Vatican fence-mending campaign with Jews draws mixed reviews

Efforts to mute criticism of a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the old Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church, which have escalated ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced the revival of the Latin Mass last July, intensified this week.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced two additions to the program of Pope Benedict while he’s in the United States in mid-April, both directed at Jews. After a general April 17 session with 200 leaders of other faiths in Washington, D.C., the pope will also meet briefly in private with the Jewish delegation. On April 18, Benedict will make a stop at New York’s Park East Synagogue, located near the Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.

While the official motive is for the pope to offer greetings for Passover, which begins on April 19, the clear subtext would seem to be a desire to reassure Jews that the pope remains committed to Catholic/Jewish dialogue, despite recent turbulence.

Today, the Vatican released the text of a statement from the Secretariat of State, its central administrative authority, asserting that the Good Friday prayer does not signal any change in the church’s commitment to better relations with Jews.

The statement was released in both Italian and English, in part so that it would be readily understood by Jewish readers, but in part, too, suggesting that the timing is related to the pope's upcoming trip to the United States.

Early reaction in the Jewish world appears mixed, with the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League asserting that it represents "two steps forward and three steps backward" in Catholic/Jewish relations.

Benedict's decision to approve the old Latin Mass for wider use was never intended, papal spokespersons have repeatedly said, as a statement about Catholic/Jewish relations, but rather as an intra-Catholic stimulus to a stronger sense of traditional Catholic identity. Nevertheless, revival of a Good Friday prayer was interpreted by some Jewish groups as a retreat from the outreach associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the papacy of John Paul II.

Responding to those concerns, Benedict XVI issued a revised version of the prayer, removing pejorative language about Jews but preserving the reference to conversion. Several Jewish leaders and organizations, as well as some Catholic veterans of dialogue with Judaism, signalled diappointment with the result. Today's statement attempt to offer an official framework for interpreting the pope's intent with the revised prayer.

(As a bit of insider baseball, it’s interesting to note that the Vatican clearly wanted this statement to be perceived as coming from the very highest level, representing the personal will of the pope – hence it was issued by the Secretariat of State, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even though it arguably addresses a matter of Catholic teaching. It’s a small but telling sign of the ascendancy of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, who has successfully consolidated a remarkable degree of power and visibility in his office.)

The full text of the statement follows:

“Following the publication of the new Prayer for the Jews for the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, some groups within the Jewish community have expressed disappointment that it is not in harmony with the official declarations and statements of the Holy See regarding the Jewish people and their faith which have marked the progress of friendly relations between the Jews and the Catholic Church over the last forty years.

“The Holy See wishes to reassure that the new formulation of the Prayer, which modifies certain expressions of the 1962 Missal, in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews which has evolved from the basis of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Declaration Nostra Aetate. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI, in an audience with the Chief Rabbis of Israel on 15 September 2005, remarked that this document "has proven to be a milestone on the road towards the reconciliation of Christians with the Jewish people." The continuation of the position found in Nostra Aetate is clearly shown by the fact that the prayer contained in the 1970 Missal continues to be in full use, and is the ordinary form of the prayer of Catholics.

“In the context of other affirmations of the Council - on Sacred Scripture (Dei Verbum, 14) and on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 16) - Nostra Aetate presents the fundamental principles which have sustained and today continue to sustain the bonds of esteem, dialogue, love, solidarity and collaboration between Catholics and Jews. It is precisely while examining the mystery of the Church that Nostra Aetate recalls the unique bond with which the people of the New Testament is spiritually linked with the stock of Abraham and rejects every attitude of contempt or discrimination against Jews, firmly repudiating any kind of anti-Semitism.

“The Holy See hopes that the explanations made in this statement will help to clarify any misunderstanding. It reiterates the unwavering desire that the concrete progress made in mutual understanding and the growth in esteem between Jews and Christians will continue to develop.”

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, issued the following reaction to the Vatican statement:

"On this issue the Vatican has taken two steps forward and three steps backward. It is reassuring that the Catholic Church remains committed to the ideals of Nostra Aetate and to an approach toward relations with the Jewish people based on cordiality and mutual respect.

"Yet it is troubling that the statement still does not specifically say that the Catholic Church is opposed to proselytizing Jews. While they say it does not change Nostra Aetate, the statement does not go far enough to allay concerns about how the message of this prayer will be understood by the people in the pews. The Latin prayer is still out there, and stands by itself, and unless this statement will be read along with the prayer, it will not repair or mitigate the impact of the words of the prayer itself, with its call for Jews to recognize Jesus as the savior of all men and its hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.’

"The impact of those words is undeniable, and we wish the Vatican had explicitly rejected calls to conversion or to proselytizing Jews."

Rabbi Eugene Korn, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University, said in an e-mail that the Vatican statement does not address the core Jewish concern about the Good Friday Prayer: "Will there be new attempts — in dialogue, formal relations, or informal relations — to convert Jews to the Church?"

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