Catholic-Jewish Solidarity for Religious Freedom

Under the headline “The Vatican’s Twisted Priorities,” the Italian journalist Giulio Meotti published an incendiary denunciation of alleged Catholic anti-Semitism in the March 16 edition of the Israeli news site Ynet. Meotti wrote:


In a special interview with Die Tagespost last week, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, named by Pope Benedict to represent the Vatican in the Jewish State, declared that “Israel’s existence as such has nothing to do with the Bible.” He then compared Christians’ condition in today’s Jerusalem with Jesus’ Passion: “We Christians never forget that even our Lord himself suffered and was mocked in Jerusalem.”

Ynet should hire a fact checker: Fouad Twal represents not the Vatican, but the small and dwindling community of Arab Catholics in Israel and the Territories. The Vatican’s diplomatic representative in Israel is its ambassador, the Italian Archbishop Antonio Franco. That Arab Christians are Arabs before they are Catholic and maintain an implacable hatred for the Jewish State is nothing new. To survive as an Arab minority, they ingratiate themselves with the  Jew-hatred prevalent in the Muslim majority.  But there are only 120,000 Arabs among the 300,000 Christians resident in the State of Israel, and a growing number attend Catholic services in Hebrew.

The irremediable bitterness of the Arab Christians aside, the Jewish people have a friend in Rome in the person of the present pope, as they did with his great predecessor. As Assaf Sagiv, the editor of the conservative Israeli quarterly Azure, wrote after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel, “Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Ratzinger—is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City.” The Israeli columnist Aviad Kleinberg wrote at the time, “John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.”


This is important not simply as a matter of accuracy, but because lingering distrust and anger continue to undermine what should be a Jewish-Catholic alliance for religious freedom. As I argued in a February 19 post (“After they come for the Catholic Church, they will come for us”), the Obama administration’s attempt to force the Catholic Church to dispense abortion pills and contraceptives through health plans offered by its institutions violates the First Amendment. To argue that Catholic institutions should accept federal standards because they accept federal money is nonsense, because they have no choice but to offer health insurance under Obamacare. The haredi organization Agudath Israel backed the Catholic bishops, I reported, but not the Orthodox Union, the Modern Orthodox organization.

The controversy continues to simmer in the Orthodox world. On March 7, Brandeis University Prof. Jonathan Sarna attacked the prominent Orthodox scholar Rabbi Meir Soloveichik in the Jewish Forward website. Prof. Sarna began:

Invoking George Washington’s famous letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of New York’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, one of the foremost Orthodox rabbis of his generation, told a congressional committee on February 16 that requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception threatened “the liberties of conscience” of fellow Americans and “redefined by bureaucratic fiat” the definition of religion itself. He found it appalling that any religious organization — Catholic or not — should be “obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization’s religious tenets.”


Sarna continued:

Yet for all that one may sympathize with Catholic institutions coerced into promoting contraceptive services that they consider sinful, Soloveichik’s congressional testimony greatly oversimplifies the religious liberty conundrum confronted by those who oversee national health insurance. The guarantee of religious liberty, after all, applies not only to religious organizations, but also to individual citizens. However much Catholic institutions may invoke religious liberty when they deny those they employ access to contraception, it is critical to remember that from the perspective of those employees, the denial reeks of religious coercion….one hopes that Congress will ignore the testimony of Soloveichik. To focus on the religious liberties of employers while overlooking those of their employees, and to focus on only the free exercise clause of the First Amendment while ignoring the dangers of coercive religious establishments, is to pervert what Washington meant when he spoke of “liberty of conscience” and to set back the cause of liberty and justice for all.

This is perhaps least convincing argument I have ever heard from a reputable Orthodox scholar. The Constitution establishes a right to free exercise of religion; the Obama administration asserts an entitlement to health care. No one has a Constitutional right to health care (unless the Constitution be amended to say so); a temporary majority in Congress simply funded an entitlement. If the next Congress repeals Obamacare, the entitlement will disappear, but not the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. In effect, Sarna claims that by coercing religious institutions to offer health insurance, the Obama administration has “established” them as de facto government agencies, such that their refusal to provide abortion pills (for example) becomes the act of a “coercive religious establishment” rather than a private religious association! Catholic organizations have offered health insurance without abortion pills or contraception for generations: where were the employee lawsuits demanding such things?


