Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

What a Gesture of Trust

[Unofficial translation from la Repubblica

Because rabbis have asked the Pope to explain some of his words about the Torah

by Alberto Melloni


To understand the meaning of the appeal to the Pope from authoritative rabbinical figures, questioning one of his catecheses on the letter to Galatians, we need to take a few steps back.

Back to the dawn of Christian rule, when a minority within Judaism became the religion of the empire. Back to the time when the crusades taught the killing of Jews. Back to the theologies that burned the Talmud to force the Jews to be what they [Christians] wanted them to be. Back to the time of Jules Isaac, the great French historian who accidentally escaped the deportation of his entire family to Auschwitz in 1943: to the brave intellectuals of dialogue to which Jewish-Christian friendships are indebted and to Seelisberg's "points" that articulated the problem in 1947 of the relationship between the genocidal practice of the Shoah and Christian preaching of anti-Jewish contempt.

We could not free ourselves from that knot by playing around with the obvious difference between the "biological" racism of fascism and the "theological" antisemitism of Christians. In fact, the problem was not their distinction: but the combination of their respective negative features. And it was also thanks to the courage with which John XXIII took up Seelsiberg's points that the [Second Vatican] Council, in 1965 was able to achieve its solemn deploring of antisemitism "by anyone and at any time." That act allowed many things: the removal of the word "perfidis" ["perfidious," "faithless"] from the Missal, the disavowal of the accusation of deicide and the blood [of Christ]—up to the speech of Wojtyla in Mainz in 1980 in which the Pope took up the New Testament declaration of the perpetuity of the covenant between God and Israel, of which the gift of the Torah, written and oral, is a pledge, and so on.

An epochal turning point: which, however, led to the prediction that the inertial mass of centuries of Catholic antisemitism would allow ancient prejudices and seemingly harmless superficiality to reappear: out of traditionalism, out of ignorance, out of superficiality. And it was foreseeable that neither an insipid dialogue nor a vigilance around the edges would be enough against them: a dialogical, demanding vigilance [based on trust] was needed.

It is this trust that has marked the relationship between the rabbinate and Pope Francis in the face of erroneous interpretations of the New Testament. Think of the expressions against the Pharisees: phrases that have become the matrix of the chant that Christianity chooses: a "religion of love" vs. Judaism "religion of retaliation": a marker that signals a patent religious illiteracy and a latent antisemitism. Think of the preaching of Paul of Tarsus, whose theology of grace for the nations when decontextualized became a crowbar to take the place of the chosenness [of Israel]. On these points, the rabbinate did with Francis what it would not have had the trust to do with any other Pope: to express its anxieties and to explain that the Augustinian catechesis on Galatians given by the Pope—to present the precedence of the covenant with respect to the gift of the Law—means suggesting the obsolescence of Torah observance and evoking the theologies of substitution that it is not difficult even today to link to hatred to other cultures. Is this excessive rabbinical sensitivity? Immoderate demands? No, quite the opposite. It is the proof that Judaism trusts the Pope to understand: a recognition granted to few. And the confidence that in the journey to Hungary and Slovakia—places full of ancient and modern discrimination that often fetishly waves the cross—the Pope will ask forgiveness for the antisemitism of yesterday and today and will respond to that appeal that cannot go unheard. Because it touches one of the most tragic scars in Jewish and Christian history.