The Association of Hebrew Catholics Causes Controversy In St Louis

This is a guest post by Joseph Weissman

In August 2010, KPLR 11 St Louis reported that Robert Carlson, the Archbishop of St Louis in the Roman Catholic Church, held a clandestine meeting with leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) regarding a potential meeting of the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC) in the city scheduled for October.

The JCRC’s fear was that the meeting together of Hebrew Catholics could spark evangelism or proselytisation  – “could” being the operative word.

Writing in St Louis Today in July 2010, Tim Townsend penned an article entitled “Hebrew Catholics to hold meeting here,” with a special focus on those AHC speakers who had spoken positively about Catholic missionary activity.

Earlier this month, Archbishop Carlson decided that the AHC meeting should take place behind closed doors, closing the meeting to the press, due to the controversy the conference had generated. Townsend reported:

St. Louis representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] told the newspaper that the archdiocese’s participation in the conference was “deeply concerning,” and they challenged the idea that a convert to Christianity can somehow also remain Jewish.

One problem immediately stands out – the Hebrew Catholics are not overtly claiming to be Jewish in any way that might be offensive to Orthodox or traditional Jews. They are not principally calling themselves “Messianic Jews” or “Catholic Jews”, but are simply acknowledging their Hebrew heritage, as well they might.

Of course, there will be variation in how the believers express their Catholic faith and their Jewishness, but that is precisely why the Hebrew Catholics need such a conference to work through these complex issues.

But if you read the AHC’s recommended booklet on Jewish Identity, it doesn’t read as if they are claiming to be Orthodox Jews. Quite the contrary, the author seems totally detached from Judaism, instead trying to figure out the relationship between the Jew who has become a Catholic, his new-found faith, and the Jewish community.

Theological inquiries into the relationship between Jewish and Catholic identity is not limited to Hebrew Catholics. The topic is freely discussed throughout the Church at all levels.

Cardinal Lustiger was a particularly prominent Hebrew Catholic who was cherished by Pope John Paul II.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI published his work on Jesus Christ entitled Jesus of Nazareth in which he highlighted the importance of understanding Judaism in understanding the Roman Catholic message. He has a high regard for Jacob Neusner‘s scholarship on interfaith relations, and indeed for Judaism as a faith.

Just as Benedict draws out and comments on the Hebrew elements of Scripture and Tradition, so too do Hebrew Catholics with their very selves.

I cannot see why this would be an issue for the JCRC or the ADL to be concerned about. If the AHC were to form a Hebrew Catholic missionary group, and the group participated in particularly offensive proselytising activities, then perhaps they would have a case to begin building. Otherwise, the JCRC and the ADL don’t really have any valid complaints.

The Underground Site reported this week:

In their website, the AHC describes itself as a lay apostolate comprised of Catholics both of Jewish and non-Jewish background. Their goal is to preserve the heritage and identity of the people of Israel by gathering together Jews who have joined the Catholic Church, the website said.

If the AHC were obsessed with evangelism, then a meeting behind closed doors is not a great way to start. In fact, it is almost as if the pressure from the JCRC and the ADL has pushed the AHC in the other direction, in that now the AHC are meeting more clandestinely.

I do not doubt the ADL’s zeal or sincerity in this instance, but neither are particularly useful or relevant in this case. They do great work for sure, and the ADL’s Abe Foxman just this week has some very well-placed comments about anti-Muslim prejudices. Nevertheless, when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations, I think the ADL sometimes get it wrong and go way overboard.

Indeed, it is almost as if the ADL and the JCRC activists mentioned in the article want to define the Hebrew Catholics according to their own fears rather than allowing the Hebrew Catholics to define themselves.