I’m currently trying to finish a book manuscript on the malevolent effects of what I identify as “triumphalism” in Christian-Muslim relations. I define “triumphalism” as a mode of relating to religious others in which the religious self attempts to assert the universal truth value of his or her faith by attempting to dominate, marginalize, and even eradicate the faith traditions of religious others.
It seems I can hardly finish a chapter without encountering a new manifestation of the triumphalist phenomenon, especially in Christian-Muslim relations. Last up: the alleged statement of His Eminence Cardinal Koch, President of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. The statement was made during a visit to the Woolf Institute at Cambridge University where, from what I gather, he was discussing a relatively new document issued by the Commission on December 10, 2015 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council.
“My objections are also rooted in a pragmatic concern for the integrity and future of Christian-Muslim relations, and therefore the future of the human family.”
The Cardinal appears to have been commenting on the assertion of the new document that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews” (sec. 6, 40). According to reports in various Catholic and some Jewish media sources, he was asked a question about whether Christians have a duty to convert Muslims to Christianity. He allegedly responded: “We have a mission to convert all non-Christian religions’ people [except] Judaism.” According to many of these same media sources, he went on to say that “We must above all convert these Muslims that use violence from the abuse of religion because the sister of all religion is freedom and peace and not violence, and when a religion uses violence to convert others, this is an abuse of religion.”
There’s likely to be lots of proverbial ink spilled over what many in the progressive wing of the Church will likely construe as at least a colossal gaff, and what many in the conservative wing will likely deem an accurate and honest articulation of magisterial teaching, even though what the Cardinal was expressing is, as one ecclesiologist and ecumenist colleague of mine explained, technically a weighty “theological opinion,” but clearly not magisterial teaching.
Although I cannot speak for all progressives, I can speak for one—yours truly. I would contend that my objection to the Cardinal’s alleged words is precisely rooted in magisterial teaching which astutely avoids talk of “converting” anybody, and instead speaks of a mission of “witness” and “proclamation” in humble recognition of the dignity and even beauty of other religions. My objections are also rooted in a pragmatic concern for the integrity and future of Christian-Muslim relations, and therefore the future of the human family. This is why I fully intend to spill some considerable ink on this topic in my book.
“Should a triumphalist dedication to the institutional dominance of Christianity be restrained only (or largely) by appropriate contrition over past victimization of others, combined with what strikes me as a crude ‘market-share’ analysis?”
What I want to do here, however, is something I do not intend to do in my book on Christian-Muslim relations. I would like to open a dialogue with Jewish religious scholars and leaders on one very specific aspect of the Cardinal’s alleged statement.
As I indicated above, part of what led the Cardinal to make his alleged remark about converting Muslims is an incredibly important development in Jewish-Catholic relations: the Church’s movement toward a solemn disavowal of any “institutional mission” to convert the Jews. The recent document on which the Cardinal was apparently commenting speaks of a “principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission,” while at the same time affirming the ongoing necessity of Christians’ witness to Jews, with the crucial caveat that Christians do so “in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah” (sec. 6, 40).
Along with countless other Catholics and almost every one of my Jewish friends, colleagues, and conversation partners, I rejoice that the Church has learned from the evil of her sons’ and daughters’ role in laying the cultural and philosophical foundations for secular anti-Semitism—and ultimately the Shoah—through centuries of virulent and unconscionable anti-Jewish teaching and practice. I am also deeply gratified by the Church’s coming to terms with the understandable claim that institutional “missions” to convert Jews on the part of powerful global organizations like the Catholic and other Christian churches may well amount to a subtle form of post-Shoah genocide—or, as some prefer, “ethnocide.”
But this raises a critical question in interreligious relations and human relations in general: should a triumphalist dedication to the institutional dominance of Christianity be restrained only (or largely) by appropriate contrition over past victimization of others, combined with what strikes me as a crude “market-share” analysis?
“The unspeakable and humanly unforgivable suffering of the Jewish people in the Shoah can also teach Christians something critical—not just about how to treat the Jewish people—but how to treat all people, particularly people of other faiths.”
Yeah. We really played a major role in bringing Judaism and the Jewish people close to extinction. And besides, they’re not one of our major competitors. Their numbers are so low and they’re not really trying to make inroads into our market. Who knows? In fact, if we play our cards right, we might be able to bring them on board as a wholly owned subsidiary. So maybe we should leave them be.
My Jewish teachers have taught me that, at the core of the notion of “chosen-ness” is a profound responsibility to fulfill the biblically-attested role of “light to the nations” (Is 49:6). First and foremost, this means that we gentiles have much to learn about what it means to live a righteous God-centered and other-centered life from Jews and Judaism. But I have also taken this to mean that the unspeakable and humanly unforgivable suffering of the Jewish people in the Shoah can also teach Christians something critical—not just about how to treat the Jewish people—but how to treat all people, particularly people of other faiths.
It is, therefore, on the basis of this conviction that I make this plea to Jewish leaders, and my Jewish sisters and brothers in general: Insofar as Cardinal Koch and his Commission are attempting to link the rejection of the institutional mission to the “special theological status of Jewish-Christian dialogue,” please consider rejecting this status in fraternal love.
Please consider adopting this course of action as a way of teaching us—Catholics, especially—that all institutional efforts to convert religious others are almost always connected with the power these institutions hold and represent, and thus are extremely vulnerable to cooptation by the seemingly uncontrollable forces of worldly domination and oppression which miss no opportunity to ally themselves with, and don the lofty disguise of, “faith.” Please consider refusing to stand in the somewhat dubious protective shade this new document offers you, and instead consider standing with your Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, and others of faith in calling for an end to all forms of institutional religious predation.