The National Catholic Review
Drew Christiansen
Image

Two prominent rabbis have denounced the failure of Catholics publicly to brand the recent film “The Passion of the Christ” as anti-Semitic. They spoke at the joint meeting on April 20 of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs and the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Reform and Conservative Jews in the national Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The critics, Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Baltimore and Professor Michael Signer of the University of Notre Dame, are moderate and reasonable men. Zaiman’s assured, quiet demeanor confers both dignity and warmth on the meetings he co-chairs. Signer was co-author of Dabru Emet, the ground-breaking assessment of Jewish-Catholic relations published in 2000, which called upon Jews to match the steps Catholics have taken in the past 35 years to heal the historic divisions between the two communities. Zaiman and Signer, therefore, are figures who merit a most attentive and respectful hearing.

 

A Kind of Death

Rabbi Zaiman complained of Catholic “reactions or rather non-reactions” to “The Passion of the Christ.” The film, he said, was plainly and simply anti-Semitic, yet dioceses recommended the film without even a caveat. Muddled responses from the Vatican and the world’s episcopal conferences only made things worse, he said. The experience, he told the gathering, had been for him “a kind of death.”

Teshuvah” (repentance—for anti-Semitism), Professor Signer said, “has dried up.” Catholics, he claimed, have allowed devotio, the religious affection stimulated by the movie, to overwhelm ratio, critical reason and historical consciousness. In other words, the empathy of Catholics for the portrayal of the suffering Jesus had overcome their notional opposition to anti-Semitism. Jews genuinely wonder now, he said, “what Catholics believe about Jesus.”

The lack of public critique of the film, Signer contended, puts in question the methods by which past controversies, like those over the convent of Auschwitz and the canonization of Edith Stein, were overcome in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In a moment of anguish, he wondered whether a new spiritual ghetto had risen to divide Catholics from Jews. “Does a deep religious life,” he asked, “demand not living with others?”

Put another way, the Jewish interlocutors are asking, why did not Catholics’ ties to the Jewish community color the way they viewed the movie? If conversion entails a change of the affections, then should not 40 years of dialogue, expressions of contrition and pledges of opposition to anti-Semitism have resulted in a more outspokenly critical response to the movie?

Reverence and Reason

Jewish critics do not want to deny Catholics a particular experience of piety, if they find themselves moved by the film. They do expect, though, that Catholics will have integrated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council so they can react spontaneously to stereotypical anti-Semitism and sympathetically to Jewish pain over fundamental offenses.

There is no denying the fact that many Catholics have found “The Passion of the Christ” to be a spiritually moving meditation on the sorrowful mysteries in the style of the Counter-Reformation. Sensitivity to anti-Semitism appears to have been too weak to offer criticism of a powerful presentation of the passion. Many viewers were unable to experience the film with reverence while rejecting the anti-Semitic stereotypes Jews would see in it.

In a column in Baltimore’s diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Review, Cardinal William Keeler, co-chair of the dialogue, confirmed the Jewish reading of the Catholic response. “In Baltimore and elsewhere,” he wrote, “parishioners spoke to me of the spiritual reinforcement they found in the movie.” He himself, when he first saw the film, was swept away by the film’s emotional power “and so missed much of the detail.” On a second viewing, Keeler reported, “I saw why some of our Jewish neighbors view it with understandable concern and even a measure of fear.”

A New Level of Relationship?

Can the strain be overcome? Can Catholic-Jewish relations move to the level where the mass of Catholics or Jews can respond spontaneously to one another’s basic concerns? That is probably asking a lot, but at least we can look for a day when not just the professional dialogists, who are greatly dismayed by their fellow Catholics’ lack of response to the perceived offensive scenes in “The Passion,” but larger cadres of clergy and laypeople will be ready to speak out in a future crisis.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Vatican II’s “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions,” Catholics and Jews need to repair their relationship and take it to a new level. I would like to make a few suggestions for how to proceed.

Work at hearing. The first rule of dialogue is to hear the other’s story. Listening requires active engagement. If at first the complaint of someone we care about does not register, we must take some action on ourselves to see that it does. Successive discussions, self-examination, meditation and other techniques are needed until we “get it.” Seeing the film a second time in the company of Jewish friends, as Cardinal Keeler did, may be one way to see and hear afresh.

