|An image from the Mass of the feast of St Gregory the Great, who threatened|
excommunication for anyone attempting to force Jews to convert to Christianity.
Let Israel recognise in you the Messiah it has longed for;
may the Jewish people accept you [sc. Christ] as their awaited Deliverer [Latin: 'Messiah']
In the Bishops' Conference press release about the need to change the Extraordinary Form Prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday Liturgy, Archbishop MacDonald complained that by comparison with the 1970 Novus Ordo equivalent, the 2008 version 'reverted to being a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity'. Other have noted, as problematic, that the title of the prayer in the Missal is 'pro conversione Iudaiorum' instead of, as in the Novus Ordo, simply, 'For the Jews'.
How are we to understand these complaints? Naturally, we must assume that spokesmen are being honest and are reasonably well-informed. What this is about, on those assumptions, is presentation, of controlling perceptions, above all by Jews. As I noted in the last post, the suppression of the more explicit language of conversion in the Novus Ordo cannot be explained theologically, since the explict language was retained in the Liturgy of the Hours published the year after the reformed Missal: 1971. Nevertheless, the Good Friday prayers have come to Jews' attention (why? as a result of briefing by whom?), the Liturgy of the Hours prayers have not, so - the argument must be - it will be possible to make progress in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations if we talk about changing the Good Friday Prayer and ignore the Liturgy of the Hours.
So the question arises: the Bishops of England and Wales made their move - how did it go down? This question of public relations, from its normally peripheral importance in theological and liturgical matters, becomes central: this was the whole object of the exercise. It is of course easy to answer. England is a small place, and the Jewish community has a long-established and widely respected newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, which covers all things of interest to the Jewish community, and is available online without a paywall. So what do we find?
The Catholic press had a smattering of coverage of the issue. The Catholic Herald had an analytical piece with quotes from me and others, and the other Catholic papers just had little news items. But to repeat, this is not about perceptions by Catholics, it is about perceptions by Jews. What did the Jewish Chronicle (JC) have to say?
As far as news is concerned, there was nothing. Despite the involvement of the Chief Rabbi in the dialogue leading up to the announcement, and his willingness to give quotes to the Catholic Universe and so forth, the JC did not think the think the event was worth reporting. Most unfortunately, however, it was noticed by its leading op-ed columnist, an academic historian called Geoffrey Aldermann.
Now, to understand his angle on it, you have to remember how the whole issue has been spun in recent years. As we all know, John Cornwell published his book Hitler's Pope in 1999. The massive publicity given to this book has established a media narrative that, never mind Medieval anti-Semitism, the actions of a recent Pope, Pius XII, should be explained in terms of sympathy for Nazism, and contemptuous indifference, if not hatred, towards the Jews. The dark past of the Catholic Church, on this issue, sweeps up through Medieval anti-Jewish riots, through French anti-Drefus activism, and into support for Hitler, not just by German Catholics but by an Italian Pope. It was opposed by the progressive faction at Vatican II, because that was about a break with the past, and the past is bad. Any move towards theological conservatism, any move towards making use of the Church's past, is tarred by the anti-Semitic brush.
Cornwell's followers might express it like this: don't tell us about the good points of the Catholic past, any more than you should tell us about the good points of Hitler's economic policy. It is all tainted. It must all be rejected. In this way, Cornwell's book might be said to be more about the ailing Pope John Paul II, and the question of who would succeed him, than about the events of the 1930s and 1940s.
When Pope Benedict liberated the Traditional Mass in 2007, the narrative swung into action. It was very handy that a contrast could be drawn between the traditional and the new Prayer for the Jews on Good Friday. Bishop Williamson's remarks on the Holocaust were a stunning boon to the narrative. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI was German also helped. Plenty of people in the Church who hated Pope Benedict and also hated the Traditional Mass were on hand to push things along. The whole thing gained, in media terms, a 'new pair of legs'.
This is a powerful media narrative, but it is not a universal one. It can be undermined and confronted. Great work has been done on this from all sorts of angles, and it is worth stressing that, motivated by a love of the truth, many Jews have played an important part in this: see Rabbi Neusner on the Prayer for the Jews, Rabbi Dalin on Pius XII, and a columnist in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, on Pius XII here. But it remains a safe and lazy option for many liberal Catholics and secular commentators.
So here is what Geoffrey Alderamann wrote. Those of a sensitive dispostion, look away now.
In the matter of Jews, the Second Vatican Council reached some brave conclusions. It stressed the Jewish roots of Christianity and God's love for the Jewish people. It declared that "although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God". These bold statements appear to have angered many of the Catholic faithful, and the demotion of the Tridentine Mass appears to have angered many more. Benedict XVI - formerly Joseph Ratzinger, one-time member of the Hitler Youth who, as the Vatican website calmly put it, "enrolled in the auxiliary anti-aircraft service" of Nazi Germany - was determined to make amends. He revived the Tridentine Mass, with the result that each year, on Good Friday (commemorating the execution of Jesus), the Roman Catholic faithful are once more enjoined to pray "for the conversion of the Jews". Where the faithful were once expected to "pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant," they are now enjoined to cry out "Let us pray also for the Jews, that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they may also acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ."
(The Jewish Chronicle declined to print my or any other letter responding to this article.)
Having read this, my readers will be able to answer the following question. Has the decision by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales played well, from a PR point of view?
Instead of confronting the negative media narrative about Catholic anti-Semitism, instead of supporting brave authors like Rabbi Neusner who stuck his neck out for the truth, they have chosen a different approach. To concede, at least by implication, that there is truth in the narrative, but it is ok because we are making that break with the past which the narrative demands.
The degree to which such a move strengthens the narrative can be seen in technicolour in the passage from Dr Aldermann. He ends on a positive note: that Pope Francis looks like a man who is going to make a really big break with the past, and isn't that great? But in the meantime, the problem remains that celebrations of the Traditional Mass continue, and accordint to the narrative the problem with the Traditional Mass is far from being just about this one prayer. Furthermore, the whole thing is going blow up in the bishops' faces when, as seems overwhelmingly likely, Rome declines to change the prayer.
At least, it will blow up in their faces if anyone notices. Dr Aldermann may not find out. The bishops had better hope he doesn't find out, either, about their tolerance and in many cases support for the Traditional Mass, their work of architectural and spiritual restoration, and their use of those prayers for the conversion of the Jews of the Liturgy of the Hours. The great thing about a lazy media narrative is that the kind of people who use it tend not to be the kind of people who'd spend even a few minutes on Google exploring its implications, and aren't the kind of people who revisit their old articles when they are proved wrong. But you never know. What would Dr Aldermann make of the fact that Archbishop MacDonald himself created an official Chaplaincy for the Traditional Mass when he was Archbishop of Southwark?
We will probably never know. But a note to my readers: don't tell anyone.
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