Open Letter To My Students 9: Seriously Speaking

We Jews should be reading the recent encyclical (October 4, 2020) by Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, “Brothers All,” more precisely “Little Brothers, All.” The title was chosen to accord with the language of St. Francis, whose name and legacy the pope adopted, and who considered himself a “little brother” within his religious order.[i]

Jews are likely to wonder why a papal encyclical should concern us. It is, after all, part of no Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but, rather, Catholic-Sunni rapprochement, following conversation between the pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt. And weighing in at just under 43,000 words, it is no quick read!

It is, however, a very significant document. It implicitly reaffirms serious Catholic-Jewish dialogue for its own sake, and (with remarkable rhetorical power) it urges joint efforts at demanding human dignity, combatting authoritarian regimes, and saving our planet.[ii]

The backdrop for it all is the half century or so since Vatican II, the momentous convocation that reversed decades of theological defensiveness and launched the Catholic Church into modernity. As part of that effort, on October 28, 1965, the Church promulgated its historic document Nostra Aetatedecrying “hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (para 4). To be sure, the statement did not go as far as it might have — Church conservatives watered down the original draft;[iii] but for its time, it was a phenomenal breakthrough, and more was to come. 

In 1980, Pope John Paul II said expressly that “the old [Jewish] covenant” has “never been revoked by God,”[iv] a claim repeated in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 121). In 2015, the 50thanniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Church proclaimed that it “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”[v] The same document assigned the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue “special theological status”; denied the old supersessionist theory that Christianity replaced Judaism; and called on both religious communities to work together — for mutual religious enrichment, to combat anti-Semitism, and “in joint engagement throughout the world for justice, peace, conservation of creation and reconciliation.”[vi] Francis himself has said, “We hold the Jewish people in special re­gard because their covenant with God has never been revoked … we cannot consider Judaism as a for­eign religion.”[vii]

Fratelli tutti  continues the positive approach to Jews. It expressly honors rabbinic tradition by, for example, attributing Jesus’ golden rule to “Rabbi [sic] Hillel” (from the Talmud, Shabbat 31a). It goes out of its way to warn (para 247), “The Shoah must not be forgotten”; then pays “homage” to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and expresses “horror” at the “slave trade and the ethnic killings that continue in various countries”(para 248). Jews can only applaud the conclusion, “Nowadays it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no!” (para 249). 

What stands out about this incredible encyclical is its universalist call for all good people of faith to join hands in opposing social evils. But even more impressive is the tenor of the piece: it is not just exhortatory; it is also deeply thoughtful; it is both pious and profound, a passionate and informed discussion of economics, politics, globalization, the social media, and even the Covid moment and what it portends – no surprise, of course, for a pope who has consistently voiced universalistic concern for “poverty and vulnerability… the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly… [victims of] human trafficking” and who has insisted that in all of these, “There is greater complicity than we think.”[viii]

The clarion clarity of Fratelli tutti is everywhere in the document: 

  • On Covid, for example (para 7): “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned is the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” 
  • On the building of walls (para 27): “Those who raise walls [will thereby] end up as slaves within the very walls they have built,” if only because “They are left without horizons.” 
  • On the loss of common decency (para 45): “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures.” 
  • On intellectual seriousness (para 50): “Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet.”
  • Particularly significant for Jews is Pope Francis’s appreciation of universalism (on one hand) and the particularism of peoplehood (on the other). With only the first, he says, we get “caught up in an abstract, globalized universe.” With just the second, we become “a museum of local folklore” (para 142).

To be sure, I disagree with some things the pope says; and I think he overstates some others. His reading of culture is altogether too conservative for my liking. 

But that is not the point. The reason we should read this is that it exemplifies religious seriousness. It is a reflective overview of the human landscape and the role of religion within it. If we want to change the world, we are unlikely to do it on our own. We will need religious allies, and not just our obvious ones, the ultra-liberal religious communities with whom we have a natural affinity.

