When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, the forecast among those invested in Jewish-Catholic dialogue generally was rosy. The new pope brought considerable background to the relationship, given that Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America and the sixth largest outside Israel – indeed, the first kosher McDonalds outside Israel was located in a Buenos Aires shopping center.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pontiff cultivated close relations with Jews, most prominently Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he coauthored the book “On Heaven and Earth.”
Since his election that outreach has continued, featuring visits to Israel in 2014 and the Roman synagogue in 2016, as well as regular audiences and meetings with Jewish leaders in the Vatican and frequent statements of concern about anti-Semitism, most recently in a Nov. 1 interview with Italian television.
“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism remains hidden. You can see it, for example, in young people, here and there,” the pope said. “It is not always enough to see the Holocaust they committed in the Second World War, these six million killed, enslaved … I won’t be able to explain it and I have no explanations, it’s a fact that I see and I don’t like.”
And yet, the fact of the matter is that Pope Francis long has had a Jewish problem, and it’s come to the fore anew amid the current war in Gaza.
To some extent, the issue is political, having to do with the instinctive sympathy history’s first pope from the developing world feels for the Palestinian cause.
On that 2014 trip to the Holy Land, for instance, Francis made an impromptu stop to pray at the separation wall in Bethlehem, under a piece of graffiti that read “Free Palestine,” in what many Israelis regarded as a bit of agit-prop.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately promised to create a postage stamp commemorating the moment, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the pontiff to make an unscheduled visit the next day to a memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism.
In June 2015, the Vatican signed its first-ever treaty with what it officially recognized as the “State of Palestine,” another move that irritated many Israelis.
The fact that Francis delayed meeting a group of family members of Israeli hostages, an encounter originally requested in October but denied on the grounds that he was too busy with the Synod of Bishops, until he could also see on the same day a group of relatives of people from Gaza affected by the war, created the latest frisson in terms of his perceived pro-Palestinian tilt.
There’s also a theological dimension to the angst Francis has generated in Jewish circles, including his frequently disparaging references to the “Pharisees.”
Such vocabulary led to a 2017 accusation by Italian RabbiGiuseppe Laras, the former chief rabbi of Milan and president emeritus of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, who accused the pontiff of indirectly promoting a revival of Marcionism, an ancient heresy that contrasted the spiteful and vindictive God of Judaism with the loving and merciful God of Christianity.
“One need think only of the law of ‘an eye for an eye’ recently evoked by the pope carelessly and mistakenly…[recalling] anti-Judaism on the Christian side,” Laras wrote.
In a similar vein, controversy erupted after an August 2021 comment by Francis to the effect that the Jewish Torah does not “give life.”
“It does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it,” the pope said, adding, “Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ.”
At the time, Rabbi Rason Arussi, Chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for dialogue with the Holy See, and Rabbi David Sandmel, Vice-Chair of the New York-based International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, both wrote letters to the Vatican seeking clarification, forcing Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s top official for relations with Judaism, to scramble to put out the fire.
It’s not that anyone suspects Francis of repudiating the theological advances in Catholic understanding since 1965’s Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council on relations with Judaism. It’s rather that appropriating those insights, and translating them into both his rhetoric and his pastoral agenda, sometimes just don’t seem that much of a priority.
Moreover, there’s a perception that Francis’s campaign to build bridges with Islam sometimes comes at the expense of solidarity with Jews.
That point recently was voiced by Lucetta Scaraffia, former editor of a women’s insert to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, who complained about the pope’s budding relationship with the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo despite what she described as his tendency to make anti-Semitic remarks “every two minutes.”
These three sources of tension – the politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the theological approach to Judaism, and the inter-faith balancing act vis-à-vis Islam — are all coming to a head amid the current conflagration.
The criticism of the pope’s response to the Gaza war started almost immediately. In mid-October, for example, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, asserted that Francis “is now totally discredited” for his failure to clearly face the reality of Islamic-inspired terrorism, and “represents a catastrophe for the church and for Europe.”
This past week, a public statement from the Council of the Assembly of Rabbis in Italy reflected frustration in Jewish circles after the pontiff essentially accused both sides in the Gaza conflict of “terrorism.”
In so doing, the rabbis asserted, Francis placed “innocent people torn from their families on the same level as people detained often for very serious acts of terrorism.”
The rabbis wondered aloud what the point has been of decades of Jewish-Catholic dialogue when, in a time of need, what Jews get from the pope isn’t solidarity but “diplomatic acrobatics, balancing acts and icy equidistance, which is certainly distance but is not fair.”
Aides to the pope quickly dismissed the criticism, but it’s unlikely to disappear just because senior Vatican diplomats describe it as unwarranted.
The letter from the rabbis followed an earlier plea from a group of Jewish leaders in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, asking that the pope act as “a beacon of moral and conceptual clarity amid an ocean of disinformation, distortion and deceit” by distinguishing Hamas’s attacks “from the civilian casualties” of Israel’s war, which they described as a “war of self-defense.”
Among the signatories to that letter was Rabbi David Meyer, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, sponsored by Francis’s own Jesuit order.
It also followed a stinging essay in late October by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, after Francis called for prayer for peace but without directly condemning the Hamas attacks that launched the war.
“Prayer can become an alibi for unburdening one’s conscience, for establishing inappropriate equidistance, for erasing moral evaluations,” Di Segni wrote.
To be clear, not that there’s no good news on the Jewish-Catholic front. In late October, for instance, the World Jewish Congress opened a “representative office to the Holy See” in Rome.
In general, an enormous infrastructure of dialogue has been built up over the almost 60 years since the issuance of Nostra Aetate and it’s deeply unlikely simply to crumble overnight, especially given that both sides in the Catholic-Jewish relationship have keen motives for not allowing that to happen.
Yet equally, it’s impossible to ignore the signs of growing tension.
Recently an Italian Jew named Vittorio Mascarini, who leads a Zionist organization in Italy, wrote in the Jewish News Syndicate: “If it continues to maintain its ambiguous position, the Holy See risks its entire relationship with Israel and world Jewry.”
The war in Gaza has already taken an enormous toll. For Francis, who clearly aspires to be a peace-maker, it undoubtedly would be especially agonizing should his relationship with Jews and Judaism end up being among the casualties.