Work at relating. Repairing relationships is hard work. Psychologists say repairing an offense in a difficult marriage takes six or seven positive acts to overcome one negative one. Conflict resolution specialists say it takes up to 10 acts of peacemaking to overcome one hostile act. After “The Passion,” Catholics cannot afford to be complacent or passive in their relations with Jews. We need to seek them out, to take the initiative. Other problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the treatment of the church in Israel may make reconciliation difficult. That is all the more reason to keep trying to talk, to pray and to work together.

One good means of fostering better relations is “Walking God’s Paths,” a six-part video series designed for adult study groups, schools and seminaries and available from the U.S.C.C.B., the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Be ready to go public. Going public with controversial opinions is not the Catholic style, and media hype, more than many imagine, can make resolving problems even more difficult. Nonetheless, when issues are vital to another community, especially a community we respect and love as “our elder brothers” in the covenant, we should be ready to go public in ways that will be seen and heard.

Keep focused. The struggle against anti-Semitism must be kept focused on the principal expressions of hatred and prejudice. Extending the notion of anti-Semitism to cover criticism of Israeli government policies or the positions of Jewish activist intellectuals exhibits disrespect for the real victims of hate and discrimination. Like the boy who cried wolf, stretching the concept reduces its moral currency. But if the range of meaning of the term anti-Semitism is narrow, it will be reasonable for Jews to expect a public response from Catholics when the charges are on target. Next time we just cannot miss it.

Fit the response to the context. Not every response needs to be public, and not every public response needs to be highly visible. There is still a place for formal dialogue, scholarly exchange, study and ceremony as ways to address issues between Catholics and Jews. The means can and ought to be appropriate to the problem. Broad cultural problems need to be addressed with the media of the day. In an image-driven age, however, when most people’s knowledge of religious developments comes from the broadcast media, Catholics need to become more savvy in their use of the airwaves to address critical issues. But when they can be suitably addressed in other ways, pressure for broad-based public denunciation may well be out of order.

Mature Religion

Fundamentalism is the great heresy of the day. Fundamentalists are inclined to believe there is a simple response to every question. Orthodoxy demands complexity: two natures in Christ, three persons in the Trinity. The same is true of the moral and religious affections. A Christian needs to hold in tension justice and mercy, truth and forgiveness. St. Ignatius Loyola held to the primacy of charity, but he taught discreta caritas, “discreet charity,” which balances love with prudence. Men and women of mature faith can exercise two or more virtues in tandem. It should be possible both to lament the suffering of Jesus and to see and oppose the traces of anti-Semitism found in its portrayal. Discreet charity will show us how.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Fr. David Medow | 8/10/2004 - 10:35am
I am a priest of the Joliet diocese and the son of a Jewish father. The latter fact has made me sensitive to the presence of anti-Semitic expressions in Christian tradition, art and catechetical materials. Throughout my ministry I have sought to bring to the awareness of my fellow-Christians the latent and lingering survival of such prejudice. We have to recognize anti-Semitism in our midst, name it and eradicate it.

But I read with profound dismay the article by Drew Christiansen: "Reverence over Reason?" regarding the continued concern voiced by two rabbis about the response of the Catholic community to the Gibson movie, "The Passion of the Christ." I have read scores of articles regarding the understandable concern of the Jewish community about the anti-Semitic content or consequences of the film. However, I saw the film twice. And I failed to note where the anti-Semitism occurred. This is a film about the events in history of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Gibson, like the gospel writers themselves, tells the story from his own perspective of faith. It is a dramatic film, not a documentary.

The Christian community has been guilty in the past of sinfully using the story of Jesus' Passion as justification for persecution of the Jewish people. Understandably, in a time of increased incidents of anti-Semitism around the world, many in the Jewish community may fairly have wondered (or feared) how Gibson's film might instigate or inflame anti-Semitic attitudes or actions. Despite Gibson's own denials of anti-Semitism (even the support he received from the Jewish actress who played Jesus' mother in the film) there were still charges that the movie was blatantly anti-Semitic. In the end, it seemed to me that the real complaint, the real target of those who charged anti-Semitism is neither the film nor Gibson, it was the Passion story itself.

