Michael Signer, the Pope and the Jews

Last week, after a long battle with cancer, Professor Michael Signer of the University of Notre Dame passed on. With him died a very special sensibility. In Jewish-Catholic relations, Michael was a catalyst drawing the best from both sides. For nearly 20 years I have participated in the national Catholic-Reform /Conservative/Reconstructionist Jewish dialogue. I recall the two or three years when Michael was an active participant as a time of growth in mutual understanding and esteem. Michael was principally responsible for Dabru Emet, a 2000 statement that, while affirming progress in Catholic-Jewish relations, noted that forward motion had been made possible largely by Christian initiatives. Accordingly, it challenged Jewish interlocutors to undertake similar initiatives.

In 2004, after experiencing disappointment at the mixed Catholic reaction to Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, Michael challenged the Catholic participants in the dialogue to feel the pain Jews felt in what they regarded as the anti-Semitism in the film. Stung by Michael’s challenge, Cardinal William Keeler, the longtime co-chairman of the dialogue, who originally had responded positively to the film, returned to view it with rabbi friends. Then he wrote two columns commenting on the film’s anti-Semitism in The Baltimore Catholic Review. Michael’s impassioned plea prodded me as well to write a piece for Americaon the role of sensitivity to the pains of the other in interreligious dialogue.


Michael Signer was a spur to Jews and Christians alike. Ever a respectful and appreciative interlocutor, he achieved reconciliation-in-depth with a maximum of good feeling. I fear we have lost Michael at just the wrong time. For on many fronts Jewish-Catholic relations are strained.
For example, Italian rabbis are displeased with Pope Benedict XVI for what they see as backing off Pope John Paul II’s commitments to Judaism. To demonstrate their displeasure, they cancelled plans to collaborate with the Italian bishops’ conference in an annual solidarity event observed by the Italian Catholic church January 17. Late last year Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, denounced the pope for blasphemy for saying the late Pope Pius XII was “close to God,” not an inappropriate thing for any Catholic to say of a candidate for beatification. In both cases, the protests seem out of proportion and unnecessarily destructive of achievements in the relationship.
The Italian rabbis walkout aimed its protest particularly at the substitute Latin prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy of the revived Tridentine Mass, which the rabbis still regard as anticipating the eschatological conversion of the Jewish people. Meantime, a storm of protest seems to be brewing across the Jewish world against what Jews perceive as backsliding by Pope Benedict on lasting Catholic commitments to a new relationship. Reports coming across my desk last week identified similar protests in Germany and another is said to be in preparation in Canada.
When it comes to Catholic-Jewish relationships, Pope Benedict had a hard act to follow. A friend to Jews since boyhood, Pope John Paul did more than almost any pope to heal the wounds of two millennia of division. Only Pope John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council and prepared the way for Nostra Aetate, the Council’s declaration on other religions, particularly Judaism, did as much.

John Paul took an especially important theological step in affirming the lasting validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, rejecting “supersessionism,” the notion that the Church replaced (superseded) Israel as object of God’s affection. That move met with approval because it affirmed a special relationship between God and the Jewish people, thereby ending the threat of Jewish envelopment by the dominant Christian world. For some Jews, at least, Benedict’s revision of the Latin prayer has re-awakened the fear of that threat.

The older Good Friday prayer in the Tridentine liturgy bore the title “For the onversion of the Jews.” By replacing that prayer with one that attempted theological precision, asserting the role of Christ in salvation and the eschatological unity of all peoples in God, the latest prayer offended some Jewish sensibilities by downgrading the uniqueness of the covenant and by signaling that perhaps the Vatican had not given up the hope of Jews converting to Christianity. While Jewish scholars like Professor Alan Brill and Rabbi Eugne Korn argue that Jewish liturgy and theology makes quite similar moves, the Italians do not see it that way, and they decided to escalate their discontent into a rupture of relations.

