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Pope Francis’s missed opportunity to speak the truth

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

On Sunday, Pope Francis traveled across town to visit Rome’s synagogue that stands within the old Jewish ghetto the Catholic Church helped to create and maintain for centuries. It is here, too, that more than a thousand Jews were deported during the Holocaust.

Understandably, the Pope’s mood was somber. It was also joyous. The Pope’s presence, as was true of his two predecessors, is testimony to how relations between Jews and Catholics have changed for the better in the years since Vatican II. Catholics now affirm Jews as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey.

The movement of the Catholic Church in relation to Jews has been revolutionary. Instead of reviling and ghettoizing Jews as a sign of human and Godly punishment for betraying and rejecting Jesus, Jews are now recognized by the Church as their “elder brothers” with an enduring covenant with God. Repentance for the Church’s sins of anti-Semitism is now enshrined in Catholic teaching the world over.

In Rome’s synagogue, the Pope spoke movingly of this new era of Jewish-Christian relations:

Our relations are very close to my heart. When in Buenos Aires I used to go to the synagogues and meet the communities gathered there, I used to follow Jewish festivities and commemorations and give thanks to the Lord who gives us life and accompanies us on the path of history. Over time, a spiritual bond has been created which has favoured the birth of a genuine friendship and given life to a shared commitment. In interreligious dialogue it is essential that we meet as brothers and sisters before our Creator and to Him give praise, that we respect and appreciate each other and try to collaborate. In Jewish-Christian dialogue there is a unique and special bond thanks to the Jewish roots of Christianity: Jews and Christians must therefore feel as brothers, united by the same God and by a rich common spiritual patrimony (cf. Declaration. Nostra Aetate, 4 ), upon which to build the future.

With this visit I follow in the footsteps of my predecessors. Pope John Paul II came here thirty years ago, on 13 April 1986; and Pope Benedict XVI was among you six years ago. On that occasion John Paul II coined the beautiful description “elder brothers”, and in fact you are our brothers and sisters in the faith. We all belong to one family, the family of God, who accompanies and protects us, His people. Together, as Jews and as Catholics, we are called to take on our responsibilities towards this city, giving first of all a spiritual contribution, and favouring the resolution of various current problems. It is my hope that closeness, mutual understanding and respect between our two communities continue to grow. Thus, it is significant that I have come among you today, on January 17, the day when the Italian Episcopal Conference celebrates the “Day of dialogue between Catholics and Jews.”

Though many of the synagogue attendees and Jewish onlookers around the world were pleased with the Pope’s words, others hoped for more. For decades the interfaith dialogue has been stuck in the horrible history of the Holocaust. The ongoing reality of Israeli and diaspora Jewish complicity in the suffering of Palestinians has been relegated to the back burner of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue when broached at all. More often, Catholic and other Christians raising the issue of Palestinian suffering have faced the accusation of renewed Christian anti-Semitism. Jews of Conscience who view the issue of Palestinian freedom as a Jewish obligation to work for justice have been frozen out of the dialogue. The interfaith dialogue has thus become a deal: Christians repent for the sins of anti-Semitism and remain silent on Jewish complicity in the suffering of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, however, the Pope’s sense of history and confession remained mostly – and safely – in the past. He addressed the present-day quagmire of the Jewish communities around the world in relation to Israel and the Palestinians in only one coded reference:

Along with theological issues, we must not lose sight of the big challenges facing the world today. That of an integral ecology is now a priority, and us Christians and Jews can and must offer humanity the message of the Bible regarding the care of creation. Conflicts, wars, violence and injustices open deep wounds in humanity and call us to strengthen a commitment for peace and justice. Violence by man against man is in contradiction with any religion worthy of that name, and in particular with the three great monotheistic religions. Life is sacred, a gift of God. The fifth commandment of the Decalogue says: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). God is the God of life, and always wants to promote and defend it; and we, created in his image and likeness, are called upon to do the same. Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother, regardless of his or her origin or religious affiliation. Each person must be viewed with favour, just as God does, who offers his merciful hand to all, regardless of their faith and of their belonging, and who cares for those who most need him: the poor, the sick, the marginalized , the helpless. Where life is in danger, we are called even more to protect it. Neither violence nor death will have the last word before God, the God of love and life. We must pray with insistence to help us put into practice the logic of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of life, in Europe, in the Holy Land, in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Though this reference to Israel-Palestine as the Holy Land raised ire among some Jews, for Jews of Conscience the Pope missed an opportunity to move the Jewish-Catholic friendship to a new level of honesty. The irony is telling. As the Pope correctly apologized for the Church’s role in the ghettoization of Jews, he remained silent about the ongoing ghettoization of Palestinians in Israel-Palestine. Putting into practice the “logic of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of life,” as a spiritual value common to Jews and Christians, means more than veiled references to the devastating policies of Israel against Palestinians. A true and lasting friendship at times demands truth-telling. Is the Jewish-Catholic relationship so fragile that the Pope has to enforce his own silence?

