The tenure of Pope Francis has been marked by his support for a host of causes more closely associated with the political left, including climate change, greater regulation of capitalism, and the fate of refugees attempting to reach Europe. He’s even taken modest steps on more explicit doctrinal issues such as opening certain church leadership roles to women, emphasizing the importance of welcoming LGBTQ individuals into the church (while still, of course, condemning homosexuality), greater flexibility with regard to divorce, and the possibility of relaxing the priesthood’s celibacy requirement. Particularly when set against the rising forces of reactionary nationalism in the late 2010s, Francis’s service as the Bishop of Rome has seen a marked shift away from the fiercely anti-communist rhetoric of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.
Perhaps, then, this is why it came as a surprise to many, including the Israeli Rabbinate, that in an August 11th homily Pope Francis would express full-throated endorsement of a belief which, in contemporary parlance, could be glossed as “problematic.”
“The Torah […] does not give life,” Francis asserted. Rather, “those who seek life need to look to the promise and its fulfillment in Christ.” The notion that Jewish law is wholly insufficient insofar as its truth has been surpassed and exceeded by Christ’s message to mankind—supersessionism—would seem to be at distinct odds with Francis’s noted embrace of religious pluralism. And yet, this is precisely what he articulated.
Francis has even responded to concern from the Israeli Rabbinate by insisting that his comments “should not be taken as passing a judgement on Jewish law.” It seems the Pope understood his comments simply as a matter of course, as essentially value-neutral. What are we to make of this apparent dissonance? Is Francis-the-social-liberal the same as Francis-the-denigrator-of-Jewish-tradition?
Supersessionism is a concept with deep roots in the Christian past. Scholars have and continue to debate the exact nature and timeline of the development of Christianity vis-à-vis its relationship with Judaism. What’s clear from even a cursory reading of the Christian Bible, however, is that early Christian theologians variously emphasized the obviation and replacement of the Mosaic Covenant by Christ’s teachings.
This is a view expressed perhaps most influentially in the Pauline Epistles and, in particular, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Not only does Christian canon typically assert that Jewish law is morally corrupt, spiritually insufficient, and overly concerned with ritual over feeling, but indeed, followers of Christ are in fact the “New Israel.”
It’s in this sense that we can properly understand verses such as Galatians 3:29 which state that “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs to the promise.” Many, such as a fourth century North African bishop named Augustine, have gone even further to argue that the continued, albeit downtrodden, existence of the Jewish people serves as reminder to those of the Christian faith—New Israel—of the truth of their belief and the consequent suffering of those who refused Christ’s message.
It should be noted that supersessionism hasn’t been a static or singular ideology over the two millennia of Church history. It is and has been a historically contingent and dynamic set of beliefs which the Christian faith in its different branches—chiefly Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—have expressed variously. Still, what’s clear and consistent is that the belief in Judaism’s essential deficiency, and its subsequent fulfillment and surpassing via Christ, is basic to Christian doctrine. Messianic Jews, aka “Jews for Jesus,” are simply evangelical Christians who take their identification as “New Israel” the most literally.
It’s well-known that supersessionism has long been a prominent theological component of Roman Catholicism in particular. Indeed, many see it as the ideological genesis of a host of anti-Jewish attitudes and sensibilities that have proliferated throughout the Church’s long history. However, those familiar with the Vatican’s recent history will know that the latter half of the twentieth century saw a sea change in its relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community.
The promulgation of Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”) by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 was spurred in large part by criticism of official Vatican neutrality during World War II. At the time, it was hailed as a forward-thinking document which attested to deep introspection on the part of the Church. Nostra Aetate forms the additional reason why Pope Francis’s comments were surprising to so many, from scholars to Catholic theologians to Jewish leaders.
Were such views not thoroughly repudiated by the landmark 1965 document which, among other doctrinal matters, notably rejected the concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus? Why would Francis the social liberal lend credence to a belief which the Church had ostensibly attempted to exorcise from its faithful?
For the answer to these questions, we must look more closely at the document itself. Nostra Aetate begins with an exposition on the nature of religious truth as it manifests in a variety of religious traditions, Judaism included. It goes on to prominently assert that “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” Here we’ve found our cipher for what follows.
Evidently, the Vatican Council isn’t suggesting its acceptance of all manner of non-Christian beliefs, but rather only those specific beliefs which are “true and holy.” In addressing Judaism in particular, Nostra Aetate makes perfectly clear that while Jews “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God” nor should they be subject to persecution on account of their Judaism, still “the Church is the new people of God.” A clearer statement of supersessionist rhetoric, alternatively termed “replacement theology,” could not be asked for.
What we find in Nostra Aetate is neither a pluralistic embrace of all religious traditions, which it’s often misunderstood to be, nor a renunciation of any of the Church’s core beliefs. What Nostra Aetate amounts to is, in essence, a (significant) rhetorical shift and not a doctrinal one—i.e. a change in tone and not in content.
We do not, moreover, find in its roughly 1,500 words an unqualified denunciation of Jewish guilt for the death of Christ, but rather that this charge should not be leveled against all Jews without distinction. Only “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead” should be considered culpable on this particular count.
My deconstruction of Nostra Aetate should not be misconstrued as a condemnation of the Catholic faith. Rather, my point is quite simply to note that Pope Francis’s apparent endorsement of supersessionist ideas should surprise absolutely no one. He could much less discard supersessionism in toto than he could shed the Argentinian accent with which he pronounces Latin.
All religious traditions are forever the subject of constant adjustment and revision on the part of their adherents, much less their detractors. As with any other human articulation, they inevitably come to reflect in some basic way the ideological currents and social antagonisms of their time. The Church responded to the spirit of the post-war era by sharing in disgust toward the fact that colonial violence had found full expression on European soil against a European population. This, in essence, is the genesis of Nostra Aetate.
Similarly, while Pope Francis’s liberal-leaning tenure has certainly made a splash, it’s perhaps best understood less as a function of a single individual’s beliefs, however influential he may be, than as a conscious institutional shift. Amidst recurring capitalist crises and the global reinvigoration of reactionary nationalism, how else could the church respond in a way that wouldn’t undermine its much-emphasized message of love and fellowship among humankind? It couldn’t very well overtly ally itself with those who would build up walls, both literal and figurative, between peoples.
Due in no small part to this public relations shift, the Vatican has been a prominent global actor over the past decade and has succeeded in making itself newly relevant to a new generation. Still, much as how the widely-lauded Nostra Aetate evinced distinctly supersessionist rhetoric, it should shock no one that the ‘Woke Pope’ would express a central tenet of Christian doctrine. After all, is the Pope not Catholic?