Critical Mass?


A week and a half ago, the Pope issued a decree authorizing Catholic clergy to conduct the old Latin Mass without permission of the Church. This bit of liturgical news wouldn’t seem to be of much interest to anyone other than Catholics, but nothing involving the Catholic Church is ever just about Catholics. The Good Friday edition of the old Latin Mass includes a prayer for Jews to convert to Christianity. The potential revival of this prayer was not received very positively in the Jewish world; Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and self-appointed spokesman for the Jewish community, called the news “disturbing.”

I have a variety of responses to this news: as a Jew, as a secular observer of the Catholic Church and as someone interested in the cause of inclusiveness for those in interfaith relationships.

As a Jew, I find the news disappointing but not disturbing. It’s not clear that the Pope’s decree will lead to a widespread revival of the conversion prayer. Even if it does come into more common use, it doesn’t turn back the clock on years of reforms in the Church since Vatican II; this is not going to lead to a restoration of the charge of deicide against the Jews. In the U.S., it will have little to no impact on American Catholics. I highly doubt many priests will decide the way to restore their dwindling congregations is by conducting a Mass with their backs turned to their congregation and speaking in a language that none of his congregants understand. It’s certainly possible that the Latin Mass may be adopted in those parts of the world where Orthodox Catholicism has a strong hold–specifically South America–but there are latent anti-Semitic attitudes there that the introduction of a prayer once a year will not change for good or bad. And, it’s not like calling for the conversion of non-believers is an uncommon practice in Christian churches; one of the most Zionist groups in the world, evangelical churches, make it a point of both calling for the conversion of non-believers and actively missionizing to them. The only difference is that the Southern Baptist Convention never led an Inquisition.

As a secular observer of the Church, the news is a bit more discouraging. The authorization of the old Mass appears to be part of a general conservative retrenchment on the part of the new Pope. Pope John Paul II was no liberal, but he had a particular knack for combining commitment to Orthodoxy with eloquent gestures of inclusiveness. This Pope, who was known as the conservative watchdog of the Church prior to his ascension to the top of the Church, does not show a similar sense of tact. Sort of like the difference between Bill and Hillary Clinton.

As someone interested in the welcoming of interfaith couples, I have a mixed reaction. On the one hand, I feel that Jews should be very careful about criticizing other religions. What appears to us to be innocent and well-meaning criticisms can be taken in a much different way by the sensitive followers of another faith. After all, how tolerant are Jews of outside criticisms of Judaism?

On the other hand, at IFF we’re very sensitive to making the Jewish worship service as inclusive as possible, arguing for the increased use of English, explanations of unfamiliar rituals and the inclusion of non-Jewish partners and parents in life cycle ceremonies. If a Christian is made to feel welcome in a synagogue, shouldn’t a Jew be made to feel welcome in a Church? Hearing Latin will make things uncomfortable enough for a Jewish partner of a Catholic person; hearing a prayer calling for his conversion will only make things worse.

The reality of course is that most synagogues have a long way to go in making non-Jewish partners feel fully included. The same could be said for Catholic churches.

3 thoughts on “Critical Mass?”

  • That’s very interesting, Todd. Have you read the Motu? Any ideas why that’s not being reported?

  • The prayer will never be heard. The Motu makes clear that the Good Friday service of public liturgies must use the liturgy of the 1970 missal.

  • 1/ Odd that one would criticize the Catholics for having Latin Masses when there has been a huge increase in the use of Hebrew in non-Orthodox congregations over the past few decades.

    2/ As to ‘that’ Catholic prayer, has anyone checked with any Mass-attending Catholics married to Jews? It would be interesting as to what their opinion is.

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