Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

What is wrong with the dialogue between Christians and Jews?

[Unofficial translation from formiche]

The pope on two occasions cited the Letter to the Galatians, a text that creates great tension between Christians and Jews. Vittorio Robiati Bendaud, coordinator of the Rabbinical Tribunal of Central-Northern Italy, recalls that there is an important text, unfortunately often ignored, which proposes a correct approach between the two religions


On August 11, the pope gave a catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians, a burning text in relations between Jews and Christians. The controversy that resulted has gone around the world. I would like to start with two things. 1. The decision to intervene is taken with pain, because, since these are extremely complex topics and far from the general public, the risk is that we say "but what do they still want?", with further misunderstandings and exasperations. 2. Unlike many, including the pope, Jewish-Christian dialogue for me has not been (and is not) just academic activity or 'religious diplomacy'.

It runs through my personal history and that of my family, because it is "mixed" between Jews and Christians; it coincides with the knowledge of people I love and respect, from whom I have learned a lot, from my beloved and late Giuseppe Laras and Carlo Maria Martini to my beloved friend Antonia Arslan, who have guided my personal and intellectual biography, with a whole series of discoveries and delicate personal choices about identity and belonging, which have meant study and the duty of clarity. I owe so much to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, even though I know, from within, its limitations, mortgages, contradictions, and temptations. The present criticisms are therefore aimed at relaunching it.

To simplify brutally: the Letter to the Galatians engages a tension between Judaism and the Christianity that sprang from it. This tension revolves around the Torah and the observance of the precepts that it prescribes(mitzvòth) and around Jesus with respect to the Torah, according to the opinion of Paul of Tarsus, an ex-Pharisee, which then became the decisive and majority opinion: the abolition of the precepts (considered ineffective) would be an expression and derivation of a 'new covenant' (an expression that in the Bible already recurs several times, but which here now radically changes meaning, the "New Covenant") to which the 'old' must give way (to put it in the poetry of Thomas Aquinas: et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui ["let the old practice yield to the new rite"]).

Before becoming a controversy, even a very heated one, between Jews and 'Christians', it was at first a burning controversy within Judaism itself, which then reached external environments (that is, the pagans who converted to nascent Christianity, although there were many who converted to Judaism, with increasing competition between the two communities and with passages of converts from one to the other, a fact that lasted for centuries). This controversy then exploded ruinously with the first great text of Christian theological thought, the Dialogue with Tryphon of Bishop Justin, a Roman, ex-pagan turned Christian, born in today's Nablus, who witnessed the fall of Jewish national sovereignty and the Roman purges.

With Justin, Christianity, at the time very heterogeneous, began to ally itself with the power and thought of imperial and pagan Rome. The text of Justin (and not only his), which relaunches and exacerbates the polarities triggered by Paul, is the basis of the subsequent two thousand year anti-Judaism, with a series of terrible accusations, destined over the centuries to reap incalculable human lives and to disfigure the 'victim' Judaism (but also the 'executioner' Christianity), degrading it and consciously distorting its understanding in the eyes of the unsuspecting Christian faithful. Many of Justin's arguments (and not only his) then penetrated the Koran,thus being included in the sacred text of Islam and placed at the base of a different anti-Judaism, the Islamic one.

Since then Christianity, also because of the rhetorical strategy with which these ancient texts are composed, has mostly been structured (and so also the entire tradition of Western thought), in opposition to Judaism. In short, Christianity began to maintain, amid structural misunderstandings and bewilderments, that the Torah was ruthless and cramped; that there should be no love, no freedom, no mercy, no forgiveness in it; that 'the commandment of love' would be the Christian novelty, keeping silent – or putting it quietly – that Jesus, as a good Jew, in this regard quoted precisely the Torah and the tradition of Israel; that it was Christianity that first preached equality between human beings, created in the image of God, and not the Torah (Genesis 1), offering Judaism a perverse sectarian caricature; that the Jewish understanding of the Scriptures of Israel was erroneous, legalistic and ritualistic, with the pretense of calling itself [Christianity] the correct interpretation, as well as the right (and 'true') Judaism.

Judaism was thus degraded to what Christianity was not. In a nutshell, as many readers will unfortunately have heard again in the homilies of some of their parish priests (something of which many 'adult' Christian friends, exasperated, still often complain to me about), revenge is opposed to forgiveness; the Law (the improper and limiting translation of the word Torah,whose etymological meaning is 'Teaching') to Grace; mercy to justice; the Old Covenant to the New. This instrumental (and false) opposition, unfortunately for everyone, was not ancillary, as we often tend to minimize, but foundational. Over the centuries, as Bishop A. Spreafico wrote, "theological and exegetical teaching contributed to the development of antisemitism in the last century, with the well-known consequences that led to the Shoah."
After the Second World War, the Catholic Church had to deal with its history, between recognitions and omissions, with the contested document Nostra Aetate, in which there is no patristic citation (that is, of the Fathers of the Church, Eastern and Western). This document has started a slow revolution in relations between Jews and Western Christians (I emphasize this last adjective, because the liturgies — and therefore the theologies — of all the Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite have not been subjected to reexamination for theological and political reasons).
This was possible because, albeit quietly, theologically it was decided to 'break' with the traditional founding interpretation of Christianity, the Fathers, who were for the first time contradicted or omitted. Only John Paul II publicly 'disavowed' Ambrose, Augustine's spiritual father, a decisive thinker for the evolution of Christianity (and, unfortunately, of anti-Judaism). All this opened an 'unofficial' rift in the structure of Catholic theology: some conservative circles — including, not infrequently, anti-Jewish theologians — feel uncomfortable with this rupture, because it means insinuating a corruption, considered unimaginable, in the Tradition of the Church, opening an insidious 'precedent' that could then be applicable to other questions to the detriment of orthodoxy; for some progressives — who do not necessarily coincide with 'friends of the Jews' — it was a precedent to gradually implement an undeclared reform of Catholicism in many other areas.
Pope Francis commented on the Letter to the Galatians and, at a time when the beginning of the separation, for continuity and distance, between the Church and the Synagogue is handled, we enter into very delicate issues, which must be assumed, understood and explained, especially in the light of the birth of Jewish-Christian dialogue, which also conveys a rethinking of Christianity with respect to itself. Pope Francis has in fact written elsewhere that: "it is of vital importance, for Christians, to promote knowledge of the Jewish tradition in order to be able to understand themselves more authentically".

