This past February the Community Security Trust of Great Britain reported 1,382 antisemitic incidents in 2017, an average of nearly four incidents a day and an all time record since the Trust began gathering data in 1984. Record levels of antisemitism were at the same time being reported in the United States. The “why” is largely conjecture, but many scholars still locate the roots of modern western intolerance in Europe’s High Middle Ages (1000 ad -1300), a time, they say, when the Roman Catholic Church was intent on imposing its will on anyone, or any group, whose beliefs and practices challenged its supremacy. It is the legacy of medievalism, the argument runs, that causes fear of the “other” and an unwillingness to accept “diversity” to result in acts of violence and vandalism aimed at Jews and the visible symbols of their presence, the synagogues.
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Not so, says Edmund Mazza, professor of History at Azusa Pacific University, and author of The Scholastics and the Jews: Coexistence, Conversion, and the Medieval Origins of Tolerance. Or at least, not exclusively so. A close look at the period in question reveals that leading Catholics such as Raymond of Peñafort, Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, and several Popes of the period were motivated to preach to Jews—and Muslims—by the thought that they possessed souls for whom Christ died, and that they needed saving, not dominating. In the eyes of these zealous preachers, the Jews especially were seen as people with intellectual powers, who were to be approached with logic and truth, not banishment or hostility.
Mazza agrees that to some degree the medieval RCC can justifiably be accused of persecuting minorities such as Jews, Muslims, pagans and alternative forms of Christianity, especially after the thirteenth century. (Keep in mind that the same thing can be said about Catholicism that is often said about China: Everything you’ve ever heard about the Middle Kingdom is true—somewhere.) But at the same time he makes a strong case for the idea that alongside the admitted awfulness of the period—the residual drag of Europe’s pagan and primitive past should never be forgotten— the seeds for real tolerance were being planted and nourished by the very Dominicans and Franciscans maligned today as the least tolerant, and most persecutorial of all.
To prove his point Mazza traces the growth of medieval tolerance starting with Anselm (1033-1109), who wrote his Cur Deus homo (Why God Became a Man) to help orthodox Christians understand their faith, and also to reach out to infideles (those who had never been “Christened”), such as Jews and Muslims. It was a good beginning, but for Anselm, to reach out to heretics (former Christians who came to reject aspects of Roman Catholic faith and practice) was a bridge too far. Their damnation was their own fault and he would leave them too it. Nevertheless, Anselm had taken a huge step forward by reaching out to the “other.”
A hundred years later Alan of Lille (1128-1203) advanced far beyond Anselm, not merely writing to try to convert the Jews, but also reaching out to heretics of every sort, even writing numerous theological tracts to counter their objections. In addition, Alan left the isolation of the monastery to preach directly to the Cathars and the Waldensians, and whoever crossed his path. As Mazza puts it, “Unlike Anselm, Alan believed heretics needed ministering.” Alan made another discovery. Long before Luther, this son of the Roman Catholic Church was declaring that a layman, or woman, could aspire to monastic holiness and full membership in the Mystical Body of Christ while continuing to live in the world. Seeds of true tolerance were sprouting and growing in all directions.
Alas, as a preacher to heretics and unbelievers Alan felt himself almost entirely alone. He complained that too many of the clergy quenched all zeal for souls by a lack of personal holiness, a desire for worldly gain, and a refusal to engage in the study necessary to become adept at explaining gospel truth.
The answer to Alan’s prayers came in the form of Dominic Guzman (1170-1221), founder of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Often condemned as the worst of the Catholic persecutors, Dominic was in fact unmatched in the very commitments that were so mourned in their absence by Alan. Instead of travelling in luxury he and his disciples arrived at their preaching points on their own two (bare) feet, trusting to Providence to provide for their needs. But their preaching, and their engagement with unbelievers, was of the highest quality, with the result that thousands of Jews and Saracens were converted in Dominic’s lifetime. If second and third generation Dominicans lacked fraternal love toward the Jews, the same could not be said of Dominic.
But how does any of this matter to those of us living in the 21st Century? Is it possible that many of today’s troubles result from the same forms of intolerance the modern mind condemns in its medieval predecessors? Mazza certainly thinks so. After pointing out that although Dominic never doubted that he possessed absolute truth, he and other leading minds developed the concept of tolerantia as a way of getting along with the untrue. “What a different world it would be,” Mazza writes, “if the U.S. and its allies had adopted a “medieval” stance of tolerance toward the ‘evil axis’ regime of Iraq, and if Muslim zealots had long ago adopted the same posture toward the U.S. and Israel?” Medieval belief in the knowability of absolute truth provided a foundation for dialogue 800 years ago. Unfortunately, today’s enforced agnosticism almost guarantees that instead of the language of love, toleration, and mutual inquiry into truth, East and West will continue to communicate via the bombs and rockets of hate.
Shafer Parker is Senior Pastor at Hawkwood Baptist Church in Calgary, and a former editor for Alberta Report newsmagazine.