Appeals to guidelines issued by the bishops regarding the portrayal of the Passion were irrelevant: the perspective advocated by such guidelines is not that of faith but the academy and the historical critical method of analyzing biblical texts and traditions.

Prior to the release of the movie on Ash Wednesday, many of its critics voiced fears of widespread anti-Semitic outbursts and actions in the wake of the film. That there have been wonderfully few such incidents has not silenced those who still maintain the film is provocatively anti-Semitic. Christiansen notes, "the Jewish interlocutors are asking, why did not Catholic's ties to the Jewish community color the way they viewed the movie?...Jewish critics do not want to deny Catholics a particular experience of piety, if they find themselves moved by the film. They do expect, though, that Catholics will have integrated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council so they can react spontaneously to stereotypical anti-Semitism and sympathetically to Jewish pain over fundamental offenses." Why can one not conclude that, with the lack of anti-Semitism arising from Catholic viewers of the movie, Catholics have responded to the film in a positive way, inspired by Vatican II's opening to the Jewish community? And, after so many years of dialogue, why is it that our Jewish conversation partners see anti-Semitism as the only motive or as necessarily present when we retell this central story of our faith? Is it not possible that the "pain" generated by this film is a projection of past wrongs onto something that has no anti-Semitic content or motive? Can this (or any)portrayal from a Christian perspective of events involving people in the Jewish community in 1st century Jerusalem ever be seen by our Jewish friends to be free from anti-Semitism?

The direction of interfaith dialogue supported by the two rabbis and supported by Christiansen is decidedly one-sided. Even in the absence of anti-Semitic reaction by Catholics to the film, the new proof for our anti-Semitism seems to be our refusal to<

James C. G. Conniff | 8/3/2004 - 5:40pm
For the most part, Drew Christiansen acquits himself creditably with his treatment of Jewish sensitivity to Mel Gibson's film and Christians' need as Christians to reckon with that sensitivity. But he falls short of the realities involved in several ways.

To countervailing purpose, he goes along with the by now all but patented mantra of "anti-Semitism" and "anti-Semitic," when as a seasoned Jesuit journalist he knows full well that Arabs are also Semites. A reasonable sense of fairness might give the nod to that fact by recognizing "the other anti-Semitism," the one that manifests itself in, for example, the anti-Palestinian tilt of American foreign policy.

Set aside, even though relevant, former national science advisor Zbiegniew Brezezinski's nearly solo courage in stressing for his interviewer on prime-time television the further fact that for every Israeli murdered by suicide bombers, American-funded Israeli weaponry has accounted for the murder of three Palestinians.

What remains clear here is that, as The New York Times spelled out in an A-section treatment nearly a decade ago, Israel's AIPAC lobby has borne out Ariel Sharon's boast that "we own the U.S. Congress" by ensuring that Israel takes in a unique up-front $5 billion of American taxpayers' money every first business day after New Year's. That has been going on for a half-century. Israel at once plows the gift back into U.S. Treasury securities with which it buys ever more destructive armaments and bankrolls its intrusive "settlements" drive.

The frightening outcome to which this misguided foreign policy that began with attacks on American citizens abroad and twice, so far, here in the homeland itself has contributed big- time, should be too obvious to require further comment.

Finally, Drew Christiansen glosses in a line and a half the unconscionable abuse of his fellow clerics by the Sharon government's refusal, among other uncompromising maneuvers, to guarantee return to their Christian assignments if those clergy have to leave Israel even briefly on personal or ad liminal visits abroad.

We do indeed need understanding and kindness in dealing with one another. But well-meaning as your colleague's excursion into this beleaguered set of relationships may be, it remains unhappily true also that, almost as if by formula, too much of the exchange is and has been more like all take and little if any give.

Writers with Christiansen's clout owe it to both sides to do a better-balanced, more even-minded job of dealing with the foregoing realities, or peace will continue to go begging.

Elisabeth Ryan Goldstein | 2/9/2007 - 4:32pm
I am writing in response to the article “Reverence Over Reason?” (8/2). I am a Roman Catholic but have had a Jewish name since I married, almost 40 years ago. In the words of Drew Christiansen, S.J., my “ties to the Jewish community color[ed] the way [I] viewed the movie.” Definitely! My path into ministry has been though many years of relationships with Jewish family and friends.

