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.
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.