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One of the most heartening stories of interfaith relations in the last half century has been the way the Catholic Church changed the way it regarded Judaism and Jews.
In the 47 years since the publication of Nostra Aetate (“In Our Age”) when the Second Vatican Council repudiated the ancient charge of deicide, the church has moved not only from theological positions that reinforced the teaching of contempt for Jews but also to a position of active condemnation of anti-Semitism.
In particular, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were not only exponents of this change, but also symbols of a new attitude of friendship with the Jewish people that culminated in the Vatican recognizing the State of Israel. Though there are still sources of tension, not the least of which is the dispute over the conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, in a world full of active enemies any Jew who still regards the contemporary church with the same suspicion that characterized the attitudes of Jews in previous generations is living in the past.
And yet when the church looked for allies this year as it fought the attempt of the government to abridge its rights, the relative silence from much of the Jewish community must have been disheartening to Catholics. As the church conducts a nationwide series of events under the rubric of a “Fortnight for Freedom,” it is time for more Jews to reach out and not only embrace our Catholic neighbors but to understand that their struggle is ours.
The focus of this fight is one on which many liberal Jews are on the other side. The passage of the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare, led to the imposition of a mandate from the Health and Human Services administration that sought to force church institutions to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion services for their employees, something that violates Catholic beliefs. Though the majority of Jews may support the legislation and have very different views about contraception and abortion than most Catholics, they ought not to be cheering those seeking to compel religious bodies to choose between their consciences and the law. That is especially true since there is no compelling government interest in interfering with the employment practices of church bodies.
The political effort to promote the idea that the church or Republicans are waging a fake war on women has led many Jews to not only regard the church’s stand with contempt, but to imagine that the defense of legal abortion or to contraception or even gay rights is somehow at stake in this battle. It is not.
The principle here ought to be especially clear to a religious minority such as the Jews that has had to fight for its rights. Far from Catholics seeking to impose their views on others, all the church has asked for is the right to be left alone. A law that can take that right away is a threat to all faiths and opposing it is a matter of principle, not partisanship.
That is why the church’s effort to rally support for what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rightly called our “first, most precious freedom” deserves support from a Jewish community that understands that its own liberty is dependent on the same rights being extended to others.
Regardless of the ultimate fate of ObamaCare, it is vital that Jews understand that when we speak of religious freedom, it means more than the right to merely pray as we like at home or in house of worship. The federal mandate had at its core a demand that the church surrender its beliefs if it wished to be permitted to play an active role in American society. That is unjust and it is incumbent upon all persons of faith, and, indeed upon those who have none but value freedom, to speak out against it.
Just as the church turned its back on anti-Semitism for its own sake rather than as a favor to the Jews, it is now important that Jews join in support of the Fortnight for Freedom for the sake of our own religious liberty.