Yes, I saw the movie. But I probably would not have seen it if I had not agreed to lead several discussions at local churches. I am very grateful that you published several excellent articles on the movie. I used all of them in my teaching. I found it excessively violent and a confusing mix of biblical and extrabiblical material. And I can see why my Jewish friends were so concerned. But it can be a starting point for dialogue.

It troubles me that so many people viewed the film uncritically. I know most Christians did not come to discussions like the ones I helped to lead. At one local Catholic church, a rabbi and the pastor led a public discussion of the film that was enlightening. Thank you for all the great articles that you publish. I hope that concerns about this film encourage other groups to have dialogues on the issues.

Adam Bronstone | 2/9/2007 - 4:29pm
According to the recent article by Drew Christiansen, S.J., “Reverence Over Reason?” (8/2), two rabbis have been highly critical of the Catholic Church for its inability publicly to denounce “The Passion of the Christ” for being anti-Semitic. In New Orleans, where I work with the Jewish Federation, I can say that here this was not the case. Here the population is mostly Catholic, and the archdiocese has an overwhelming presence in the day-to-day life of most of the citizens of this city.

Why was this the case? To begin with, Archbishop Alfred Hughes publicly released a statement restating the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in direct reference to the movie, prior to its release. But the archdiocese did more than that. I was invited by the director of religious education of a local Jesuit parish, Emile Noel, and the young adult coordinator, Arthur Laughlin, to speak on this issue at their young adult Catholic group, an audience of 50 people each time. We had two sessions—first to address the concerns about the film before it premiered in theaters, and another afterward to discuss its impact.

Further, I was able to comment on the movie because I, along with the staff of the federation, went to see the movie with the same director of religious education, who then explained much of the movie from a Catholic perspective for over two hours over a post-movie lunch. And, along with Emile and the Rev. James Tarantino, the ecumenical officer of the archdiocese, a number of Catholic churches and synagogues in New Orleans will initiate a historic Catholic-Jewish adult educational program based upon the video series “Walking God’s Path,” at the behest of the church. An interfaith Passover seder this spring with college students at Loyola and Tulane universities and a three-faith program celebrating Abraham—with the Islamic community—are other recent examples of the way these two communities have worked and will continue to work together.

There may be other communities where the Catholic Church was silent on this matter. But this is simply not the case in Greater New Orleans, where the relationship between the church and the Jewish community can easily be understood from the comments of one spokesperson from the archdiocese, who, alongside me on a panel discussion on the movie, stated that there is no place in our society for anti-Semitism. When asked to respond or add to this comment, I simply stated that there was no need for additional comment. It is easy to dwell on what does not take place. It would be more useful for the developing of stronger bonds for the future to accentuate what has and will take place.

Fr. David Medow | 8/10/2004 - 10:35am
I am a priest of the Joliet diocese and the son of a Jewish father. The latter fact has made me sensitive to the presence of anti-Semitic expressions in Christian tradition, art and catechetical materials. Throughout my ministry I have sought to bring to the awareness of my fellow-Christians the latent and lingering survival of such prejudice. We have to recognize anti-Semitism in our midst, name it and eradicate it.

But I read with profound dismay the article by Drew Christiansen: "Reverence over Reason?" regarding the continued concern voiced by two rabbis about the response of the Catholic community to the Gibson movie, "The Passion of the Christ." I have read scores of articles regarding the understandable concern of the Jewish community about the anti-Semitic content or consequences of the film. However, I saw the film twice. And I failed to note where the anti-Semitism occurred. This is a film about the events in history of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Gibson, like the gospel writers themselves, tells the story from his own perspective of faith. It is a dramatic film, not a documentary.

The Christian community has been guilty in the past of sinfully using the story of Jesus' Passion as justification for persecution of the Jewish people. Understandably, in a time of increased incidents of anti-Semitism around the world, many in the Jewish community may fairly have wondered (or feared) how Gibson's film might instigate or inflame anti-Semitic attitudes or actions. Despite Gibson's own denials of anti-Semitism (even the support he received from the Jewish actress who played Jesus' mother in the film) there were still charges that the movie was blatantly anti-Semitic. In the end, it seemed to me that the real complaint, the real target of those who charged anti-Semitism is neither the film nor Gibson, it was the Passion story itself.

