In one of her Boston College courses, Rabbi Ruth Langer traces anti-Judaism through Christian texts. "My students are shocked to hear the kind of language that appears in earlier texts," says Langer, associate professor of Jewish studies and the associate director of Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. "They don't know these traditions of pre-Vatican II thinking."
Her students' shock demonstrates the two sides of Catholic-Jewish relations today. On one hand, "there's been a seismic shift in the Christian world" in the attitude toward Judaism since the Second Vatican Council, Langer says.
On the other hand, many aren't aware of the legacy of anti-Semitism. History can help Catholics understand the recent controversies between Catholics and Jews, such as the outcry after Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop from the Society of St. Pius X.
Between such missteps and a lack of progress at the theological level, it could be easy to be pessimistic about Jewish-Catholic relations. Still, Langer says it's her service as a rabbi to teach Boston College students about Judaism.
Langer, who spoke with U.S. CATHOLIC soon after Benedict's trip to the Holy Land in May, likes to see Judaism and Catholicism as siblings who don't always get along. "They like each other more and more, hopefully, as they get older, and there's a sense of shared roots and parallel growth."
Coming off Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Holy Land in May, what's the status of Jewish-Catholic relations?
You have to look at the broader scene of the last two or three years. There's been a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings. First Pope Benedict extended permission to use the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, which includes a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews. This year he lifted the excommunication of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who denies that 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah (Holocaust).
Then the pope goes to Israel as part of a very complex pilgrimage. During that week he obviously visited Catholic sites. He visited Jordan. He visited Israel proper, which is not insignificant at all, and he visited a refugee camp in the West Bank as well as the separation barrier that runs through it.
In the context of all of this there was a bit of suspicion built up: Does Pope Benedict really stand behind Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the church's relationship with non-Christian religions, and the subsequent documents? Is he willing to go beyond superficial reconciliation between Catholics and Jews?
What do you mean by superficial reconciliation?
To give an example from a few years back, while discussing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (Icon Productions) with Boston College students, the term anti-Semitic was used. I had students who said, "I resent this conversation. You are accusing me of being anti-Semitic. I know that anti-Semitism is a sin. I am not an anti-Semite."
It became clear in the course of the conversation that the students didn't know what anti-Semitism is. The superficial reconciliation is "I know that I'm not supposed to say nasty things about Jews."
In the Middle Ages, Passion plays were often performed on Good Friday and were accompanied by rioting against the local Jews. There was a history of seeing this kind of play and then taking action based on it. Gibson's movie was, in effect, a big-screen Passion play.
The students might not know that much about theology, and they can't begin to assess when something could lead to anti-Semitism, let alone is anti-Semitism within the heritage of almost 2,000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. The serious theological problem of anti-Semitism gets blurred over with, "I know so-and-so who's a Jew, so Jews are okay."
What is anti-Semitism and how is it different from anti-Judaism? …