Time for Serious Conversations Between Christians and Jews


The director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations explains how the French film "The Jewish Cardinal" can act as a springboard for much-needed dialogue.

Whatever one thinks of the unusual story of the late Cardinal Aron Jean-Marie Lus­tiger, a French film about him,  The Jewish Cardinal, is an opportunity for serious conversation about how Jews and Catholics understand themselves in relation to the other.

Aron Lustiger was born in Paris to Polish Jewish parents in 1926. Having fled from the Nazis to Orléans in 1939, he chose to become Catholic in 1940, taking the baptismal names of Aron Jean-Marie. His mother perished at Birkenau, but his father survived and returned to Paris after the war. The father opposed Lustiger’s baptism, even attempting to have it annulled. That effort failed, presumably because Lustiger’s choice was free and uncoerced. Lustiger went on to become a priest. Later Pope John Paul II made him bishop of Orléans and then cardinal archbishop of Paris.

Throughout his career, Lus­tiger vigorously opposed actions that demeaned or injured Jews. He was instrumental in having the controversial Car­melite convent at Auschwitz relocated and opposed the idea of canonizing Queen Isabella of Spain. When Lustiger died in 2007, Kaddish was said before his funeral mass at his request.

Lustiger was always adamant that he considered himself a Jew, comparing himself to the early apostles and to Jesus himself. Perhaps his father's feelings of betrayal drove him to insist that he had rejected neither his people nor Judaism.

The creators of The Jewish Cardinal clearly intended for his story to spark conversation about dual religious belonging. The topic is particularly touchy for Christians and Jews who for centuries have defined themselves in opposition to each other.

The Jewish and Christian traditions each consider themselves to be heirs of biblical Israel. Over time, both communities developed the almost reflexive self-understanding that for their tradition to be “right,” the other tradition must be “wrong.” This oppositional mentality still exerts a powerful influence, as was seen in the question-and-answer period following the screening of The Jewish Cardinal at this year’s Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. Perhaps because the film questions the simplistic binaries to which Christians and Jews have become habituated, many comments consciously or unconsciously served as avoidance mechanisms.

For instance, the moderator mischaracterized the iconic prayer of Pope John Paul II at the Western Wall in 2000 as an “apology.” At the time a Vatican official explained to me why an apology had been intentionally avoided: The Vatican did not wish to place an imponderable burden on Jews today over how to react to an apology for the oppression of Jews by Christians over the preceding millennium. Instead, the prayer sought divine forgiveness from the “God of our fathers” and committed the Catholic Church to “genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.” The distinction is important. Talk of apologies perpetuates an adversarial stance, exactly what the pope wanted to overcome.

The question of Catholic education today about Jews also came up after the film screening. The moderator related how Catholic students he had taught had never heard of the horrible and long-lived deicide charge. To me, this was the result of the reform of Catholic curricula that my doctoral dissertation had charted, showing a huge positive transformation from the 1950s to the 1980s. It was disheartening when this progress was dismissed as the result of the failure of Catholic textbooks to “teach much of anything.”

It was troubling to see how easily Christians and Jews can slip into a “default” parochialism in which easy binaries hold sway. If we resist this inherited reflex, the Lustiger film could generate many profound questions, such as: Who defines who is a Jew or a Catholic? What are the criteria — birth, beliefs, behaviors, rituals, some combination of these? How can people be considered Jewish if they deny the very existence of God, yet be deemed an apostate if they embrace the way Christians relate to the God of Israel? Is the boundary between Judaism and Christianity more like a wall or a semi-permeable membrane?

I do not have easy answers to questions like these and suspect the answers of people who claim they do. However, I am certain that we are living in an era when mutually enriching dialogue has become possible and tough questions can be tackled without polemic or rancor. I believe we Catholics and Jews have the responsibility to try to move beyond the binaries that estrange us and keep us in the dark about each other. We might especially recall the need for the enlightenment that respectful dialogue brings in this season when both of our traditions celebrate the coming of light into darkness.

Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University.


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