Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Church Prior to the Reformation: Francis and the Jews

Catholic Magisterial Anti-Semitism
As we move into “Reformation Season”, when we contemplate the approach of the traditional anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 1517), I wanted to provide a few small snippets about the western church prior to the Reformation – the way things were in the middle ages. What follows is a word about the movement started by this current pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi:

Francis of Assisi, that generous-hearted and anarchic preacher of God’s love, started a great renewal movement in the thirteenth-century Church; in part it was institutionalized as the Franciscan Order of Friars, who did much to revive preaching in the western Church. Franciscan preachers urged the crowds who came to hear them to meditate devotionally on the earthly life of Christ. That had the logical consequence of making the faithful also think about the death of Christ on the Cross, and often this led directly to deep hatred of the Jews. Franciscans thus ironically became major exponents of anti-Semitism in medieval western Europe and were deeply involved in some of the worst violence against Jewish communities; their fellow friars and rivals, the Dominicans, were not far behind.

Not surprisingly Jews tended to live together for safety, a trend which Christian rulers increasingly turned into an obligation: this developed early in Italy and the word ‘ghetto’ to describe such enclosed areas is of Italian origin, although there is more than one explanation of what it might have originally meant. Jewish physical isolation made matters worse, and bred new legends among a suspicious population: that the Jews were ready to poison Christian wells, for instance, steal consecrated Eucharistic wafers to do them terrible dignities, or collaborate with the Muslim powers which threatened the borders of Christendom (Diarmiad MacCulloch, “The Reformation: A History” (New York, NY: Penguin Books, ©2004, pg 9).

For more background, I’ve written a brief series based on David L. Kertzer’s work, “The Popes Against the Jews”.

See also Steve Hays’s article Catholic Magisterial Anti-Semitism featuring Canons from the 4th Lateran Council (1215).

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