NEW YORK (Jan. 12)
Leaders of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei are denying charges that their founder, who is scheduled to be beatified in May, was anti-Semitic or ever defended Adolf Hitler.
Jewish groups are appreciative of Opus Dei’s attempt to clarify the issue, if not entirely satisfied with the evidence.
The charges against Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spaniard who founded the group in 1928, were made by the Rev. Vladimir Feltzman and first published in the American weekly magazine Newsweek.
Feltzman, who resigned from Opus Dei in 1985 after 22 years, is now an aide to England’s Catholic primate, Cardinal Basil Hume.
When Escriva is beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 17, it will bring him one step away from canonization, the final stage in being declared a Roman Catholic saint.
Escriva died in 1975 and founded a group of lay people and clergy which critics have described as secretive and elitist.
The group has 75,000 members worldwide, mostly in Spain and Latin America. There are about 3,000 members of the group in the United States.
Newsweek quoted Feltzman as describing Escriva as an arrogant man with a “filthy” temper, who believed that everything he said “came from God.”
Feltzman quoted Escriva as saying: “Hitler had been unjustly accused of killing 6 million Jews. In fact, he had killed only 4 million.”
Feltzman also said that Escriva was so unhappy with the outcome of the Second Vatican Council that he and his successor went to Greece in 1967 to try to ally Opus Dei with the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Second Vatican Council, among other things, fundamentally changed the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people.
‘PROFOUNDLY LOVED THE JEWISH PEOPLE’
Feltzman’s assertions have been firmly denied by the head of Opus Dei, Bishop Alvaro Del Portillo.
In a statement released in Rome last week, Del Portillo said Escriva was “a man who profoundly loved the Jewish people and who always condemned any kind of tyranny.”
Del Portillo went on to say that he contacted the Israeli Embassy and representatives of the Jewish community “to express to them my solidarity as well as my indignation for such lies.
“In this I am simply participating in the sorrow of Monsignor Escriva for the Holocaust suffered by the Jewish people by the work of the criminal Nazi designs.”
In a Jan. 7 letter to the head of Italy’s Jewish community, Tullia Zevi, the vicar general of Opus Dei, Monsignor Javier Echevarria, wrote that the statements attributed to his organization’s founder “are an absolute lie.”
“I can assure you in the most categoric way that our founder loved the Jewish community and expressed this publicly on very many occasions.
“From the very first moments of the persecutions suffered by the Jewish people, and at every occasion when news reached him concerning the shocking details of the tortures that the members of the Jewish community had to suffer on the part of the Nazis, our founder condemned the terrible Holocaust in the clearest terms.
“The members of the Jewish people who belong to the Prelature of Opus Dei can well testify to all that I have myself stated. There are indeed very many people of the Jewish faith who give their cooperation to the work which Opus Dei renders in service of society,” he wrote.
TIME TO OPEN THE ARCHIVES
There are a number of Jews who support Opus Dei financially or by donating their time and talent, according to William Schmitt, a spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States.
They, along with an unknown number of other non-Catholics and non-Christians who support Opus Dei’s work, are called “cooperators.”
Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, has had ongoing contact with Opus Dei for more than a decade.
Klenicki said he has “never discovered any anti-Semitic reference in any of Opus Dei’s writings here in the U.S. or abroad. On the contrary,” he said, “I have heard their great admiration for the State of Israel.”
“We appreciate their quick and public repudiation of the charges, and we hope to learn more about the substantive nature of these statements,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
The WJC’s president, Edgar Bronfman, is chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which officially represents world Jewry in dealings with the Vatican.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said that whatever the reality of Escriva’s feelings about Jews and Hitler, the questions that have been raised about him underline the need for the Vatican to make available to Catholic and Jewish scholars the church’s records from the war period.
“It’s been 53 years now since the start of the Holocaust,” Rudin said. “The longer these archives are closed, and we get these denials (about what people really said), the more the quest for truth is really going to be stymied, and the more problematic Catholic-Jewish relations will be.
“The church owes it to its own integrity that all historic materials on the person who’s going to be beatified on May 17 be made public,” he said. “Both sides need it now more than ever.”