As confession and warm wishes are extended all around, the revolutionary fraternity of Jews and Catholics has entered a dance of silences that mask another crime being committed, this time by Israel with the support of Jewish establishments around the world. Instead of one veiled reference to Jewish complicity in injustice, the Pope should have stood firm. It is possible, indeed it is necessary, to condemn the history of anti-Semitism and the ongoing history of the destruction of Palestine.

Do true friends of the Jewish people allow Jews to create a history too similar to the one that the Pope, as his predecessors, must continually apologize for?

In Rome, Pope Francis missed an opportunity to speak the truth about Israel-Palestine and to demonstrate a deeper friendship with the Jewish people. After all, true friendship isn’t about skipping over the hard parts.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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13 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    January 18, 2016, 5:10 pm

    So, just as Catholics had been (or are still, sometimes, little doubt) silent about sins of Catholic clergy, here we are reminded of two other silences — Jewish silence about I/P (a silence that matters overwhelmingly) and the Pope’s silence, while in his elder brother’s house, about his elder brother’s sins (a silence that might be put down to good manners — we do not insult our host). And, anyhow, isn’t it antisemitism to put Israel’s behavior down to “the Jews”?

    But, yes, the Pope and many others might put in a word or two. About I/P, about USA’s imperialist wars generally, about Yemen, about so very many things.

  2. lysias
    January 18, 2016, 5:44 pm

    Last weekend’s Financial Times has a review of several new books by and about Pope Francis:

  3. Shmuel
    January 18, 2016, 6:01 pm

    I agree with Marc Ellis that the pope has a duty to “rebuke” his elder brothers (following Lev. 19:17), but yesterday at Rome’s great synagogue was neither the time nor the place. I very much doubt that Pope Francis will ever do so, but I think he can be cut some slack for not having used yesterday’s symbolic gesture of goodwill to that end.

    • talknic
      January 18, 2016, 6:54 pm

      @ Shmuel ” I think he can be cut some slack for not having used yesterday’s symbolic gesture of goodwill to that end”


      “… yesterday at Rome’s great synagogue was neither the time nor the place. I very much doubt that Pope Francis will ever do so “

      If there’ll never be a good time, why cut anyone any slack? Israel has had almost 68 years of slack!

      • Shmuel
        January 19, 2016, 1:40 am

        If there’ll never be a good time, why cut anyone any slack?

        I didn’t say there would never be a good time, but that Pope Francis was unlikely to “preach” to Jews on this subject.

        Israel has had almost 68 years of slack!<

        This was not Israel, but the Jewish community of Rome. There were good reasons for Sunday’s gesture, Had he used the opportunity to take his hosts to task for their support for Israel, he would not have changed any minds and, on the contrary, would have severely damaged the relations he was trying to bolster. He managed to create a lot of goodwill and win considerable admiration. Ideally, he will put that credibility and those channels to good use.

        Apparently, his next interfaith step will be to visit Rome’s great mosque. I presume he will not take that opportunity to “rebuke” Christianity’s “younger brothers” either.

      • talknic
        January 19, 2016, 4:40 am

        OK. I’m a little short on cutting any slack when it comes to Israel’s crimes

      • MHughes976
        January 19, 2016, 9:58 am

        Marc is a believer in prophecy but the Pope is practising a kind of diplomacy and these two are very hard to combine.

  4. JWalters
    January 18, 2016, 7:54 pm

    Generally speaking, people enable brutality because they fear the brutes.

  5. Kay24
    January 18, 2016, 8:36 pm

    Unfortunately, here in the US no leader speaks the truth about the Israeli/Palestinian issue either. It is the elephant in the room. For a democracy, that is disappointing.

    The zionists have successfully linked any truth telling/criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.
    It is time for the world to call that nothing but baloney.

  6. Rusty Pipes
    Rusty Pipes
    January 18, 2016, 8:38 pm

    Last week, the Vatican furthered its recognition of the State of Palestine by signing an agreement about the state’s treatment of its Christian minority. The Pope urged other states in the Middle East to protect their religious minorities. He wasn’t just talking to Muslims.

  7. W.Jones
    January 20, 2016, 9:59 pm

    ” Jews are now recognized by the Church as their “elder brothers” with an enduring covenant with God”

    Do you believe that too? If Christians and Jews are part of the same covenant, can Palestinian Christians share the land and get treated as human beings of equal worth so that we can all go home now?

    Too bad Marc never writes back.

    • MHughes976
      January 21, 2016, 4:28 am

      You take the enduring covenant, WJ, to be the same covenant that we have – and indeed the Pope’s language of fraternity supports that view. I’m sure the same language will be used in his forthcoming Mosque address and many will applaud it. But there is another meaning of enduring covenant, that is that the special relationship with God of old times continues unchanged even though there is now a second covenant applying to the nations in general. Sinai stands and Calvary does not modify it.
      The first interpretation is surely a theological rejection of Zionism: if we all share in the same covenant there are no distinctive rights and no strictly distinctive status for Jewish people. The second interpretation is a theological endorsement of Zionism – the divine laws which established the Jewish Kingdom are in full force.
      I think and fear that the ambivalence of the enduring covenant idea is going to lead to much misunderstanding and recrimination.

      • Citizen
        March 17, 2016, 11:17 am

        People do like to think they are special.

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