In The Diaspora: Amanda's wedding

Warm relations between Catholics and Jews in the US won't be harmed by the pope's offensive act.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
On the last weekend before Christmas, I went to the wedding of my old friend Tim Mulligan's daughter Amanda. The ceremony took place in the same Catholic church where I'd seen her christened 23 years earlier. It felt, at times, like a marriage within my own family. I met Tim in 1966, when I was 11 years old. We were both in sixth grade, me in the public school and he in the Catholic school in our mutual hometown. We played together on a junior-league baseball team, spent innumerable afternoons in pickup basketball and sandlot football games. Tim was the first person to ever play me a record by Neil Young. As college freshmen, we went to the same party where Tim met a Rutgers coed named Lorraine Witts, who would become his wife and Amanda's mother. I drank so many shots at his bachelor party that I vomited shortly after dropping him off at home. When Tim's older brother Dan perished in a training accident while serving in the air force, I mourned at their family's ancestral parish in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. When my mother died of cancer, Tim mourned at the Freedman shiva. I say all this not for nostalgia's sake but to make a point about the lives of American Catholics and American Jews from the baby-boom era. My father and my uncles and so many Jewish men of earlier generations grew up with the common experience of being called a Christ-killer and chased home from school and roughed up by the Catholic kids. The insults and bruises were, in some crude way, an accurate reflection of church doctrine of the time, with its allegation of deicide against the Jews. HOW APPROPRIATE it is that Tim and I first crossed paths in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which disavowed the belief that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' death. Without even realizing it in any conscious way, we were the children of that revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations. I never had anyone chase me home from school for killing Christ. I never knew any Jews of my age who had that experience. Vatican II - and the revelation of the Shoah, and the construction of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in America during World War II - remade the terms of the Jewish-Catholic encounter in the United States. Tim was not the token Catholic in my life, and I'm sure I was not the token Jew in his. I first met Tim, in fact, through a mutual friend who lived across the street from me, Jimmy Lyons. Jews and Irish Catholics, two peoples of the written word, were overrepresented in every newsroom where I worked as a reporter. So it was at once offensive and irrelevant that Pope Benedict recently welcomed back into the church four renegade bishops from the Society of St. Pius X - including one, Richard Williamson (who denies the Holocaust) - who had been excommunicated by John Paul II. Pope Benedict's actions are offensive for the fairly obvious reason that they stir up terrible history - the deicide theology, the Vatican's timid response to the Nazi genocide and, yes, Joseph Ratzinger's youthful service in the German army. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, not my favorite religious body when it comes to many intra-Jewish issues, acted entirely correctly in cutting ties to the Vatican and backing out of an interreligious conference in protest. At the same time, I am struck at how meaningless the rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson is - stupid and hurtful, yes, but meaningless as a blow against the lived reality of Jewish-Catholic relations in the United States. If anything, the pope's decision did far more harm to relations between the Vatican and the American Catholic community, much of which has already been estranged by the church's continuing stances against birth control and divorce, to say nothing of the pedophile-priest scandal. I don't think the pope set out to poison Jewish-Catholic relations. From every account I have read, the decision to repatriate the schismatic bishops to Rome had to do primarily with the pope's theological conservatism, his decision to favor a smaller, more orthodox, more observant church to a larger, more liberal, less obedient one. But it speaks volumes that Pope Benedict seems not to recognize or not to care about how embracing a Holocaust-denier might play with the Jews. Maybe it took a Pole like Karol Wojtyla, who had seen the Catholics and Jews alike in his country ravaged by the Nazis, to operate from a soul-deep sense of brotherhood. What we American Jews can be thankful for is that Pope Benedict's tone-deafness is not that of his American flock. Some already had tuned out the Vatican as exasperatingly ignorant of their daily lives; those who desire a more conservative kind of theology just find themselves confounded at what makes Bishop Williamson and his ilk so valuable to it. Either way, literally and figuratively, it's too late for even the Holy See to have me uninvited to Amanda's wedding.