Page 2 of 2 Pope applies universal salve to Middle East
Urs von Balthasar insisted that the Church must "contrast Christian universality of redemption to Jewish salvation-particularism". For most of its long history, the Church taught that it was Israel and that Gentiles were saved by adoption into Israel; not until the 1980s did John Paul II declare that the living, breathing descendants of Abraham still were "Israel" in a theological sense. John Paul II's declaration (restated by his successor, Benedict XVI, as well as Francis I) that the Old Covenant never was revoked was a revolution in the Church's relationship with the Jews. Nonetheless, the new universalism
also raises the prospect a new form of anti-Judaism. It abhors the notion that God has a particular love for any section of mankind.
Pope Francis' impatience with Jewish particularism roils below an amicable surface. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned during his public meeting with Francis that Jesus spoke Hebrew, the pope corrected, "Aramaic!" Netanyahu patiently observed that Jesus spoke both languages. Israelis, for example the distinguished Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, read this (I believe correctly) as an effort to attenuate Jesus' Jewish identity, that is, his association with the particularity of Israel. It is not that Francis does not want to love the Jews: he wants to love everyone in exactly the same way.
Not long ago, Catholic practice was nearly universal in the Catholic countries and admitted heretics were few; today, Catholic practice involves a small minority and the mainstream culture repudiates religion altogether and Catholicism in particular. Even most Catholics reject a great deal of Church doctrine, which explains the great popularity of Francis I; they believe the media stories that the new pope doesn't much care about issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
From the viewpoint of traditional Catholic teaching, the vast majority of humankind, including the vast majority of citizens of once-Catholic countries, will suffer eternal damnation. Urs von Balthasar simply couldn't stomach the notion: how could God be so cruel as to condemn the preponderance of his creatures? What would that say about the goodness of creation itself?  Inspired by his mystic soul-mate, the visionary Adrienne von Speyer, Urs von Balthasar formulated a novel and hugely influential mystical doctrine of universal salvation.
That is one drift inside the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, sought instead to consolidate the Church around a stronger core of faith. In his 1996 book Salt of the Earth he put the matter as forcefully as possible:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live and intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world - that let God in.
This formulation made headlines when the book's first, German edition appeared. The largest-circulation news publication in the country, Der Spiegel, featured Ratzinger's willingness to abandon "traditionally Catholic cultures" (the German read rather die Volkskirche, the popular Church). The distinguished Catholic philosopher Alisdair McIntyre also proposed a small-church strategy. I do not know why Ratzinger resigned his office, but sentiment in the Church clearly has shifted away from this view of the role of the Church.
Among Catholic writers in the English language, Joseph Bottum has addressed the problem most directly. He argued in a 2013 essay that the Church should not make a stand on the issue of gay marriage where it was bound to lose, but rather concentrate on broadening its tent: "We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981)."
Conservative Catholics heaped opprobrium on the author without, however, addressing the core issue: how should the Church respond to its marginalization by mainstream culture?
Ratzinger, in my view the last great man of the West, anticipated this problem from the 1950s onward. Not so his peers in the Church. The fall of communism during the papacy of John Paul II persuaded many Catholics that a glorious new era of Church history was at hand, in which Catholic Poland would set the tone for the industrial world (see First Things Last, Asia Times Online, July 22, 2013). On the contrary, Poland, like most of Eastern Europe and a good deal of Western Europe, is on course for a demographic catastrophe later in this century.
Benedict XVI believed in God's special love for Israel, for the same reason that he believed in the particularity of a Church whose institutional and doctrinal integrity he fought to preserve. When he visited the Holy Land in 2009, Israeli newspaper columnist Aviad Kleinberg noted that Ratzinger
... was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope's moves ... . John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews' murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God's chosen and beloved people.
Benedict made no attempt to insert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he understood his role as spiritual; Francis, by contrast, has declared the plight of the Palestinians "unacceptable" and has inserted himself into a political process. It would be wrong to think of Benedict as "spiritual" and Francis as "political".
On the contrary, different theologies are at work. The Palestinian problem is "unacceptable to Francis" not because the Palestinians are being butchered, as in Syria, or because they are starving, as in Egypt, or subject to constant terror attacks, as in Iraq. Except for the oil-rich Gulf states, Arabs in Judea and Samaria have the best living standards, health and educational levels in the whole of the Arab world. They suffer inconvenience and occasionally humiliation, but they are not at risk.
Other popes have taken political stands, notably John Paul II's role in the Cold War. But St. John Paul did so under conditions when humanity was in real danger; Bergoglio staged a political theater when nothing more is stake than his own salvific ambitions. Benedict XVI offered a public critique of Islam's propensity for unreason and violence; Francis offered a public embrace of his "dear brother" Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who has earned international condemnation for advocating the extermination of the Jews.
For Pope Francis, the Palestinian problem is "unacceptable" because it represents the failure of the world to elevate a people perceived to be downtrodden and oppressed: it is important for its symbolic value rather than its factual content. Never mind that the Palestinians have painted themselves into their own (rather comfortable) corner; their perceived plight is an offense to Pope Francis' millenarian vision of universal salvation. Francis evidently feels he must intervene to right a perceived wrong, like an ecclesiastical Amadis de Gaula, because it is there.
I fear that the Church, the founding institution of the West, its pillar and mainstay, has lost its moorings. The State of Israel will do quite well without it; it was founded in 1947 against the opposition of the Church then immeasurably more influential, and does not require the blessing of the Church to flourish today. But Bergoglio's behavior in the Holy Land bespeaks a dilution of the Church's self-understanding and a deviation from its mission. In 2005 I wrote, "Something is stirring in the ashes of the West, and Benedict XVI yet might bring forth a flame." I am less sanguine today.
1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 676, states: "The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of a secular messianism.
2. How, indeed, can a good Creation produce an overwhelming preponderance of damned souls? That paradox lies at the heart of the particularist-universalist divide. Judaism is not a salvific religion in the Christian sense: the World to Come figures only hazily in Jewish thinking, and the rabbis taught that righteous Gentiles have as much share in the World to Come as pious Jews. But rabbinic Judaism has quite a different view of the goodness of Creation: God left Creation in an unfinished, imperfect state, so that humanity would have the task of perfecting it. See Why Intelligent Design subverts faith, Asia Times Online, October 23, 2012.