Tolerance Requires Truth

In a quasi-recent item of Vatican affairs, Pope Benedict XVI has decided to re-word a prayer for Good Friday in the 1962 Missal concerning the conversion of the Jews. For those who may not be aware, the pope’s permission to celebrate the ‘extraordinary form’ of the Mass thus includes the republication of the Missal of 1962, wherein the prayers of that Mass can be found. One of the prayers—the one voicing a petition of hope for the conversion of the Jews to the truth of Christianity—was the subject of much scrutiny, both by Catholics and non-Christians, particularly Jewish authorities. The motivation on the part of the Catholic Church to pray for this conversion seems to many audacious, and to some simply scandalous. Certainly, the freedom to believe what one chooses to believe needs to be respected. However, I would ask, isn’t fighting against such a prayer just silly?

First things first: the Holy Father has deemed it prudent to re-word part of the phrasing—as I mentioned above; the word referring to the “blindness” of the Jews has been omitted, however the rest of the prayer has been left largely intact. This less-than-total revamping of the prayer has caused some religious activists and Jewish leaders to criticize the pope even more heavily than before. They view the decision as casting “a harsh shadow over the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration” between Catholics and Jews. In reality, however, perhaps the question we should be asking is, “What does mutual respect mean if total respect for one another’s belief is not also fostered?” In other words, don’t we need to just simply realize that Catholicism is not Judaism, and that the two really are quite irreconcilable?

All this is not to say that we cannot live together in peace; I think that Pope Pius XII’s disposition toward the Jews during the Nazi years is a great testament to what it means to peacefully and mutually coexist, even without a total surrender of one’s own beliefs; his support and sheltering of Jewish Italians during the German occupation of the 1940’s was commendable, and is prompting many to pursue his cause for canonization. Oddly enough, the change in prayers is meant to reflect the post-Vatican II increase in mutuality between the two religions, but unfortunately this pre-conciliar relationship is so easily and quickly overlooked. To me, this seems a better example of what religious tolerance and respect entail: risking one’s life to save brothers and sisters, even if they do not share our same beliefs.

This is all really just an archetype for the bigger state of world affairs. The relationship between Catholics and Jews is a speck on the map, but this same misunderstood mentality of ‘religious tolerance’ seems to be encroaching ever more boldly into mainstream cultural life. Particularly of interest in Europe is the growing influx of Islamic peoples into formerly and originally Christian countries. If our mentality of inter-religious respect is a concession to another’s belief for fear of violating some superficial principle of non-disagreement, then the future of Europe as the home of Christianity is grim indeed. However, if true religious tolerance and respect stems from a desire to see the truth, and to help others see that same truth—which must always, as Christians, be rooted in Christ, who is both Truth and Peace—then we need to seriously re-evaluate our approach to dialogue and ‘collaboration.’ If no objective truth is put forth, dialogue between religions is fundamentally incapacitated from ever reaching any level beyond mere bickering. Prayer from the 1962 Missal: case and point.

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    # by Anonymous - March 7, 2008 at 1:03 PM

    Andrew, I ran across your blog for the first time today, and found your post on Benedict's partial revision of the prayer concerning the conversion of the Jews. While I admire the thoughtfulness that permeates everything you've written on your blog (and I wonder how a seminarian possibly finds time to write so thoughtfully on top of his other duties!), I found the defense of the prayer revision, and the larger critique of the "misunderstood mentality of religious tolerance" to be one-dimensional and in need of rebuttal. It reads like a faithful defense of the pope, but not really like a full consideration of the issue. Here is an opposing view.

    You argue for a vision of "religious tolerance" that involves "living in peace" but "without a total surrender of one's beliefs." You feel the Church's freedom of perspective is being attacked when people criticize Benedict's partial revision of the prayer about the conversion of the Jews. If I understand correctly, your position is that Catholics have a right to express their hope of converting the Jewish people, as part of their broader right to freedom of perspective.

    But there's a nuance to the issue that seems to escape discussion here. "Perspectives" that encroach on, or threaten to encroach on, the freedom of others are not, to many people, what the freedom of perspective is intended to defend. The underlying argument in your post is not just that Catholics have a right to live peacefully and express their own perspective; it is that Catholics have a right to express a perspective that is aggressive and (I don't think you would entirely disagree with these words) militantly Messianic, a perspective that considers itself *the* perspective, and has a plan to disseminate it. This view is difficult to reconcile with modern spiritual pluralism. Some people outside the Church might be forgiven for thinking that your advocacy of the freedom of perspective is really a stalking horse for the idea that there is only, really, a freedom to be Catholic, not a freedom *from* being Catholic.

