November 21, 2018

The Catholic Method

Just before the latest wave of religious fanaticism crashed against civilization, I was in Mexico City, talking about the last wave.

Not so long ago — in the long span of human history — the Catholic Church terrorized the Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Hindus and many other indigenous peoples in the lands under its control. The Inquisition, which lasted from the 11th to the 19th centuries, brought about the execution, torture and exile of countless innocents.

You can see a great movie about sexual abuse and the Church — “Spotlight” — but, so far, there hasn’t been a single decent movie about the Inquisition. So a long historical injustice that continues to influence our world lives on in the popular imagination as a really funny scene in a Monty Python comedy.

The Inquisition was initiated to weed out heretics, or what ISIS would call taqfir. It was preceded by the Crusades, which also killed thousands of Jews, and was followed by years of vicious anti-Semitism, including, in many instances, collusion with the Nazi regime.

Then the Church reversed course.

On Oct. 28, 1965, as part of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued Nostra Aetate, which rejected the charge of deicide and the accusation that Jews are “eternally cursed” by God for the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. In 624 words, the Church transformed itself. Nostra Aetate rejected all “hatred, persecutions, displays of ant-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Nostra Aetate is the Gettysburg Address of religious liberation. It freed Jews from centuries of murderous prejudice, and it freed Catholics from carrying the burden of hate and perpetrating evil. It called on Catholics to engage with Jews in dialogue and mutual understanding, and, to a large extent, (the upside of a patriarchal, hierarchal religion) that’s what has happened.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) organized an early November mission to Mexico City, site of the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas and the demographic Ground Zero of Catholicism in the Americas. The mission also celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, and dozens of Jews from across Latin America joined their counterparts from the United States.

I went because I belong to the first generation that can take Nostra Aetate for granted. I’d read about Jewish kids having to fight a gantlet of Catholics on the way to school and thought it almost incomprehensible — my first childhood friend, David Pietrasanta, was a Church-going Catholic. But those ancient hatreds were ordered to change on a dime, and the dime dropped just after I was born. 

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City, “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, Mexico’s highest-ranking prelate, spoke seated in front of the gold altar at the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the group gathered for a formal ceremony. He said Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

The Church officials kept emphasizing that Nostra Aetate offered a way for “enemies” to reconcile. The Jewish speakers, meanwhile, saw the landmark declaration as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, sat at the altar beside the cardinal and AJC Executive Director David Harris. “What we are celebrating is true teshuvah,” Rosen said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.” “The Church is returning to its origins.”

After the speeches, the assembly filed out onto a large tented patio, where the cardinal hosted a reception — soft drinks and tuna tartare. The next evening, the AJC, which functions as a kind of unelected but entirely reliable representative of the Jewish people, hosted a formal dinner with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. There were many toasts to friendship and prosperity, with the president making sure to praise — twice — the Jewish community’s pro-immigration stance.

I leaned over to a new friend, a successful Mexican-Jewish manufacturer, and noted how warm our reception in Mexico had been.

“The people were never anti-Semitic,” he said. “The Church was.”

It’s the nature of fundamentalism, I suppose, to populate imaginary worlds with real enemies. The cardinal said Nostra Aetate concluded centuries of animosity. I couldn’t help wondering if he realized the hate was always one-sided. 

That night, back in my hotel, I Googled, “Inquisition Mexico.” Sure enough, it tore through the country, destroying thousands of lives in its wake. The Inquisitor’s court operated from 1571 to 1820, just blocks from where the cardinal received us. Its most tragic victims were the family of Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, founder of the town of Nueva Leon. A convert to Christianity, Luis was accused of secretly practicing Judaism. On Dec. 8, 1596, his wife, Francisca, their four children and four young relatives were tortured and burned at the stake on the main square in Mexico City. 

Nostra Aetate put an end to a history that had long since been erased. “Star Wars” fans know more details about their pretend world than we do about the lost world of Spanish and Latin American Jewry. 

But, hey, look at the bright side. Things can change. Extremism can ebb. And in those places where, even now, a different religion has released a new scourge, its leaders could take a page from the Church and declare an end to a war none of us has chosen to fight.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.