Why All Catholics Should "Own Their Heresy"

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time").  I have not counted words, but I believe Nostra Aetate is the shortest of the Vatican II documents, clocking in at only five paragraphs.  Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that Nostra Aetate is the most consequential of all of the Vatican II documents, and is undoubtedly the most revolutionary.

Special attention should be paid to Paragraph 4 of Nostra Aetate.  The document as a whole is about the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions, and Paragraph 4 deals with Judaism. In it, it makes three major claims.  First, while acknowledging that Catholics believe Jesus to represent the true fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, it rejects the notion this transition from the old to the new covenant leaves continued practitioners of the old divorced from God's love and faithfulness.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (emphasis mine).

Second, it unambiguously rejected the claim that responsibility for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus could be imputed to modern Jews, as well as the claim that Jews were cursed by God for any reason.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Finally, Nostra Aetate rejects anti-Semitism in any form.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

It is with Nostra Aetate fresh in mind that I think we should consider "HeresyGate" that has erupted on Catholic Twitter in the last ten days or so.  To give the briefest possible summary, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expressed a series of concerns regarding the on-going Synod on the Family; various folks on Twitter challenged him; Douthat memorably instructed them to "Own Their Heresy"; many of the folks so challenged wrote a letter to the New York Time claiming that Douthat was an idiot who should not be allowed to talk about Catholic stuff; and, finally, Douthat wrote another column on Sunday regarding the topic.  

I should say up front that I thought from the beginning, despite my respect for many of the people involved, that the letter was ill-conceived, petulant, and counter-productive.  In particular, I thought the somewhat-couched claim that Douthat shouldn't be talking about Catholic stuff because he doesn't have academic credentials to be the worst kind of snobbery, as well as a step backward for the notion that everyone should be involved in thinking and reflecting on the faith.  So, on those points, I am in full agreement with Mr. Douthat.

What struck me, though, are these two paragraphs from Sunday's column:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

Here, we see Mr. Douthat taking a play out of the Pope John Paul II/Pope Benedict "hermaneutic of continuity" playbook. The notion being that any "changes" in Church teaching are not really changes at all, but instead clarifications or "deepenings" of prior teachings.  Sure, the specific presentation of the teaching may be slightly different, or it might be more fulsome than previous presentations, but it does not contradict what came before.  At the end of the day, there is a fixed, unchanging star that is Catholic doctrine, one that is the same yesterday, today, and always.  And one that we can never depart from.

That notion is simply not true.  And the best proof of its falsity is Nostra Aetate Paragraph 4.
If you have read Catholic Church documents before, you are immediately struck by something weird about Paragraph 4.  Usually in Church documents there are extensive footnotes to previous Councils, Papal Encylicals, and the writings of prominent theologians.  To take one example, I picked at random Paragraph 80 of Pope Francis's environmental encylical Laudato Si' (much shorter than Paragraph 4), and it had two citations to works of John Paul II, a citation to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, three cites to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and one cite to a Vatican II document.  That's pretty standard for Church documents of this type.  

There is not a single citation to any prior church document, nor to the writings of any theologian, in Paragraph 4--only Biblical citations.  This is because you cannot find support for the position articulated in Paragraph 4 in previous Church documents, nor from prominent theologians.  Indeed, instead, you have statements that take precisely the opposite position, and endorse every thesis that Paragraph 4 affirmatively rejects.  For example, St. John Chrysostom, the 4th Century saint beloved especially in the Eastern Church, wrote the following in his "Orations Against the Jews" (1:2):

But do not be surprised that I called the Jews pitiable. They really are pitiable and miserable. When so many blessings from heaven came into their hands, they thrust them aside and were at great pains to reject them.  The morning Sun of Justice arose for them, but they thrust aside its rays and still sit in darkness. We, who were nurtured by darkness, drew the light to ourselves and were freed from the gloom of their error. They were the branches of that holy root, but those branches were broken. 

This notion of the "broken branch," drawing from St. Paul, was commonly used by theologians to express the notion that, in rejecting Christ, the Jews cut themselves off from the covenant with God, while the Gentiles were "grafted" into the plant.  More from Chrysostom (1:3):

Many, I know, respect the Jews and think that their present way of life is a venerable one. This is why I hasten to uproot and tear out this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than a theater and I bring forward a prophet as my witness. Surely the Jews are not more deserving of belief than their prophets. "You had a harlot's brow; you became shameless before all". Where a harlot has set herself up, that place is a brothel. But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts. Jeremiah said: "Your house has become for me the den of a hyena". He does not simply say "of wild beast", but "of a filthy wild beast", and again: "I have abandoned my house, I have cast off my inheritance". But when God forsakes a people, what hope of salvation is left? When God forsakes a place, that place becomes the dwelling of demons.

