Catholic-jewish Relations (part 1): Church Slow to Convey Teachings of Nostra Aetate to U.S. Catholi
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Catholic-jewish Relations (part 1): Church Slow to Convey Teachings of Nostra Aetate to U.S. Catholi

The reading at the Roman Catholic feast day Mass was to be The Triumph of Cross, which says, “Before Jesus Christ every knee must bend.”

The 220 students of Notre Dame de Sion, a private Catholic girl high school in Kansas City, Mov., were all to attend.

But Kim Miles, the director of religious education at the school, felt that the reading “wouldn’t be good for Judeo-Christian relations,” so she appealed to the priest and the reading was changed to something more innocuous.

Notre Dame de Sion, which was founded by the religious order Sisters of Sion, who devote their work to bettering relations between Christians and Jews, is particularly sensitive to Jewish concerns.

The pupils observe Holocaust memorial day each year, and recently marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht with class discussions. Some also went to local synagogue service, Miles said. Sophomores last year spent two weeks of a world history course learning about the Holocaust. Teachers, during their orientation session before school opens each fall, visit a synagogue and meet with a Jewish educator.

When a synagogue in town was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti was last year, students wrote to the congregation’s members to express their outrage.

Although Notre Dame de Sion is not the only Catholic school to take so seriously the teachings of Nostra Aetate, it is in the distinct minority, say Catholic educators.

Nostra Aetate, a 30-year-old document borne out of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of its relationship to Jews and Judaism.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, Jews have been portrayed in literature and liturgy as the people who rejected Jesus Christ as the Messiah, had him killed and who, in turn, were rejected by God and scattered in a diaspora of punishment.

Jews were associated with the devil himself, according to Catholic teaching.

The charge of decide – reiterated each year in the liturgy of the Catholic Holy Week preceding Easter – fueled pogroms for centuries, during which countless Jews were assaulted, raped and murdered.

Nostra Aetate, whose English title is “Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” was supposed to change all that.

Jews were to be viewed as a people who “remain most dear to God, for God does not repent of gifts God makes nor of the calls God issues,” according to Vatican II.

Much has changed in the last three decades, say both Catholic and Jewish observers, about the way the Roman Catholic Church educates its adherents – some 58 million in the United States and 1 billion around the world.

But the changes in attitude and theology and have not sufficiently reached Catholics in the pews and in their schools, they say.

Although much of the most overt anti-Judaism in Catholic liturgy has been eradicated, Catholics, in the teachings of the church, continue to receive the message that Jews are something “other” than a people blessed by God, say some.

“There is a difference between what they (the church hierarchy) say about a new teaching of Jews and Judaism, and what they do,” said Sister Mary Boys, a nun who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

“It’s a question still of education. The changes have not been implemented at the popular level enough,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and the ADL’s co-liaison to the Vatican.

Before Nostra Aetate, Catholics recited the “Prayer for Perfidious Jews” on Good Friday, praying for their salvation through conversion. The prayer was gradually edited out of the liturgy and today no longer exists in Roman Catholicism.

At the same time, however, many churches and schools put on Passion plays, dramatic re-enactments of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion in which Jews still are sometimes portrayed as informants leading him to death.

And even though a priest sermonizing about the death of Jesus during Holy Week has in front of him guidelines – for the homiletic presentation of Scripture – which indicate that the church no longer blames Jews for the death of Jesus, he rarely reads them out loud, said Sister Rose Thering.

As a result, the post-Nostra Aetate teachings of the church, which qualify and modify the Gospels without changing their text, are not known to the average churchgoer, said Thering, a nun who is the founder of the National Leadership Conference for Israel, a group that advocates Christian support for Israel.

Transmitting the changes in Catholic views of Jews heralded by Nostra Aetate in Catholic schools has been a slow process, particularly when it comes to training teachers and revising texts. Students in Catholic school across the United States often learn about Jews and Judaism from a rabbi who is invited in once or twice a year to talk about the Jewish holidays, the Holocaust or Israel.

