First Things. (March 11, 2013.)
When the next pope is elected, pronouncements from major Jewish organizations will follow this basic script:
Mazel tov. Your recent predecessors did many good things for the Jews; please expand them. Your predecessors also did many bad things for the Jews; please admit this and do better. Mazel tov again, and keep in touch.
Different organizations will highlight different issues: Some Jewish leaders will be most concerned with anti-Semitism, Vatican relations with Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; others will focus on interfaith dialogue on theology and history; others will discuss social and economic policy, and the place of religion in politics and the public square. But whatever concerns are mentioned, this much is certain: The organized Jewish community will present a long wish list to the chief cleric of a religion in which it does not believe.
That is no problem in itself. Religious communities seeking to coexist have every reason to discuss their grievances. But sometimes Jewish leaders expect more from Christians (and from the Catholic Church in particular) than it is reasonable to ask.
For example, in April 2005, a few days after Pope Benedict was elected, the Jewish Daily Forward quoted Rabbi Leon Klenicki, former director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, as saying, “If he stresses Jesus is the only way of salvation then we are in trouble . . . . If he’s going to relate to the world Jewish community and others, he will have to work to reconsider his previous positions, especially vis a vis Jews and Judaism. Otherwise he is going to be a pope of the Middle Ages when he has to face the twenty-first century.”
I cannot imagine many Catholics welcoming the idea that a non-Christian is qualified to declare which Christian doctrines are best suited to what century. We in the Jewish community should resist the urge to tell Christians how to be Christian. To do so is neither valid interfaith dialogue, which respects the other group’s right to define its own beliefs, nor valid proselytism, which is honest enough to seek the other party’s conversion forthrightly.
This is not to say that we cannot promote our beliefs. If Jews want, for instance, to respond to the internal Christian debate over the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, then it is perfectly fair to announce that according to Judaism, one side of that Christian debate is right and the other wrong. The nonsense begins when Jews try to tell Christians what kind of doctrine is better as Christianity . We have no more standing to do so than a Carmelite nun has to issue halakhic responsa.
So let us return to the wish lists Jewish organizations will present to Pope Benedict’s successor. Instead of lecturing the new pope on how best to be Catholic, Jews should identify the maximum we can reasonably ask from the Catholic Church, without asking it to stop being the Catholic Church. Here is my proposal for a realistic agenda for Catholic-Jewish relations:
Fighting anti-Semitism. We should ask the pope to ensure that every level of the Church hierarchy will proactively seek and condemn anti-Semitism, both within the Church and without. The current record is mixed, and there is much work to be done.
Relations with Israel. We cannot ask the Vatican never to disagree with Israel’s actions, but we can and should demand that no double standard be applied to the Jewish State.
Mutual education. Jews and Catholics both sometimes use the other religion as a foil to draw contrasts with their own faith. This is fair so long as it is accurate, but too often each group’s conception of the other is oversimplified at best, and at worst, slanderous. Jews sometimes lump all Christian denominations together, or misunderstand Catholic doctrines such as papal infallibility. Catholics sometimes paint a picture of Judaism derived only from Christian readings of the Old Testament, as if the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic history never occurred. Catholics and Jews must work together to eradicate lazy stereotypes, and to better educate clergy and laity alike.
History and memory. Jews should give up asking the pope to admit that the Church as an institution sinned in the past. The Church already admits that its leaders have often sinned as individuals, both by oppressing Jews and by other evil acts. While this is not enough for Jewish communal memory, we should not expect Christians’ historical narratives to match our own. Communities should be given interpretive leeway to construct triumphalist narratives for themselves, as long as they present the facts correctly. (Without triumphalist narratives, a community is difficult to sustain, as Jews should know as well as anyone.) In the same vein, we should not oppose the canonization of Pope Pius XII. We should ensure that the Vatican does not deny (or distort) any historical facts, but how those facts interact with the parameters of Catholic sainthood is not our business.
Religion in the public square. It is impossible to create any one agenda for social and economic issues, war, peace, and the religion-state relationship. Both the Jewish community and the Catholic laity are divided on these issues, but the institutional Church takes clear stances. Whichever segment of the Jewish world agrees with the Catholic Church on each issue should seek to work on that issue in cooperation with the Church, both for the good of the cause and for the good of Catholic-Jewish relations more broadly. Even Jews who disagree with Church teachings about any given issue will benefit from a closer working relationship between the Church and Jewish leaders from the broadest possible spectrum of ideologies and denominations.
This list is not exhaustive, but it need not be so; more important than any one of the specific items above is the general principle that crafting a reasonable agenda for dialogue requires a commitment to allowing the other party to define itself on its own terms. May God grant to both Jews and Catholics the humility to pursue dialogue in respect and honesty, charity and clarity, and to work together toward the ultimate agenda of the One whom both seek to serve.