Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Rabbi: Will Painful Tale Find Catholic Reception?

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Rabbi: Will Painful Tale Find Catholic Reception?

Article excerpt

There have been more positive encounters between Roman Catholics and Jews since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 than took place in the previous 19 centuries of the church. The council's historic Nostra Aetate declaration of that year was overwhelmingly adopted by the world's bishops and asserts that the Catholic church "deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."

Nostra Aetate strongly repudiated the infamous deicide or "Christ-killer" charge that some Catholics had hurled against Jews for centuries, and it also called for building "mutual respect" between the two ancient faith communities. The now historic declaration broke the high dam of indifference, suspicion and ignorance that previously existed.

During the past three-and-a-half decades, Nostra Aerate was followed by a blizzard of urgently needed bishops' statements, guidelines, notes, reflections, liturgical reforms a host of other official Catholic pronouncements' and hundreds of interreligious conferences all intended to reverse the long record of malevolent Catholic actions and teachings vis-a-vis Jews and Judaism.

The past century was a wretched one for what is euphemistically called "inter-group relations." It was a 100-year period that tragically included two world wars, fascism, Nazism and communism, atomic and hydrogen bombs, the Holocaust and other acts of brutal genocide. Against that grim record of mass murder and totalitarianism, the inauguration of constructive Catholic-Jewish relations and the attempt by Christian leaders to eradicate the taproots of religious anti-Semitism was a true revolution of the human spirit, and ranks among the 20th century's most positive developments.

This first phase of post Vatican Council relations was capped by Pope John Paul II's trip last March to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. I was in Jerusalem during those days, and vividly remember the pope's dramatic meeting with Israel's leading rabbis and his visits to the Israeli president's residence and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The culminating event was the heartfelt written prayer that John Paul II lovingly placed in a crevice of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on the last day of his visit.

The pope's physical presence and personal piety in Israel dramatically concluded the initial chapter of positive Catholic-Jewish relations that began with Nostra Aetate and ended at the Western Wall. The next chapter requires the full implementation of those positive gains in every Catholic parish, school, seminary and university.

In its own way the poignant prose of James Carroll's new book, Constantine's Sword, represents a kind of closure as well. Like a Middle East archeologist, Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist and former Paulist priest, has dug deeply through layer after layer of historical debris in an anguished and fervent attempt to discover the core of Christian hatred of both Jews and Judaism, a hatred that has permeated and bedeviled the church for centuries. Of course, he did not have to dig too far to locate the basic problem.

In the middle of his lengthy and eloquent work, an exhausted Carroll ruefully concludes that Christian theology itself is the root cause of "Jew hatred": "However pagan Nazism was, it drew its sustenance from groundwater poisoned by the church's most solemnly held ideology -- its theology."

While almost every major figure and every important event in Christian-Jewish relations appears in Constantine's Sword, beginning with Paul of Tarsus and ending with John Paul II of Wadowice, Carroll believes the warrior emperor's conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D. was the critical turning point for both church and synagogue, when "the power of an empire became joined to the ideology of the church." The results of this "second greatest story ever told [Constantine's conversion] . …

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