VATICAN CITY (Feb. 24)
At a private audience with American Jewish Committee leaders February 15 held in the resplendent Apostolic Palace, Pope John Paul II went further than any Pope in recent memory in affirming that improved Catholic-Jewish relations is now an article of Catholic doctrine, “an expression of the (Catholic) faith, a word of the Divine Wisdom.”
At the same time, he remained cautious and vague about the relationship of the Holy See to Israel.
Howard Friedman, AJC president, led an eight-member AJC delegation in an audience devoted to commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazism and the 20th anniversary of the adoption by Vatican Council II of Nostra Aetate, the declaration which opened a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations. It was the first audience in 1985 of any Jewish group with the Polish Pope devoted to examining the impact of the Vatican Declaration on Catholic-Jewish relations during the past two decades.
STATEMENT BY AJC PRESIDENT
“As the Nazi trauma appalled us with despair over human evil,” Friedman said in his prepared text, “so the 20th anniversary of the close of Vatican Council II inspires all of us with hope and promise for a more humane future…. It is no exaggeration to state that as a result of these far-reaching pronouncements and the practical actions they have inspired, greater progress in improved Catholic-Jewish relations has taken place during the past two decades than in the past two millenia.”
Friedman then said that “the American Jewish Committee shares” the Pope’s vision “of upholding human dignity by vigorously advocating the universality of civil and political liberties, and, in particular, religious liberty for all peoples everywhere, especially those in oppressive totalitarian societies.”
The AJC president then referred to his agency’s “close cooperation with Catholic Relief Services in seeking to relieve the suffering, hunger and deprivation of millions of fellow human beings in Ethiopia, and in Africa generally.”
The climax of Friedman’s statement concentrated on the importance of establishing “diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the State of Israel and her people.” He said: “Such an historic act, we believe, would be a watershed event in Catholic-Jewish relations. It would help create the sense of reality (in the Arab world) which is indispensable to peace, and we would consider it a happy development and confirmation of the decisions of Vatican Council II.”
POPE CITES ‘A TEACHING WHICH MUST BE FOLLOWED’
In response, the Pope declared, “I wish to confirm, with utmost conviction, that the teaching of the Church proclaimed during the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration Nastra Aetate … remains always for us, for the Catholic Church, for the Episcopate … and for the Pope, a teaching which must be followed — a teaching which it is necessary to accept not merely as something fitting, but much more as an expression of the faith, as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as a word of Divine Wisdom.”
Vatican authorities told us that the Pope affirms by that statement that he regards improved Catholic-Jewish relations as an “article of Catholic faith,” of permanent value, and its progress is irreversible. That assumed importance in light of anxiety in Catholic circles that the Vatican Synod called for November may lead to reversal of progressive achievements of Vatican Council II.
Asserting that “the relationships between Jews and Christians have radically improved in these years,” the Pontiff stated: “Where there was distrust and perhaps fear, there is now confidence. Where there was ignorance and therefore prejudice and stereotypes, there is now growing mutual knowledge, appreciation and respect. There is above all, love between us, that kind of love, I mean, which is for both of us a fundamental injunction of our religious traditions and which the New Testament has received from the Old.”
The Pope then condemned anti-Semitism, saying, “Anti-Semitism, which is unfortunately still a problem in certain places, has been repeatedly condemned by the Catholic tradition as incompatible with Christ’s teaching and with the respect due to the dignity of men and women created in the image and likeness of God. I once again express the Catholic Church’s repudiation of all oppression and persecution, and of all discrimination against people — from whatever side it may come.”
Pope John Paul acknowledged “the close collaboration between the American Jewish Committee with some of our Catholic agencies in alleviating hunger in Ethiopia and in the Sahel.”
VAGUE STATEMENT ON THE MIDEAST
On the Middle East, the Pope then vaguely said, “I know also of your concern for the peace and security of the Holy Land. May the Lord give to that land, and to all the peoples and nations in that part of the world, the blessings contained in the word ‘shalom.'” He then expressed the hope that “the sons and daughters of Abraham — Jews, Christians and Muslims may live together and prosper in peace.”
Then, in private conversation with the AJC representatives, he spoke concretely of “peace and security for Israel, “but said there were “complexities” that stood in the way presently of establishing diplomatic relations.
In meetings prior to the audience with the Pope, the AJC leaders spoke at great length with Archbishop Achille Silvestrini of the Vatican Secretariat of State and with Jan Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Vatican Secretariat for Religious Relations with Jews, on the importance of “full recognition throughout the civilized world, including the Holy See, of Israel’s sovereign legitimacy as the only means of dispelling the illusion in the Arab world that somehow Israel’s continued existence can be undermined. Nothing would contribute more to peace in that area than the dispelling of that illusion.”