Who Won the Disputation of Paris?

[the third of my promised posts about the problems in St. Louis]

Peter Schwarz Disputation between Jewish and Christian theologians
Disputation between Jewish and Christian Theologians, by Peter Schwarz

The late Yves Congar wrote a book about Sacred Tradition. When I get a moment, I will summarize the book for you, in full. For now, these ideas:

By sending His Son into the world, Almighty God revealed the truth about Himself. The Scriptures bear witness to this truth, but the written pages are not the Truth itself. We don’t “believe in the Bible,” as if the Bible were God. We believe in the triune God, to Whom the Bible bears witness.

The New Testament contains information about the Truth Himself, namely Jesus Christ. But the New Testament does not contain all the information available. For example, the New Testament does not contain a “Table of Contents” to the New Testament.

At some point, Christians made a judgment about which gospels, letters, and other accounts belonged in the Bible. They made that judgment based on solid criteria. Namely, the Sacred Tradition they had received.

The early Christians had received… what? Christianity. The divine mystery. Communion with Christ through the means He gave us. The life of the Church.

The thing itself has many names and facets. It is: Christian Tradition, with a capital T.

The Scriptures bear witness to it, as do the Fathers of the Church. That is, the holy bishops and theologians of the first Christian centuries. Of course, the Fathers do not bear witness to the divine mystery in the same way that that Scripture does; the Fathers did, at times, make mistakes.

Michelangelo’s Moses

Popes and Ecumenical Councils of bishops have borne witness to particular aspects of Sacred Tradition at various times in Church history. Never contradicting the New Testament, always living out of it.

Now: Imagine that the Messiah had not yet come. Imagine if the greatest teacher of God’s mystery yet to walk the earth was Moses.

We Christians would say: that’s a pure hypothetical. Our brothers and sisters known as Jews would say: That’s why we have our Talmud.

The written Torah–the first five books of the Bible–bears witness to the revelation Almighty God gave to Moses. But those books do not contain everything that God gave the world through Moses.

Moses taught. Moses cultivated a kind of rabbinical school. Moses bequeathed supernatural insight about Torah, about God’s law, God’s wisdom–insight that did not get written down at first. Later on, they wrote it down. Those writings are the Talmud.

Hopefully we can see a certain parallel here, with all due respect to the profound difference of faith, and due respect to both sides of the matter. That is, we can see a certain parallel between 1. our venerated Sacred Tradition–to which not just the New Testament, but also the Church Fathers, holy theologians, popes, and Councils bear witness–and 2. the Torah, to which (our Jewish brethren say) both the written Torah and the Talmud bear witness.
[Please anyone more knowledgeable about this: correct me as needed, charitably, with a comment.]

We Christians say that the Old Testament, taken as a whole, prophesies Jesus Christ’s coming. We say that the Old Testament only fully makes sense by the light of Christ. And that we need to read the Old Testament to understand Christ fully.

Orthodox Jews say: God’s Torah has come to us, through Moses’ teaching, which we find in the written Torah, and in the Talmud. If you want to understand the “Old Testament,” don’t read the New Testament, which is all wrong. Read the Talmud.

A serious divergence in point-of-view. When King St. Louis IX grasped the depths of this divergence, it disturbed him. And it disturbed many of his contemporary, pious 13th-century Christians of France.

closeup of King Louis statue
The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Louis and Co. thought: We Catholics perceive how the Old Testament prophesies Christ and renders Him more understandable. What’s with this Talmud getting in the way of that? Is this why Jews won’t recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ? Because the Talmud ‘gets in the way?’

The Talmud does, in fact, get in the way. It connects the Jewish reader with Moses and his written Torah, bypassing Jesus of Nazareth altogether.

A 13th-century apostate from Judaism had urged Pope Gregory IX to have all copies of the Talmud in Christendom confiscated and destroyed. This would finally open the door to the long-awaited wholesale conversion of the Jews.

Now, the pope might have said to himself, Hold on a minute! and begun asking questions like: What does this man have against his former associates? Why would I let him drag me into his enmity towards the rabbis who tried to teach him?

