It’s been a couple weeks since the religion-focused journal First Things defended the Catholic church’s actions during the Mortara Controversy, the mid-19th century dispute over the Papal States’ abduction of a Jewish child whose caretaker had secretly baptized him. For a Jewish follower of the ensuing controversy—which pitted Catholic traditionalists against one another, as much as it pitted liberals against conservatives—it was hard to discern exactly how worried one should reasonably be. Did the 2018 edition of the Mortara controversy signal that any future surge of Catholic traditionalism would also threaten a dialing-back of the Church’s attitude towards Jews, which have thankfully liberalized over the past half-century? Or did the Mortara controversy really have very little to do with Jews qua Jews—was it actually a somewhat useful test-case for figuring out how far traditionalists were willing to go in pushing back against an allegedly threatening western liberal political order, as The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued on Twitter at the controversy’s outset?
Last night, Douthat debated the liberal Catholic theologian Massimo Faggioli at Fordham University, an event organized by the Religion News Network. Although they were there to discuss the first five years of Pope Francis’s Pontificate, Douthat and Faggioli occasionally referred to Jewish-Catholic relations in the course of arguing for their vision of modern-day Catholicism. The references were brief but nevertheless revealing.
Douthat, who is a leading critic of Francis, argued that the Pope’s willingness to re-open core doctrinal issues, like communion for divorced believers, had created space for a robust traditionalist opposition. For years, Catholic conservatives had believed in what Douthat called the “John Paul II synthesis,” in which the church liberalized in its relations to other faiths, its own history, and the broader world, while maintaining the strictness of various ethical and theological precepts. Under Francis, he added, many of those conservatives are frustrated and tempted to believe that “maybe the John Paul synthesis is a mistake…that’s how you get this reconsideration of the Mortara case…The more liberal Catholicism wins, the more it vitiates a center-right Catholicism.”
Faggioli didn’t buy it. In his mind, rapprochement with other faiths was a theologically settled issue in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. If traditionalists want to revisit accepted tenants of the faith, that was on them. “If a major conservative Christian magazine publishes something on Jews that ignores [every Pope after 1965, when the Council ended] there’s something that went really wrong. And it’s not the fault of Vatican II.”
Later in the debate, Douthat noted the decline of the Catholic church in Europe and the US over the past half-century: “Things have not gotten better and better since Vatican II for the western church,” he argued. Nonsense, said Faggioli, again making apparent reference to Mortara and similar Catholic-Jewish fissures: “We don’t force baptism on Jews anymore. I think that’s gotten better.” Faggioli, who teaches at Villanova but was born in Italy, then noted that there were “Jews killed in my own hometown, my own neighborhood when my parents were little.”
Traditional Catholics have argued that the Mortara debate is really about religious liberty, religious obligation, and the relationship between Catholicism and the western liberal order. Meanwhile, liberals like Faggioli are openly suggesting that such reconsiderations could threaten the post-Vatican II progress made between the Church and other faiths, Judaism in particular. As Faggioli argued last night, five years is long enough to say that a Pontificate is no longer transitional: We are now safely in the Pope Francis era, on a time horizon where whatever changes this Pope brings could be lasting or even defining. The question of what Francis-era intra-Catholic debates mean for Jews isn’t likely to resolve itself any time soon. But as last night’s event showed, it’s one that’s worth paying attention to.