“The Tragic Couple”






James Bernauer and Robert A. Maryks, “The Tragic Couple”  Encounters Between Jews and Jesuit, Brill 2013

James Bernauer and Robert Maryks
James W. Bernauer, Ph.D. (1981) in Philosophy , S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook is the Kraft Family Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College where he is also Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. He has published extensively on the philosophies of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, including Amor mundi: explorations in the faith and thought of Hannah Arendt (Martinus Nijhoff, 1987) and Michel Foucault’s force of flight: toward an ethics for thought (HPI, 1990). Robert A. Maryks, Ph.D. (2006) in History, Fordham University, is Associate Professor at CUNY and Visiting Scholar at the Jesuit Institute of Boston College. He has published on various aspects of the history of the Jesuits, including Saint Cicero and the Jesuits (Ashgate, 2008), The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews (Brill, 2009), and Pouring Jewish Water into Fascist Wine (Brill, 2011). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Jesuit Studies and Brill’s book series of Jesuit Studies..

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) has become a leader in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics as was manifested in the role that the Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea played in the adoption by the Second Vatican Council of Nostra Aetate, the charter for that new relationship. 
Still the encounters between Jesuits and Jews were often characterized by animosity and this historical record made them a tragic couple, related but estranged. This volume is the first examination of the complex interactions between Jesuits and Jews from the early modern period in Europe and Asia through the twentieth century where special attention is focused on the historical context of the Holocaust.

From the introduction.
The improved relationship between Jews and Christians has been among the most significant and promising historical developments since the Second World War. The road toward that new situation has many markers but it would be a very common perception to see the adoption of the declaration Nostra Aetate during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as the most decisive early step toward reconciliation between these two faith communities. The Society of Jesus has been a leader in the Catholic Church’s dialogue with the Jewish People, most clearly but certainly not exclusively in the role that the Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea exercised in formulating this groundbreaking document. It is he who, with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, appears in the photo on this book’s cover. The picture captures a conversation in the 1960s between two learned men of deep spirituality who are discussing a text. It is easy to appreciate the rapport between these two intellectuals. And yet the force of their discussion is not to be perceived as the mere display of a mutual personal esteem but rather in terms of a fundamental conversion, a momentous shift that their conversation was producing. Their dialogue became broadly significant because it exercised particular influence in leading the Catholic Church to redefine its relationship with the Jewish people and with Judaism.

And one of the most important of the meetings between Rabbi Heschel and Cardinal Bea took place in November, 1963, in what was then the chancery of the Archdiocese and is now part of the Boston College campus. It was only fitting then that this Jesuit College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning sponsored a scholarly conference in 2012 that was dedicated to the continuing of the Bea-Heschel conversation and to the enhancement of that ongoing relationship between Jews and Christians, particularly Jews and Jesuits. Such conferences contribute to a purification of the memory for these groups and to a comprehension of how they came to be where they are in their relationships to one another.

The history of the encounters between Jews and Jesuits has long been in need of a thorough investigation because both were significant players in Modernity and had important interactions. The 2012 conference at Boston College had been prepared for by almost sixty years of formal Christian-Jewish exchanges; more particularly, it followed a series of four meetings sponsored by the Jesuit leadership in Rome. The first took place in Kraków, near Auschwitz, in 1998 and its theme was “Jesuit and Jews: Towards Greater Fraternity and Commitment.” Two years later there was a meeting in Jerusalem and its topic was “The Significance of the State of Israel for Contemporary Judaism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” The third assembly was held in 2005 in Zug, Switzerland, on the subject of “The Importance of Modern Jewish Thought for Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” Finally, in 2007, New York City’s Fordham University hosted conversations on “Diaspora, Secularization, and Modernity.” All of these gatherings were deemed successful and perhaps their greatest achievement was to make their participants aware of how ignorant they were regarding the history of encounters between Jews and Jesuits. Such ignorance has long provoked dangerous myths about their dealings (myths that are readily available on the Internet) and unnecessarily limited the rapport between these two groups.