But instead of pondering such things, Pope Gregory naively accepted this man Nicolas Donin’s ideas. The pope agreed to the absurd concept of a “trial” of the Talmud.

This led to an enormously interesting debate. Two debates, in fact. First, Donin debated the chief rabbis of Paris in front of a secular jury, including the Queen Mother of France and other courtiers of King Louis. After the rabbis bested Donin in that debate, the Christian side decided that a jury of churchmen should actually pass judgment.

In other words, King St. Louis IX may have invented the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings. But he blithely subjected the Jews’ treasured compendium of teaching to unconstitutional ‘double jeopardy.’

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

The preeminent judge of the second ‘trial,’ the sitting Archbishop of Sens (who at that time outranked the Bishop of Paris) refused to condemn the Talmud. So two years elapsed, between the time of the disputation and the June 1242 public burning of every Talmud in France. Archbishop Cornut of Sens, the powerful dissenter to such violence, had, in the meantime, died.

The point I want to make here is this. No one should condemn a canonized saint for specious, ‘politically correct’ reasons. King Louis IX of France did not hate Jews like Hitler hated Jews. St. Louis was not an anti-Semite, since that term connotes ethnic, racist hatred.

But we can and must clearly condemn King St. Louis IX for the irrational fervor of his piety. The rabbis had made clear and convincing arguments. They had decisively won the Disputation of Paris. But King Louis closed his ears. He failed to recognize the disputation’s clear winner.
Summary of the arguments:

Charge: The Talmud desecrates the names of Jesus and Mary.

Answer: The cited passages do not refer to the Yeshua crucified under Pontius Pilate, nor to the Miryam who gave birth to him. Yeshua and Miryam were common names in Israel for many centuries. Like the name Louis appeared frequently in the annals of France.

Charge: The Talmud denigrates Christians.

Answer: When the Talmud refers to goyim, it means: godless pagans, like the ancient Canaanites. It does not mean Christians.

Jews respect the kindred monotheism of Christians. Just like Christians have respected the kindred monotheism of Jews for centuries.

Charge: The Talmud anthropomorphizes God blasphemously.

Answer: The Talmud does not anthropomorphize God any more than the Old Testament does.

Charge: Jews incorrectly claim that the Talmud contains divine revelation. Such false pretense offends God, Who has in fact revealed Himself truly through the two Testaments.

Christ Himself explicitly condemned the Talmud with this criticism of the Pharisees: “Why do you transgress God’s commandment and make it void for the sake of your traditions, teaching the doctrines and precepts of men?” (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:8)

Answer: St. Jerome (one of the Fathers of the Church) read the Talmud many centuries ago. He raised no objections to it.

We Jews, studying our Talmud, have co-existed peacefully with you Christians for centuries. The Church has always held that we Jews have a right to practice our religion. What changed?

Further: We distinguish between two categories of writing in the Talmud. The sections we call halakhah contain binding affirmations. The speculative, imaginative sections we call aggadah, and the reader may accept or reject those parts, as the reader sees fit.

Further: How will you succeed in expunging the Talmud from the face of the earth? You have confiscated every copy in France. But copies exist in other countries of Christendom, as yet not confiscated. And even if you confiscated those, more copies remain in Babylonia, Media, Greece, Arabia, and Ethiopia. You will never rid the world of this book, so why try?

We Catholics respect the role of the Church’s magisterium–the living apostolic teaching authority–because we recognize that the books of Scripture do not address every theological or moral problem.

The rabbis in Paris defended the Talmud on the same grounds. The written Torah does not itself resolve every problem, so God established the rabbinate. And the rabbis gave us the Talmud.

Pope Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, ultimately conceded that the rabbis had won the Paris argument, at least with respect to the final, most-decisive charges.

But, to our shame as Catholics: the French, at King Louis’ order, had already burned every copy of the Talmud in France by then.

We had betrayed our principles. Force cannot compel belief in the Christian mystery. Acts of violence do not foster the spread of the Gospel.

Of course a Christian does not read the Talmud as divine revelation. We respect the wisdom it contains. And we acknowledge that we have no right to burn copies of it.

