France's Jewish Archbishop

Death of Jean-Marie Lustiger Still Weighs on Nation

Important Voice: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who converted from Judaism, was a stern critic of capitalism and a staunch defender of the Catholic church.
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Important Voice: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who converted from Judaism, was a stern critic of capitalism and a staunch defender of the Catholic church.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published August 05, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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And yet, Lustiger never surrendered his double identity. When Pope John-Paul II named him archbishop of Paris, an astonished Lustiger told a reporter: “I have always considered myself Jewish, even if the rabbis do not agree with me. I was born Jewish, and Jewish I’ll remain.” Indeed, during his funeral service at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, one of his relatives recited the Kaddish, while the leaders of France’s Jewish community — including the chief rabbi — prayed by the side of his coffin.

For Lustiger, the paradox was, in effect, an accident of history. He argued that the early gentile converts to Christianity were hostile to their new faith’s Jewish sources. The anti-Judaism of these con verted pagans, in turn, planted the seeds of Christian anti-Semitism. As a result, Lustiger declared in his many interviews and books, both Jews and Christians lost sight of their common origins and their shared ends. His own life marked, he believed, the return to the path not taken two millennia ago.

While Lustiger’s interpretation of history and scripture won few adherents on either side of the divide, he nevertheless built a lasting bridge between Jews and Catholics in France. He spurred the church’s confrontation with its long history of anti-Semitism, as well as its public “repentance” for its deafening silence during World War II as the French state prepared the ground for the Final Solution. No less important, Lustiger led the difficult negotiations between the Polish Church and Jewish institutions over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.

But when he wasn’t building bridges to Judaism (or Islam), Lustiger was busy besieging the walls built by the French Republic’s secularism. While he never challenged the legitimacy of republican institutions, Lustiger insisted on the public role of religion. In 1968, Lustiger was a chaplain at the Sorbonne and thus found himself at the center of the student rebellions that shook France and nearly brought down France’s government. Whereas most intellectuals, including a good number of clergy, supported the rebellion, Lustiger was horrified. The movement’s visceral rejection of authority and ignorance of history, its embrace of violence and cultivation of chaos, struck Lustiger as the work of nihilists.

Lustiger’s obstinate and eloquent insistence on religion’s primordial role in society sparked both admiration and frustration — often in the same person. During the great political debate in the early 1980s over the Socialist government’s effort to oversee Catholic schools, François Mitterrand met with Lustiger on several occasions. While the Socialist president relished these conversations, he also complained about the cardinal’s “unbending” politics. Eventually, Mitterrand’s government withdrew its controversial law to impose greater control over religious schools.

Lustiger famously claimed that the Catholic Church is more important to French culture than the Louvre. That Catholicism is central to France’s history is hardly controversial. More so, however, was Lustiger’s belief that the propagation of this same faith is vital to the nation’s future. Yet girding this belief was Lustiger’s fear of a world in which technology and money increasingly allow us to influence the rhythms of life and death. “There is,” he asserted, “something perverse when research and money impose themselves as ends.” Indeed, he addressed this same criticism at the European Union, whose sole ambition was to create the euro. “By all means a common currency,” Lustiger observed, “but what are our common goals?”

This question, in regard to both the E.U. and our lives, is more pertinent than ever. Just as he never denied the past errors and crimes committed by the church, Lustiger would have found no solace in the current unraveling of the E.U. or in the political corruption scandals in France. Instead, perhaps, he would have seen only the confirmation of his tragic sense of life. All the more reason, he would conclude, for the need of the sacred in life, as well.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).

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