Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
March 22, 2013 • Parshat Tzav
I had every intention of speaking tonight about President Obama's speech and tour in Israel this week. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to read to be able to comment thoroughly and responsibly about it. So stay tuned for that topic another time... (In the meantime, I do highly recommend reading the speech in full.)
So I will share a few thoughts instead about another historic speech, given last Tuesday, as a new pope was inaugurated. This pope represents a number of firsts, including of course the first non-European pope in about 13 centuries. That in itself speaks to a new era for the Catholic Church
But this pope represents another 1st, and not just the first Francis (named, by the way, after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his care for the weak, the defenseless, the less fortunate of the world).
The other major milestone: Francis is the first Jesuit Pope. Why is this interesting? And is it, as we obsessively ask, good for the Jews? Answering those questions requires some background.
In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish Knight, founded the Society of Jesus, whose members were known as Jesuits. They were, in the main, more liberal toward Jews than the mainstream of the Catholic establishment. They even got themselves into trouble with the Church because of their openness.
After the Spanish expulsion in 1492, there remained New Christians -- Jews who converted to Christianity in order to remain in Spain. But soon suspicion grew that many of them were engaged in “Judaizing,” being Jews in secret and spreading their Judaism. Limpieza de sangre became the new standard of acceptance -- "purity of blood." Conversion was no longer good enough. Jewish blood -- Jewish ancestry -- was enough to condemn you. (This represents a haunting precursor to the Nazis’ genocidal policies, four centuries later.)
But as the Church moved in this racist direction, the Jesuits resisted, for a time. Only in 1593, years after other Catholic groups had banned so-called “New Christians,” only then did the Jesuits.
Part of their ban was their own fear of persecution: Apparently, the Jesuits, since they had welcomed Jewish-born converts, had many members of Jewish descent, including some high-ranking. This led King Phillip II of Spain to refer to the Jesuits as “a synagogue of Hebrews.” At any rate, despite early resistance, the Jesuits did ban Jewish blood from their membership, and in 1608 defined that as within 5 generations. This ban was officially lifted in -- brace yourself -- 1946! But one scholar points out that it probably wasn't enforced for some time before that.
Fast forward to 1965, and a landmark decree by the Catholic Church, called Nostra Aetate. It defined a new relationship with Jews, people of an everlasting covenant with God. And it rejected anti-Semitism and the old theology of Jews' bearing the guilt for the death of Jesus. It was a German Jesuit, Augustin Bea, who played a crucial role in advancing Nostra Aetate.
And today, we can say with confidence, that Jesuits are at the forefront of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. There is so much cooperation that, as one scholar notes, an internet search shows, among contemporary anti-Catholic voices, there is disproportionate focus on Jesuits; they are sometimes even accused of being controlled by Jews!
Look also at Jesuit universities, where Jewish Studies are an important component. Many Chairs of Jewish or Holocaust Studies at Jesuit or otherwise Catholic colleges are funded by Jews. And there is a certain similarity in the ethos of Jesuits and Jews: ours is a faith shorn up by serious scholarship and study. We embrace critical thinking and social justice in our religious lives.
Pope Francis I seems to embody this best of Jesuit attitudes toward Jews. His only published book, a dialogue of faiths, was co-authored with an Argentine rabbi. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he responded firmly in 1994 when terrorists bombed the city’s JCC, killing 85 people. He worked publicly to combat terrorism throughout his career. He has also stated that the Vatican’s WWII and Holocaust archives should be made public, and has been critical of the Church’s role with Nazi Germany.
Jewish groups throughout the world are hailing this new pope with optimism that he will continue the advances of Pope John Paul II of deepening ties with world Jewry and with Israel.
And the new pope, in his inaugural speech, did not disappoint. In the first moments, as he officially recognized visiting guests, he said:
I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.
Not only had he invited this Jewish delegation, but he met with them the next day. And in accord with recent custom, after his election he offered an official greeting to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni.
For another time, I’ll leave the conversation about how much influence the Catholic Church, and therefore the Pope, even has today. Mired in scandals and misconduct, the Church is losing ground, at least in the USA. Not to mention as part of the larger trend away from organized religion, across the board. But in the meantime, I give thanks for the optimism of this moment. That perhaps this new leadership may bring the Church to a place of being a more powerful force for good in the world.
I’ll close with Pope Francis I’s own words from his inaugural mass:
Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, “hoping against hope, believed” (Rom 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope!
Sounds like the Jewish mission in the world, too.
Shabbat shalom, and Chag Pesach Sameach
P.S. There are still other questions to explore regarding Pope Francis I's background, in particular during Argentina's "Dirty War" (See, for example, this article), as well as his attitudes toward women and homosexuality.