Certain expressions take on a life of their own (one thinks of advertising slogans or popular lines from films) and this seems to have happened to the title of the conference, “The Tragic Couple,” a term which became a constant point of reference in the Boston conversations. The expression is owed to the French journalist Jean Lacouture (b. 1921) in the context of a remark on Jesuits and Jews and several conference participants wondered about its appropriateness to the complexity of that interaction. Certainly it was not meant as the title for any grand narrative because that story does not yet exist, if it ever will. Indeed it is the absence of that narrative that was one of the sources of the Boston meeting’s specific energy. And yet, it did seem that there was something appropriate to the phrase. Jesuits and Jews did form a distinctive couple, in part because they were both the most frequent victims for those who sought a total, diabolical explanation for how history operated, although it must be said that the suffering that was endured as a consequence cannot be compared. Both groups were demonized in infamous but popular fabrications: the Monita secreta for the Jesuits and the Protocols of Zion for the Jews (the latter derived in part from the rhetoric of the former). Their diabolical character was charted on the axes of space and time. Spatially, they operated outside of any specific territory and aspired for domination over the world; they lurked behind thrones at the same time that they were quite willing to overthrow those very rulers and nations. Jews and Jesuits were preeminently people of the city and, thus, were accused of being allied to wealth, loose morality, and a cunning, deracinated intelligence which was contemptuous of the traditions of the rural past. Temporally, they were at home in periods of decadence and collapse and, thus, they were perceived as devotees of Modernity: the same spectacles which detected the Jesuits as fathering the French Revolution saw the Jews as the creators of the Russian one.

The animosity directed toward the two groups did not just come from the outside because the Jesuits had developed their own enmity toward the Jews. And this was unexpected to some extent. As far as the Jesuits were concerned, the opening moment in the Jewish-Jesuit encounter was both a stance of courage and a surrender to cowardice. The official name for the Jesuits is the Society of Jesus and we know that Ignatius of Loyola’s desire for intimacy with his Savior even included an actual sharing in the Jewish lineage (“secundum carnem”) of Jesus and Mary. Ignatius’s devotion to the personal figure of Jesus saved him, and initially the Society, from a most common prejudice, namely, the view that Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants, the so called “New Christians” or “conversos” of Iberia, were more Jewish than Christian for they were of impure blood. Such “tainted” ancestry justified their exclusion from Church posts and religious orders. Ignatius courageously resisted ecclesiastical and political pressures and refused to exclude Jewish converts or their descendants from the Society’s ranks and, thus, some of the most distinguished early Jesuits were of Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, however, the Society was to abandon its founder’s brave policy on membership and in 1593, under pressure from its own members, banned the admission of all with “Hebrew or Saracen stock.” And not even the superior general of the Order could dispense from this impediment of origin. The Fifth General Congregation explained: “For even though the Society, for the sake of the common good, wishes to become all things to all men in order to gain for Christ all those it can, still it is not necessary that it recruit its workers from any and all human races.” The decree was adopted on December 23, 1593, “perhaps the most shameful day in Jesuit history” according to one Jesuit historian. That shameful day would cast its shadow long into the future, on many different activities of the Society, and those would shape a tragic profile to that couple’s history.

This Jesuit racism regarding Jews as well as resistance to it from the earliest years by Jesuits was the most significant defining conflict of their early relationship and is still in need of greater understanding, especially the character of those Jesuits who confronted the racism because it was the source of the esprit that came to flourish in the last century’s Jesuit opposition to Fascism and Nazism.

In his recently published book, From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965, John Connelly has traced the prehistory of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) from the intellectual milieu formed by groups of Catholic anti-Nazis operating in Central Europe in the 1930s.

Unsurprisingly, among those who fought Nazi racial anti-Semitism we find not a few influential Jesuits from other areas. For example, there was Pierre Charles (1883-1954), a Belgian Jesuit who fiercely criticized racism in his Les Protocoles des sages de Sion (Paris: Casterman, 1938) with its revelation of the work as a forgery, and the French Jesuit Pierre Lorson (1889-1954), the author of Christians before racism—the first book-length study of race from a Christian perspective written in French. What characterized these and other Catholic anti-racists was, Connelly argues, that they lived along borders. But “because it is impossible to walk, let alone live on a border, these people in fact were border-crossers who took ideas in both directions,” whether these borders were ethnic or religious, or—in most cases—both.  As Connelly put it, “without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.” The Jesuit experience suggests that the potency of the converted is worth being traced in earlier centuries because it is difficult not to notice certain parallelisms between those inter-war Jesuit border-crossers and the group of Jesuits, most of them of Jewish origins, or conversos, who opposed purity-of-blood laws in the Society of Jesus in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. A brief historical excursus is warranted so that we appreciate this early Jesuit-Jewish relationship.

The foundation of the Jesuits in 1540—half a century after the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain—coincided with the rise of a Spanish anti-converso hysteria that reached its peak in 1547, when the most authoritative expression of the purity-of-blood legislation in Iberia, El Estatuto de limpieza [de sangre], was promulgated by the Inquisitor General of Spain and Archbishop of Toledo, Juan Martínez Silíceo (1486–1557). The Society of Jesus could not avoid coping with the problem of conversos, because the Jesuits were founded by a group of so-called Old and New Christians most of whom were born in Iberia, as was their leader Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491-1556). In spite of the desired universal character of the Order envisioned by its founding fathers, the vexed purity-of-blood concern had produced from the very beginning a profound polarization in the Society of Jesus as it tried to implement its mission.

The death of Superior General Francisco de Borja in 1572 marked a turning point in the history of converso Jesuits, whose influence—after three decades of holding the highest posts of responsibility in the Jesuit administration—began to fade. After the deaths of Borja’s two predecessors, Ignatius of Loyola and Diego Laínez in 1556 and 1565, respectively, the anti-converso Jesuits seized the momentum of political transition by campaigning against the converso presence in the Jesuit central administration. The campaign was successful—the anti-converso Italo-Portuguese lobby managed to block the election to the generalate of the converso vicar general Juan Alfonso de Polanco (1517-1576). From the very start of his tenure, the newly elected superior general, Everard Mercurian (1514-1580), began to “cleanse the house”: he deprived almost all converso Jesuits of governmental posts in Rome, Italy, and possibly in other parts of Europe. Consequently, the period of the converso political sway ended, shifting the approach of the Jesuit administration in Rome away from both candidates and members of Jewish ancestry, a shift which under Mercurian’s successor, Claudio Acquaviva (1543-1615), would eventually result in the important discriminatory legislation of 1593. As mentioned earlier, it officially barred conversos from joining the Society of Jesus and dismissed those who were not yet full members of the Order.

The discriminatory policy of Mercurian and the defeat of the converso lobby during the third general congregation triggered the anti-Roman separatist movement by Spanish Jesuits known as the memorialistas, or those who wrote reports called memoriales. The converso character of the memorialistas movement was denounced by the anti-converso lobby, which after the election of Acquaviva (1581) included high-ranking officials in the Jesuit curia, such as the German Paul Hoffaeus (d. 1608), the Italian Lorenzo Maggio (d. 1605), and the Portuguese Manuel Rodrigues (d. 1596).

Their Italian predecessor, Assistant General Benedetto Palmio (1523-1598) had fueled their anti-converso bias in his memorial to Acquaviva. There he wrote that the first cause and origin of the evils in the Society of Jesus proceeded from the multitude and insolence of Spanish converts from Judaism. Other Jesuits shared Palmio’s prejudice. Paul Hoffaeus claimed that one of the categories of people who compromised the Order’s unity were so-called confesos (i.e. converts from Judaism) who were “either suspicious or hateful.” Paraphrasing Luke’s Gospel [Luke 16:8], Lorenzo Maggio argued that “those from the circumcision subverted the entire house of the Society. As sons of this world who are shrewd in dealing with their own and avid of new things, they easily excite disorders and destroy the unity of souls and their bond with the government.”

