Francis Crane on Maritain and the Jews

Francis Crane on Maritain and the Jews

Francis Crane has written a very good book on and the problem of . Maritain seems to have anticipated much of the development of Vatican II and Pope . The book is entitled: Passion of Israel: Jacques Maritain, Catholic Conscience and the Holocaust (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2010. Pp. 203. $25.00 paperback.)

Passion of Israel sheds a new light on the life and work of French Catholic Philosopher Jacques Maritain (1881-1973) and it reveals the unfolding of Catholic thinking about Judaism. Vatican II’s Declaration Nostra Aetate expresses the culmination of a long process: “The Church of Christ, in fact, recognizes that according to the divine mystery of salvation the origins of the Church’s faith and election are already found in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets. . . . since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so great, this Sacred Council recommends and promotes a mutual understanding and respect, which can be obtained above all through biblical study and fraternal discussion” Pope John Paul II referred to the Jews as “an elder brother.”

Who would be better to bring the Church along this road than Maritain? Converted to the faith along with his spouse, Raissa Oumansov, a Jewish family from Rustov Russia, Maritain was deeply formed by Leon Bloy, a Catholic writer who wrote of the Jewish mission in “otherworldly, even salvific, terms.” Maritain never abandoned this supernatural perspective for consideration of the Jewish problem as he went from the fascist and anti-Semitic group L’Action Francois to becoming the champion of philosemitism throughout the Church and the world at large. Crane considers a set of issues surrounding Maritain: (i) how did he come to establish a reputation as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism? (ii) how did he frame the “Jewish question” and what were his reference points? and (iii) how did Maritain influence the changes in the Church’s thinking?

Maritain came to see Jewish persecution not the result of their alleged subversion of the nation, but rather as an outcropping of the modern disorder to build a secular utopia through scientific means and rationalistic thinking. The Jewish people bore the brunt of pseudo scientific racism and the efforts to establish uniformity. The mystery of Jewish life, set apart from the nations, rendered them in some way unable to be assimilated into modern society. Anti-Semitism was an “ evil fire that consumes peoples” and is readily used by Machiavellian style politics of violence. Maritain also understood the Jewish mission to be a testimony to the very passion of Christ. The “Final solution” he called nothing less than a “mass crucifixion.” The horror of the event led him to develop more deeply his defense of human rights and the affirmation of pluralism in modern society. He also struggled with the questions of Theodicy and the perplexing problem of God’s permission of great evil. And finally, the attempted to come to theological understanding of the relation of the Church to the Jewish people, resolving that the Christ should bring together; he hesitated to use the word “conversion” but he rather spoke of the coming to fulfillment or “plenitudo” of divine life. In all cases, he campaigned against Christian misunderstanding and distortion of Jewish people through such epitaphs as Christ killer.

I found the following interview with Dr. Crane (see this )

How did the struggle with his own attitudes toward Jews and Judaism manifest itself in his views of the Holocaust?

At an earlier point in his career, in the 1920s, Maritain had shared some common philosophical and political beliefs with extreme right-wing nationalists in France. For the rest of his life he was haunted by how closely he had associated with proto-fascist and anti-Semitic figures whose ideas found fuller expression in the 1930s and 1940s in Nazi Germany and in France’s own Vichy regime. He increasingly saw pluralism and democracy as more authentic expressions of the Gospel, and took inspiration from contemporary Catholic teachings that condemned race hatred and the exaltation of the state. Maritain’s own marriage to a woman of Russian-Jewish origin also helped him reject the growing anti-Semitism that eventually culminated in the Holocaust. But within his Catholic conscience, he still struggled with the implications of Christian teachings about Jews as people whose ancestors had rejected Jesus as their messiah and had consequently distanced themselves from God’s love and mercy. The ambivalent image of Jews as both chosen and rejected, blessed and cursed, if you will, remained in his mind, and the minds of millions of Christians, as centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice gave way to an explosion of anti-Semitic mass murder.

Could he articulate, find in his heart, a place for Jews in the Christian theology of salvation that was consistent with the idea of a loving God in the shadow of the Holocaust?

He struggled to find a redemptive meaning in an otherwise senseless horror. His sense of Christ drawing the Jewish people ever closer during this time shows how deeply Maritain empathized with Jewish suffering to the extent of reconciling, or trying to reconcile, the Holocaust with what theologians would call the “economy of salvation.”

Yet this very idea of the Holocaust as part of God’s saving plan raises uncomfortable questions not only about God’s justice but also about Jewish “blindness” and “obstinacy” as traditionally understood by Christians since the time of St. Paul. For Maritain, the Nazi genocide raised more theological questions than it answered, but nonetheless it offered the unmistakable imperative that Christians finally reject long-held stereotypes about Jews as “Christ-killers” or about Judaism as a supposedly dead religion mired in petty legalism. He wanted Jews and Christians alike to gain a better sense not only of a common spiritual heritage, but a common spiritual destiny..

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