The Jewish-Catholic Connection

A few months ago, Pope Benedict XVI, decked out in trademark white robes and white skullcap, became the first pontiff to enter an American synagogue.

The visit to Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue–where the pontiff apparently opened his speech with a “shalom”–was an indicator of how, despite some stumbling blocks, Catholic-Jewish relations have never been better.

The same might be said for Catholic-Jewish relationships.

Since my husband, Joe, is a lapsed Catholic, my radar is always up for Jewish-Catholic marriages. However, in two years of writing this column, I have not had to look far for examples of such couplings: whether the topic is gentiles at the seder table or women who convert to Judaism after many years of marriage, virtually every interfaith family I encounter is Jewish-Catholic. And the same is true in my social circle and extended family, despite the occasional Jewish-Protestant or Jewish-Hindu pairing.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this Catholic-Jewish attraction. Suzette Cohen, a longtime facilitator in Atlanta of the Mothers Circle, a program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children, estimates that at least 60 percent of her participants are Catholic or formerly Catholic even though she’s “in Georgia, a Baptist part of the world.”

In his recent book, The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues From Intermarriage to Jewish Identity (Palgrave Macmillan), Rabbi Arthur Blecher notes that in the approximately 1,000 Washington, D.C.-area interfaith couples he has interviewed in the past two decades, slightly more than half of the gentile spouses were Catholic. “It made no difference whether a man or woman was the Jewish partner,” he writes, adding later that Jews and Catholics share a “social affinity.”

The U.S. Religion Landscape Survey released this spring by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also confirmed the trend, finding that 12 percent of married Jews have Catholic spouses, while only 7 percent have Protestant spouses (the rest are married to Jews, atheists or people of other faiths). That’s in spite of the fact that American Protestants outnumber American Catholics nearly 2 to 1.

Of course the Pew study, which drew on a miniscule sample of 682 Jews, is not the most reliable source of Jewish demographic information. And there is little other data on the topic. But even number crunchers note that the anecdotal evidence about Jewish-Catholic couples has some weight.

Len Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, says that while his own research on interfaith families hasn’t examined the disproportionate number of Catholic partners, the trend “shouldn’t be surprising.”

The majority of American Protestants today are Evangelicals–“folks who are socio-demographically very different from Jews” while Catholics tend to cluster in the same East Coast and Midwestern metropolitan hubs that American Jews have traditionally called home, Saxe notes.

Lisa Stein, an Irish Catholic in suburban Chicago who is in the process of converting to Judaism (and, in case the name didn’t tip you off, is married to a Jew), says that the two cultures share a “huge emphasis on family and family history but have styles different enough that it keeps it really interesting.”

For example, “when his family gets together, it’s always desserts and pastries,” she laughs. “When my family gets together, it’s whiskey and wine.”

Indeed, my husband Joe frequently laments the poor booze selection at the Jewish functions we attend, while the grub his French Canadian and Irish kin serve up makes the lamest kiddush luncheon look gourmet.

I must confess, I entered our marriage with many negative stereotypes about my husband’s people. Although my hometown, Pittsburgh, has a large Catholic population, I grew up in a Jewish enclave and, because many Catholics attended parochial schools, the few gentiles in my public school classes were mostly Protestant. Snobbily (and erroneously), I admit, I thought of Catholics as socially conservative, poorly educated anti-Semites with working-class Pittsburgh accents; however, in my years with my liberal, upwardly mobile, doctorate-holding, philo-Semitic, New England-reared hubby my thinking has, fortunately, matured.

As I’ve learned more about both Judaism and Catholicism, I see many parallels in the two religions, which–in contrast to Protestantism–both emphasize ritual and good deeds over faith and communal worship over a personal relationship with God. While the two are in many ways poles apart, both tend to place a high premium on the obligation of individuals and government to help the poor. And as Joe often notes on Shabbat, Jewish and Catholic rituals may differ in their meaning and symbolism, but they share common elements: candles, bread and wine. Both also employ sacred languages and, just as the Reform movement, which once eliminated most Hebrew from worship, has reintroduced it, the Catholic Church has in recent years brought back some Latin.

For Catholics like my husband and Stein who miss the ritual but not the dogma or hierarchy of the Church, liberal Judaism offers an attractive alternative, one that in many cases poses less of a threat to their Catholic relatives than other faiths–after all, Judaism is the source of Catholicism, whereas Protestantism was founded as a repudiation of it.

In addition to the geographic and spiritual overlaps, American Jews and Catholics share much culturally. While this is changing with the influx of (mostly Catholic) Latino immigrants, American Catholics have long tended, like American Jews, to be white ethnic descendants of late 19th- and early 20th-century European immigrants. Perhaps because of this, both groups share a certain alienation from the Protestant majority that once held court, a sense (whether fair or not) that WASPs are humorless and repressed.

Of course Jewish-Catholic pairs, while dominant today, probably won’t be for long. That’s because the white ethnic strain of American Catholicism is giving way to the Latino one, a group that, at least for now, hasn’t yet made it in large numbers to the highly educated, upper-middle-class circles American Jews frequent. Instead, those same circles are increasingly populated by Asian-Americans, growing numbers of whom–if anecdotal reports are to be trusted–are marrying Jews.

For now, however, while it’s not every day the pope shows up at shul, on any given Shabbat you can bet that at least a few of his adherents and former adherents are sitting in the synagogue pews.

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