A Brief Thought on that First Things Article

So, the conservative journal First Things published a piece by Dominican friar Romanus Cessario, defending the Mortara affair.  For those not familiar, Edgardo Mortara was a Jewish boy living at the tail end of the Papal States period who was secretly baptised by a nurse in a Catholic hospital.  Having done so, Papal law required that he be raised Catholic, and so he was forcibly taken from his parents and raised more or less directly by the Pope at the time, Pius IX.  This has generally been seen as one of the more monstrous black marks on the Roman Catholic Church in its long history of anti-Semitism, and so the Hot Take of defending the Pope's action were bound to be controversial.  Ross Douthat, no liberal Catholic he, gave a strong negative reaction to the piece, as did others.

In particular, Douthat makes the case that the article is clarifying as to the nature of the traditionalist Catholic stance--i.e. still anti-Semitic.  I think Douthat is right, but it goes further than that.  The article, and articles of this type, and the views that are embodied by articles of this type, are basically inevitable in light of what I have come to see as (and become convinced of) the basic incoherence of post-Vatican II Catholic ecclesiology.

Catholicism circa the 1850s believed two things (well, two things that are relevant here).  One, that anti-Semitism was theologically mandated--Jews rejected Jesus and were responsible for killing Jesus and were a threat, etc. And, two, that the theology of the Catholic Church was a product of, or at least protected by, a divine mandate which insured that its theology was a correct one.  So, anti-Semitism is good, and we must be correct about anti-Semitism being good.

Now, flash forward to the 1960s and Vatican II.  Vatican II clearly and unambiguously repudiates the entirety of premise #1.  But it leaves completely intact premise #2.  Which leads to the obvious question of how do you justify repudiating premise #1 in light of premise #2--if the Church is always right, how could it have been wrong for most of its history about Jews and Judaism?  Vatican II provides no answer for this question, except a purely positivist answer that "well, because an ecumenical council says so."

Now, in the main, the moral necessity of rejecting premise #1 carries the day and brings everyone along.  But it does nothing to address the fundamental theological problem, and pushes folks like Pope John Paul II (who, perhaps more than anyone else, clearly recognized and embodied an awareness of the moral necessity of the change) toward an essentially Orwellian "we are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia" justification.  All of this is highlighted by the fact Pope John Paul then turns around and deploys premise #2 to squelch any call to make changes on birth control, women's ordination, LGBT issues, etc.  But if you follow that logic to its conclusion, it inevitably brings you back to premise #1 and the lack of theological justification for repudiating premise #1.  Which is precisely what the First Things article does.

The fact that people like Ross Douthat reacted with horror to the article, while certainly to their personal and moral credit, highlights the basic incoherence of their position--nothing in Catholicism can change about sex but it's fine for other stuff to change, even though there is no principled basis for distinguishing between the two.  So long as you maintain premise #2, there is always going to be a gravitational pull toward reviving premise #1, which is every bit as traditional and theologically supported as the ban on birth control or what have you.  Note also that, while the touchstones are different, the "Catholic left" such as it is has the same basic ecclesiology, and thus the same ecclesiological problem, as conservatives like Douthat.

So long as there is still premise #2, then premise #1 is never going to really go away, and Vatican II was naive to think that it could make premise #1 go away without addressing premise #2.  Catholic anti-Semitism only dies for good if you have a theological structure that allows you to say that the Church can get stuff wrong and that this is an example.  Otherwise, you are papering over the problems via the moral force generated from the consequences of anti-Semitism--a moral force which, let's be real, diminishes as we get further from the Holocaust.  Likewise, Cessario's position is consistent with the basic model of Catholic theological analysis that someone like Douthat would insist is mandatory when talking about a host of other contested issues.

So, if you really want to get rid of Catholic anti-Semitism, you must go beyond Nostra Aetate and say something about the theological understanding of the Church that gave rise to the doctrines that Nostra Aetate was designed, unsuccessfully as seen in part by the First Things piece, to get rid of.  You need a church that can admit its sinfulness.  You need a different way of understanding tradition and what it is for and how it is to be engaged with by the church.  And there is no enthusiasm, and certainly not from "liberal" Pope Francis, for such a project, because the principals realize, correctly, that it would open the flood gates on a host of issues.

But the price of that lack of enthusiasm is that the Catholic Church will not pick up the stake and drive it once and for all into the vampire that is Catholic anti-Semitism.


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