shares a special relationship with the Jewish people such that “she deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.” Such insights guide the contemporary relationship between Christians and Jews, and orient the Church’s approach to antisemitism in our own day.
In 1974, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (CRRJ) published Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration “Nostra Aetate” (No. 4). In this document, we read:
“The spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism condemn (as opposed to the very spirit of Christianity) all forms of antisemitism and discrimination, which in any case the dignity of the human person alone would suffice to condemn.”
Here we read a complete rejection of antisemitism using similar but stronger language than that encountered in the previous document. This passage is, I believe, the Church’s strongest statement on the subject of antisemitism.
A third condemnation of antisemitism appeared in 1985 in a document also published by the CRRJ entitled Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.
This text, a guide to catechists and preachers, is quick to warn that there is always a danger in Christian teaching about Judaism for antisemitism “to reappear under different guises.”
Further, the document reports that throughout the Church’s history various forms of antisemitism were permitted to exist in Christian minds because of “a painful ignorance of the history and traditions of Judaism.”
In our own day, we strive to repair this theological breach by encouraging dialogue, mutual study, prayer, and common social action. Through each of these elements, the Church invites us to learn “by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.”
A fourth document, published in 1998 by the same Vatican Commission, reflects on the “Shoah” (a Hebrew word meaning “destruction” used to refer to the event more commonly known to non-Jews as the “Holocaust”).
We Remember: A Reflection on the ‘Shoah’ invites Catholics to meditate on the Shoah as the specific consequence of antisemitism through the ages.
We are called to remember that terrible event, to meditate on its causes and effects, and to “ensure that never again will selfishness and hatred grow to the point of sowing such suffering and death.”
Pope John Paul, in his words and actions toward the Jewish community, has been most direct in guiding the Church along this path of remembrance, repentance and reconciliation throughout his pontificate.
And so, we find ourselves back at the beginning of this article and “at pains,” along with the hierarchy of our Church, to instruct future generations “in love for our Jewish brethren.”
The wording of the Vatican texts is clear, as is their intent to sketch out new directions from the lessons of the past.
It remains for us to study these texts, to incorporate their teachings into our lives, and thus to prevent the kinds of attacks against the Jewish people that ultimately lead to the destruction of Christianity’s spiritual root.
As Catholics, may our love for Christ, who is “our peace,” our shalom, lead us to a greater love for his people, whom Pope John Paul has called respectfully “the people of God of the Old Covenant never revoked by God” (cf. Address to the Jewish Community of West Germany, November 17, 1980)
Julien Hammond is the Director of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations, Archdiocese of Edmonton.