Philosemitism under a Darkening Sky: Judaism in the French Catholic Revival (1900-45)

Article excerpt

The work of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), Léon Bloy (1846-1917), and especially Raïssa Maritain (1883-1960) provides insight regarding the relationship between French Jews and Catholics in the early-twentieth century. The author argues that these writers sought an alternative to both the secular laïcité respect for Jews that depended on suppressing Jewish particularity as a prelude to citizenship and the classic Christian contempt of Judaism. They created a highly aesthetic and imaginative philosemitic alternative that advocated the unity between Jews and Christians, and occasionally supported resistance to antisemitism. Yet these thinkers also employed essentialized images, emphasizing Jewish suffering and advocated, in some cases, conversions to Christianity.

Keywords: Bloy, Léon; French Catholic Revival; Jewish-Catholic relations; Maritain, Raïssa; Péguy, Charles

In May 1925, the German Jewish writer Joseph Roth wrote a rapturous letter from Paris to his editor and friend, Benno Reifenberg, in Germany "Here," he wrote,"Catholicism is at its worldliest." He explained in an essay, "Catholicism is a cosmopolitan religion that embraces all peoples." In particular, Roth assured Reifenberg, Parisian Catholicism was nothing less than a "European expression of universal Jewishness."1 Roth did not convert, but spent much of his life pursuing the realization of Jewish-Catholic cosmopolitan religiosity. As his biographer put it, he held a deeply desired equation-"Catholicism ~ Judaism." For Roth, this strange and vague formula did not erase the traditions' differences entirely, as evidenced by the arrangement of not one, but two, funerals for himself-one Catholic, one Jewish.2

Roth was one among many Jewish émigrés who had become deeply attracted to Catholic Christianity while living in France in the interwar period. Even before the interbellum years, the Catholic Church had experienced an unprecedented revival in Paris, where Roth had been on assignment.3 If Jews saw something universal, or even Jewish, in Catholicism, French Catholics themselves began thinking anew about Judaism in these years. Charles Péguy contended that Jews force Catholics to look "inside themselves" and discover what they are missing, and mused on the tenuous bond between members of the two faiths: "So similar, so different; such enemies, such friends; such strangers, so much penetrated by one another, so intertwined; so allied and so loyal; so opposite and so conjoined."4 Jews and Catholics alike articulated a cautiously optimistic, if ambivalent, desire to make sense of one another in new ways.

This essay examines how these early-twentieth-century experiments in Paris prepared the way for transformations within the Catholic theological imagination. The Shoah is often seen as the terrible, shameful catalyst for Christian revisions of the theology of contempt for Judaism, which partially bore fruit with the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate (1965). But the French intellectuals associated with the Catholic revival pursued a new understanding of Jews and Judaism not after the Holocaust, but at a much earlier point in the twentieth century. This community's passionate and occasionally astonishing writings reflected not only on the symbolic representation of the people of Israel in theology but also on the historical situation of persecuted Jews in the twentieth century, particularly during the Alfred Dreyfus affair (1894-1901), during the antisemitism of the 1930s, and during the Shoah. Furthermore, Nostra Aetate did not, and perhaps could not, capture the experimental and far-reaching character of these explorations in the French context, asserting not just tolerance but a kind of unity between the two traditions. It is this radicalism-and, of course, the ambivalence-of such assertions that is explored in this essay.

In doing so, John Connelly's recent, extraordinary analysis is extended; as Connelly notes, without the pivotal figures from Germany and Austria, "The Catholic Church would never have 'thought its way' out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism. …