Although great progress has been made in the past fifty years in Catholic-Jewish relations, there remains an underlying fragility. Not surprisingly, reflexes that developed over centuries of estrangement do not disappear after a few decades. Two distinct but interrelated Italian controversies demonstrate this.
Tensions flared when the Italian Biblical Association (ABI) publicized two conferences to be held this coming September. The title of the first was announced as “Israel, People of a Jealous God: Consistencies and Ambiguities of an Elitist Religion.” The conference description noted that today “there is a return to religion with absolutist and intolerant accents.” Consequently, the conference would explore how the God of Israel developed “from a subordinate divinity [to gradually become] the exclusive deity of a people who, in an elitist manner, believe[d] themselves to be his unique possession,” and hence superior to other people. Evidently, the conference organizers were interested in how fundamentalism arises in all three Abrahamic traditions. Unfortunately, their phrasing echoed a long-lived polemic that contrasted an enlightened Christian universalism with a narrow Jewish particularism. The most prominent critic was Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, the former chief rabbi of Milan and president emeritus of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly. A letter of protest was sent, not to the officers of the ABI, but to various Vatican officials and personnel and to the Italian Bishops’ Conference. The letter lamented a persistent “undercurrent of resentment, intolerance, and annoyance on the Christian side toward Judaism.” It accused the ABI of promoting the attitude that regards Jews as “execrable, expendable, and sacrificeable” and encourages a “resumption of the old polarization between the morality and theology of the Hebrew Bible and of Pharisaism, and Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospels.”
The letter also blamed Pope Francis for encouraging a revival of Marcionism (the ancient heresy in which the “jealous God” of the Old Testament is contrasted with the loving God of the New). After acknowledging that post–Vatican II church statements have repudiated such invidious comparisons, the letter continued: “What a shame that they should be contradicted on a daily basis by the homilies of the pontiff.... One need think only of the law of ‘an eye for an eye’ recently evoked by the pope carelessly and mistakenly...[recalling] anti-Judaism on the Christian side.”
Reactions quickly appeared from various quarters. The president of the ABI, Professor Don Luca Mazzinghi, denied Laras’s accusations. “The idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible is different in some way from the God of the New Testament is absurd and offensive,” he said. “It is even more the case for us who study and work on the two Testaments that the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ is the same as the God of Israel, the people God has chosen and whom Jesus is part of.” He forcefully declared, “Any shadow of anti-Semitism, which we repudiate in the strongest terms, has always been absent from our Association.”
Announcing that the description of the ABI conference had been revised to stress that the relevant topics applied to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Mazzinghi also noted that the conference title had been changed to “People of a ‘Jealous God’ (cf. Exodus 34:14): Consistencies and Ambivalences of the Religion of Ancient Israel.” He expressed confidence that ongoing dialogue would overcome allegations from critics that had lost “all sense of proportion.”
Indeed, that seems a likely outcome as conversations continue among the Jewish community, the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and the ABI.
Bringing some of the pope’s homilies into the dispute, however, provided an occasion for some within the Catholic community to discredit him. A Matthew Schmitz essay in First Things (“Rabbi Objects to Pope Francis’s Anti-Jewish Rhetoric”) accused Pope Francis of “anti-Jewish rhetoric,” saying that “too many authoritative Christian voices—both bishops and theologians” have excused it for too long. The Catholic World Report ran an article by Peter M. J. Stravinkas, asking if Francis was guilty of “Papal Anti-Judaism?” It opined that the pope has said “over and over again that he is no theologian and that he doesn’t care much for theology...that [is the] attitude which has caused so much damage in this pontificate.”
Since the pontiff is widely known for his close friendships with Jews in his native Argentina, and even co-wrote a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka on their dialogues over the years, what was the basis of Rabbi Laras’s critique of the pope?