WASHINGTON — Last month, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the order of excommunication of four bishops associated with the priestly Society of Saint Pius X. One of those bishops, Richard Williamson, is a known Holocaust denier. After two weeks of intense Jewish and non-Jewish "shock and dismay," the Vatican last week ordered Williamson to recant his Holocaust denial.
This crisis follows Pope Benedict’s 2008 decision to replace the text of a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews with a new one to be said during the Easter vigil services, and the apparently continuing plans of the Vatican to canonize Pope Pius XII whom many (Jews and non-Jews) consider to have a less than heroic record during World War II.
What are we to make of these Vatican decisions?
At a certain level, the Vatican is clearly driven by items on the Catholic Church’s internal agenda. One of those is a concern for unity among Catholics. Another is the language and ritual of the Catholic Mass. These are issues to which we Jews must of necessity be strangers. Our proper concern is that these changes convey at least an implicit message that the Vatican may be rethinking the Catholic Church’s theology toward the Jews. This is a real issue, and the Vatican handled it badly.
Vatican officials could have reduced much of the controversy by announcing these decisions in their proper theological and cultural context in advance. They tried to do this "after the fact" with the Good Friday prayer, pointing out that they understand the prayer for conversion as a prayer for how the world would look at the end of days — not too different from our own Aleinu prayer.
Indeed, offering Jews an accurate "primer" on what it means to be a member of the Catholic Church, to be allowed to take communion and what exactly the disputed Good Friday prayer says regarding conversion, might have gone far to assuage Jewish concerns. As with his September 2006 Regensberg speech taking on Islam, it is (in the Economist’s insightful words) "not just the things that Benedict does, but the way he does them."
There is, happily, no evidence that the Vatican is in any way interested in reversing the progress it has made in its ties with the Jewish community. Indeed, shortly after the Williamson decision, Pope Benedict condemned Holocaust denial and expressed his solidarity with the Jewish people. Of course, it is possible that the Vatican never really understood how strong the effect of the resurrection of the Good Friday prayer or the reinstatement of Richard Williamson would have on the Jewish community.
It is also possible that the Vatican may not fully understand the impact that the canonization of Pope Pius XII will have on Jewish-Catholic relations (i.e., blame it on bad staff work). But the argument that "we did not realize how strongly you feel" goes only so far. Rather, it appears that the Vatican is prepared to focus on its own needs without taking Jewish community reaction into account.
So what is the Jewish community to do?
For one, it is time to get away from the notion that the only way we display our displeasure is by boycott — or talk of boycott. Therefore, it is good that American Jewish leaders traveled to Rome last week to meet with the pope.
In an era of increasing anti-Semitism, it certainly does not help us for Italian rabbis to refuse to meet with Italian clerics, for the German Jewish community to cut off all contact with the Vatican or for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to cancel its yearly joint meeting with Vatican officials (now apparently back on track).
Rather, our real communal worry should be whether these announcements presage a cutting back or limiting of Vatican II — the 1965 meeting of the world’s bishops that transformed the church’s theological attitude toward Judaism. Vatican II dealt with a wide range of topics including issues of centralized hierarchy, the role of laity, ecumenism within Christianity, the liturgy and (most important for us) the inalienable dignity of the person.
The transformation of the church’s approach to the Jewish people was only a small part of this mix. Clearly the present pope is not happy with certain interpretations of Vatican II, and the logic of recent Vatican pronouncements suggests that the reach of Vatican II may well be narrowed if not eviscerated.
What is imperative is that Jewish groups ensure that any reinterpretation or narrowing of Vatican II does not adversely affect the transformative advances that have been made on Catholic-Jewish relations. It is hard to do this when you cut off dialogue with the Vatican.
At the same time, given the tortured and largely lachrymose history of church and synagogue, it is incumbent on Vatican officials to be attentive to Jewish "red lines" as they go about what is surely their internal business. And it is incumbent on the Jewish community to separate out internal church issues from those that actually affect us. We cannot expect a serious relationship with the Vatican solely on our own terms, just as it cannot expect a fulfilling one without an attentiveness to Jewish sensibilities.
(Marshall J. Breger is a professor of law at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. This article first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.)