Manuel Rodrigues’s argument seemed more racist: “Jewish converts [and their descendants] are by nature contrary to the true and sincere spirit of religion and thus harmful. […] They promote genuine mortification and solid virtues very little and seem to be merchants, seeking first seats and being called rabbis; they are hardly eager to seek perfection […] and readily admit others of the same blood who are very unworthy.” Rodrigues’s description of Jewish converts and their descendants echoes the popular anti-converso work by Bishop Diego de Simancas, Defensio Statuti Toletani (1573), in which he employed the concept of “hereditary vices,” which were—according to Simancas—peculiar to Jewish converts and more frequent in them than in others. Simancas’s predecessor, Inquisitor Silíceo, whose purity-of-blood statutes he defended, expressed this idea more eloquently: “[The Jewish converts] still hold on their lips the milk of their ancestors’ recent perversity.” The difference between pure and impure Christians was to Silíceo similar to the one between bred and in-bred horses.

This enmeshing of anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic reasoning by the Jesuit leadership in the late sixteenth century was challenged by a group of Jesuit intellectuals, who were largely of Jewish ancestry. Most prominent among them was a prolific writer and diplomat from Mantua, Antonio Possevino (1533-1611). Following his engagement in the mission to Roman Jews after General Congregation 3, he influenced Pope Gregory XIII’s decision to create a college of neophytes aimed at training preachers to convert Jews in Italy and the Levant. He was one of the most prolific Jesuit writers, authoring close to forty books. The most famous of them was the Bibliotheca selecta, part of which was dedicated to the topic of the conversion of Jews, who in his eyes were no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God. Through this and other writings, Possevino became one of the fiercest opponents of purity-of-blood legislation in the Society, even though his description of Jews had often a taste of traditional Christian anti-Judaism.

In his memorial to Acquaviva, Possevino argued that “either by procuring it or by consenting to it, both Jews and Gentiles dirtied their hands in shedding the innocent blood of Christ.” He further claimed that

[Loyola, Laínez, and Borja] did not believe those stains [of Jewish origin] should interfere with the development of the Society, if they could even be considered “stains,” provided the efficacy of baptism that deletes any stain, no matter how deep and contrary to God it is. […] Whether one looks to the [Jesuit] Constitutions, or to the example of former Fathers General, or to the disposition of Divine Providence manifested in Sacred Scripture, one cannot see how this fear [of men of Jewish ancestry] can be born within a Society whose Institute should be distinguished by the blood that is found in its freedom, and in the fact that it permits no preference for lineage, or for human concerns, which are vestiges of paganism.

In his argument another Jesuit opponent of purity-of-blood laws, García Girón de Alarcón (1534-1597), evoked the authority of Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534) who suggested that refusing candidates to religious orders only for the reason of their Jewish origin seemed irrational, for “our salvation comes from Jews, from whom Christ, the Apostles and many fathers of the faith were born according to the flesh.” A similar perspective was articulated by another Jesuit pioneer of the dialogue between Jews and Jesuits, António Vieira (1608-1697), a Portuguese missionary to Brazil. Echoing Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he recalled the privileged role of the Jews in the history of Christianity, for even though they “are hated by God for their blindness […] they are loved because of their faith and the merits of their ancestors.”

Possevino’s and his confreres’ bold and tenacious fight against Jesuit racism were voices crying in the desert—their writings circulated mostly in manuscript and remained unpublished until the twentieth century and thus had a limited impact on later generations of Jesuits. The enemies of the conversos in the Jesuit administration prevailed and, despite the absurdity of the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic arguments they employed, they were able to orchestrate in 1593 the promulgation of the purity-of-blood law. This law was abrogated only in 1946, because Jesuits feared, in the shadow of the Holocaust, of being accused of modern racism. Instrumental in this abrogation was a French Jesuit of Jewish ancestry, Auguste Valensin (1879-1953). We are still in need of full access to the Jesuit archives for this period, so as to be able to establish the more precise circumstances that led to the repeal of the anti-Jewish law, since the decree of the repeal did not disclose its reasoning. It is clear, however, that the 1946 Jesuit abrogation was part of a more extensive post-war Catholic stream that would become the flood which brought down the barriers to Nostra Aetate. While Jesuits and Jews have undertaken a new journey, clarity with respect to their past was a priority for the conference. Without pretending to be exhaustive for narrating such a complex and vast historical phenomenon, most presentations engaged the twentieth century as the most intense era in Jesuit-Jewish exchange, but there were important considerations of earlier historical encounters that prepared the way.

Comments are closed.