We owe the one true God, and our Jewish brethren, contrition and penance for what St. Louis ordered in June 1242, after he obtusely misjudged the results of the Disputation of Paris.

Sacred Tradition and Boeuf Bourguinon

11-1988  Julia Child, America's most beloved Francophile, returns to PBS in 39 weekly adventures in Haute Cuisine selected from her Emmy Award-winning series, The French Chef. The informative fun begins ___ at ___ on Channel ___ . (PBS Premiere: Sunday, October 9 at 7 P.M.)

Our reading from Genesis at today’s Holy Mass bears witness to the living sacred Tradition of the chosen People of God. Jacob sacrificed to the God of his father and grandfather, at the southern border of the Holy Land. Jacob would not leave the land promised to Abraham without an assurance that, somehow, he would return.

We stand in unbroken continuity with that decisive moment of ancient history. Israel went down to Egypt and became a nation of slaves. Then God liberated them, by giving them Moses, prefiguring what He would do in the fullness of time: send His own Son to liberate all mankind from sin and death. Christ appointed St. Peter as chief shepherd of all the missionaries sent into the world. Our communion with St. Peter’s successor makes us members of the family of Abraham, the People of God.

The idea of “tradition” can, of course, serve as a refuge for scoundrels and tyrants. Nothing accommodates itself to my own personal whims so well as un-written authority. But: That doesn’t mean that we can live without the idea of Tradition, with a capital T.

Yesterday, a couple of us had a chance to “dialogue” with some young local Bible experts.* An enormous irony emerged in our conversation. One thing almost any humble Christian would acknowledge would be: the Church has a hierarchical structure, established by God. The Church has leaders who possess authority by virtue of office. The New Testament bears witness to this fact. The laws of human society do, too. Groups exist as groups because they have leaders with authority.

Pope Francis wavingA problem for a “Bible expert” without Sacred Tradition: how to identify the fundamental hierarchical structure of the Church, solely based on the indications of the New Testament.

The New Testament contains documents written by the Apostles in the course of their ministry as Church leaders. None of these documents proposes itself to be a written constitution for the Church.

Trying to find something in the New Testament that simply isn’t there, our Bible-expert friends found themselves in the odd position of arguing that…

1) St. Paul himself, the human author of most of the New Testament, was not an “elder” of the Church, because he was not married.

Also, 2) they argued that the Eucharist was celebrated in the ancient church in Corinth without one particular person saying, “Take and eat,” and, “Take and drink,” in the person Christ, while the rest of the people received the sacrament from that person. An unfortunate, absurd position to find oneself in.

Goes to show that nothing could be more ironic than arguing from isolated New-Testament texts that the Church possesses a hierarchical structure other than the hierarchical structure that Sacred Tradition has given us.

Doing that is like telling Julia Child that she doesn’t know how to read her own recipes, at the precise moment when she is handing you a plate of her Boeuf Bourguignon. To our dear Protestant friends, we say, Why not just eat the Boeuf Bourguinon?

* I think I can say that we were pretty courteous to Mr. Robertson. We spent an hour talking with him and his brother. I congratulated him on many insights that he has, and I tried as best I could to explain to him why it was not his personal business whether or not I was aware of any baptized Christians who had committed adultery. None of this managed to make it onto his tv show. Instead he insists that I “teach error,” based on his pure conjectures. He also taped us without telling us, which is certainly quite rude.

Sacred Tradition from the Beginning

The conclusion of Genesis narrates how the descendants of Abraham came to leave the Holy Land. In other words, it narrates how our people came to leave the land of Canaan after living there for three generations. One thing makes this particular people unique: we worship the God in Whom Abraham believed. And the conclusion of Genesis recounts this part of our history.

israel-mapIt all began with God revealing Himself to Abraham. Abraham learned something of God’s plans. Much mystery remained. But Abraham learned that the whole world would be blessed through his descendant. This divine revelation established an alliance between God and Abraham’s people.

