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Peter Gordon on John Connelly’s “From Enemy to Brother”

May 31, 2012

In the same issue of The New Republic that includes Peter Schäfer’s attack on Daniel Boyarin, there is a review of John Connelly’s excellent book, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 by Peter Gordon (Harvard University).  (We previously looked at this book at BLT in this post.)

The entire review is insightful, but I especially enjoyed the last part:

What is a border, and how much of one’s identity is retained in the crossing? When rabbis would introduce John Oesterreicher to their congregation as a “former Jew,” he would object on the grounds that Jews were his “blood brothers” and that he was himself a Jewish-Christian. But this is a nuance that he embraced only after years of struggle. As late as 1960 he vehemently rejected the suggestion from Thieme that he could “represent the Jewish point of view in the church.” Although he readily acknowledged his Jewish heritage, Oesterreicher insisted that his efforts to dismantle Catholicism’s tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice represented the genuinely Christian vision.

But it is the major thrust of Connelly’s book that this was not so: Christian empathy toward Jews did not spring spontaneously from Christian sources, he argues, nor did it spring from Judaism. It emerged instead only from the experience of crossing, such that the other could persist within the new self. The Church, Connelly suggests, would not have been capable of coming to this vision without the curious doubling of identity that was brought into its sacred walls from those who, by birth or by faith, would have once been considered outsiders. And if this is true, then the facts of Oesterreicher’s biography hold stronger explanatory weight than his own statements to the contrary. The transgression of borders may leave marks that even the transgressor will not care to acknowledge.

The Catholic saint Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism who took holy orders and became Sister Teresa Benedicta, and had once studied under Edmund Husserl, is best known beyond Catholic circles as a philosopher of empathy. In 1933, she wrote an urgent plea to Pius XI: “For weeks now not only the Jews, but also many thousands of loyal Catholics in Germany—and I believe the entire world—are waiting for the Church to raise its voice…. Is not this war of destruction against the Jews a cruel insult to the most holy humanity of our savior?” Her question was not answered, and the plea that that Vatican effect a total rupture with the Third Reich was never realized. Stein herself died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, the victim of a policy that, in retaliation for a Dutch Catholic statement against Nazism, specifically targeted Jewish converts to Christianity. Her entreaty to the pope stands as a model of the empathy that she raised into a subject of philosophical speculation.

The phenomenon of border-crossing raises vexed questions of human psychology that a historian—even one as gifted as Connelly—cannot be expected to resolve. They are questions more properly left to the domain of the moral philosopher. What are the true limits of empathy? What are the conditions for its possibility and its growth? How can its boundaries be made to extend beyond the narrow circumference of one’s own family, one’s own nation, one’s own faith? It was the third-century bishop Saint Cyprian of Carthage who first proclaimed the ambivalent truth extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” All such doctrines betray the ideals that they proclaim, reserving the ultimate promise of human salvation for a single community of belief.

One is tempted to agree with Freud (another figure from the Moravian land of border-crossing) who observed that the injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” imposes an impossible demand: if the neighbor is truly a stranger to me and if he occupies no place whatsoever in my emotional life, then I will find this commandment in conflict with the jealousy and instinctual aggression that lie at the very core of my own psychic constitution. True love, for Freud, was therefore always entangled with narcissism: it is not the other whom I love but myself, or at least it is only that quality in the other which resembles me or resembles the person I once was. Connelly has written an important book, an extraordinary work of history, although it is sobering to think that its argument may depend on an original sin in human psychology: that the imperative of empathy resists its universal application and collapses back upon itself, darkening its own promise like an imploding star.

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