    Now, the secular world's view of the freedom of religion may not interest you, or may strike you as flawed. But it's important to note that there's a divergent view of religious pluralism even within the Catholic Church. Vatican II's "Nostra Aetate", even in its diluted final form, says in its first paragraph that the Church has a "task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations." It says "One is the community of all people, one their origin." And then: "Catholicism rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Catholic] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and life... though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth." Finally, in the section devoted to the Jews specifically, it says: "this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend mutual understanding and respect." In this spirit, it is relevant to ask how publicly praying for Jewish conversion furthers the cause of mutual understanding and respect that is the Church's stated goal. Even before we ask whether Jews and others are right to be offended by the prayer (and I would argue that they certainly are), the question is whether the simple act of offending them undermines the Church's stated goal. Nostra Aetate, in other words, argues for diplomacy and love; Benedict's revision of the prayer (like his comments on Islam) seems tone-deaf to that plea.

    John Paul II's efforts with other churches and religions, on the other hand, seemed to affirm the vision of Nostra Aetate. While he never disclaimed the idea that complete Truth resides only in the Catholic Church, John Paul nevertheless treated other faiths with profound compassion, being quicker to apologize for Catholic wrongs than to insist on other faiths' deficiencies. It is one thing to ask whether it is Catholic to believe that truth resides only within the Church; I think it is fair to say that this *is* the Catholic position, even in Nostra Aetate. But it is another thing to ask whether it is Catholic to *say* such things in a blunt, institutional way that alienates and offends the same people for whom Nostra Aetate demands "mutual understanding and respect."

    I can think of only one exception in John Paul's compassionate approach to other faiths: his "Dominus Iesus," in which many readers have suggested the influence of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Dominus Iesus returns to Catholicism's traditional, pre-Vatican II insistence on the deficiency of all other religions and churches -- and also returns to a blunt, alienating way of discussing it. Benedict has gone so far as to indicate that John Paul's approach to ecumenical relations "could not be the model," so it is fair to assert that there is some latitude in the Church's official position. A study of their differences, and of the Vatican II legacy (especially vis-a-vis Judaism), seems like part of the essential backdrop for the topic you raised in your blog. Yet it never came up.

    Even at a theoretical level, even just for the sake of lip service, you don't acknowledge that within mainstream Catholicism and the Magisterium there is latitude for understanding what religious tolerance means; there is latitude for understanding God's plan as it acts in human history; and there is latitude for understanding the epistemological question of how much of God's plan is knowable, and therefore how believers should behave toward non-believers.

    What I find most troublesome in your blog post, though, is the reluctance to disentangle the issue of "freedom of perspective" from the issue of Catholicism's historical relationship with Judaism. Benedict's partial revision of the "Jewish" prayer does not merely fall under the heading of the Church's freedom to have a point of view. The particular point of view at issue here has a long and bloody history: it begins with the "blood curse" from the Gospel of Matthew (in which the Jews say, "His [Jesus'] blood be on us, and on our children"); it extends to the old accusations of Jewish blood libel; and it enters the modern question of Catholic anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. A prayer that advocates the conversion of the Jews -- that institutionally casts Jews in a situation of deficiency and hints at their evangelization -- is not an idea in a vacuum. It is a potent question fraught with a history of violence and hate.

    I know these are difficult questions to explore fully in any forum, let alone in a quick blog post. I also know that the Catholic Church has been on its heels recently, having to defend itself in the wake of John Cornwell's book about Pius XII ("Hitler's Pope"), and the accusations by other intellectuals (including liberal Catholics like Garry Wills) that sainthood has been used as a Holocuast publicity tool by the Church (i.e., canonizing Holocaust victims tacitly promotes the view that Catholics were victims rather than perpetrators or silent bystanders). Your blog reflects that defensive posture when you invoke Pius XII as a model of religious toleration, and praise him for sheltering Jews in World War II. I understand the emotional impulse to defend a beloved institution and a member of one's spiritual family; I certainly understand the intellectual necessity of not allowing a few criticisms of Catholicism to degenerate into a wholesale condemnation of a Church that for 2000 years has done more good for the Western world than perhaps any other.

    Still, it is one thing for a Catholic seminarian to write a blog that is basically apologetic in aim (that is, aimed at defending the Catholic Church); it would be surprising if a Catholic seminarian's blog were *not* apologetic that way. I agree with you that a strong marketplace of ideas depends on the competition of different points of view, and that Catholicism's viewpoint is especially robust, especially to anyone in the Western world. But there are two kinds of apologetics: one that engages with other ideas, and participates fully in the marketplace of ideas by competing with others and improving itself through that competition; and another that does not acknowledge other points of view, and offers its perspective in a vacuum. This second kind is what I feel I see in this blog post, an absence of crucial opposing viewpoints on a subject as important as Catholicism's relationship to other religions, especially Judaism.