In interfaith relations sensitivity to perceptions is as necessary as theological clarity and fidelity to one’s own tradition. This is even more true in Catholic-Jewish relations where the relationship is especially close because Catholics and Jews share a common religious inheritance. By not responding to Jewish fears about reinstatement of the old Good Friday prayer more promptly and then by substituting a new prayer that in Jewish eyes is at best ambiguous, Benedict has provoked fear that at a minimum the special Catholic-Jewish relationship of the post-Vatican II period is at risk, or worse that the Church’s ultimate purpose remains conversion of the Jewish people to the Catholic church. No explanation seems to allay the sense of offense.

Still Pope Benedict has responded in his own way, offering a replacement for the older Tridentine prayer and promising a change of its title to the post-Vatican II usage “For the Jewish people.” Most of all, he has promised to visit Israel in May, responding to Jewish and Israeli requests and giving up the Vatican’s prime bargaining chip at a time when diplomatic negotiations with the Israelis over financial affairs and implementation of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement are still quite strained.

Unhappily, it may be that Benedict has to deal with more than the legacy of his predecessor. There is the unmeasurable undertow of suspicion of the Catholic Church, resulting in a refusal of reciprocity in the relationship.  Following Vatican II, for example, Catholic textbooks, especially in the United States, were repeatedly revised to provide a just and favorable view of Jews and Judaism. Little comparable movement has taken place in the presentation of Catholicism in Jewish textbooks, whether in Israel or the U.S.. Failure to revive the textbooks means that even some experts on anti-Semitism don’t know about Nostra Aetate and other developments in Catholic-Jewish relations. It also means that the images of persecution, forced conversion, expulsions and the ghetto bode larger than they ought to in the imagination of those Jews not intimately involved in the dialogue.

The signing of the Fundamental Agreement with Israel in 1993 was rightly regarded as a landmark event, but though it has been signed, ratified and published in the government gazette, it has yet to be implemented. The Vatican’s fear and that of agreement’s critics that once Israel received diplomatic recognition nothing else would follow has proved true. Indeed Israeli officials have twice declared in court that it is not legally binding in Israel (for lack of implementing legislation). So blatantly withholding action on the treaty 14 years after its signing suggests deep ambivalence over reciprocity. Clearly the Vatican is not the only party slow to respond to the need of its partner. There is a recurrent reticence about reciprocity in the relationship that should be a cause of concern.

It is a time when both sides would benefit from Michael Signer’s prodding.  Positive initiatives, like Pope Benedict’s plans to visit Israel, are needed on both sides. The positive initiatives Dabru Emet called on Jewish leaders to make a decade ago are still in order today. Likewise, restraint  about escalating worries into complaints, and complaints into protests would help restore mutual confidence; and promptness and thoroughness in responding to the other’s needs would allay fears of backsliding and ill-will. Finally, each side must show sensitivity to the concerns and internal workings of the other, to patiently allow each other some space to negotiate the relationship.

May Michael’s passing be an occasion to take on his spirit and embody the irenic style of engagement which he modeled in his life and scholarship.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

