Exchange of Letters Paves the Way for Historic Vatican Meeting
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Exchange of Letters Paves the Way for Historic Vatican Meeting

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The opposing perspectives of prominent American Jews and Vatican officials on common problems emerge in an exchange of letters that paved the way for a Jewish delegation’s meeting at the Vatican which begins Monday.

The correspondence between Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Judaism, and Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) began on June 22, three days before the Pope granted an audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes. Copies of the correspondence were obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Waxman sent Willebrands a telegram on behalf of IJCIC, the Vatican’s official Jewish partner in dialogue which includes five Jewish organizations. The telegram expressed “deep concern and disappointment that this meeting with an accused Nazi war criminal is taking place at all.”

Waxman pointed out that the lack of “preliminary discussion of a potentially troubling problem” was a blow to the “underlying principles of dialogue.”

The “breakdown in communications” was a consequence of not addressing political issues regularly … Religious and political issues are profoundly interwoven, and cannot be compartmentalized as if unrelated,” Waxman said.

“You are surely aware that the Vatican’s failure to establish full and formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel and also to come to face the realities of the extermination of the Jewish people in Christian lands is considered in the Jewish community as a great injustice. Only a truly meaningful and momentus gesture toward the Jewish people by the Vatican might help to advance Catholic-Jewish relations,” Waxman concluded.


Willebrands telexed a long, cordial reply on June 30 in which he essentially defined the Vatican’s terms for dialogue. The Vatican “is concerned with the field of religious relations between the Church and the Jewish people,” the Cardinal wrote. “As such it should be continued, deepened and extended.”

In response to Waxman’s criticisms of the Waldheim visit, Willebrands said, “Regarding the lack of preliminary consultations … neither the commission … nor the (liaison) committee for dialogue have ever been mandated to discuss or handle political affairs such as inter-state relations.

“We cannot fill in the absence of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See or take over this function.”

The Cardinal’s letter also contained a lesson on Vatican ideology. In reply to Waxman’s contention that “religious and political issues are profoundly interwoven,” Willebrands said, “Politics, to which belong also diplomatic activities, have their own principles, laws and customs. They are, of course, submitted to moral criteria. Nevertheless, political science and moral philosophy are different disciplines.”

Willebrands also addressed Waxman’s statement that the welcome of “an unrepentant Nazi . .is particularly offensive (because) sufficient evidence of his involvement in Nazi atrocities put him last April on a ‘Watch List’.”

The Cardinal replied there was still “no proof” and added that Waldheim had “held delicate and highly responsible functions in the service of the United Nations and has never been formally accused or convicted.” Waldheim, he added, “has the right to be treated with full consideration for his human rights and his official position.”

Willebrands provided another glimpse of Vatican policy saying, “Waldheim’s visit regards not the person but the State which he represents.”


But the tone of the correspondence changed from defensive to conciliatory when Willebrands addressed Waxman’s statement that “what is happening this week (Waldheim audience) is a terrible blow to the future of Vatican-Jewish relations.”

Willebrands replied, “Things that happened in a history of centuries, and especially the Shoah, can explain all this to a great extent. We have a great task and responsibility towards each other to overcome and to heal wounds mutually inflicted and to build new relations of confidence, peace and love.”

The healing of “wounds mutually inflicted” apparently was an oblique reply to Waxman’s statement that the Church must face the “realities of the extermination of Jewish people in Christian lands.”

The exchange illustrates the importance which both the Vatican and Jewish leaders place on reconciliation before the Pope’s scheduled encounter with some 200 U.S. Jewish leaders in Miami Sept. 11.

In the months following the correspondence, the upcoming meeting of an IJCIC delegation with the Pope and Vatican officials crystallized through open and lively dialogue culminating in the meeting between Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and IJCIC leadership in New York. These events paved the way for the historic meeting between the IJCIC delegation and Pope John Paul II set for Tuesday, Sept. 1.

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