[George Weigel, the distinguished Roman Catholic, author, analyst, and biographer of John Paul II has asked several people to comment on the current Synod of Bishops. Some write from within the Church, and others like me from outside it. The contributions are found in the magazine First Things. My contribution is below.]
Since the work that began in Vatican II and led to the Council’s declaration on the Church’s relationship to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, relations between the Church and the Jewish people have reached levels of understanding that were previously unimaginable. So Jews will not seek from the Synod any comments on the history of Jews, the meaning of Judaism, or relations between the Church and the Jews of the sort that made Nostra Aetate such a historic document.
It is rather in the Church’s universal role that Jews, and so many others, may seek and hope for a certain firmness of belief and of conduct that are so badly needed—and so often missing thus far in the twenty-first century. There can be few individuals who have not been amazed by the social changes through which we are living and the speed with which they have overtaken us. Those changes are sometimes forced upon believing Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the ground that their beliefs are incompatible with “progress” and “enhanced understandings,” and are instead old, outmoded, and even hateful.
“The faithful” in our society have lost ground in recent decades. And it sometimes seems that the “commanding heights” of our culture—in the media, the great foundations, the universities, and (closer to ground level) even the elementary and secondary schools—are unalterably opposed to allowing families and individuals to practice what their faith teaches. The Catholic Church has often been a bulwark in defense of ideas, beliefs, and institutions that, we may still be astonished to learn, require defending—the most obvious being the family, and the rights of parents to educate their children in their faith.
This role is being forced on the Church in many ways: for example, when we see a Catholic hospital required to offer abortion coverage, or when devout Catholic parents are disqualified from adoption. One might have thought that Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, or would-be adoptive parents are fulfilling such a valuable social role that assaults on them would instantly fail. But it is not so, and the Church will have to resist. In doing so, it must not and need not work alone; on the contrary, it can fulfill yet another invaluable role by helping to rally Americans of all religions who want to live out their faiths as parents, citizens, and employees. This certainly includes Orthodox and other traditional Jews. When the Church protects its own faithful from such assaults on religious freedom, it is protecting observant Jews as well. No institution can form a more powerful defense than the Catholic Church, not only in its own churches and in its schools and colleges, but also through the influence it can have across our society and culture.
The role I describe is the fierce intellectual defense of religious freedom, and more broadly of individual freedom, as the “free exercise” clause of the Constitution demands. No doubt remains that this freedom will continue to be at risk; and if today the U.S. Supreme Court reliably defends it, who can say whether that will be true a decade from now? The safest protection is a society that understands the stakes and wishes to protect religious belief and practice. Given the views of these matters in the law schools and universities, and in the media, it’s an uphill effort that will require moral and intellectual leadership from Jews, Evangelicals, and not least leaders in the Catholic Church.
That is not only true in the United States, but especially in Europe where militantly secular groups fight to ban kosher slaughter and even circumcision—steps that would simply make Jewish life in Europe impossible. In a continent where hunting, bullfighting, and whaling are lawful, it is hard for Jews to avoid seeing outlawing kosher slaughter as an anti-Semitic act. And in its favoring (or to use the current terminology, “privileging”) of animal welfare over religious freedom, this step clearly emerges from a pantheistic view of the world. Jews need the help of all those with a biblical view of life, God, and nature if they are to retain their ability to practice their faith. Will the Catholic Church come to their aid?
The struggle for religious and individual freedom also requires the active participation of the Church in world politics, where there are bloody assaults on human rights every day. One might have hoped a century ago, after the First World War, that freedom of religion and political freedom would be far more widespread than they actually are. There are gains and losses, and certainly the fall of the Soviet empire—in which the Catholic Church, led by Saint John Paul II, played such a central role—marked a great advance. But everywhere the struggle goes on. Here, too, the Church can and should play a continuing role, refusing the moral relativism that suggests that some peoples are not fit for freedom—or that their oppression is none of our business.
Every population everywhere cares more for its own well-being than for that of people half-a-world away, and that is natural. So is the temptation of a political and moral isolationism, an indifference to the fate of those with whom we do not share citizenship. But the universal Church should be reminding all of us that indifference is a sin; condemnation and rejection of the kind of brutal oppression we see in places like Nicaragua and China is required of us all. I choose those two examples, not because they are the worst in the world (though they are surely near the top of the list), but because the Church itself is persecuted in both places.
Yet we do not see from Rome right now the kind of leadership for which one might have hoped, and that we experienced during John Paul’s papacy. Instead, we see periods of quiet and others of accommodation, which suggest that the great light of human rights has dimmed. Towards the State of Israel we too often see a disturbing moral equivalency; even after the most vicious terrorist attacks, such as those of this very month, instead of a condemnation of terror we hear blind calls for “all sides” to stop the violence. But “all sides” are not terrorists, and the Church’s long experience with just war theory should have elicited a more compelling response from the Vatican to the massacres of civilians.
The Catholic Church’s support for human rights is of interest to all free people but especially to Jews. Our own history has taught us that only when human rights are broadly respected, for all citizens, can Jews be safe; and it has taught us that indifference to the slaughter of Jews is a moral crime and a sign of growing dangers. During the long history of the Cold War, the Church succeeded when it stood, even if alone, for freedom; and when it engaged in a form of moral relativism that some defended as realpolitik, it failed. Those lessons should be studied now, for the cause of freedom sorely needs the Church’s strong adherence and leadership.