The Road Ahead For Catholic-Jewish Relations

  • by:
    • Abraham H. Foxman
  • February 20, 2009

The strong relationship between Catholics and Jews that has flourished for more than four decades — largely as a result of the transformation of Church teachings about the Jewish people set down by the 1965 Second Vatican Council — has undergone a tremendous strain in recent weeks. Concerns about the Church's direction, and a possible chipping away of the reforms of Nostra Aetate, came to a head when Pope Benedict XVI announced his intent to welcome back into the fold four traditionalist bishops, one of whom questions the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

The Vatican's decision to rehabilitate Holocaust-denier Bishop Richard Williamson and three other leaders of the conservative Society of St. Pius X — a traditionalist schismatic group whose leaders have suggested, contrary to modern Church teachings, that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus — seemed a direct affront to everything that had been accomplished to heal wounds stretching back more than two millennia.

This has not been the first time in Pope Benedict's papacy that we have become concerned about slippage away from Vatican II. His reinstatement in July 2007 of the traditional Latin Mass, which included a prayer to convert Jews, was a troubling theological setback.

My fears and concerns were somewhat put to rest last week by the Pope, as I and a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were warmly received at the Vatican with assurances that the ties that bind our two faiths remain as strong as ever. More importantly, the Pope reaffirmed his commitment to the ideals of Nostra Aetate, the seminal document that triggered a revolutionary change in the bitter, blood-stained 2,000-year relationship between Roman Catholics and Jews.

The Pope used the occasion to make his strongest denunciation yet of Holocaust denial, calling the slaughter of the six million "a crime against God and a crime against humanity." Likewise, he made clear that the Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism." I have to believe that the Pope believes that Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism.

To be sure, this was an important statement — a reaffirmation of Catholic-Jewish relations and a firm rebuke of the abhorrent views of Bishop Williamson. But he didn't go far enough. The pontiff did not specifically address concerns about Bishop Williamson or the Society of St. Pius X, and to bring the matter to full closure.

The Church needs to deal forthrightly with those who defy Vatican II. Rejecting Bishop Williamson's Holocaust denial is a positive first step. But in the absence of Bishop Williamson recanting and recognizing that he is wrong in his views, the Vatican should act definitively to prevent his participation in the Church. Every moment that he stays gives him and his views credibility and sends a terrible message that there is room in the Church not only for dissent, but for wholesale bigotry. That is also true for Society of St. Pius X, whose raison d'etre is rejection of Vatican II.

But how do we turn the Church's commitment into concerted action? Dialogue is one thing, but dialogue is not enough. What is needed is matching deeds to words.

The Williamson affair should serve as a reminder that while the Church has come a long way in overcoming its historical teachings against Jews, the message has not necessarily reached down from the Vatican to the pews.

There are still bishops, priests and others, from Poland to Hungary to Latin America and even here in the United States, who continue the teaching of contempt for "perfidious" Jews and who promote the notion that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus and should be scorned, and worse.

The tenets of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate need to be reinforced through educational programs and interfaith initiatives. As we move farther away from the events of World War II, the history and lessons of the Shoah must continue to be taught for generations to come. The Catholic Church, through its hundreds of seminaries and parishes around the world, has the major important role to place translating the message of Vatican II into practice.

Finally, there is the imperative of stronger ties with Israel, whose existence provides the ultimate answer to Hitler's Final Solution. Pope Benedict has promised a forthcoming visit to Israel. Once-in-a-generation papal visits are just a nice, symbolic gesture. But Israel needs the Vatican's support in other, more tangible ways. After all, Israel is not just a homeland to the Jewish people, but a place of pilgrimage and reverence for Christians, and a protector of religious sites for all three monotheistic faiths.

Provocative statements from high-level Vatican officials, such as the recent suggestion by Cardinal Renato Martino that Gaza resembles "a big concentration camp," only reinforce the trivialization of the Holocaust and damage goodwill between Israel and the Vatican. They suggest that some in the Church hierarchy just don't get it when it comes to the complex issues surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As someone who owes a debt of gratitude to the Church and my Polish Catholic nanny, who had me baptized and kept me hidden from the Nazis until the end of the war, I am optimistic about the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, but cautiously so. We have a solid foundation to work together so that what happened in 1965 does not get eroded as we move forward.

The late Pope John Paul II, a great friend to the Jewish people, memorably referred to Jews as "our elder brothers" in the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. My hope is that the Vatican continues in this spirit of reconciliation by charging ahead with the important work that is necessary to keep the teachings of Vatican II alive and well.