On October 27, a white nationalist named Robert Bowers stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, touting an AR-15 and hurling anti-Semitic slurs. He left with bullet wounds from a shootout with police, having claimed 11 lives in what is thought to be the deadliest incident of anti-Semitic violence in US history.
Bowers wasn’t Catholic, and his motivation wasn’t theological. All the same, we must ask: could America’s Catholics have done more to prevent this kind of anti-Semitic sentiment from bubbling over into violence? What is the state of Catholic-Jewish relations in America today?
Of course, a warm relationship between Jews and Catholics is relatively novel. Pre-Reformation Europe was largely hostile to Jews. This hostility was sometimes justified by appealing to Matthew 27: the scene where Pilate washes his hands of Christ’s fate and the Jewish mob accepts blame for his fate. “His blood is on us and on our children!” they cry. This passage has been used to justify every expulsion, forced conversion and heresy trial inflicted by Catholic governments on Europe’s Jewish population.
This reading of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t officially scuttled until 1965. In Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II fathers said definitively that Christ’s death “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
By that time, Jewish-Catholic tensions were already beginning to abate. The white nationalists and anti-Semites of that era were often no less hostile to Catholics than they were to Jews. Indeed, while the Ku Klux Klan lynched blacks in the South, they were better known in the Midwest for terrorising Catholic immigrants. If the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, Catholics and Jews in the United States should be absolutely inseparable.
Indeed, Catholics were among the first to offer tributes and express solidarity with the Jewish community. Immediately following the massacre, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari published an essay in the Jewish magazine Commentary titled “Why This Catholic Loves the Jews”. Ahmari recounted how he “benefited from many Jewish guides and guideposts on my road to Roman Catholicism”. They include novelist Arthur Koestler, historian Leo Strauss, and mystic Nachman of Breslov.
Yet it was only last year that CBS News was warning of an explosion of “radical traditional Catholicism” in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Their Minnesota affiliate WCCO attempted to link the traditionalist newspaper The Remnant to a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in May 2017. That’s because both happen to appear on a “Hate Map” created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
The Remnant is one of 11 “radical traditionalist” groups in the country, which the SPLC says “may comprise “the largest single group of serious anti-Semites in America”. Why? Because they believe that Jews, like all non-Catholics, should convert to the Catholic faith. Remnant editor Michael Matt was baffled that he should be lumped in with the Aryan Brotherhood. He told the newspaper City Pages that Jews “number among my dearest friends, and not a few rabbis subscribe to The Remnant. For many thousands of years the Jews were God’s chosen people, and from out of their midst Jesus Christ came unto us and changed the whole world. I love them, even as I love all men.”
The subject of conversion has become especially fraught since February, when First Things published a review of Fr Edgardo Mortara’s memoirs, which had recently been translated into English. The review was written by Fr Romanus Cessario OP, one of America’s most esteemed moral theologians.
Fr Mortara was born in 1851 to a Jewish family living in the Papal States, but secretly baptised by one of their Catholic servants. When the authorities discovered this, he was seized and placed in the care of Pope Pius IX himself. According to the law of the Papal States and the Church, every Christian child was entitled to a Christian upbringing.
Fr Mortara’s memoirs express deep gratitude for both the servant (whom he calls his “mother in the supernatural order”) and for Pius, whose name he took upon his ordination. As well he should have been, Fr Cessario argued. “Prior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic,” he wrote. “In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life.”
In the ensuing outrage, First Things editor RR Reno felt compelled to write a note explaining why he published the piece. Reno said that Cessario was “perceptive” about “our spiritual challenges” but that the episode was a “stain” on Church history and Catholics remain divided over the case.
The response to the Pittsburgh shooting shows how the bonds of friendship between Catholics and Jews, forged in the same fires of persecution, remain strong. But the Remnant and First Things controversies highlight the tensions that nevertheless remain. We can hope that Catholic-Jewish friendships continue to grow stronger – while recognising that the Church claims to hold the fullness of truth and the need for sacramental grace. On those points, the Church will never waver. We no longer believe in the “blood curse”, but we don’t suppose that Jews – or anyone else – are better off outside the Barque of Peter, either.
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here