Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

Pope Francis' Concern for Jews Is Genuine — But Until This Doctrine Is Abolished He'll Have Trouble Convincing Them

[From Religion Dispatches


The hot water into which Pope Francis has put himself regarding his Jewish friends continues to boil. In a recent public audience at the Vatican, Francis stated that the Torah “does not give life” (that is, a share in God’s life, now and eternally). And he added: “Those who seek life need to look to [God’s] promise and to its fulfillment in Christ.”

It didn’t take long for prominent rabbis in Israel, Rome, and the US to remind the Pope that this is the kind of talk that throughout the history of Christianity has led to “contempt for the Jews.”

Coming to the Pope’s defense, Catholic journalist and editor of Crux, John Allen called the whole affair a “kerfuffle” and attempted to smooth it over by scolding the rabbis and critics, and “reminding them” that:

“…while Pope Francis may not always express himself with the theological precision some might like, the idea that he’s insensitive to Jews or unconcerned about their fate just doesn’t hold water.”

But it was exactly the theological precision of Francis’s words that upset the rabbis! The claim that the Jewish religion and its Torah have to be “fulfilled” in Christ and his church in order to find the fullness of life with God has been the standard teaching of the Catholic Church and of all other Christian churches for some 1900 years. This teaching and belief have served as the basis for Christian claims of superiority over Judaism and all other religions. Theologians call this a theology of supersessionism, since it requires that one religion (ours) supersedes and so replaces another (yours).

I have no doubt about Francis’s genuine “concern for the fate of the Jews” and about his desire to renounce “contempt for the Jews.” But until the Pope puts his theology where his heart is, he’ll have trouble convincing Jews that he can really mean what he says. After all, if the CEO of Mattel went around sincerely expressing his concern for the body-image crisis among young girls, even as he continued to manufacture and profit from the sales of Barbie dolls with inhuman proportions, it would be difficult to take him seriously.

But changing his theology, according to Ilan Benattar’s recent piece here on RD, would be asking too much of the pope. Benattar explains for the concerned rabbis “why nobody should be surprised that Pope Francis made problematic comments about Judaism—and that he remains unapologetic.” Such “supersessionist rhetoric” proclaiming Christianity as the fulfillment of all other religions is, according to Benattar, part and parcel of Christian identity.

Therefore, he concludes, “[Francis] could much less discard supersessionism in toto than he could shed the Argentinian accent with which he pronounces Latin.” So “it should shock no one that the ‘Woke Pope’ would express a central tenet of Christian doctrine. After all, is the Pope not Catholic?”

If we step outside the confines of the theological academy, we find supersession goes under a different, more familiar and more revealing name: supremacy. Just as white supremacists announce that the white race is superior to and therefore dominant over all other races, so Christians, for most of their history, have made similar claims about their relation to Judaism and all other religions.

If supersessionism, as Benattar argues, is essential to Christianity, then Christianity will remain a supremacist religion, and it will, willy-nilly, lend itself as the religious support for other claims of supremacy, white or nationalistic (as Fordham Professor Jeanine Hill-Fletcher argues in The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America.)

The problem that Pope Francis recently stirred up with Jews, therefore, is more than a “kerfuffle” that can be whisked away with apologies and good intentions. Rather, it is, or can be, an inflection point in the history of Christianity; or what Paul Tillich called a “kairos,” an opportunity for the Christian church to finally recognize the harm caused by its assertions that Christianity represents the fulfillment or end-point for all other religions.

Recognizing how this teaching has led to contempt for Jews and, indeed, for other religions as well, the church must do with its doctrine of supersession what it has done with so many other past harmful teachings (like the legitimacy of slavery or “outside the church there is no salvation”): the church must reform itself.

Admittedly, as one surveys the present state of affairs of the Christian churches, even of the so-called Mainline or progressive churches, there’s little awareness of, much less readiness to reform, Christian claims of supremacy.

And yet, I do believe that if such a reform is necessary, it must also be possible. In my own experience as a Christian educator and minister, I’ve found that one of the main reasons why young people are questioning their Christian identity has to do with their uneasiness, if not disgust, about the way Christian supremacy or “manifest destiny” has supported the Manifest Destiny of Western colonial powers.

Such a reformation is also being urged by a growing number of Christian theologians and church leaders who propose a “theology of mutuality” rather than a “theology of superiority.” This is a pluralistic understanding of religious diversity that affirms both the real differences between, but also the limitations of, all religions. All religions therefore need to be fulfilled in each other through a mutual dialogue in which no one claims to be superior or have the final word, and all recognize their need for each other.

For Francis to be able genuinely to assure the rabbis that Christians are abandoning their “contempt for Jews,” he will have to reformulate his own words: “Those who seek life need to look to God’s promise and to its fulfillment not only in Christ but in the truth and beauty of the plentitude of paths to the heart of the divine.” The Catholic Church may risk losing some of its prestige in the process, but it has much to gain in the benefits to its soul. Not a bad trade.