Pope Francis’ “unfathomable divine mystery”

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I have always appreciated the long view and unhurried pace of the Catholic Church.

The time that the Inquisition condemned Galileo for teaching that the earth went around the sun, for instance, in 1633. Even in 1820, long after the Vatican had established their own Observatory, the Church’s chief censor tried to ban publication of a book because it treated heliocentrism as a physical fact. Not until 1992 did the Church officially pardon (sort of) Galileo, and only after a Commission studied the matter for thirteen years.

Thus, we come to yesterday’s declaration that it is no longer every Catholic’s duty to convert the Jews. True, they led up to it with their 1965 statement (Nostra Aetate) that all Jews, dead and living, were no longer collectively guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That declaration was surely welcome after 1,900 years of Church-inspired persecution, oppression and expulsions, alleviated only occasionally by periods of tolerance.

The 1965 statement also stood in opposition to Cum Nimis Absurdum, a proclamation issued by Paul IV on 14 July 1555, which stripped Roman Jews of their human rights. The beginning of that statement, known by its first few words, in Latin, reads: “Since it is completely absurd and inappropriate that Christian piety allows the Jews – whose guilt, all of their own doing, has condemned them to eternal slavery – access to our society and even to live among us…”

The rest of the document mandated that Jews must live in a locked ghetto, must wear yellow hats at all times, could never employ or eat with a Christian, and barred Jews from all occupations except rag picking. Notably, Jews of that era were forced to spend their Sabbath days in Church, listening to hours-long sermons exhorting conversion. The phrase “’… ’til the conversion of the Jews” was common poetic shorthand for eternity. (See Andrew Marvell’s fabulous ‘To His Coy Mistress’ for a particularly savory example.) Conversion of the Jews was held to be a Catholic obligation and, in those days, they did not even give out toasters for the rare successes.

In this historical context, Pope Francisco’s statement does not seem odd, curious or quaint. It is the evolution of a centuries long relationship between the faiths, much of it appalling and barbaric. So Gracias, Francisco, for calling us your “elder brothers”.

Francisco went on to say: “… that the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery”.

On this, Bishop of Rome, I agree, with all of my secular heart.