Wednesday, April 13, 2005
I have been meaning to say something about the late Pope John Paul II, but I simply haven't had time, and besides, so much has been said so much better by so many others. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)
In general, I think The New Republic has done a fine job with this story, covering the Pope's own "record" as it were from a variety of angles and also covering the politics around the succession. So, having praised them in general, I would like to take the opportunity to dissent from the rather peevish spirit of this old piece by Leon Wieseltier republished for the occasion.
As I understand these things (and my understanding is limited) the official story is that the truth never changes, and, as the Church expounds that truth the Church doesn't change its mind. But with respect to Judaism, I don't think that's correct. What Catholicism teaches today is something rather different from the supercessionism that the Church held to for hundreds of years. And that change in Church doctrine is due at least as much to the just-departed Pope as to Pope John XXIII.
Again, as I understand thse things, the Church's understanding of Judaism is that it is a *valid* and *living* and *authentic* religion; that it is *salvific* for those who are parties to its Covenant; that God, who does not change His mind, did not "replace" historic Israel with a new Israel of the Church, but founded a new Israel of the Church while retaining His Covenant with historic Israel to the extent that historic Israel did not choose to embrace and subsume itself in the new. This is, I think, extraordinary and revolutionary. It is a radical change from the Church's historic approach to Judaism which was, as I say, supercessionist. It is, as well, the only possible foundation on which friendly coexistence between Judaism and Christianity can be founded and, as I have said before, such friendly coexistence *must* be founded because we are too intimate ever to be strangers, as, say, Jews and Buddhists might be; we must, perforce, be either friends or enemies.
This change is more John Paul II's doing than anyone's, and I don't think he was so determined to set our faiths' relationship on a proper footing simply because he knew Jews in Poland or was a witness to the Nazi Holocaust. Maybe it's just because I'm Jewish, but I think his efforts in this area more than in any are the clearest window into his understanding of God and His ways with mankind. God is not a man, that He should repent - that is a profound idea, and we have not yet seen the full effects of this idea as it ripples through the mind and body of the Church.
It is also a change of very profound significance, significance that, I think, Leon Wieseltier does not appreciate nearly enough. Isaiah promises that, at the end, all nations will worship at God's holy mountain. He does not say that all will accept the yoke of the commandments given at Sinai, but he does say that all will recognize God's sovereignty and, given that this worship will take place in Jerusalem, the validity of His covenant with Israel. If one is not a quietist, and Wieseltier is not a quietist, then things in history that point to this promised end are freighted with significance. The recognition by the Catholic Church of the validity and continuity of the covenant at Sinai with the Jewish people points to that end. It is as significant, I would argue, theologically and eschatologically as the various recognitions, beginning with the Balfour Declaration, by the temporal powers of a Jewish right to a homeland in the historic Land of Israel. It is vastly more important than any apology for past crimes committed by churchmen, in the Church's name, or incited by Church teaching.
The change is not set in stone, however. The next Pope, or later Popes, could recast the teachings of John Paul II's tenure in a different light, more consonant with traditional supercessionist thinking. I fear greatly that my own tradition, unused to the responsibility of dialogue as against defense, has already missed the opportunity to engage with Christianity on the new terms offered. And I hope that, in the lifetime of the next Pope, my people rise to that challenge, and that John Paul II's tenure will be remembered centuries hence as the "first flowering" of another aspect of our redemption, and of the redemption of the world.