“Any time a new pope is named, the Jewish community regards him with skepticism” wrote staff writer Marc Tracy in the New Republic recently. In summing up the achievements of the two previous heads of the Catholic Church, Tracy noted that both had affirmed that antisemitism is incompatible with Christianity and that the State of Israel has legitimacy.
Jews hope that the next incumbent will continue in the same vein. There were concerns about the cardinal from Honduras who was one of the frontrunners for the job. Canadian journalist Christine Williams wrote about him that “this outspoken antisemite reportedly blamed the Jews for deflecting attention away from ‘Israeli injustices against the Palestinians’ by arranging for the media to give undue attention to the Catholic sex abuse scandal.”
Therefore, the election of Pope Francis was greeted with relief and enthusiasm throughout the Jewish world. Already the day after the announcement, a photograph was circulated showing the new Pope celebrating Chanukah in Buenos Aires, where he had been archbishop.
It was also reported that he visited another synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and that he hosted a memorial event on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. And he had shown solidarity with the Jewish community after the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. In his forward to a book by prominent Argentine rabbi Sergio Bergman, he described the author as “one of my teachers.”
The news media cited Jewish interfaith activists praising the new Pope. Thus Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee described him as a “warm and sweet and modest man.” Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed their enthusiasm in superlatives. The headline of a large article in Israel’s leading daily Ha’aretz read: “Francis is good for the Jews.”
As soon as he was appointed, the new Pope invited the Chief Rabbi of Rome to his inaugural mass at the Vatican and wrote: “I sincerely hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council.” Israeli President Shimon Peres hastened to invite the new Pope to Israel, stating that Vatican-Jewish relations are “now at their best in the last 2,000 years.”
The suggestion that Pope Francis may not have done enough to protect the more than 30,000 victims of Argentina’s Dirty War between 1976 and 1983, when he was a prominent church leader in his country, were vehemently denied by a Vatican spokesperson. In the Pope’s defence, he stated that “there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from military dictatorship.”
But as much as Pope Francis may have reached out to Jews, it’s nevertheless legitimate to ask about the attitude of the Catholic Church he now heads to Judaism.
Though the charge of Jewish deicide has been dropped, and the traditional teaching that Christianity has superseded Judaism and thus rendered it irrelevant, even harmful, is no longer openly promulgated, the limits of the relationship between the Catholic – i.e., universal and comprehensive – religion and the faith of Israel can probably never be viewed by the former as symmetrical.
One of the most prominent theologians of interfaith dialogue, the late Krister Stendahl, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School and Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, wrote in a celebrated essay on religious pluralism that “universalism is the ultimate arrogance in the realm of religion” because it’s “by definition and unavoidably spiritual colonialism, spiritual imperialism.”
In Rev. Stendhal’s view, true interfaith understanding must affirm that “in the eyes of God, we are all minorities.” Those who claim “catholic” universal truth may choose to be tolerant of others, but that’s not enough. Tolerance, he wrote, has by its very nature “an elitist lining,” either because the other doesn’t matter too much or out of civil noblesse oblige.
The likelihood of the Vatican telling its 1.3 billion adherents that they’re in any sense a minority is difficult to imagine. Therefore, as much as we’ve reason to applaud the positive statements by the new Pope, we cannot forget that he heads a curia that – unlike the many liberal Catholic individuals and groups it has been my privilege to know and work with – may regard Judaism as inferior.
Therefore, even allowing for good intentions, potential claims of domination still make true co-operation with the Vatican problematic.