Jacob Neusner on Popes and Politics
To understand the focus of this profound and original meditation on the interplay of theological conviction and political reality we have to ignore the allusion to the Holocaust in the title. That is not because Justus George Lawler, an experienced voice in Catholic theology and philosophy of religion for a generation, does not deal with the intense debate on Pius XII and on what the Roman Catholic Church did, should have done, failed to do, or should never have done, in that catastrophe of European civilization.
Nor is it to suggest that Lawler intends either an indictment or an apologia for the institution that calls itself “the body of Christ.” It is because Lawler has sought successfully, in my view to place the acutely contemporary debate into the more profound context of the on going struggle for reformation and renewal in Roman Catholic Christianity.
What makes Lawler's book intensely interesting is his framing of contemporary issues in their historical and cultural context. Few parties to the immediate controversy frame a position that proves commensurate, from the Catholic perspective, with what is at stake: the standing of the institution that carries forward the event of God's taking human form and walking this earth.
Roman Catholics understand the frailty and imperfection of their church in this world, and they, far more than Protestants, grasp what is at stake in that imperfection.
Lawler starts his book with a quotation from John Henry Newman: “In her very vastness, her manifold constituents, her complicated structure she advances, retires, goes to and fro, passes to the right or left, bides her time.... It is the divinely appointed method of her coping with the world's power,” and that is what Lawler explains in this deeply engaging, well crafted argument.
In the context of the world's expectations of an institutional church claiming to carry forward in this world, in political terms, the presence of God on earth, perspective on the debate over Pius XII and the Catholic response to National Socialism shifts. That debate must find its proportion in 200 years of Catholic upheaval, beginning with the French Revolution and the traumas of the 19th century reordering of European political structures, including the once free standing and then subordinated Vatican.
That is not to suggest that Lawler dismisses the indictment of the papacy that has just now been drawn up. He argues with some of the most one sided statements. He reads them carefully and attempts to respond to articles of the indictment. But that is only to open the way for the process of reform and renewal to take hold.
My reading of the book as an effort to place the immediate issues in a broader framework derives from the last three chapters. I know of no other systematic engagement with those issues as explicit as Lawler's neologism, “Papaphobia”) that understands the indictment to form a tribute to the high expectations the world presents to “the mystical body of Christ.”
If any religious institution has ever fully met the challenge of “coping with the world's power,” I do not know its name. Lawler embodies the reformation of the Catholic Church, which perpetually renews and reminds the church of its vocation.
Jews will never understand the Catholic response to the debate on Pius XII if they ignore the context in which Catholics frame their position. It is not a single event, even though it is a singular one, but only another chapter in a long, long history of struggle between theological ideal and political reality. Lawler does not for one minute concede the articles of indictment of Pius XII or enter a plea of guilty; he insists on probity and justice and a thorough examination of the record in the context of the historical events themselves. But he shows how Catholics are able to hold together the conflicting narratives of this world and (from their viewpoint) the perspective of God the perspective upon Peter's Church.
He thus embodies the Catholic claim that the Protestant Reformation missed the point, and that the reformation of the Catholic Church realized the ancient, enduring promise of Peter's commission.
“Warts on the body of Christ,”
The Jerusalem Post (October 20, 2002)