But at any rate the Jews say that they, too, adore God. God forbid that I say that. No Jew adores God! Who say so? The Son of God say so. For he said: "If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father". Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God?

If, then, the Jews fail to know the Father, if they crucified the Son, if they thrust off the help of the Spirit, who should not make bold to declare plainly that the synagogue is a dwelling of demons? God is not worshipped there. Heaven forbid! From now on it remains a place of idolatry. But still some people pay it honor as a holy place.

Would you consider this section to be a "display of anti-Semitism," which Paragraph 4 states we must "decr[y]" "at any time and by anyone"?  Would you consider this section to endorse the notion that "Jews," including modern Jews, are responsible for the death of Christ?  Because I would.

Flashing forward to the 15th Century, we have the Ecumenical Council of Florence (Session 11, February 4, 1442) stating as follows:

[The Council] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives.

In other words, if one is Jewish, there is no hope of salvation.  Thus, per the Council of Florence, there is no basis or reason for "the Church [to] await[ ] that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and 'serve him shoulder to shoulder.'"  Later, Session 19 of the Council (September 7, 1443) states:

Furthermore, renewing the sacred canons, we command both diocesan bishops and secular powers to prohibit in every way Jews and other infidels from having Christians, male or female, in their households and service, or as nurses of their children; and Christians from joining with them in festivities, marriages, banquets or baths, or in much conversation, and from taking them as doctors or agents of marriages or officially appointed mediators of other contracts. They should not be given other public offices, or admitted to any academic degrees, or allowed to have on lease lands or other ecclesiastical rents. They are to be forbidden to buy ecclesiastical books, chalices, crosses and other ornaments of churches under pain of the loss of the object, or to accept them in pledge under pain of the loss of the money that they lent. They are to be compelled, under severe penalties, to wear some garment whereby they can be clearly distinguished from Christians. In order to prevent too much intercourse, they should be made to dwell in areas, in the cities and towns, which are apart from the dwellings of Christians and as far distant as possible from churches. On Sundays and other solemn festivals they should not dare to have their shops open or to work in public.

There is not much to distinguish the command here from the Nuremberg laws imposed by the Nazis in the 1930s.  And yet, that was what the Council decreed for both religious and secular leaders.

Paragraph 4 of Nostra Aetate is a clean and decisive break with 1800 years of Catholic and Christian theology about the Jews and Judaism.  Every single bit of Paragraph 4, judged by the standards of Catholic theology prior to 1960, is incorrect and unsupportable.  Indeed, while I hesitate to wade into the complicated waters of what constitutes "heresy" in an formal sense, I would suggest that most Catholic theologians circa, say, 1900, would conclude that the statement that Jews could be saved without conversion to Christianity was affirmatively heretical.  In any event, Paragraph 4 undoubtedly represents a utter repudiation of the practices and self-understanding of the Catholic Church with regard to the notion of covenant, the relationship between the old and new covenant, and the general practical interaction between Jews and Christians.  There is no serious way that one can look at Paragraph 4 as a "deepening" of previous theology regarding Judaism; it's not a deepening, it's a repudiation.

Faced with Paragraph 4 of Nostra Aetate, one basically has three choices,  First, we have the "traditionalist" position, where we conclude that Nostra Aetate heretical, and by extension likely conclude that Vatican II was heretical as well.  That is the position taken by groups like the Society of St. Pius X and its more radical off-shoots.  It is also, for different reasons and in a different way, the position taken by the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  Either of those two groups will argue that one simply cannot square Paragraph 4 with the unbroken tradition of the Church, and thus a commitment to the notion of unbroken tradition requires the rejection of that document, and probably the Council that produced it.  

That is, in my view, an intellectually consistent position.  One should be mindful, however, of the consequences of such a position.  First, it is difficult to see how one could remain in the Catholic Church in its present form, a Church that not only produced Paragraph 4 but has consistently and insistently restated and reinforced it.  The clearest thread linking Popes John Paul II and Benedict and Francis, each so different in temperament and world-view, is their unequivocal support for Paragraph 4.  Every Pope since 1965 has in one way or another doubled down on Paragraph 4.  There is no question it represents the official position of the Catholic Church, and if you think it is heretical it is hard to see how one could affirm that the Catholic Church is protected from serious error.