The largest Catholic diocese in the country, Los Angeles, now has on its staff a Reform rabbi who teaches in its high schools three days a week about Jewish Scripture, history, culture and morality.

“Many of the students have never met and Jews,” said Rabbi Michael Perelmuter. “They have some of the stereotypes” about Jews because “they’re in the air.”

The schools’ faculty “is mostly very respectful and accepting” of my presence, he said. “I haven’t seen any of them present any of the archaic medieval ideas” about Jews.

The four-year-old program, a joint effort of the archdiocese and the American Jewish Committee, is being funded this year by movie mogul Steven Spielberg.

A similar program will be introduced in New York’s Catholic high schools in September, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at AJCommittee.

However, some schools not frequented by rabbis do pay attention to Judaism.

At Our Lady of the Wayside, a Catholic elementary and middle school in suburban Chicago, pupils get limited exposure to Protestant practices and almost none to Muslim beliefs, but spend much time learning about Jews and Judaism, with a particular focus on holidays, said Principal Peter Tantillo.

“There probably were misconceptions about Jews but just as bad, there was no knowledge of Jews, which means that they would be open to anti-Semitic kinds of things they’d be exposed to and have no way to respond to,” Tantillo said.

Still, only 10 to 20 of the Chicago Archdiocese’s 400 schools have any consistent programming relating to Jews and Judaism, he said.

In an effort to expand knowledge and awareness, Jewish groups are working with Catholic leaders to also teach teachers. The AJCommittee and Los Angeles Archdiocese held a joint one-day conference for Catholic school teachers in November, similar to one conducted last year in New York.

The session came 15 years after the first such conference was held, a joint effort with the Anti-Defamation League and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which attracted about 500 teachers, said Klenicki.

The teachers still meet once a year for a teachers conference, often devoting a section of it to learning about Jews and Judaism, he said.

Several years after that conference, a series of study guides on various aspects of Judaism was produced by the ADL and published by the education department of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Klenicki, who meets with directors of Catholic education in parochial and Sunday schools across the country to help them implement pilot projects, said the Boston Archdiocese is preparing to introduce a program for teaching Judaism.

Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., is the only Catholic-affiliated college offering a master’s degree in Christian-Jewish Studies, said Thering. It also offers scholarships to Catholic educators – 14 are now enrolled – to study Christian-Jewish relations full-time for a semester or year, she said.

In her 1961 study of texts used in Catholic schools, Thering found widespread negative assertions about Jews, mostly about Jewish rejection of Jesus, Jewish murder of Jesus and the Pharisees as blind hypocrites.

One book stated: “Christ, by his miracles and teachings, tried to conquer the obstinacy of the Jews and bring them to repentance. The Jews, on the contrary, by the bad influence of their hypocrisy and pride, hindered the spread of knowledge of God among the nations.”

A 1976 study by Eugene Fisher found that “American Catholic religion materials are significantly more positive towards Judaism than they were before the Vatican Council.”

All references to Jews as a people cursed because of the crucifixion were either absent or condemned, he found. The idea of a divine retribution against Jews for their supposed rejection of Jesus had been expunged from American Catholic textbooks.

But Fisher, who now works as head of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops, also found that there “were almost no references to Jews and Judaism between the close of the New Testament period and the 20th century,” which perhaps reinforced the “idea that Judaism ceased to be vital after the coming of Christ.”

Philip Cunningham, as associate professor of theology at Notre Dame College in Manchester, N.H., found in his 1992 study of Catholic school texts that there has been overall improvement in the presentation of Judaism in primary school texts.

But one area in which Fisher had found improvement 16 years before, Cunningham found the opposite: One series of books used in primary schools states twice that Jerusalem was destroyed because its people “did not believe in the Savior.”

In junior high and high schools texts, Cunningham found that little has been improved since 1976, and in the category of blaming Jews for Jesus’ death, there had been a marked decline.

“Given the history of the decide charge against Jews, this deterioration is quite disturbing,” wrote Cunningham.

“While improvements have occurred” overall, he wrote, “and while the defamatory language revealed in earlier textbook studies has been eliminated, there is still much work to be done.”

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