Appeals to guidelines issued by the bishops regarding the portrayal of the Passion were irrelevant: the perspective advocated by such guidelines is not that of faith but the academy and the historical critical method of analyzing biblical texts and traditions.

Prior to the release of the movie on Ash Wednesday, many of its critics voiced fears of widespread anti-Semitic outbursts and actions in the wake of the film. That there have been wonderfully few such incidents has not silenced those who still maintain the film is provocatively anti-Semitic. Christiansen notes, "the Jewish interlocutors are asking, why did not Catholic's ties to the Jewish community color the way they viewed the movie?...Jewish critics do not want to deny Catholics a particular experience of piety, if they find themselves moved by the film. They do expect, though, that Catholics will have integrated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council so they can react spontaneously to stereotypical anti-Semitism and sympathetically to Jewish pain over fundamental offenses." Why can one not conclude that, with the lack of anti-Semitism arising from Catholic viewers of the movie, Catholics have responded to the film in a positive way, inspired by Vatican II's opening to the Jewish community? And, after so many years of dialogue, why is it that our Jewish conversation partners see anti-Semitism as the only motive or as necessarily present when we retell this central story of our faith? Is it not possible that the "pain" generated by this film is a projection of past wrongs onto something that has no anti-Semitic content or motive? Can this (or any)portrayal from a Christian perspective of events involving people in the Jewish community in 1st century Jerusalem ever be seen by our Jewish friends to be free from anti-Semitism?

The direction of interfaith dialogue supported by the two rabbis and supported by Christiansen is decidedly one-sided. Even in the absence of anti-Semitic reaction by Catholics to the film, the new proof for our anti-Semitism seems to be our refusal to<

James C. G. Conniff | 8/3/2004 - 5:40pm
For the most part, Drew Christiansen acquits himself creditably with his treatment of Jewish sensitivity to Mel Gibson's film and Christians' need as Christians to reckon with that sensitivity. But he falls short of the realities involved in several ways.

To countervailing purpose, he goes along with the by now all but patented mantra of "anti-Semitism" and "anti-Semitic," when as a seasoned Jesuit journalist he knows full well that Arabs are also Semites. A reasonable sense of fairness might give the nod to that fact by recognizing "the other anti-Semitism," the one that manifests itself in, for example, the anti-Palestinian tilt of American foreign policy.

Set aside, even though relevant, former national science advisor Zbiegniew Brezezinski's nearly solo courage in stressing for his interviewer on prime-time television the further fact that for every Israeli murdered by suicide bombers, American-funded Israeli weaponry has accounted for the murder of three Palestinians.

What remains clear here is that, as The New York Times spelled out in an A-section treatment nearly a decade ago, Israel's AIPAC lobby has borne out Ariel Sharon's boast that "we own the U.S. Congress" by ensuring that Israel takes in a unique up-front $5 billion of American taxpayers' money every first business day after New Year's. That has been going on for a half-century. Israel at once plows the gift back into U.S. Treasury securities with which it buys ever more destructive armaments and bankrolls its intrusive "settlements" drive.

The frightening outcome to which this misguided foreign policy that began with attacks on American citizens abroad and twice, so far, here in the homeland itself has contributed big- time, should be too obvious to require further comment.

Finally, Drew Christiansen glosses in a line and a half the unconscionable abuse of his fellow clerics by the Sharon government's refusal, among other uncompromising maneuvers, to guarantee return to their Christian assignments if those clergy have to leave Israel even briefly on personal or ad liminal visits abroad.

We do indeed need understanding and kindness in dealing with one another. But well-meaning as your colleague's excursion into this beleaguered set of relationships may be, it remains unhappily true also that, almost as if by formula, too much of the exchange is and has been more like all take and little if any give.

Writers with Christiansen's clout owe it to both sides to do a better-balanced, more even-minded job of dealing with the foregoing realities, or peace will continue to go begging.