NEW YORK (Jul. 14)
A meeting last Thursday between Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and U.S. Catholic and Jewish officials, described by one participant as a “no-holds-barred” exchange, focussed on rising tensions between Catholics and Jews in the wake of the Pope’s recent granting of an audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who is accused of Nazi war crimes.
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee and one of the four Jewish participants in the meeting, said he and others also expressed concern about the Pope’s attitude toward the Nazi Holocaust and anti-Semitism and had discussed the steps necessary to improve Catholic-Jewish relations.
Archbishop John May, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of the meeting: “Among other things, we shared with his Eminence our assessment of Catholic-Jewish relations in the United States, especially as they have been impacted by recent controversies and allegations that the Catholic Church is insensitive to the Holocaust.”
Casaroli, second in command at the Vatican, met with the U.S. religious leaders at the home here of Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations. Casaroli agreed to the unscheduled meeting while he was on unofficial business in New York.
The controversy heated up last month when Pope John Paul II granted an audience to Waldheim in the face of adamant Jewish opposition. The Pope characterized Waldheim, a former two term UN secretary general, as a great international servant who has advanced world peace.
But Jewish groups were angered that the Pope neglected to mention Waldheim’s Nazi past or the six million Jews and millions of others who perished under the Nazi regime that Waldheim served as an intelligence officer in the Balkans.
‘HIJACKED’ THE VATICAN
“What is troubling is his attitude on receiving Waldheim,” Tanenbaum said. “He has allowed Waldheim to hijack the Pope and the Vatican for his own purposes. Waldheim called the Pope ‘the conscience of mankind’ and it follows that Waldheim is absolved in the conscience of mankind.”
Tanenbaum said the Pope has sent a mixed message on the Holocaust, at times speaking “movingly and sympathetically about the unique suffering of the Jewish people.” At other times, Tanenbaum said, it was “as if he was revising that history.”
Tanenbaum added: “We told them how real this problem is. It is not a problem that is going to be dealt with in cosmetic or quick-fix public relations terms or by symbolic gestures.” American Catholics have said openly the Papal meeting was unfortunate. Tanenbaum said he received “hundreds of statements, letters and calls from American Catholic bishops, nuns and priests saying it was a grave mistake.”
The four Jewish leaders who attended the meeting are members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations: Tanenbaum; Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, Committee chairman and president of the Synagogue Council of America (SCA); Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, past president of the Rabbinical Council of American; and Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. The Catholic Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor, also attended.
Tanenbaum said he will travel to the Vatican July 19 to continue the dialogue he began last week with Vatican officials.
In response to the Pope’s meeting with Waldheim, at least two American Jewish organizations — the American Jewish Congress and SCA–have decided to boycott a meeting with the Pope scheduled for September 11 in Miami. Other Jewish organizations scheduled to attend — the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency they are reconsidering. The groups are waiting for a clear signal from the Vatican that it is responsive to Jewish concerns, according to Tanenbaum.