The second consequence of the traditionalist position is the same consequence that shamed the Church so acutely in previous centuries--this theology almost inexorably leads to an anti-Semitic political outlook.  One should not be surprised that the Southern Poverty Law Center states that "'Radical traditionalist' Catholics . . . may make up the largest single group of serious anti-Semites in America."  When the SSPX website has an article which states, "When we fully realize the disdain some of these powerful Jewish groups hold against Christ, His Gospel and His Church, and when we better appreciate the damage to Catholic doctrine done by Nostra Aetate, we can only tremble when we read the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman praise of Pope Benedict for 'dedicating himself to the full implementation of this document [Nostra Aetate], and his genuine and sincere commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations,'" we see all of the old anti-Semitic dog-whistles on full display.  This theology has in the past, and continues today, to justify and facilitate racial and religious hatred toward Jews.  That is the company one keeps, and the legacy one has, when going down the traditionalist line.

The second choice is the one Douthat and Popes John Paul II and Benedict have taken, which is what one might call the "conservative" choice.  I want to say very clearly that I have no doubt this choice is being made with the best of intentions.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Douthat and John Paul and Benedict find the Church's history and practices in this space to be abhorrent, and yet have a genuine love for the Catholic Church.  They want to square the circle, and this is the way to do that.  The problem is that by accepting Paragraph 4 while articulating the notion of a "hermaneutic of continuity," you are basically saying "the Church has a single, unchanging deposit of doctrine which does not and cannot change--except for everything we have said about Jews and Judaism before 1965, which we can and should do a 180 on."  While a sincere position, I think this conservative interpretation of Vatican II is an inconsistent and incoherent one.  Why is the theology regarding Judaism, and only the theology regarding Judaism, subject to this sort of rupture?

All one can really do to answer this challenge is to point to the horrible consequences of 1800 years of Christian theology on Judaism, culminating in the Holocaust, as a sign that this theology must be changed.  But, true and salutary as that is, it doesn't really answer the question.  If we were so wrong for so long about Judaism and the Jews, how can we say beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were, or are, not wrong about other things?  Like, say, about gender or sexuality issues?  

And we can't chalk this up to some collateral, non-essential teaching of the faith that doesn't really matter (as is done with Galileo and heliocentrism).  The relationship between the new and old covenant is a core theological concern.  Not as central as, let's say, the divinity of Christ or the Real Presence, but pretty fundamental nonetheless.  And, I would argue, more fundamental than the mechanics of adjudicating marriages in the Church, or even, yes, rules about the consequences for having sex.  At a minimum, the question of how Judaism fits into the story of salvation is not obviously less important than sexual morality.

This leaves us with the third option.  To use Mr. Douthat's memorable phrase, this option involves "owning the heresy" represented by Paragraph 4 of Nostra Aetate.  Yes, the Catholic Church used to teach a bunch of stuff about Judaism that we find abhorrent.  Yes, people in those times viewed them as essential to a proper understanding of the Christian and Catholic life.  But we now believe them to wrong, tragically wrong, and we reject them unreservedly and categorically.  

Owning our heresy creates a set of problems for our understanding of the Church and ourselves.  I have tried, with the help of James Alison, to begin think through those problems, and many others have done so as well.  It requires us to face our history and our legacy, and to do what we can to never let those evils come to light again.

Owning our heresy does not necessarily mean coming to any particular position with regard to the issues discussed at the Synod on the Family.  One can own the heresy of Paragraph 4 and still think that divorced and remarried Catholics should not be able to go to Communion.  But while owning our heresy does not dictate an outcome, it should inform our process.  We can no longer wrap ourselves in the comforting, but ahistorical, cloak of a ontologically pristine and accessible thing called "Catholic teaching" that is a fixed star to guide our consideration of the issue.  Instead, we can and should look take an open and pragmatic approach to these questions, rather being primarily concerned with policing boundaries.  We also can and should ask the more provocative "Pentecostal" question--"what might the Spirit be saying to the People of God in this time about these issues?"  That's harder, more contentious, work that simply resting on some supposedly unbending bar of doctrine.  But it is more honest work.

So, I'm glad Mr. Douthat encouraged us to "own our heresy."  I just hope he might take a moment and follow his own advice. 


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