And we can see in today’s reading at Holy Mass how this alliance continued as a sacred tradition. In other words, from the very beginning, our holy religion has been a matter of handing down divine revelation from one generation to the next.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob was himself the patriarch of a very large family. Jacob would not leave the Promised Land without sacrificing to the God of his father Isaac, Who is the God of Abraham.

We see from what happened that the alliance—the covenant between Abraham’s people and God—this does not preclude new things from happening. God spoke to Jacob at the southern boundary of the Holy Land. God told Jacob to go without fear into Egypt. Your going into Egypt will not break the alliance. In fact, doing so will strengthen it. Your going into Egypt is part of my plan for your people, for the people of Abraham. Thus the Lord directed Jacob at this fateful moment.

So a living sacred tradition does not atrophy a people. Rather, it allows us to move forward through history without losing ourselves in the great ebb and flow of time. Because we have inherited the holy tradition which God inaugurated by speaking to Abraham, we can greet everything that the present sends our way. But we will fall out of alliance with God, and lose ourselves in the process, if we do not always act in accord with the sacred tradition we have inherited.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:

In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. (Dei Verbum 7)

So we rejoice to receive from our fathers the mystery of salvation that belongs to the Church. And because we keep faith with it, we have nothing to fear from whatever comes our way today. We do not face the present alone; we face the events of today as members of the ancient People of God.

The Scripture Tradition

Do you seen this woman? She has shown great love. (Luke 7:44,42)

Okay. Anybody remember the question we left hanging last week?

How exactly is it that we have come to know so much about these ancient Palestinians named Jesus, Mary, and Pontius Pilate? We know enough to stand up, week in and week out, and belt out a brief discourse about them in the middle of Mass. How do we know anything about them?

old-booksGood question. But you are probably thinking: “Father, this is going to be real short. Because the answer to this question is obvious. Obvious. After all, we also say, in the Creed: ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Bible.’”


Some people enjoy testifying to their unswerving devotion to God’s Word. Preachers love to have big old Bibles draped in stoles and garlands, with bright phosphorescent lights shining.

But, let’s consider: What actually proves that a person loves the Bible? Having a big Bible in the house? Or having Bible bumper-stickers? Or coffee mugs with your favorite verse? Or cross-stitching “Blessed 24:7” on a sofa cushion?

No. The way to prove that you love the Bible is to do one simple solitary thing:

Continue reading “The Scripture Tradition”

Standing on the (written and unwritten) Word

As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, Almighty God has revealed Himself to us by a particular course of events. By words and deeds, which culminated in His personal appearance as a man, God has revealed the divine truth.

The truth that God is love, triune love. The truth that God conquers evil and brings good out of it. The truth that God wills the eternal salvation of every human being.

So the next thing we have to consider is this: God has spoken His Word in Christ. We want to stand on this Word of God, since it alone provides the foundation of truth. How do we do that? How do we stand on God’s Word?

Continue reading “Standing on the (written and unwritten) Word”

Keepin’ it Apostolic

The Son of God came to the earth and fulfilled the promises made to Israel. He gave the gifts of the New Covenant to His chosen representatives. He established the new and everlasting Israel—with twelve patriarchs. He gave to these leaders the sacred inheritance, and directed them to share it with the world.

In other words, in the vast and complicated world at the time of Tiberius Caesar—a world full of countless tribes, languages, nations, philosophies, temples, governments, recreational activities, hairstyles, and musical genres—in this enormous world, twelve men held the eternal fire of God’s truth and grace in their humble hands.

We call these twelve the…Apostles.

Every generation of Christians experiences the desire for authenticity of faith. We want Christianity that is “Biblical,” “Scriptural,” “orthodox.” “original.” The best term would be “apostolic.” We want the faith and the spiritual life of the Apostles.

Okay: what transpired? Over the course of two millennia? The world kept turning, with its stunning diversity of changing attitudes and hairstyles. Everything that stood on the earth in the year of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom—everything that stood then fell away and got changed to something else. Nothing under the sun remained the same, except…the faith and discipline of the Apostolic See of Rome. Through the course of 2,000 years, the successors of St. Peter have preserved what the Apostles received from Christ. Through untold twists and turns of political history, through countless “regime changes,” the See of Peter has endured, preserving the revelation about the true love, the loving truth, of Almighty God.

