Effort to Make Isabella a Saint Could Strain Catholic-jewish Ties
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Effort to Make Isabella a Saint Could Strain Catholic-jewish Ties

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A campaign by the Spanish Catholic Church to bestow sainthood on Queen Isabella I of Spain could cause a dangerous breach in Catholic-Jewish relations, according to Jewish and Catholic leaders.

"It is potentially divisive issue, and has enormous international implications," warned Rabbi A. James Rudin, American Jewish Committee’s national director for interreligious affairs.

Rudin is chairman of a panel investigating the issue that was set up by IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which represents world Jewry in contacts with the Vatican.

Isabella has been nominated for veneration, the first step toward sainthood, by conservative elements within the Spanish Catholic Church.

She is remembered as a despot by both Jews and Moslems, who suffered torture, forced conversion and expulsion under her reign from 1474-1504.

Her veneration "would be a disaster for dialogue," admitted Dr. Eugene Fisher, director for Catholic-Jewish relations at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organization which represents 350 bishops in the United States.

"No matter what one can say about her personally, the symbolic meaning of her reign as queen was the expulsion of the Jews, and that symbolism is too massive in Jewish history" for it to do anything but "an incredible amount of damage," Fisher said.


Isabella’s nomination has prompted an outcry from Jewish leaders and organizations around the world, among them the World Jewish Congress, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the British Council of Christians and Jews and B’nai Brith Canada.

"It is outrageous and obscene, because that lady, under any set of rules, does not deserve sainthood," declared Andre Sassoon, vice president of the International Jewish Committee for Sepharad ’92 and the international secretary for the World Sephardi Federation.

The Spanish Church officials who are promoting her cause hope to have her approved by the Vatican by 1992, when the church will celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the Americas.

Christianity was brought to the "New World" by Christopher Columbus, whose voyage was financed by Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, in 1492.

But 1992 is an important anniversary to Jews, especially Sephardic Jews, for another reason: It marks the quincentennial of the edict, signed by Isabella and Ferdinand, ordering Jews to convert to Christianity or be forcibly expelled.

Spain’s current monarch, Juan Carlos, will formally revoke the expulsion edict on March 31, 1992, exactly 500 years after it was issued. Sephardic Jews around the world will use the occasion to celebrate the rich cultural heritage bestowed by the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, which ended with the decree.

The petition on behalf of Isabella may have been submitted to the Vatican at least seven years ago, according to Fisher.

It is not known exactly how long her case has been before the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which considers nominations, because of the secrecy cloaking the process.

"There are hundreds of causes of saints sitting in the Vatican," Fisher said. "Some of them stay there for centuries and never get moved forward. Isabella’s could have been sitting there for a long time."


Rev. Anastasius Gutierrez, representing the Spanish Archdiocese of Valladolid, near the site of Isabella’s death in 1504, is serving as postulator, arguing her case before the Vatican Congregation. It is up that body to decide whether there is enough evidence of extraordinary virtue in her life to pass her case on to the cardinals of the congregation, and then to the pope.

Isabella’s nomination is being pushed by conservative elements within the Spanish Catholic Church who oppose some of the liberal steps recently taken by the Spanish government, according to Rudin of AJCommittee.

The socialist Spanish government established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1986 and last February extended the same legal status enjoyed by Roman Catholics to Jews and Protestants.

Those steps and the "mea culpa" Spain is offering, with Juan Carlos’ revocation of the expulsion edict, send a positive message that is negated by the effort to beatify Isabella, Rudin said.

If Isabella were to be honored in this way by the church, say Jewish leaders, it would send a mixed message to world Jewry at a time when the Vatican’s relationship with Jews is enjoying renewed strength after three years of distance.

That chill began in 1987, after a Carmelite convent was established on the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp, and Pope John Paul II met with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi who served in a German army unit linked to wartime atrocities.

At a Dec. 6 meeting with Jewish leaders, the pope voiced his unequivocal support of a declaration issued three months earlier in Prague that called anti-Semitism a "sin against God."

December’s meeting was a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Vatican decree that redefined Catholic-Jewish relations and opened the way for dialogue.


Isabella’s is not the first case for beatification or canonization to be opposed by Jews.

Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Carmelite nun who was taken from her convent in the Netherlands in August 1942, and murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz several days later, was beatified on May 1, 1987, despite objections from world Jewry.

Jewish groups opposed her beatification as a Catholic martyr because she was killed "not because she was a nun or a Catholic, but because she was born a Jew," according to Rudin.

The 1982 canonization of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest killed by the Nazis, was also protested by Jewish groups, who said he espoused anti-Semitic views in the 1920s and 1930s.

"The Jewish community shouldn’t be caught napping this time, as we were during the period of beatification for Edith Stein," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. "We were derelict while that 20-year process was under way."

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