    I find myself wanting to know exactly what freedom of perspective means to you, where it ends, and what freedom against it you would offer to dissidents. I also find myself wanting to know what underlying view of Catholicism's relationship to other religions, especially Judaism, is implied by your defense of Benedict's prayer revision. *That* strikes me as the heart of the matter; posing the issue as if it were really about freedom of perspective seems peripheral or even misleading.

    Having said all that, I don't want to lose the forest for the trees. Much as I take issue with your post, I enjoy being able to read a blog that raises issues like these, and helps to raise the level of the whole marketplace of ideas, which sometimes, especially here in America, seems constantly on the decline. It is gratifying to see that the Catholic Church continues to believe in the value of education and the power of ideas. It is also impressive, as I said before, to see a seminarian who finds the time and the inspiration to share his theological formation with the world. That act of openness is, I think, the fundamental one, the one on which the marketplace of ideas depends. I hope my criticism above doesn't deter you from keeping it up!

    Respectfully,
    A Reader in America

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    # by Andrew Haines - March 8, 2008 at 9:48 AM

    I’m not even sure where to begin a response to such a well-articulated and though-out comment. Certainly, I appreciate your insights greatly and wish I could afford the time to dialogue more on all the points you brought to the table. However, you were also right in realizing that finding time to post thoughtful blog entries on top of other seminary duties is taxing enough. Thus—while recognizing my inability to give proper attention to many of your points, and knowing that I could easily devote an inordinate amount of time to writing and thinking about this—I will respond to the chief item you mentioned toward the end of your comment: namely, what is my take on “freedom of perspective,” and what is implied thereby for “Catholicism’s relationship to other religions, especially Judaism.”

    Although this response goes beyond what I was trying to say in the original post (i.e. something designed to be brief and non-exhaustive of the issue), I must retain a similar viewpoint as before. However, I would submit that my viewpoint does fall within the “latitude for understanding” within the Church that you posited in your comment.

    Really, I do not believe that the initiative of any group to pray for the conversion of another in realizing the fullness of truth is ever an impediment to the freedom of ‘perspective’ to which both are also entitled. However, these words, “freedom of perspective,” are not my words (in fact, they appear nowhere in my post); they are much more the words of a society whose understanding of ‘freedom’ differs greatly from the Catholic notion of that term. The greater question, in my mind, would be to consider the implications of the word, “freedom,” and not so much those of “perspective.” Freedom, in a Catholic understanding, is rooted in the God-given ability to follow the Lord’s designs with a full and undivided heart, ultimately aimed at the fullness of truth and freedom in Christ. In mentioning secular society’s understanding of this ‘freedom of perspective’ as a norm to be considered, however, an entirely different conception of ‘freedom’ and ‘truth’ is introduced. Thus, we are faced with a concept of freedom as either ‘being who you want to be’ or ‘choosing who God wants you to be’; the latter, as an “apologetic” blogger, is the perspective from which I am writing.

    Although this may seem like a circumvention of the initial critique, I believe that it is at the heart of the matter. I do not see the Church as being denied her ‘freedom of perspective’ because of the negative feedback to the prayer for the conversion of the Jews; rather, I see a situation that is misunderstood on a more fundamental and philosophic level. The title of my post, “Tolerance Requires Truth,” implies just that: we cannot hope for constructive inter-religious dialogue until we are standing on the same basic and indispensable premises. I call the banter in the news “silly” not because it isn’t important, but rather because it will be deadlocked until more primal issues are addressed. You obviously realize this too, as I see in your comment.

    As for Catholicism’s relationship to other religions, the same principles apply. There can really be no efficacious advance in dialogue until a common notion of “freedom” and “truth” is established. That is a question for philosophers and theologians seeking an objective and ultimate reality, not inter-religious-dialogue-committees seeking quick fixes (much less the news media). So long as one group’s prayer for another is not the basis of violence toward them or a refusal to take seriously those others as human beings, whose personhood warrants objective respect, then I see no problem. Again, though, this is my opinion based on my own experience of reality, and the question is never so cut-and-dry as one individual may make it seem.

    Thus, I conclude my brief response. I’m sorry I couldn’t write more; I know how aggravating it can be to have written something thoughtful only for it to remain untreated, but in the name of studies and humility, I cannot. Thank you again for your comments and I appreciate your readership. I am genuinely curious to know something of where you’re from, your education, etc., since I find anonymous correspondence to be lacking a certain personal element—something essential for all inter-human dialogue and education. It is entirely up to you though. Thanks again for your comments!

    -Andrew