Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vatican & the Jews

Tuesday - Iudicium perversum

Pope Benedict XVI surely did not set out to undercut decades of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations initiated by Pope John XXIII, but he's managing to do just that. We do not suggest that a series of unfortunate decisions by Benedict had anything to do with malice.

Though he never explicitly condemns Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jews, Benedict routinely meets with Israeli and Jewish figures, visits a fair share of synagogues and maintains Vatican-Israel diplomatic relations on an even keel. He is scheduled to visit here in May.

The pope simply made a strategic decision: Enticing Catholic ultra-conservatives back to the fold was more important than the Church's relationship with its "dearly beloved elder brothers."

THAT IS how we understand the intention to reinstate a Holocaust-denying bishop, along with earlier decisions to identify Pius XII as a saint (though Eugenio Pacelli's detractors think of him simply as "Hitler's pope"); plus Benedict's July 2007 policy of making it easier for ultra-conservatives to celebrate the Easter Tridentine Latin Mass, despite its original references to "perfidious [or faithless] Jews."

The pope has had lots of time to reflect on Catholic dogma. From 1981 until he assumed the office in 2005, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican's doctrinal affairs ministry.

Benedict is evidently resigned, according to Rachel Donadio of The New York Times, "to the Church's diminished status in a secular world" and would rather have "a smaller Church of more ardent believers over a larger one with looser faith."

Those fervently faithful happen to be religious arch-conservatives, a few of them old-line Jew-haters.

Some ultra-conservative clergy and lay people have never forgiven the Church for the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, including its reversal of the Church's historic teaching of contempt of the Jewish people; for absolving "the Jews of today" from the crime of deicide, and for the council's denunciation of anti-Semitism.

The pope wants it both ways: to support Vatican II and - by patching up relations with ultra-conservative followers of the late archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke away from Rome in 1988 over such issues as promoting interreligious understanding and religious tolerance - have its most vehement opponents back in the fold.

Lefebvre's base was the Society of Saint Pius X, which he established in 1970. Among its key theologians are the four bishops Benedict has just reinstated (they were excommunicated during the reign of John Paul II).

One of the four is Richard Williamson, a classic anti-Semite who believes Jews seek world domination as they pave the way for the Anti-Christ. Williamson doesn't see much "historical evidence" that six million Jews were slaughtered by Hitler. Indeed, he believes "there were no gas chambers," and that maybe 300,000 Jews were murdered during WWII. He also does not think Muslim terrorists carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Benedict's spokesman explained that the Vatican did not share Williamson's views. "Saying a person is not excommunicated is not the same as saying one shares all his ideas or statements."

The American Jewish Committee, which has long been in the forefront of interreligious dialogue, declared it was "shocked" by the Vatican's reinstatement decision. "It is a serious blow for Jewish-Vatican relations and a slap in the face of the late Pope John Paul II, who made such remarkable efforts to eradicate and combat anti-Semitism," said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC's International Director of Interreligious Affairs. Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the decision opens up a "deep wound." It does.

BENEDICT'S DECISION is injudicious and perverse. What to do?

Interfaith dialogue remains an overall Jewish interest not because it prevents the Church from ever doing wrong things, but because having a relationship affords the community a channel for trying to get the Church to do the right thing.

We appreciate that the pope has compelling reasons to want to heal the rift within the Church. Yet Benedict's decision to include Williamson in the reinstatements is an extraordinary sign of moral indifference.

Jewish dignity demands a measured response. This newspaper calls for an immediate three-month moratorium on substantive contacts between the organized Jewish community and the Vatican. During this period, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See should be recalled to Jerusalem for consultations.

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