Sandmel with Pope

Pope to Jews: “A Christian Cannot be an Anti-Semite.” Really?

Last month, Pope Francis warmly welcomed the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) to the Vatican.  It was his first official audience with a Jewish delegation since his election in March.  I attended the audience, along with three other Reform leaders, Rabbis David Saperstein (Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center), Richard Block (President, CCAR and senior rabbi, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH) and Daniel Polish (CCAR, and rabbi of Congregation Shir Chadash of the Hudson Valley in LaGrange, NY).

IJCIC is a coalition of international Jewish organizations founded in the wake of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s document, Nostra Aetate (which ushered in a new era in positive Catholic-Jewish relations), in order to engage in dialogue with the Vatican on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the years, IJCIC also has developed relationships with the Orthodox Patriarchate and the World Council of Churches.  The members of IJCIC are:

At the audience itself, the chair of IJCIC, Dr. Larry Schiffman read a statement congratulating the pope on his election and commending him on his record of close relations with the Jewish community.  The pope responded in Italian (we were given an English translation of his remarks).  Perhaps the most important words he uttered were “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite.”

Really?  To Jewish ears, these words might seem outrageous, since for centuries (and even today), Jews have considered “Christian” and “anti-Semite” to be synonymous, and not without good reason.  Christians and Christian teaching have played a (some might say “the”) central role in the creation and perpetuation of anti-Semitism, or as some prefer, Anti-Judaism. (See David Nirenberg’s excellent new book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.)  Christian anti-Judaism is a complex phenomenon, but at its core is a perception of the Jew as “other,” as the antithesis and enemy of all that is good and holy, a perception whose consequences (including the Shoa) are etched in the Jewish psyche.

It is this tragic legacy that the Church repudiated in Nostra Aetate:  “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.”

In its language of “shared patrimony,” Nostra Aetate replaced the notion of the Jew as “other” with language of familial relationship.  John XXIII made this point in 1958, well before Nostra Aetate, when he welcomed a delegation of Jews by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother” (cf. Gen. 45:5) and every pope since has reaffirmed it.  John Paul II, during his historic visit to the main synagogue in Rome, expressed it in these terms: “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion.” With his reference to “common roots,” Pope Francis has now done so as well.

But what, exactly, did the pope mean when he said “a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite?” Certainly the pope is well aware that almost fifty years after Nostra Aetate, anti-Semitism has not been eradicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

I suggest that the pope’s words are both theological and aspirational.  Pope Francis is articulating the teaching of the Church that anti-Semitism is incompatible with true Christian faith.  At the same time, he is admitting that anti-Judaism has not disappeared from Christianity and he is challenging the Church and all Christians to live in accordance with that teaching.  His words can also serve as an invitation to Jews to understand the Church as is it today.

Consistent with his reputation and with the Church’s turn away from the anti-Judaism of its past and toward a different kind of engagement with Judaism and the Jewish people, the pope has set the tone for Jewish-Catholic relations in his papacy, not only for formal ceremonies in the Vatican, but also, one hopes, between Jews and Catholics around the world.

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Rabbi David Sandmel

About Rabbi David Sandmel

Rabbi David Sandmel the RAC’s Senior Advisor for Interreligious Affairs. He holds the Crown Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union and is Rabbi Educator at Temple Sholom of Chicago.


  1. Jews and Catholics: A Maturing Relationship | Fresh Updates from RAC - November 1, 2013

    […] IJCIC met with Pope Francis in June, which I described in an earlier post.  Delegates came from five continents to participate in the four-day meeting.  Rabbis David Saperstein (Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center), Richard Block (President, CCAR and senior rabbi, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH) and Daniel Polish (CCAR, and rabbi of Congregation Shir Chadash of the Hudson Valley in LaGrange, NY) and I represented our Reform movement.   The theme of the meeting was “Challenges Confronting Religion in the Modern Age.”  Our discussions centered on the rise of the anti-Semitism, the persecution of Christians, and threats to religious freedom around the world.  Zion Evrony, Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, briefed us on relations between Israel and the Vatican and the situation of Christians in Israel.  At the end of the meeting, the ILC issued a joint communiqué calling for Jews and Catholics to join forces to address these pressing issues. […]

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