Essays
May 7, 2024

Catholics Against Antisemitism: Now More Than Ever

A historic conference unfolds this week, Oct. 24 - 26, on the Franciscan University campus in Steubenville, Ohio

Catholics Against Antisemitism: Now More Than Ever

A historic conference unfolds this week, Oct. 24 - 26, on the Franciscan University campus in Steubenville, Ohio, called “Nostra Aetate and the Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism.” It was first scheduled to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting in nearby Pittsburgh, where an antisemitic murderer took the lives of 11 people, and injured six more, as they worshipped God on Oct. 27, 2018, in their synagogue.

Co-sponsored by Franciscan University and the Philos Project, the gathering, which will be livestreamed and recorded, aims to take relations between Jews and Catholics to a new plane of solidarity in a moment newly urgent. The conference gives Catholics everywhere a goal to unite at a critical moment in history.

I must admit that several months ago, upon first being approached to give the closing address, my initial reaction was puzzlement. Catholics against antisemitism? Wasn’t that already a thing? It seemed likely that Catholics know something about the landmark Nostra Aetate — the official declaration of the Second Vatican Council, reiterating that the Catholic faith begins with the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel, and condemning the notion that Jews share collective guilt for the death of Jesus. Many must also know of Pope John Paul II’s and other popes’ personal devotion to the people of the Covenant. What, I wondered, could need adding to the ledger after all that?

Now we know. The timing of this week’s conference, once seemingly accidental, is more urgent than ever, for three reasons.

First is the massacre on Oct. 7 in Israel of babies, children, women and men, most, though not all, of them Jews, at the hands of Hamas. This was not a murder campaign dropped from afar. Actual fiends with human faces, mere feet and sometimes inches from their innocent targets, riddled bodies, including tiny ones, with bullets. They committed horrors that will not be named here, though they will surely be known in hell. The terrorists of Hamas gazed as streams of blood made their way from living rooms, and playrooms, and schools, into the streets. They watched, they exulted — and then returned to Gaza with captives taken from the families they’d savaged.

How could any human beings, let alone any acting in the name of a deity, commit these infamies? It might help to know that Hamas believes, as one of their leaders put it, “The Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth.” If those words put some readers in mind of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s, you’re right. Murderous antisemitism did not end with the Holocaust. As the example of Oct. 7 is the latest to prove, this unique hatred prowls the earth in every age.

Some Catholics of the past have been blemished by the same evil. Catholics of the present and future should not be. Progressing toward that spiritual goal is one unstated but deeply felt purpose of this conference.

Second, the reaction to the murders of Oct. 7 on some of America’s most elite campuses, egged on by certain prestige media, should, and did, shock consciences around the world. On one quad after another, and elsewhere, students and others detached from moral or other reality showed up to high-five the atrocities of Hamas and to put forth the calumny that Israel was somehow to blame for the trauma just visited on that entire nation.

These reactions amounted to a dye marker, illuminating just how depraved important swatches of America’s higher education have become. They also lead us to a wider strategic point. The de-churching of large parts of the West is no neutral social trend. It never has been. Not only is rising secularism producing people who believe there is no truth — what Pope Benedict XVI dubbed “the tyranny of relativism.” Even worse, a sizeable number of the students of that tyranny are now not only post-Christian, but pre-civilization: cheering on a world in which the most feral rule and rampage as they will, and empathy vanishes.

Third, the moral poison seeping across much of higher education now makes its antidote more visible and valuable than before: faithful Catholic schools.

Consider the pathbreaking example of Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University. Noting a few days ago that many other universities “preach tolerance but practice prejudice,” he announced the creation of an expedited transfer system for Jewish students fearing for their lives and safety on other campuses. “Our radical fidelity to Christ and the Catholic faith demands of us fraternal charity toward our Jewish brothers and sisters, as it does toward all people,” President Pivonka explained. It’s devoutly to be hoped that more Catholic colleges, universities and schools follow his lead and find related and other creative ways to stand for innocence against violence, love of neighbor against bigotry.

I have spoken to several Jewish friends since Oct. 7 and its fallout about the devastation to Israeli and American families, the outrageous behavior on some elite secular campuses, and the conference at Franciscan University. One after another, all have said they were amazed to see Catholics taking the initiative to stand alongside them. That reaction tells us something vital: The truth that Christians should help Jews because we are Christians is both powerful and underutilized.

For these reasons, and others, the declaration of the Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism has acquired new gravitas. The full text will be released on Oct. 26, following my keynote. For readers of the National Catholic Register, exclusively, following are some excerpts.

The statement opens with: “We, the Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism, hereby commit ourselves to combating resurgent hatred of the Jewish people today — in our country and around the world.”

It quotes the current and past two popes on the subject, including Pope St. John Paul II, “who condemned antisemitism as a sin against God and man,” and Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote, “[T]o be antisemitic also signifies being anti-Christian. … God does not forget!”

In direct opposition to the sanctioning of hatred elsewhere in higher education, the statement encourages by contrast, “Catholic scholars and academics confront antisemitism on campus and in popular ideological movements.”

There is more to be read, and be said, in the days to come. The conference this week, and the statement that will result, is not one more feel-good initiative aimed at stating the obvious. It is instead a summons to stepped-up solidarity with the Jewish people in a moment when the malignity aimed against them has once more revealed its serpentine face.

In a day when other initiatives marching under the Catholic banner confuse, and sometimes dismay, the faithful, this conference represents an opportunity to opt for clarity and solidarity over confusion and division. In sum, its participants will try to do what we’re supposed to do: defend the faith and its implications for Catholics and Jews with high spirits and without apology — because that’s what being Catholic means.

Many prominent people have already signed the statement. It’s to be hoped that, in the weeks and months to come, Catholics of all vocations will have that same opportunity — beginning with those reading these words.

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