NEW YORK (Jun. 24)
American Jewish groups were heartened this week by the concurrent dismay of Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. over the audience Pope John Paul II will grant Austrian President Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican Thursday.
They were especially gratified by the statement of Archbishop John May of St. Louis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, that he sympathized with Jewish concerns and agreed with their urgent call for a "further dialogue" with the Pope on the issue.
"We particularly appreciate his sensitive comments about the importance of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue and friendship that has been achieved in this country," Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said Tuesday. "We fully agree with him about the need to protect this achievement from the unhappy fall-out from the decision of the Vatican to grant an audience to Kurt Waldheim."
Gunther Lawrence, a spokesman for the Synagogue Council of America, an organization of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, said: "We think the bishops are saying they understand the hurt of the Jewish community. We think it was highly commendable for the bishops to take the time and effort to speak out."
Msgr. Peter Finn, a spokesman for John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, said O’Connor concurred with the statement by the Conference of Catholic Bishops. But he thought the bishops’ role should be that of advisors and it was up to the Pope to decide whether there should be a further meeting.
PROTESTANTS MAKE STATEMENT
Eight Protestant churchmen, representing different denominations at leading American universities, signed a statement protesting the Pope’s invitation to Waldheim. They agreed it "is primarily a Roman Catholic problem," but "as Protestants we want to make our distress known. The invitation disgraces the memory of Christian martyrs who opposed Nazi idolatry. The invitation dishonors the memory of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The wounds of the Lord’s people cannot be sealed so lightly," the statement said, quoting Jeremiah 6:14.
The signatories are the Rev. Doctors Franklin Littell, United Methodist Church, Temple University; William Harter, United Presbyterian Church, Chambersburgh, Pa.; Hubert Locke, The Christian Churches, University of Washington; David Lewis, Assemblies of God, Springfield, Mo.; A. Roy Eckardt, United Methodist Church, Leheigh University; James Wood Jr., Southern Baptist Convention, Baylor University; George Williams, United Church of Christ, Harvard University; and F. Burton Nelson, Evangelical Covenant Church, North Park Theological Seminary.
Three Catholic women leaders noted in a statement that the Pope’s decision to grant an audience to Waldheim "has been interpreted by some as a papal gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a dangerous interpretation and reason enough to dispute this ill-advised visit," they said.
It continued: "Society must judge Waldheim’s deeds. But who on earth can forgive him? Surely such absolution ultimately lies in the hands of his victims, Jewish and non-Jewish…Whatever the Pope’s motives were in agreeing to such a meeting, a public appearance together at an official audience appears as absolving Kurt Waldheim from the consequences of his actions…It can easily and unfortunately be interpreted as part of the pattern of the Church denying the consequences which its own long history of anti-Semitism have had for the Jewish people."
The statement was signed by Doctors Eva Fleischner, a member of the Advisory Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Bishops; Sister Mary Jo Leddy, founding editor of The Catholic New Times of Toronto; and Sister Carol Rittner, director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in New York.
Catholic members of the Christian Study Group on Judaism and the Jewish People noted that Waldheim has been implicated in the execution of Serbian Christians and the deportation and execution of Jews in Greece and Yugoslavia.
"We understand that receiving heads of state does not imply Vatican approbation of those leaders’ actions, either past or present," their statement said, recalling that the Pope has received military dictators such as Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. "Nonetheless, the particularity of the Holocaust places in question the appropriateness of such a visit between the Pope and Mr. Waldheim."
The statement added, "As Roman Catholic scholars…we join our National Conference of Catholic Bishops in supporting the request by Jewish leaders that, prior to the Pope’s September visit to the United States, there must be a substantive meeting between John Paul II and American Jewish leaders to clarify this and other issues regarding Jewish-Catholic relations."
The statement was signed by Sister Celia Deutsch, Sisters of Sion; the Rev. Edward Flannery, Diocese of Providence, RI; Dr. Eva Fleischner, Montelair State College, and the Rev. John Pawlikowski, Catholic Theological Union.