NEW YORK (JTA) – With anti-Semitism resurgent in the world, one of the encouraging elements
for the Jewish people, particularly if one is to compare things today to the
1930s and 1940s, is the remarkable change in the Catholic Church’s attitudes
In the past four decades, a conceptual revolution has taken place in the
church’s relationship with the Jewish people. The first step came with Vatican
II and its landmark document Nostra Aetate in 1965, which repudiated the
centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressed the
religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant
between God and the People of Israel, and dismissed church interest in trying
to baptize Jews.
This theological revolution then moved forward dramatically
through the papacy of Pope John Paul II. Further documents rejected
anti-Semitism and the destructive doctrine of supersessionism – the notion that
Christianity supersedes Judaism as the true religion – and the Vatican decided
to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.
[photo foxman1 align=left] In short, during the past four decades, the church has made great strides in
reversing a 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism.
That is why the decision by the Vatican to restore a wider use of the Latin
Mass with the inclusion of the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the
name of taking them out of the darkness is so disturbing. I was in Rome in the
days leading up to the announcement of the revival of the Latin Mass containing
the conversion prayer, and quickly made my strong objections known in meetings
with Vatican officials.
It is not merely that such a conversion call and condescending references
conjure up the great suffering and pain imposed on the Jews by the church
through the centuries, though that is surely reason enough to be upset. And it
is not merely that the tone of this prayer runs counter to the new relationship
and language fostered by the Vatican for decades to change Catholic attitudes
toward Jews – though that, too, would be reason enough for anger.
The main reason to be disturbed by the return of this Vatican-sanctioned
prayer is that it threatens to undermine the conceptual underpinnings of so
much that has happened over 40 years – Pope John Paul II’s eloquently
expressed statement that Judaism is “the elder brother” of
Christianity; that it has a legitimacy and validity of its own; that it has an
unbroken covenant with God. It is this conceptual breakthrough – one that has
provided the framework for all the specific, positive steps to emerge – that is
now being challenged.
What is the right approach to dealing with this concern? It surely should
not lead to buying into the notion that this is the same old church, so what do
Of course, the implementation and filtering down to the pews of
the Vatican II changes and subsequent reforms have been uneven and require much
hard work and good will. Recent polls of attitudes toward Jews in five
European countries and the extreme level of anti-Semitism found in two of them
– Poland and Spain – can surely be attributed to the survival of old church
prejudices and teachings. We know this to be true of Latin America, as
Yet in many places, particularly in the United States, students in Catholic schools are being exposed to positive views about Jews. Most important the
Vatican, a hierarchical system, had put in play a conceptual basis for change
on the ground wherever the church was present. In the United States,
Catholic-Jewish relations are strong – a testament to the variety of interfaith
programs involving students, lay teachers, priests and nuns.
So, to be clear, the Vatican is not an enemy of the Jewish people, nor is
Pope Benedict XVI.
Rather, the current controversy speaks to the need for direct and honest
communication based on the friendly relations that have evolved. The church
must be true to itself and its teachings, and it must understand that
reintroducing this prayer – it was removed by Paul VI in 1970 and replaced
with a positive one recognizing the Jews’ eternal covenant with God – will play
into the hands of those who are against better relations between Jews and
The wider use of the Latin Mass will make it more difficult to implement the doctrines of
Vatican II and Pope John Paul II, and could even set in motion retrograde forces
within the church on the subject of the Jews, none of which are in the interest
of either the church or the Jewish people.
What is important now is for good people within and outside the church to
stand up and make these concerns heard. Much is at stake: for the
progress already made, for the implementation of Vatican II and the legacy of
John Paul II, for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, and for the
rejection of anti-Semitism and recognition of the legitimacy of Judaism.
It is our hope that the decision is not one written in stone and that
Catholics and Jews of good will can work together to persuade the Holy See
to re-examine its decision.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and
author of the book “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and
the Myth of Jewish Control,” to be published in September by Palgrave