I cannot imagine that we would be having this discussion except for the residual rancor that Jews bear towards the Catholic Church over the long and terrible history of persecution of Jews. The fact remains — as I wrote in my Feb. 19 post — that the practice of the Jewish religion still  remains under the threat of persecution, and not only by Muslims who want to annihilate the State of Israel. Several countries have banned kosher slaughter under the spurious pretext of protecting animal rights. Legislation to ban kosher slaughter is still before the Dutch parliament.

Chris Rutenfrans, the editorial page editor of the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, has forward to me the Dutch Catholic bishops’ statement of June 1, 2011, on the matter. The Dutch Church wrote, “To many Jewish Dutchmen, ritual slaughter is essential to religious life. A prohibition would make it impossible to them to live according their religious tradition which they have been able to maintain for centuries in the Netherlands. The suffering of animals should be avoided. In this case we think freedom of religion is more important.” The Catholic Church was our strongest backer against persecution in Holland (just as the British bishops were our strongest allies when the English courts denounced matrilineal determination of Jewish identity as racist in 2009).

The Jewish relationship with the Catholic Church is fraught with a terrible history and ameliorated by a great effort at reconciliation. We must neither forget the history nor reject the outstretched hand. We have in common the enemies of religion and freedom, and if we do not join hands with our Christian friends when they are persecuted, from whom shall we ask help when we are persecuted?


There are times when we must remonstrate vigorously with the Catholic Church for the residual anti-Semitism in its ranks. Two years ago the Synod of Middle Eastern Bishops produced statements  that outraged Jews around the world. As (at the time) an editor at the predominantly Catholic monthly First Things, I wrote:

Middle Eastern Christians are hostage to a hostile Muslim majority, and to Iran in particular. Lebanese Maronites, the largest surviving community, were a majority by design when France established the present Lebanese state after World War I as a Catholic enclave. Infertility and immigration have reduced Maronite numbers to perhaps 30 percent, although political sensitivities have forbid census-taking for a generation. If Iran’s proxy army, the Hezbollah, wished to, it could slaughter the Christians on any given morning. That is why the most prominent Lebanese Christian leader, Michel Aoun, is allied to Hezbollah, against the Saudi- and American-backed Sunni opposition.

It is hardly news that Middle Eastern Christians (except for the growing community of Hebrew-speaking Christians) hate Israel. They blame the Israeli-Arab conflict for the deterioration of their position. Arab Christians, moreover, played a prominent role in Arab nationalist movements; they are Arabs first, that is, and Christians second.

It seems incongruous that the leader of a tiny ethnic group that lectures Rome on the merits of priestly marriage would draft the final statement of a Vatican Synod on the Middle East. The trouble is that among the twelve million Christians left in the Middle East, it is hard to find a leader who does not reflect the rage and desperation of a community on its way to extinction.

Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has said that the Election of Israel cannot be changed; his October 25 homily at the close of the Synod would have been a good time to reiterate this position. The pope did not take the opportunity to do so. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, wisely argued that the Election of Israel should be incorporated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; it remains a papal opinion rather than a Magisterial ruling, and may be repudiated by a different pope in the future.


We are encouraged but not entirely satisfied by the good things that the Church has done since the Second Vatican Council on behalf of reconciliation with the Jewish people, for just the reasons our friend Fr. Neuhaus identified. When problems crop up of the kind that Giulio Meotti reports, we should remember Ben Gurion’s adage: fight the White Paper as if there were no war, and fight the war as if there were no White Paper. We will not be silent when anyone defames us, including Arab Catholic prelates. But to refuse to support the American Catholic bishops against the Obama administration is terribly wrong.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)


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