Progressive Jews are painfully aware of our differences with some Catholic teachings. We sympathize with those Catholic women who level feminist objections to Catholic doctrine and polity. We have profound disagreements on issues of sexual ethics, birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. We have painful memories over Vatican policies regarding the Shoah[ix] and the early days of Israel. As there are all kinds of Jews, moreover, so too there are all kinds of Catholics – Francis’s encyclical is not necessarily what gets preached in the local church around the corner from our synagogues. Empirical studies in Germany, at least, demonstrate an ongoing positive correlation between churchgoing (both Catholic and Protestant) and anti-Semitism, even today.[x] I do not make light of any of this.

But our Jewish moral imperative of tikkun olam (“correcting the world”) is a political project, and politics requires coalition-building. Extraordinary issues face us if the planet is to survive, if the ugly rise of totalitarianism around the globe is to be defeated, if hatred and superstition are not to win the day. Fratelli Tutti is an outstretched hand for help from a pope who represent the positive flow of history as regards both Jewish-Christian relations and the universal call to righteousness. How can Jews not rise to the occasion and offer our hand in return?

I do not mean to say that we Jews have been oblivious to interfaith efforts at countering evil. I am not the first or only Jew to read Pope Francis’s words. But interfaith energy is at a very low ebb these days, and, having no centralized hierarchy and no Jewish “pope” of our own to call us to action, the onus falls on each of us, locally, to take the necessary initiative. As long-term Speaker of the House of Representatives (1977-1987), Tip O’Neill, famously said, “All politics is local.” I write this, and you read it, as “locals,” able to effect change wherever we are — and not just with Catholics. The neighborhood is full of potential allies whose religion we do not share but whose voices might be joined to ours in this supreme hour of need.

We should all be elevating religious dialogue on our agendas, not because it is “good for the Jews,” but because it is good for the Jewish mission, which is why we are here in the first place. 

Much gratitude goes to wise and wonderful friends who offered exceptional advice and help in my writing of this: John Baldovin, Edward Foley, Virgil C. Funk, Gordon W. Lathrop, Richard S. Vosko, and Janet R. Walton.

[i] For criticism of the gender-exclusivity, see, e.g., Joshua J. McElwee, “Catholic Women Criticize ‘Mansplaining of Pope’s Masculine Encyclical Title,” National Catholic Reporter (Sept. 24, 2020).

[ii] Ecology and climate change are treated extensively in Francis’s prior encyclical (2015), Laudato si‘ (“Praise be to You”, from the opening line of the Canticle of St. Francis), an evocative call that likens the earth to a sister being ravished for the pecuniary profit that is part and parcel (in Francis’s view) of consumerism. 


1[iii] The original had Jews at the center and expressly denied the crime of deicide; the final document addressed relationships with all non-Ch`ristian faiths and blames at least some Jews of old for killing Christ. It also stopped short of an express two-covenant theology that would have granted Judaism parity with Christianity as its own licit covenantal religion with God.

[iv] Nov. 17, 1980. Address to Representatives of the Jewish Community in Mainz, West Germany.

[v] “The Gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”: A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate (No. 4), Para 40.

[vi] Ibid, Section 7.

[vii] Evangelii Gaudium, “Relations with Judaism,” para 247.

[viii] Ibid., “Concern for the Vulnerable,” paras 210/211.

[ix] See, especially, David I. Kertzer, “The Pope, The Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives,” The Atlantic  (Aug. 27, 2020).

[x]  Katharina von Kellenbach, “In Our Time: Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and Jewish-Christian Dialogue Fifty Years After Nostra Aetate” Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations 10 (2015), p. 19.

gratitude goes to wise and wonderful friends who offered exceptional advice and help in my writing of this: John Baldovin, Edward Foley, Virgil C. Funk, Gordon W. Lathrop, Richard S. Vosko, and Janet R. Walton.


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