Jewish Visit with Pope Assessed

Jewish figures who met last week outside Rome with Pope John Paul II have come away from their unprecedented dialogue with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church with refurbished hopes for Catholic-Jewish relations. These aspirations are seen now as especially meaningful in light of the meeting which will take place this Friday between the Pontiff and Jewish representatives.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, noted that “Catholic-Jewish dialogue would no longer be limited to the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, but would be elevated to the level of the office of the Vatican Secretary of State and the papal office itself.”

He said that the nine-member delegation had “received the strong impression that the Vatican plans to create a kind of ‘diaspora desk’ that would initiate an ongoing relationship with the Jewish community on non-religious, non-theological matters,” a recognition that “Jews are people not only of faith but also of social concerns and political interests.”

Schindler said this would mean that the Vatican would now heed not only its representatives from 21 Arab countries but Jewish sources as well, “thus reducing the likelihood of a repetition of the (Kurt) Waldheim affair.”

SATISFIED WITH POPE’S PROMISE

Two other Jewish figures who met with the Pope aired their feelings about their meeting Sunday night on WCBS Radio’s “Let’s Find Out.” Speaking with host Art Athens were Rabbi Mark Tanenbaum, international affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, and Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International.

Despite the Pope’s refusal to discuss his reception of Waldheim, the Jewish leaders said they are more than satisfied with the Pope’s promise to prepare a major encyclical dealing with the history of the Catholic Church and anti-Semitism, and the Church’s relation to the Holocaust. Such a document is absolutely unprecedented, said Tanenbaum, who called it an “extraordinary development.”

Reich said that Church authorities responded to the Jewish delegation’s dismay about the Waldheim audience in two different ways, “state and moral.” The state reason given was that “the Holy See is a sovereign state, and as such the Pope is supposed to meet with the heads of other states. We could understand that,” Reich admitted.

However, he continued, they had difficulty with the moral reason: Because Waldheim had not been convicted of a crime, the Vatican was not prepared to pass moral judgment on him until such conviction.

Reich said they shared their concern about that explanation with Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “suggesting that the Pope was a man of moral authority, and not to take the opportunity after the meeting with Waldheim to express concern about his (Waldheim’s) lying about his Nazi past, and to have been elected Secretary General of the United Nations, we found that dismaying.”

THE ISSUE FOR THE DELEGATION

Tanenbaum told the JTA that it was “naive” for the Jewish community to consider their meeting with the Pope a waste if he declined to apologize for his having received Waldheim. “The issue for us was to get across to the Pope and the Vatican the seriousness of the reasons why we were appalled by the audience with Waldheim, that it was not a matter of irrationality or vengeance or simple anger, but that it had very profound consequences, and that receiving Waldheim contradicted much of what this Pope has been saying and doing to improve relations with the Jewish people, and to set forth an understanding of the Nazi Holocaust.”

Tanenbaum said that many Jews find it “ambiguous and difficult” to understand the Vatican’s differentiation between its status as a sovereign state and its religious function. There should be no infallibility attached to Vatican political decisions, he said. “They are as right or as wrong as any state department or foreign ministry makes.” He said, however, that traditional Catholics feel the Pope “has some special status on morals and that he has the absolute right to proclaim faith and morals in an infallible way.”

Tanenbaum said that many Catholics do view what Jews construe as political criticism as being disrespectful of the man they regard “as the Vicar of Christ on earth, almost as a crucifixion.” Every Cardinal and Bishop he had spoken to, he said, told him they had received hundreds of letters and phone calls expressing much anger at the Jews. The Catholic religious leaders said they told their congregants “there are legitimate differences with the Jews, and we feel they are our friends.”

‘A REMARKABLY COHERENT GROUP’

Tanenbaum described the delegation that went to Rome as “a remarkably coherent group with a wonderful sense of unity.” He derided the “noise made by people who have no experience with the Vatican who were making judgments and statements.” He underscored that the criteria for choosing those who would meet with the Pope included a firm grounding in Vatican protocol and substantial prior experience dealing with the Church.

On Israel-Vatican relations, he said they “opened some conversations with the Vatican Secretary of State which we didn’t have before.”

The two meetings, Tanenbaum said, “have to be seen in their entirety. The audience with the Pope alone without what preceded it would have been far less significant substantively in terms of program, decisions. We laid the foundation for a number of fundamental developments on all the crucial issues, and the importance of the Pope in his symbolic role in the Church.”

Tanenbaum said the Pope confirmed and supported the decisions made by the Jewish and Catholic delegates at the prior meeting, and that support “takes on a message that is acceptable to the world’s 852 million Catholics, 52 million of them in America. And that’s the importance of Miami.” Tanenbaum said there had been “some messages in Rome that the Pope’s statement in Miami will contain more than a ceremonial message.”

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