The two American archbishops elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II this week are both considered good friends of the Jewish community.
William Henry Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, is the Vatican’s chief spokesman in the United States and considered by Jews involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue to be an ally with good access at the Vatican.
His promotion to the College of Cardinals will only increase his access and influence in Rome, said sources.
Adam Joseph Maida, the other new cardinal, is the archbishop of Detroit and was centrally involved in the 1991 visit to the United States of the controversial Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland, who met with Jews here in an effort at reconciliation.
In 1989, Glemp gave a homily in Czestochowa, in which he said that Jews control the international media, introduced communism to Poland and got peasants drunk.
Keeler, 63, and Meida, 64, were among 30 new cardinals worldwide appointed by the pope this week.
In addition to being promoted to cardinal, Keeler was this week appointed to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, an umbrella body which includes the Vatican’s Commission for Relations with the Jews.
Keeler is currently president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and formerly chaired the Bishop’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. Before heading the conference, he also served as U.S. Catholics’ episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations.
According to Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Keeler’s elevation to the rank of cardinal “represents the maturing of the church’s relationship with the Jewish community.
“It shows that positive Catholic-Jewish relations is a mainstream, mainline part of the Roman Catholic Church today,” said Rudin. “It shows how important Catholic-Jewish relations are to this pope.”
“It is one of the ironies of Jewish history that a reliable friend that the Jewish people have in the world is the Catholic Church,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, and chair of its interreligious affairs committee.
“Nobody in the Catholic Church is a better friend of the Jewish people than Archbishop Keeler. He’s a mensch,” said Winer, using the Yiddish term for “decent man.”
The Synagogue Council is an umbrella group representing the Reform, Conservative and centrist Orthodox movements in interreligious dialogue.
As an example of Keeler’s deep commitment to relations with Jews, Winer said that Keeler personally stepped in during the last of a long series of crises surrounding the presence of a convent at the Auschwitz death camp.
“The nuns had still not moved and the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was coming. There was the danger of nasty confrontations” between Jewish demonstrators and the nuns, said Winer.
“Archbishop Keeler went the full nine yards as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He sent a letter by diplomatic courier to the pope, making it clear that the problem had to be resolved, which it was.”
The pope, apparently in response, sent a letter to the nuns instructing them to leave the death camp convent.
Keeler also worked to secure backing in the Catholic community for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation considered very important in the Jewish community.
The bill, which Congress passed last year, was designed to ensure that government could not arbitrarily infringe on the religious practice of minority groups.
The church opposed the legislation because Catholic officials feared that a woman could use the law, if passed, as the basis for securing an abortion even if abortion were otherwise outlawed.
Keeler “more than any other churchman heard our concern,” said Winer, “and worked it through his church.”
Keeler and Maida will be installed in the College of Cardinals on Nov. 26.