Church and state. Religious freedom. The rights with which the Creator has endowed man. The dignity and inviolability of man’s conscience, of woman’s conscience…

The gift we have received through the 2,000-year miracle of the Roman Church: this gift puts us in communion with the all-powerful Creator of the world. This gift fills us with heavenly grace. This gift gives us hope for eternal life in heaven.

One thing we can therefore say without hesitation, without the slightest doubt: No human authority ever has the right to interfere with our reception of this gift.

We concede to our government all its legitimate powers. Running a country is no picnic. Maintaining law and order? Not easy. What could pose a more difficult challenge than guiding society towards the common good?

We pray for the President, Congress, the courts, governors, legislators, police, fire, rescue—everybody involved in serving the body politic.

But, please, public officials; please do not tell us that following the teaching of the Pope is illegal. Don’t impose fines on Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching. Don’t make Catholic charities close down–just because we say that two men can’t marry each other. Please.

Everyone has the right to hear the teaching of the Apostles, to believe in it, and to follow it. No power on earth has the right to make it illegal to stay in communion with the Apostolic See.

Jerusalem Council, Maundy Mandate

The Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything. (John 14:26)

These are the words of our Lord Jesus to the Apostles at the Last Supper. He was explaining to them what would happen after He ascended into heaven.

That was the beginning of the Catholic Church.

The Lord Jesus had taught the Apostles many things while He was on the earth. There would be many other things He would teach them from heaven. As He promised, He sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church.

In the Acts of Apostles, St. Luke recounts the first Church Council. The situation was this: The Apostles had gone out from Jerusalem to preach the Gospel. In the surrounding countries, both Jews and non-Jews came to believe. This left the Apostles with an honest question.

Continue reading “Jerusalem Council, Maundy Mandate”

Commonsense Papism


Ego … Archiepiscopus … beato Petro apostolo, Sanctæ, Apostolicæ, Romanæ Ecclesiæ, ac tibi, Summo Pontifici, tuisque legitimis Successoribus semper fidelis ero et oboediens. Ita me Deus omnipotens adiuvet.

“I …, Archbishop of …, swear to be faithful and obedient to St. Peter the Apostle, to the Holy Roman Church, and to you, the Supreme Pontiff, and your lawful successors, so help me God Almighty.”

The new Archbishops who celebrated Mass with the Holy Father today swore their allegiance with these words.

StPeterThe Archbishops’ oath of allegiance is not something strange. It is not something foreign to American sensibilities. It is the most commonsensical statement a person could ever make.

Christians believe things–and we live according to principles–which we could never figure out by ourselves.

Therefore we rely on some source of information that possesses infallible authority. Our faith and morals are based on the testimony of God Himself, delivered to us in writing and by word of mouth.

Now, the authority to give this testimony either resides in me myself, or it resides in someone else.

Some people actually do regard themselves as their own infallible religious authority. But it takes just a little humility and maturity to realize that being your own infallible teacher is a prescription for disaster.

Therefore my infallible teacher must be someone else.

readdumWho is it? Could it be a politician? Could it be the pastor of a megachurch? Shirley MacLaine?

Of all the candidates for infallible teacher, the only really viable one is the Pope. The Pope can claim to hold such an office–the office of infallible teacher and shepherd established by the Son of God when He was on earth.

The Lord Jesus never promised that every Pope would be a saint. Rather, He guaranteed that there would be a spiritual fortress which the enemies of God could never conquer. Within this fortress, the true faith will always survive. The fortress is the Apostolic See of Rome.

Someone might say: Back off! My infallible teacher is the Bible!

Two questions, dear friend:

1. How do you know that the Bible is the Bible (i.e. the compendium of divine teachings committed to writing)? How do you know that the Koran is NOT the Bible? Or Football for Dummies? What authority certifies that your Bible is, in fact, God’s Word?

2. If there is a dispute about what the Bible means, who has the authority to settle the question?



and his successors.

Happy Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, founders of the Church of Rome!

