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.