On June 14, 2016, Google’s frequent “doodles” which honor holidays, anniversaries, and famous people depicted a mustachioed cartoon scientist standing next to red vials of blood. This much-viewed global memorial was dedicated to Karl Landsteiner (1868-1943).
Landsteiner was a Viennese pathologist who, in 1901, realized that while all of us bleed red when we’re pierced, not everyone’s blood is in fact precisely the same. He determined that different people, even in the same family, can have different blood “groups.” Today we recognize his genius in distinguishing types and Rh factors that make transfusions and transplants possible. His pioneering work, which resulted in the ability to prolong millions of lives, won him the Nobel Prize in 1930.
An interesting side note to the story was that the blood flowing through Landsteiner’s own veins was that of the Jewish people, and thus that of Our Savior. While Landsteiner converted to Catholicism during his life, after suffering discrimination and exclusion because of his lineage, this interesting fact ought to give us pause to reflect with seriousness upon the paradoxical relationship embodied within the very sinews and veins of this staggeringly brilliant scientist.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was reported to have once tearfully considered what a special grace it would have been to have been born of Jewish lineage. “Why imagine! That a man could be a kinsman by blood of Christ Our Lord and of Our Lady the glorious Virgin Mary.” In fact, the English historian Henry Kamen once called Ignatius “a spiritual Semite.”
And yet, as someone having spent a great deal of time in Spain and Italy, where the historic ghettoization, persecution, and expulsion of our elder siblings in the faith is well-documented and heart-wrenching, I know well that this sentiment has not always been at the center of European Catholic history. Neither are Americans free from the invidious infection of anti-Semitism, and a few weeks’ — not centuries’ — worth of history is all one needs to examine to confirm this detestable fact.
Pope Francis spoke the following words to a recent gathering of rabbinical leaders visiting Rome: “Nostra Aetate noted that the origins of the Christian faith are to be found, in accordance with the divine mystery of salvation, in the Patriarchs, in Moses and in the Prophets. It also stated that, given the great spiritual heritage we hold in common, every effort must be made to foster reciprocal knowledge and respect, above all through biblical studies and fraternal discussions (cf. NA 4). Consequently, in recent decades, we have been able to draw closer to one another and to engage in an effective and fruitful dialogue. We have grown in mutual understanding and deepened our bonds of friendship.
[A recent] statement between Jerusalem and Rome does not hide, however, the theological differences that exist between our faith traditions. All the same, it expresses a firm resolve to collaborate more closely, now and in the future. Your document is addressed to Catholics, speaking of them as ‘partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security’. It goes on to say that ‘despite profound theological differences, Catholics and Jews share common beliefs’ and also ‘the affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education — not war, coercion or social pressure — to influence and inspire’. This is most important: may the Eternal One bless and enlighten our cooperation, so that together we can accept and carry out ever better his plans, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil’ for ‘a future and a hope’ (Jer 29:11).’”
While Landsteiner’s scientific discoveries crucially helped us realize the differences between us, the pope’s statements and Nostra Aetate point toward our commonalities: “One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.