The Beginning of the New Testament

As the year of St. Paul marches on, we have now begun to read at Sunday Mass from his first letter to the Thessalonians. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on a couple of important points about St. Paul’s letters. First, though, let us recall the circumstances under which St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.

After St. Paul preached the Gospel in Philippi, he left the church there in good order, and he headed south to Thessalonica.

Like Philippi, Thessalonica was an old Greek city named after a relative of Alexander the Great–his sister Thessaloniki. Unlike Philippi, at the time of St. Paul, Thessalonica was home to a large number of Jews, and there was a synagogue for St Paul to go to and announce that the Messiah had come.

As had happened at Philippi, jealous Jews denounced St. Paul to the Roman authorities. “This man says there is a king other than Caesar, named Jesus.” To keep him from being put into prison, the Christians rushed the Apostle out of the city quickly. St. Paul went south to Athens, then to Corinth. He remained in Corinth for a year and a half.

While he was in Corinth, St. Paul worried about the Thessalonian Christians. He knew they faced persecution from the same Jews who had denounced him. Since he had to leave Thessalonica so suddenly, he had not had the chance to finish teaching the new Christians everything he had a mind to teach them. St. Paul sent St. Timothy to Thessalonica to check up on things.

Map of Modern Greece.  Thessalonica is now Saloniki
Map of Modern Greece. Thessalonica is now Saloniki
St. Timothy reported that the Thessalonian Christians were bearing up well under persecution, but that they were confused about life after death and about the second coming of Christ. So St. Paul dictated a letter to them to explain.

This was the beginning of something enormously important. It was the beginning of the New Testament. St. Paul was in Corinth about 18 years after the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. Meanwhile in the Holy Land, St. Matthew may have been writing his gospel at the same time. This was the beginning of the writing of the most important collection of little books in the history of the world.

Let us pause to consider two important facts about this moment when St. Paul began to dictate First Thessalonians, and the writing of the New Testament began.

The first fact is this: St. Paul did NOT set out to compose “the New Testament.” When he began to write, what the Apostle had in mind was the Thessalonian Christians, what they knew and did not know. In other words, when St. Paul wrote the letter he was not launching a project. He was already in the middle of a project: He was executing the mission that the Lord had given him, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.

In other words, the books of the New Testament were written because the Church was already busy doing what She is supposed to do until the end of time. The writings of the New Testament bear witness to the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which the Lord Jesus entrusted to His Holy Apostles at the very beginning. In order to understand this testimony, we of course need the guidance of the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops.

Saloniki, or Thessaloniki--modern Thessalonica
Saloniki, or Thessaloniki--modern Thessalonica
The second fact to mediate on is this. When St. Paul originally preached in Thessalonica and wherever he went, those who heard him and believed accepted his words not as the teaching of a man, but as the revelation of Almighty God Himself.

There is no way for Christian teaching to make sense if it is not given on divine authority. It cannot be a matter of opinion. St. Paul did not teach that Christ is the Savior for the people who want Him to be the Savior. No: All the Apostles taught that Christ is the one, true God. The Church continues to teach the same. Our faith is not in human teaching, but in divine revelation.

In this day and age we frequently must confront the hostility of a different religion. This religion tries to teach that God does not speak clearly, and if you say that He does, you are close-minded. This other religion tries to tell the Church that the Catholic religion is one among many religions, no better than any other.

There are even Catholics who have been confused by the teaching of this other religion into thinking that if they believe that the Gospel is the true Word of God Himself, then they might not be able to relate other people who do not believe this. And, of course, relating to others with an open heart and mind is a crucial part of being a good Christian.

There is a great irony about this confusion regarding how to be open-minded. The idea that being wishy-washy makes you open-minded is precisely the opposite of the truth.

St. Paul himself proves the point. Has the world ever seen a man more adept at relating to people than St. Paul? He is one of the most genuinely open-minded people of all time. He successfully communicated with more different kinds of people than just about anyone ever has. He “became all things to all men.”

May he intercede for us that we might understand his teaching more deeply and imitate his love and zeal more perfectly.