The “No” To Pope Francis From the Chief Rabbi of Rome
He said it during the meeting with the pope at the synagogue. And it is the refusal to “discuss theology” with the Catholic Church. Because of Jewish fears of a blurring of that which distinguishes them from Christians?
by Sandro Magister
ROME, January 23, 2016 – In the Catholic camp almost no one made note of it. But in the Jewish camp they did. And it is that curt “no” which the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said to Pope Francis during his visit to the synagogue on Sunday, January 17:
“We do not receive the pope in order to discuss theology. Every system is autonomous, faith is not the object of bartering and political negotiation.”
A preventive “no.” Because immediately afterward Francis spoke. And in his speech the pope in vain proposed to the Jews once again a shared theological exploration of the relationship between Judaism and the Church. That proposal which Rabbi Di Segni had already rejected.
Francis justified his offer of theological dialogue by citing two documents.
The first was the declaration “Nostra Aetate” of Vatican Council II, which – he said – “for the first time gave an explicit theological definition of the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism,” naturally without resolving all of the questions but “providing a very important encouragement for the necessary further reflections.”
The second was the document published on December 15, 2015 by the Vatican commission for religious relations with the Jews, which – the pope said – “addresses the theological questions that have emerged in the decades since the promulgation of ‘Nostra Aetate.’”
And Francis continued:
“The theological dimension of Jewish-Catholic dialogue deserves to be explored more and more, and I would like to encourage all those who are involved in this dialogue to continue in that direction, with discernment and perseverance. In fact, precisely from a theological point of view there appears clearly the indissoluble bond that unites Christians and Jews. Christians, in order to understand themselves, cannot help but make reference to their Jewish roots, and the Church, while still professing salvation through faith in Christ, recognizes the irrevocability of the Old Covenant and God’s constant and faithful love for Israel.”
In saying this, pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio was speaking in full continuity with his predecessors, above all with Benedict XVI, who refused to make faith an object of dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, but always acknowledged a unique, absolutely special relationship between Christianity and Judaism, which makes not only possible but obligatory a shared dialogue that is also theological.
Joseph Ratzinger had reached the pinnacle of his theological reflection on the relationship between the Jewish and Christian faiths in the preface to the May 24, 2001 document of the pontifical biblical commission on “The Jewish people and its Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” and above all in the three volumes of his “Jesus of Nazareth,” in pages recognized once again in recent days as “unsurpassable” by the top-tier exponent of Judaism Sergio Yitzhak Minerbi, among the leading scholars of relations between Jews and Catholics.
So then, the Vatican document of December 15 not only attests to these levels, but it pushes even further, partly due to the fact that it presents itself not as “a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church” but simply as “a starting point for further theological thought with a view to enriching and intensifying the theological dimension of Jewish–Catholic dialogue.”
Two points in this document have met with an especially positive reception in the Jewish camp.
The first is where it declares as without foundation “a replacement or supersession theology which sets against one another two separate entities, a Church of the Gentiles and the rejected Synagogue whose place it takes.” And this on account of the “irrevocability” of God’s promise to the people of Israel.
The second is where it rules out on the part of the Church “any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” in order to convert them.
This is what paragraph 40 says in this regard:
“It is easy to understand that the so–called ‘mission to the Jews’ is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. This question also proves to be awkward for Christians, because for them the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance. The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah.”
But if this is the quality of the theological dialogue that Pope Francis has again offered to the Jews, why did Rabbi Di Segni say “no”?
One interesting hint toward an answer is found in what Anna Foa, Jewish herself and a professor of modern history at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” wrote for the Italian Jewish newspaper “Pagine Ebraiche,” in commentary on the pope’s visit to the synagogue.
Her commentary was reproduced in its entirety in “L’Osservatore Romano” of January 18-19, 2016.
Anna Foa indeed recognized as a “powerful message” of the pope’s visit to the synagogue “the gathering together of Jews and Christians at a time in which Christians are the object of the bloodiest persecutions and anti-Semitism is reemerging as ever more visible, both in the proclamations of the Daesh and in the daily lives of Jews, in the diaspora as in Israel.” A powerful reminder, therefore, “of the fact that the religions can and must be engines of peace, and not of war.”
But she continued:
“Another issue, more submerged compared with these great issues that touch upon the destiny of the world but equally important, concerns relations between Jews and Christians.
“By January 17 there had been great progress in dialogue, progress sanctioned by many authoritative voices over the course of celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Nostra Aetate’ and in particular by the document issued on December 10, 2015 by the commission for religious relations with the Jews, [. . . ] with its statements that were so innovative. And it is to this document that the pope referred today at the synagogue. A theological openness, a powerful appeal to all those who are involved in dialogue to examine its theological dimension as well.
“This theological discussion has instead been explicitly postponed by the Jewish world, in the name of the invitation to shared practices, actions, projects, as Rav Di Segni has taken care to emphasize. Postponed, perhaps, but not dismissed.
“I do not believe it to be a trivial change that the Church has entirely renounced the age-old tradition of the mission to the Jews as unnecessary in the context of salvation, and has spoken clear and unquestionable words on the ‘vexata quaestio’ of replacement theology, according to which the divine election of the Jews was replaced with that of the Christians.
“And I also do not believe that there is any hesitation on the Jewish side in acknowledging how, after many appeals for unhesitating and unambiguous statements on these points, this statement has finally come. Today’s visit, Rav Di Segni said, means that the Church does not intend to turn back on the journey of reconciliation.
“On the Jewish side, however, the response is not clear and many reservations emerge through cautiousness in speaking.
“Are they reservations due only to the fact that the theological discussion appears incomprehensible to most? Or are there not, instead, in recognizing the innovativeness of the step taken by the Church, also fears and qualms? Fears that, once the Church has renounced conversion, the reconciliation between Jews and Christians will lead to a watering down of doctrinal differences?
“In an article published a few days ago in ‘L’Osservatore Romano,’ the director of ‘Pagine Ebraiche,’ Guido Vitale, recalled an interview he did back in 1986 with the rabbi Elio Toaff, on the occasion of John Paul II’s visit to the synagogue.
“On that occasion, Toaff had spoken of precisely these fears: ‘A radical revolution, a renunciation of the temptation to marginalize the Jewish people, a gesture that will bring about new relations between two faiths that have the same shared historical roots. A new relationship is being born, on a footing of parity and collaboration. And if some Jews may perhaps be afraid of the danger of a certain missionary activity on the part of the Church, let’s just say that if this danger should ever prevent itself, we believe that we are capable of handling it.’”
That’s all Anna Foa had to say. But she has raised the question. Within the Jewish world more than within the Christian.
In any case, the “no” that Rabbi Di Segni has said to Pope Francis does not come from all Jews, and is not for ever. And not all the reasons for it have been explained.
After the meeting at the synagogue, Di Segni himself gave a first explanation of his thought in an interview with the vaticanista Andrea Gagliarducci for ACI Stampa on January 21:
“I have always maintained the necessity of Jewish reflection also from the theological point of view on our relations with Christianity. But the ways in which these reflections develop in Judaism are different from the ways in which they develop in an organism, like the Church, that has a large doctrinal apparatus, a hierarchy, and a head that can organize these things. With us the ways and timing are different. Of course, it is important to pay attention to what others say, but theology is a field internal to each religion. Every faith, and above all these issues, are not the object of political discussion, so time and space must be allowed for the appropriate reflections.”
The discussion that will certainly develop will be well worth following.