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9 years 12 months ago
Thank you for this. May his soul rest in peace. There is likely some significance of "conversion of the Jews" issue in this papacy. Many have regarded St. Malachy's prediction of Benedict XVI, the Glory of the Olive, to mean this very thing. If His Holiness is self consciously trying to fulfill this portion of the prophesy, the Rabbi's may have some reason for concern.
9 years 12 months ago
Fr. Christiansen's tribute to Rabbi Michael Signer is most welcome and well deserved. I think that if Michael were still with us, though, he would caution Fr. Christiansen that Jewish concerns are not in this case to be taken lightly. There is more to the puzzle of Pope Benedict's intentions toward the Jews than Fr. Christian, understandably, could put in a short article, including statements by leading Cardinals, including Curial cardinals, that might be interpreted as indicating a willingness to tolerate some form of "benign" organized Catholic efforts to convert Jews. History, however, has shown us that no matter how "benign" in their original intentions, such efforts time and time and time again over the centuries slipped into forced conversionism and lead to violence against Jews. I would argue, from my reading of the history of Christian-Jewish relations, that for the conceivable future it is not possible to conceive of any organized effort to convert Jews, including prayers for their conversion, that can be judged to be benign. Pastorally, we need a very long hiatus in any such efforts, and a profound rethinking of our understanding of Jews and Judaism, before we can even begin to talk about renewing such efforts. Dr. Eugene J. Fisher Great Falls, VA 22066
9 years 12 months ago
You have written a very fair-minded article on certain details of concern to many which most of us don't have much of a clue about. Certainly the wording of a prayer in the Tridentine liturgy can have a subtle effect. However, on another scale of meaning, I would regret if Benedict XVI goes to Israel and thus perhaps it would seem he lends legitimacy to the horrific slaughter of the Israeli military in Lebanon and Gaza.
9 years 12 months ago
Having worked with Rabbi Signer, I know he would disagree with some of Fr. Christiansen's efforts to be even-handed in his essay. One example: Re the new Tridentine Good Friday prayer: Fr. Christiansen concludes that "No [Catholic] explanation seems to allay the [Jewish] sense of offense." Which explanation is meant? The pope has offered no explanation. Cardinal Kasper has given an eschatological reading, which has only been ambiguously supported by Cardinal Bertone and contradicted by Cardinals Castrillón Hoyos and Schönborn. At the recent Synod,"Cardinal Vanhoye floated the idea that the Sinai covenant had ended with Christ's coming, though Jews today (somehow) remain in covenant with God. No answer has been given to the basic question: why did the 1970 Good Friday prayer not simply supersede the problematic 1962 prayer in the Tridentine Rite, as many bishops advised? Perhaps it is the lack of clear explanations that causes a "sense of offense." A growing problem in official Catholic-Jewish relations is the deterioration of structures for organized conversation. Something has gone wrong when interlocutors first learn of relevant actions by the other party through media rumors, or when questions get only dismissive or confusing replies, or when agendas at formal meetings are carefully controlled. (As I write this, news is breaking of the lifting of the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops, including a public Holocaust denier. There was no prior briefing of Jewish leaders, who, while obviously having no say over internal Catholic decisions, would be disturbed about this action. Should not basic courtesy be extended to those with whom the Church is committed to genuine fellowship?) This pattern was of great concern to Rabbi Signer, and ought concern everyone committed to Catholic and Jewish rapprochement. Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University Philadelphia
9 years 11 months ago
Part 1: Fr. Drew Christiansen quotes me accurately that "Jewish liturgy also makes similar moves" to the Catholic prayer for the acceptance of Christian faith by Jews. There is no question in my mind that when Jews pray daily, "In that day, the Lord witll be One and His Name One," (Zachariah 14), most Jews understand this vision to preclude any trinitarian concept of God. However, Father Christianson's statement is but a partial truth. There are three critical differences between the Jewish and Catholic liturgical aspirations: Unlike the Catholic text, the Jewish prayer expicitly reserves this aspiration for the eschaton. Second, the text does not single out Catholics (or any Christians) for conversion, but leaves the dream universal and generic. Third and most crucially, however, there is a complete historical asymmetry between the contexts of the two prayers. Jews never embarked on an active policy to convert Christians, while the Church has a long and terrible history of aggressively targeting Jews for conversion--not infrequently through force and violence.It is this toxic and painful history that makes all the difference between the Jewish and Catholic prayers.
9 years 11 months ago
Part 2: The real problem here is not the theology per se, but the practical implications of reviving a prayer that harkens back to the old Christian teaching and behavior of contempt toward Jews and Judaism. Jews have emipircal warrant to fear that the Church in present and the future may revert to its past policies regarding converting Jews. Christians have no warrant for such fear, even in Israel where Jews are the vast majority of the population. If so, most of the Jewish concerns could be assuaged if Pope Benedict would issue a clear and unequivocal statement that the Church has no active policy of converting Jews and that the Church's liturgical aspiration is reserved only for the eschaton. Since the Pope himself is widely known to have sponsored the the return to the Tridentine liturgy and the prayer which still bears the title, "For the Conversion of the Jews," only the Holy Father himself can effectively put these warranted Jewish concerns to rest. Sincerely, Rabbi Eugene Korn American Director, Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation


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