The distinguished Catholic thinker Michael Novak died last week at the age of eighty-three. Perhaps best known for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which advances the moral case for economic freedom, he wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including Christian-Jewish relations. Herewith, an excerpt from his 1993 essay on the French Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and his writings on the Jews:
The debt Catholics owe to Jacques Maritain for his reflections on Judaism is enormous. As teacher to a whole generation of bishops and theologians, his contribution to the statement of Vatican II on the Jews was significant, perhaps philosophically indispensable. Maritain saw . . . that God’s covenant with the Jews is unbreakable; and that the friendship between Christians and Jews is an obligation springing directly from the vocation of both as vessels of God’s inscrutable love. . . . Further, he viewed the history of Judaism as a mystery linked to the fate of the entire world. . . . Maritain read all of history in the light of this mystery—including, in his later writings, the existence of the new state of Israel. . . .
[T]he Jewish interpretation of Christianity is at odds with the Christian interpretation of Judaism. Of this there is no doubt. Still, to assert that each must deny certain claims of the other and let these mutual denials dominate attention is to go too far. It is wrong to allow the sharp and central point of difference between Christianity and Judaism to obscure all that they hold in common. It is wrong not to walk together as far as possible, on the excuse that at one crucial point there is a clear difference. For neither in Jewish nor in Christian thought is it held that this difference must last for all eternity, or even for the entire duration of temporal history. . . .
To be a Christian is not only to be “spiritually a Semite” [in Maritain’s phrase], but in some very subtle sense to be a Jew. A great many of the prerogatives of the Christian faith belong first of all to the Jews. Many of the elements basic to a Christian way of life were first basic to a Jewish way of life: a reverence for the Scriptures; a sense of the sacred; respect for the law; humility before the transcendent; the cherishing of the human capacity for reflection and choice; the sharp taste of the existing (as distinct from non-existing), and of being (as opposed to nonbeing), and therefore of the blessed contingency of this created world; the practice of compassion; the ideal of friendship with God and of “walking with God”; the habit of prayer; and a sense of the presence of God during the activities of every day—all of these are habits of life that Christians share with Jews and have learned from Judaism.