If, in his commentary on Galatians, the pope had cited, in order to frame the Christian understanding of the text, the problematic nature of the polarities just mentioned and of their subsequent reuse, sometimes wickedly, inviting caution, all this very unpleasant and damaging incident would not have happened. But, you may ask, is the pope (like the many parish priests, theologians and preachers) required to do so? Various official Church documents say yes. Already in the Pastoral Guidelines for the application of Nostra Aetate (1974) we read:

"In the commentaries of the biblical texts, without minimizing the original elements of Christianity, the continuity of our faith with that of the Old Covenant will be highlighted, in the line of promises. (...) With regard to the liturgical readings, care will be taken to give them, in the homily, a correct interpretation, especially with regard to those passages that seem to place the Jewish people as such in an unfavorable situation. An effort will be made to instruct the Christian people so that they come to understand each text in the authentic sense, in its meaning for the believer of today. The commissions in charge of liturgical translations will be particularly attentive in rendering expressions and passages that can be interpreted in a tendentious sense by insufficiently informed Christians . ... The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded on it must not be considered in opposition to the New Testament, as if they constituted a religion of justice alone, fear and legalism without appeal to love of God and neighbor."

In short, the underlying idea is that, on the basis of history and a renewed and deeper knowledge of the sacred texts, we must pass, with respect to Judaism, to more authentically structure the Christian identity itself, from the "adversarial but" to a "disjunctive" or, better yet, "coordinating", if I am allowed the syntactic parallelism. If Pope Francis had taken the opportunity of the textual difficulties to make known to the Christian public — and therefore to the many bishops, priests and catechists who ignore it — this already old document of '74, it would have offered a precious and fundamental teaching for the edification of everyone, Christians and Jews. Knowing the willingness of this pope to confront, however, I would not be at all surprised if he himself, on a future occasion, would personally explain all of this.

What this event has highlighted, however, is that this fundamental teaching of the Council, with its guidelines, together with the endless harvest of work and studies on these issues produced by Christians and Jews in dialogue, has absolutely not passed into the formation, culture and common conscience of the Christian people and the ecclesial hierarchies, and, in some way, even Pope Francis has been a victim of it. Likewise, it means that Jewish-Christian dialogue has not reached the people at all.

It is a failure, it must be acknowledged, that is one of extreme gravity and a source of great concern. I believe that the challenge to be posed to both Catholic and Jewish leaders is to make up for lost time and to think of effective, pervasive, and verifiable strategies for the formation of Christians, from catechists to seminarians to bishops. And I believe that Pope Francis is the first who can understand the problem and who can help. This, especially, in an incipient historical phase where there is a criss-crossing and ever-rising regurgitation of antisemitism.

Another matter, however, is the article by Father A. Spadaro SJ, director of Civiltà Cattolica, which appeared in Il Fatto Quotidiano (August 27), in which, perhaps thinking to defend the pope, he rendered him a disservice. Those who read the Guidelines and then Spadaro's text will be very struck, because it proposes again from its very title (The 'religion of the heart' is the opposite of the 'doctrine of the Pharisees') stale rhetoric, mocked, widely disavowed by the last fifty years of Jewish and Christian studies in this regard (and also conducted at prestigious Jesuit universities), which he ignored.

And, in the name of a winking 'progressivism', he uses and relaunches the most trite arguments of Christian conservatism: "Jesus clearly distinguishes the 'religion of the near heart' from the 'doctrine of precepts'", or, again, he fights the order 'of formality, of banality that reduces transcendence to an esoteric or external phenomenon.'" The oppositional structure, albeit in 2.0 form, is evident. Consider then that, precisely as director of La Civiltà Cattolica, a work of reparation and purification of memory and teachings should be more important to his heart!

The worst thing — and it is the real note dolens ["painful note"], dramatically evaded by all — is that, to denounce any distortions in the religious and moral life of Christians (distortions that, of course, can also live within Jews, and not only them) the targets used are still and always the Jews (the Pharisees, for example). And so one projects, even to one's own detriment, the evil outside oneself, on an archetypal external subject of the defects or errors that one wants to denounce, without disturbing very much the tranquility and narcissistic feeling of one's own community, which, indeed, is thus strengthened.

If Spadaro, or whoever on his behalf, wishes to find polemical targets to denounce the degeneration of religious people — Christian, in this case, he could safely (and perhaps with more profit) instead turn to the biographies, rarely shatterproof, of superiors, popes, bishops and, not infrequently, saints and theologians.