The Latest Catholic-Jewish Crisis: Turning a Minus into a Plus

The Latest Catholic-Jewish Crisis: Turning a Minus into a Plus

by Rabbi David Rosen


The Papal Audience


The papal audience on Thursday, February 12, with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was the first ever for that organization. Under normal circumstances, it would have been just another photo opportunity for a Jewish group with the pope. However, the events of the previous two weeks concerning the Society of Saint Pius X (founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke with the Catholic Church in opposition to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council) and, in particular, one of its four bishops, Richard Williamson a public Holocaust denier gave this meeting special significance and attracted media attention. Accordingly, I traveled to Rome to represent AJC at this event.

The pope’s address to us was a powerful repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial as sins that will not be tolerated by the Church; and emphasized the importance of nurturing the memory of the Shoah as a message and warning for future generations. In addition, Benedict reaffirmed his deep commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations and also announced his forthcoming visit to Israel.

It was clear that he was extremely eager to have the opportunity to reiterate these points publicly before a Jewish audience and to repair the damage and misrepresentation caused by this latest crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations. This audience was, in fact, an important symbolic confirmation of the remarkable clarification that the Vatican had issued a week beforehand.

The Vatican had explained that, contrary to popular misrepresentation, it had not embraced and welcomed back into the Church the members of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) including Williamson. All it had done was to lift the excommunication ban that Pope John Paul II had imposed when the society started performing its own ordination of bishops without papal authorization. Lifting this excommunication ban opened the way for the society and its leadership to return to the Church. However, they would have to first commit themselves to abiding by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, against which they had originally rebelled. These include an affirmation of the eternal Divine Covenant with the Jewish people and the condemnation of anti-Semitism. Accordingly, the statement not only condemned Williamson’s odious opinions, calling upon him to recant and categorically distance himself publicly from them, but also indicated that if he did not do so, there was no way he could be welcomed back into the Catholic Church. Yet arguably the most surprising sentence in the statement was the admission that Pope Benedict XVI had not known of Williamson’s views when the excommunication ban was lifted (suggesting that had he known, he might not have proceeded as he did.)

No less astounding was the admission by the man responsible for these contacts on behalf of the Vatican, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who later in the day acknowledged that he also did not know about Williamson. A few days earlier the man in the Vatican responsible for relations with the Jewish people, Cardinal Walter Kasper, had complained that he had been taken completely by surprise by the Vatican’s action regarding the SSPX, and he did not disguise his displeasure over this occurrence and its consequences. Such open criticism of the Vatican from within and, by implication, of its leadership is, if not unparalleled, very rare.

What has been revealed most dramatically by this episode is something that Vatican observers have been noting consistently during this papacy in contrast to the previous one namely, an amazing lack of preparation (if not disregard) for public perceptions and a profound lack of collegial consultation. The result is that time and again the Vatican has had to spend its energies on damage control and polishing up a tarnished image, when it could have prevented the distress to others and harm to itself in the first place.

Interpreting the Clarification

While the Vatican’s clarification has sought to put the record straight, there are still those who fear that this episode reflects some kind of backtracking by the Catholic Church when it comes to good relations with the Jewish people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, there are many Jews who do not believe that the Catholic “leopard” ever changed its spots at all as far as its attitude toward the Jewish people is concerned. Such Jews are those who have not been able to lift themselves out of the traumas of our past and/or those who are ignorant (sometimes willfully) of the changes of the present. However, the majority of Jews are aware of the remarkable historic changes that took place within the Catholic Church since Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council; and most of those who were not, were significantly educated by the positive gestures and impact of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel in the year 2000.

But those who are informed are fully aware that then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was the most trusted theological right hand of John Paul II. Accordingly, there was no chance that he would want to turn the tide back on the stunning advances in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and understanding that took place during John Paul II’s papacy. Indeed, at an unprecedented Jerusalem conference of Christian and Jewish leadership from around the world at the beginning of 1994, which took place on the heels of the historic accord between Israel and the Holy See establishing full relations between the two, Ratzinger. a keynote speaker, publicly expressed his great joy over the new full relationship between Israel and the Vatican. Moreover, since becoming pope, he has reiterated time and again his commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor concerning Catholic-Jewish relations and actually received the leadership of the Jewish representative body to the Vatican (the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations) even before receiving non-Catholic Christian representatives.

Accordingly, those aware of all this could not accept the interpretation of the lifting of the excommunication of the SSPX and Williamson as being an intentional snub toward the Jewish people that Benedict was willing to pay for the sake of Christian unity.

However, it is undoubtedly true that the matter of repairing the schism and uniting the Church is one of great preoccupation for the pope. In light (or rather in the shadow) of the above-mentioned lack of transparency in this pontificate, we have seen how damage can be done due to lack of advance consultation and consideration of the consequences of certain steps and statements. This was the case with the papal permission given for the wider use of the Latin liturgy (which actually had already been permitted in limited cases by John Paul II), which includes an Easter prayer for the conversion of the Jews. When Benedict realized that this permission for the wider use of the Latin liturgy had a negative bearing on Catholic-Jewish relations, he sought to repair the damage by improving the offensive text. However the improvement was still a disappointment for the Jewish community and for many Catholics. This pattern of taking decisions too quickly without the necessary prior investigation, consultation, and preparation could have led the Vatican to move ahead with the rehabilitation of the SSPX without realizing all the implications and consequences. Richard Williamson’s crude publicity-seeking Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic rhetoric actually performed a great service in slowing down the SSPX’s move back into the Catholic fold and may, in fact, have stopped it altogether.

As mentioned, Williamson now has to publicly recant and the SSPX has to categorically accept the teachings of Vatican II before any reinstatement can proceed.

Moreover, this episode elicited remarkably widespread expressions of concern and alarm, not only from Jewish quarters, but from major national Catholic bishops’ conferences as well as from individual Catholic religious leaders and political figures (including some fifty Catholic U.S. congressmen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel) who called on the Vatican to clarify matters. All these developments leading to the Vatican’s eventual response and culminating in Pope Benedict’s eloquent words at the February 12 papal audience have heightened the importance of Catholic-Jewish relations on the Church’s contemporary agenda. In fact, we may say that this has been a classic example of turning a minus into a plus.

Undoubtedly, there are significant struggles taking place within the Catholic Church today, which are reflected in different interpretations of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. However, what is so sweetly ironic from an historical Jewish perspective is that one of the few issues on which conservatives and liberals in the Church are in agreement is the importance of good relations with the Jewish people and an unequivocal rejection of anti-Semitism.

Rabbi David Rosen is AJC’s director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs and the Robert and Harriett Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding and also chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC