Two new appointments at the top of the American Catholic hierarchy bode well for the continuation of positive Catholic-Jewish relations, say observers of the interreligious affairs scene.
The archbishop of Baltimore, William Keeler, was elected recently to a three- year term as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. And Cardinal John O’Connor was appointed to head Catholic-Jewish relations for the conference’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
O’Connor, who is the archbishop of New York, takes over the position from Keeler, who has served in the position since 1988. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee is chairman of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee.
Both Keeler and O’Connor are regarded as friends of the Jewish community when it comes to interreligious dialogue. Their appointment to such prestigious and powerful posts is considered validation of the Jewish community’s importance to the Catholic Church, say observers.
“O’Connor is the single most powerful Catholic in the U.S.,” observed Rabbi Mark Winer, who is co-chair for interfaith concerns at the Synagogue Council of America. The Synagogue Council is the American secretariat of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which is world Jewry’s official dialogue partner with the Vatican.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, a think tank at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was also pleased with O’Connor’s appointment.
“No other person could have been designated to shepherd Catholic-Jewish relations in this country who is as well qualified, committed to Catholic- Jewish understanding and fully cognizant of Jewish concerns, especially for Israel, as Cardinal O’Connor,” said Bemporad. “He is a good friend to us all.”
Keeler’s appointment to the most senior position in the American Catholic hierarchy was also welcomed heartily by Jewish interreligious affairs experts.
“That Keeler, who is really known for Catholic-Jewish dialogue, was appointed to this position is really positive because it puts the dialogue on the front burner,” said Winer.
Keeler was instrumental in drafting the September 1991 Prague Declaration, a statement signed by Catholics and Jews in which the Catholic Church asked forgiveness for whatever acts of ant-Semitism it may have committed against the Jewish people.
The appointments “are things the Jewish world should be happy about,” said Winer, “because it represents how close relations are with the Catholic world and shows that the church body we’ve had the most trouble with historically has come the furthest.”