The adoration of Pope Francis has swept all before it. The man inspiring people in the Catholic Church and appealing to people outside it, he has earned a reputation as a leader who appears liberal in outlook and kindly in approach to divisive issues, mostly concerned with marriage, divorce, and abortion. Whether he can lead the Catholic Church to different practices, if not different doctrines, on these issues remains to be seen. Certainly, the result of the latest synod, which first floated, then deflated, a statement welcoming to those whose conduct departs from church teachings, raises questions about his effectuality, but not about his enlightened, progressive views sincerely held and forthrightly advocated.
While the synod was debating a statement initially favorable to gays, lesbians, and divorced individuals, Pope Francis was delivering a homily surprisingly regressive in its views of Judaism. In essence, it countered changes of attitude toward, and position on, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity begun by Vatican II over 50 years ago. Under Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the Church not only notably repudiated its past position that all Jews then and since shared responsibility for the Crucifixion, but also more controversially implied a dual covenantal view of the relationship between Jews and God, and Christians and God. The short form of the justification for this view is, “God did not, and does not, make mistakes”—or, I might add, renege on his promises. In essence, the Church tacitly acknowledged that Judaism is a complete, coherent, cogent, and, for its believers, compelling faith independent of any other faith.
Pope Francis reverted to a traditional view that Judaism is merely a consistent and self-contained code of rigid laws which constitutes an incomplete, thus an imperfect, faith because, he claims, it did not, and does not, recognize the full trajectory of its prophetic teachings fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah. Thus, on 13 October, at Santa Marta, this Pope declared, as reported by the Vatican Radio, that “‘a path is not absolute in itself,’ it is a path towards ‘the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when He will come again’.... Pope Francis added, ‘they [“the Doctors of the Law,” as he calls them] failed to understand that the law they guarded and loved’ was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ. ‘If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ’ - he said – ‘if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead....’”
Nothing can save Pope Francis from the implications of his words. His homily echoes centuries of anti-Judaic preachings in its pejorative depiction of Judaism as a faith of the “dead” under the “law.” The characterization of Judaism as a faith defined by laws is false to, and disrespectful of, Judaism. The representation of Judaism as a dead legalism and the disregard of its moral merits and religious integrity because it does not accept Jesus as the Messiah condemns Jesus’ faith only because it is different from Christianity. Bad enough is his re-assertion of anti-Judaic views which repudiate the best thinking of religious thinkers, many of them Catholic, since the Second World War. Worse is his revival of the old canards about Jewish believers as something rather like religious zombies, living dead, untouched, and untouchable, by Christian truth or stubborn in its denial—and what all else? The old canards newly stated or implied by Pope Francis have had dangerous and deadly consequences for Jews in the past. Is this Pope prepared to accept responsibility for their consequences in the future?
As Pope Francis advances sympathy for, and acceptance of, Catholics who have deviated from Church teachings on social issues, he retreats to scorn and rejection of Jews, who never accepted them in the first place. The Pope’s views are enlightened when it comes to Catholics (Christians, more generally) but benighted when it comes to Jews. It is easy for him to win acclaim on the Left, for the New Left combines approval of LGBTs and disapproval of Jews and Israel. For many Church leaders, his liberal views on same-sex marriage, divorce, and abortion may be anathema, but his conservative views on Judaism and Jews reveal prevalent Catholic attitudes and beliefs hidden by a half century of hypocrisy.