Anti-Semitic attacks, such as we are seeing with stunning frequency in the United States and Europe again, are in two ways personal for me and yet incomprehensible all the same.
In the first instance, one of my oldest and loveliest friends would not be alive were it not for the fact that an error made by a commandant at Auschwitz turned her parents back to Budapest from which they then escaped, eventually winding up in New York. There my friend and her family were ever after amazed at such a singular blessing as the freedom they experienced in that city and in this country. I think of my friend every time I hear of an anti-Semitic attack like those taking place this past week in New York.
Ours is an unlikely friendship, with significant differences in age, sex, nationality and religion. In the early years of it, I affected crudely reactionary views on several issues to provoke howls of outrage from her. Her politics, she insisted, were faithful to the socialist views of what she always called “my people.”
Hers was an ironic and bemused use of that phrase for she never kept kosher, almost never went to schul — as she persisted in calling it — and never missed setting up an enormous Christmas to glory in the season. But she did, nonetheless, feel attached to Judaism enough as to be wary of Catholicism. When I became Catholic, she became deeply worried.
For me, however, entering the Church brought great moral clarity and a new identity — but not, as she feared, in a tribal way. Instead I was now part of a large and incredibly diverse family (“here comes everybody” as James Joyce put it). Naturally I looked to the father and head of that earthly family, the pope of Rome, for direction. Fortunately, I did not have to look long or hard to see something expressed with pellucid clarity by Pope Pius XI in 1938, who said: “It is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually we are all Semites.” (Pope Pius XI was quoted in Ronald Rychlak’s useful book, “Hitler, the War, and the Pope, Revised and Expanded,” published by OSV.)
This theme — of family and progeny — is one that marks papal teaching from Pius to Francis. From the late 1930s until March of 2019, the popes have made it increasingly clear that anti-Semitism is both wrong in itself, but also a perverse defiance of the divine headship of the Church, whose lord and master remains the Jewish Jesus descended of a Jewish mother. (Judaism, as my friend first told me, is matrilineal.)
The teaching was given important form at Vatican II in Nostra Aetate and reiterated (sometimes circumspectly) by various popes — e.g., in March 2000 Pope John Paul II said that “the Church utterly condemns anti-Semitism and every form of racism as being altogether opposed to the principles of Christianity.”
When we come to the current pope, however — as is his way — he does not mince words, and he does not shy away from repeating these condemnations on a regular basis and in the most public of ways. Thus, several times in just the fall of 2013 alone, he exhorted all people to “be watchful so that forms of intolerance and anti-Semitism do not recur under any pretext, here in Rome and in the rest of the world. I have said it on other occasions and I would like to repeat it now: it is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic.” A few weeks later, he said that “I have reaffirmed on more than one occasion the Church’s condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism. Today I wish to emphasize that the problem of intolerance must be confronted in all its forms: wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of its religious convictions or ethnic identity, the wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected.”
In February 2017 Pope Francis noted that “sadly, anti-Semitism, which I again denounce in all its forms as completely contrary to Christian principles and every vision worthy of the human person, is still widespread today. I reaffirm that ‘the Catholic Church feels particularly obliged to do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies’.”
Just over a year ago, in November 2018, he wrote that “as I have often repeated, a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; we share the same roots. It would be a contradiction of faith and life.”
The fullest and most forceful passage comes most recently. With striking force and clarity, Pope Francis has proven a very worthy successor to the bluntness first unleashed by Pius XI in 1938, especially as seen in this passage from March 2019:
“At present, however, a source of great concern to me is the spread, in many places, of a climate of wickedness and fury, in which an excessive and depraved hatred is taking root. I think especially of the outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks in various countries. Today I also wish to reiterate that it is necessary to be vigilant about such a phenomenon… . I stress that for a Christian any form of anti-Semitism is a rejection of one’s own origins, a complete contradiction.”
As the world again sees an outbreak of these incomprehensible attacks, including even in New York City, Catholics everywhere, following not just our pope, but our Jewish lord and master, must make it clear that all such attacks on the Jewish people are intrinsically evil and contradictory of our faith. Attacks on the Jewish people, in whom God still glories (cf. Lk 2:32), are sins against the God in whose image and likeness we are all made (cf. Gn 1:26-27).
Adam A.J. DeVille is author of “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.95).