A Repenting Church

A Repenting Church

"Jews and Catholics: Beyond Apologies" by David Novak, in First Things (Jan. 1999), 156 Fifth Ave., Ste. 400, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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"Jews and Catholics: Beyond Apologies" by David Novak, in First Things (Jan. 1999), 156 Fifth Ave., Ste. 400, New York, N.Y. 10010.

When the Vatican issued a statement on the Holocaust last year, many American Jewish leaders criticized it as a whitewash. Although the Vatican condemned the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and even spoke of "the sinful behavior" of certain members of the church, it stopped short of an official apology. Novak, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, argues that the Jewish response "reflects a misunderstanding not only of Catholic theology but of Jewish theology as well." The Catholic Church is undertaking something "more prolonged and more painful than any mere apology."

The most criticized part of the Vatican’s statement was a quotation from Pope John Paul II: "In the Christian world—I do not say on the part of the church as such—erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people." The critics objected to the pope’s apparent exclusion of the church as an institution worthy of criticism.

When a Catholic says "the church," Novak argues, there are two possible meanings. In both cases, an "apology" would be inappropriate. At one level, the church is "a collection of fallible human beings." But individual Catholics who took no part in the Nazi atrocities have nothing to apologize for, and individual Catholics who did take part have no one to apologize to, since the murdered "are hardly in a position to absolve anyone."

At another level (as when the pope says "the church as such"), Novak observes, a Catholic understands "the church" to refer to its magisterium, or teaching authority. Catholics see that "as expressing God’s will beginning with Scripture and extending into the ongoing development of church doctrine." Since the magisterium is the highest authority on what is true or false, right or wrong, it cannot be in error—and the church, understood in this sense, therefore cannot apologize for being in error.

That claim may seem arrogant to many outside the fold, Novak notes, but Jews should be able to understand it, since "on this score, Judaism is no different.... The Jewish tradition presents itself as the greatest revelation of God’s truth that can be known in the world. That is why we call ourselves ‘the chosen people.’"

In religious traditions such as Judaism and Catholicism, he says, the criticism must come from within, through reinterpretation of past teachings. While the magisterium cannot err, church teachings can be improperly formulated, leading to, in the pope’s words, "erroneous and unjust interpretations"—and requiring reinterpretation. That is what John Paul II and the Vatican have been doing.

Indeed, Novak writes, they have been doing more: engaging in what the Vatican statement called "an act of repentance," adding, in parentheses, teshuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance. For Catholicism, as for Judaism, Novak observes, "the relationship with God is primarily a communal affair, not merely a relationship between an individual person and God." So, while there is no moral collective responsibility, "there still is an existential sense of collective sorrow and shame when other members of the community—even those as estranged from the community as the Nazis were— commit sins, especially sins having great public consequences."

"To expect an apology rather than teshuvah," Novak concludes, "is to call for something quite cheap when there is the possibility of something much more precious."


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