What just happened?? Over a thousand Jews were massacred and the Catholic Church was silent
One would think that a massive act of terror involving murder, rape, mutilation and the abduction of civilians would constitute a clear case for moral condemnation by Catholics. One shouldn’t need to consult Catholic social teaching in order to ascertain that the beheading of babies, the torture of children, or the gang rape of women are heinous crimes.
However, in those initial days, as the carnage of Hamas’ attacks upon Israeli communities on October 7, 2023 began to come to light, an uncomfortable silence descended upon my church, the Catholic Church in Australia, and it has been deafening ever since.
What made the silence particularly disturbing was that that these attacks were directed at Jewish communities, with a brutality and sadism that mirrored that of the Nazis’ attacks on Jews during the Holocaust. They were carried out by a listed terrorist organisation whose founding charter is openly and violently antisemitic. October 7 had all the hallmarks of a 21st century pogrom, in the same vein of pogroms carried out against Jews many times before in history.
Further, the distressing silence of too many Catholic leaders in Australia was magnified by the fact that Christianity has been a carrier of antisemitism over much of its history, a tragic fact that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had the courage to face, setting the Church on a sincere path of repentance and reconciliation with the Jewish people which has been pursued for nearly 60 years. How is it, then, that a 21st century pogrom, unleashed upon Jewish communities in the quiet of a Jewish holy day and sparking waves of antisemitic outbursts around the world, could be met with overwhelming public silence by Catholic leaders in Australia? Has the Church learned nothing from the lessons of the Holocaust?
To its credit, within two days after the October 7 bloodbath, Catholic Religious Australia, the representative body for leaders of 150 Catholic religious institutes in Australia, issued a brief statement condemning the attacks and calling for the release of the hostages. A national interfaith body, the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, which includes Catholics, also promptly publicly condemned Hamas’ atrocities. However, it took another two weeks for one lone Australian Bishop, in the Diocese of Parramatta, to come out with a public statement expressing concern for Israeli lives.
Encouragingly, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne just released (11 November) offers clarity regarding an appropriate Catholic response in light of the sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents that we are witnessing in our own Australian streets and neighbourhoods.
Still, the public silence of other Australian Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders is a disturbing.
Of course, public statements are but one means of exercising leadership. Were there other ways by which bishops, clerics, religious and lay Catholic leaders shifted gear and responded to what happened on October 7 in those initial days and weeks? Did they speak up with important words in quiet, unpublicised ways? I know of some that did and I like to presume that many more did. Obviously, I can’t speak for what our leaders say and do in their private communications. But what I can offer is a perspective from the grassroots experience of what things look and sound like among the general Catholic population, at least in Sydney and with an ear to the rest of the country.
With the exceptions mentioned, we did not hear our leaders speak up. In the days following October 7 there was no clear, audible, united voice to constitute any kind of robust collective Catholic ‘front’ in response to a gross manifestation of the evil of antisemitic terror and its global after-effects.
Further, this silence has only been compounded by the recently released statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (10 November) addressing the current crisis in the Holy Land. Amidst motherhood statements calling for “peace”, the bishops’ collective voice offers not a word about the October 7 attacks, nor about the hostages held by Hamas or the flare-up in antisemitic incidents. This silence from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is bewildering in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era.
The Catholic silence is shocking in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era.
Certainly, in these past weeks, there were those who promoted and embodied the ‘prayer and fasting’ called for by Pope Francis and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Such calls have their place. However, in terms of what happened on October 7, these generalised gestures for ‘world peace’ did not cut through as a clear act of compassion for and solidarity with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Buried within comments deploring ‘the cycle of violence’, they exuded a wearied sense of ‘more of the same’ in the Holy Land.
October 7 was different
But October 7 wasn’t the same. Over decades, Israelis have suffered intifadas, war, small scale massacres, and day-to-day isolated terror incidents of knifing, shootings and car ramming by those who will their disappearance. But October 7 took this deplorable violence to another level. Such was the scale and sadistic brutality of what occurred, that it rivalled many of the antisemitic atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Within hours of what was meant to be a relaxed Jewish holy day, Jews everywhere were plunged back into their greatest collective trauma in living memory.
October 7 should have been a ‘red alert’ call-to-action for Christians. Those traumatic Jewish memories just mentioned include the recall of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and the centuries-long history of anti-Jewish sentiment, including its violent consequences against Jews in Christian societies. One might have expected the events of 7 October to cut like a razor to the conscience of the Catholic Church. One might have expected to see inspirational scenes of Catholic bishops and religious and lay leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with rabbis and their congregations at synagogues, leading their Catholic people in laying wreaths outside Jewish properties, and issuing public letters of condolence and condemnation of the attacks by Hamas.
Instead, in the aftermath of more Jews being murdered in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, it appears that most Catholic leaders in Australia did not consider it to be their priority to speak out in solidarity with Jewish communities, nor publicly stand with Israel in its national mourning for its murdered citizens. Did they not view it as significant enough? Were they (clergy and laity) too busy with the Synod of Bishops being held in Rome?
Just eight months earlier, on 22 March 2023, Australian Catholics Bishops had signed a statement called “Walking Together: Catholic with Jews in the Australian Context” in which they pledged their commitment to the teaching of Nostra Aetate which includes a clear condemnation of antisemitism. Yet by October, as reports of Hamas’ crimes came to light, it appeared to be ‘business as usual’ for most episcopal diaries. Did they not understand this moment as a critical test for their leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism? “Palestinians plead for peace” was the recurring messaging headlining one archdiocesan newspaper, with barely a mention of Hamas’ atrocities in its Sunday editions following the attacks. As the body count mounted in Israel, and then in Gaza, “all lives matter” quickly became the catch cry in Catholic circles (and who can argue with that?). It seemed that Catholics couldn’t pause, even for one Sunday, to say “Jewish lives matter.”
Did they not understand this moment as a critical test of leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism?
My heartfelt hope is that many private messages of condolence would have been delivered to Jewish friends, neighbours and communities by Catholics of all walks of life. And I am not suggesting that good people have been callously unconcerned. To be sure, many prayers would have been privately and publicly said for peace in the Holy Land. However, for all the work of interfaith relations over years and decades, the public face of the Catholic Church was largely missing in action at that precise moment when the Jewish community needed us most, and when ordinary Catholics needed a firm and unequivocal response to antisemitism modelled by their leaders.
Over time, remedial efforts by Catholics to regroup and recover will likely be graciously received by Australian Jewish communities, given their admirable commitment to seeking societal cohesion. Again, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne sets a much-needed example for other Catholic leaders to follow.
However, much damage has been done and it difficult to see how things will ever be the same again. Where people in high positions of church leadership have faltered, it is all the more incumbent on grassroots leaders and everyday Catholics to lead from the strength of their baptismal commissioning. This includes parents and teachers, pastoral and business leaders, academics and community animators – whatever our sphere of influence, we must all put shoulder to the plough to rewrite the next chapters of the Australian Catholic response.
After October 7, Catholic-Jewish relations surely cannot be ‘business as usual.’
Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and Catholic faith formator, and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023).
(c) Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023
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