One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


Two landmark theological documents were issued last week, one by leading Jewish thinkers and one by the Roman Catholic theologian. Besides timing, they couldn’t be more different.

The Jewish statement calls for Jews to re-evaluate their historic negative feelings about Christianity and affirm the shared roots of the two faiths.

The Vatican statement declares the Roman Catholic Church is the only way to salvation, rejecting alternate paths. It advocates missionizing of non-Catholics.

For Jewish interfaith leaders, it’s all very troubling.

Using words like "chilling effect" and "erosion," some Jewish officials interviewed this week said they fear the Vatican declaration and related developments signals a Catholic retreat from historic gains in the relationship made over the last 40 years.

Already the Vatican document, called "Dominus Iesus" and prepared by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church’s top theologian, is overshadowing the Jewish reconciliation statement. The latter was signed by 170 Jewish scholars and leading rabbis from all four major Jewish streams under the aegis of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, a Baltimore-based interfaith group.

Several Jewish leaders told The Jewish Week the eight-point reconciliation statement was ill timed in light of the Vatican statement.

It comes during a fierce battle within the Vatican between fundamentalists and liberals in the twilight of Pope John Paul II’s reign.

The Jewish leaders said it was ironic that the Jewish statement gives some Christian denominations long-sought credit for overturning classic anti-Jewish theology, even as the Vatican appears to be retreating from the accomplishments.

"The timing is unfortunate," declared Seymour Reich, chairman of International Jewish Coalition for Joint Consultations, the traditional primary Jewish dialogue partner with the Vatican.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, called the Jewish statement, which he signed, a document "to build relations, while the other [Vatican statement] is a step backwards that has to be seen with other [problematic] developments in the Church."

"One’s going north, one’s going south," Rabbi James Rudin, senior adviser to the American Jewish Committee, said about the two texts. "It does affect Catholic-Jewish relations. It’s going to have a chilling effect on those priests and others who want to continue all the positive interfaith things. It illustrates how fragile and delicate this all is."

The Vatican text, produced by the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rejects the contention that all religions are equal and declares that salvation for non-Catholics comes only through Jesus and the Church.

But also this week it was learned that Cardinal Ratzinger, a staunch conservative and top aide to Pope John Paul II, in a magazine excerpt of his forthcoming book states that the Church hopes that Jews will embrace Christianity.

Taking Cardinal Ratzinger’s document and upcoming book together, "It’s a serious step backwards," said Rabbi Klenicki, and contradicts conciliatory concepts introduced in 1965 and the last 22 years under John Paul II.

"The document recalls the old expression ‘outside the Church there is no salvation,’ a theological concept that hurt the Jewish people for centuries and justified the Crusades and the teaching of contempt for the Jewish people," Rabbi Klenicki told The Jewish Week. "It requires a clear clarification, otherwise the Christian-Jewish dialogue is only a way for Catholic missionizing."

Reich called Cardinal Ratzinger’s works "an erosion of Nostra Aetate," the 1965 Vatican II Council document abolishing the teaching of contempt of Jews. "I think it’s very troubling," he said, noting the cardinal’s report was issued only a few days after the Vatican beatified the controversial 19th century Pope Pius IX in the last step to sainthood.

Even Rabbi David Sandmel, who helped draft the Jewish statement, said Cardinal Ratzinger’s document "gives me pause."

Dr. Eugene Fisher, an American Catholic spokesman, said he didn’t believe Cardinal Ratzinger’s declaration applied to Jews but to non-Catholic Christian churches.

Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, a leading interfaith expert, said the declaration would not adversely affect the dialogue with Jews.

"I know one of the leading rabbis in our country has said he expects this of us, that we be true to our faith in Jesus," Cardinal Keeler said.

In contrast, the Jewish statement calls for Jews to recognize the common ground shared by both faiths.

The carefully worded document, crafted by top scholars such as Notre Dame University Professor Michael Signer, offers eight points detailing the shared bonds. They include "worshipping the same God," "seeking authority from the same book: the Bible," and accepting the moral principles of the Torah.

One controversial point states that "Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon."

"We believe it’s time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism," states the document, "Dabru Emet," Hebrew for "speak truth."

Among the signatories are Reform’s Hebrew Union College President Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly head Rabbi Joel Meyers, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College leader Rabbi Reena Spicehandler, and Rabbi Ronald Price, dean of the Institute for Traditional Judaism. Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said he would have signed but did not get to it in time. Almost no Orthodox rabbis signed the document; Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Council, was a noteworthy exception.

Rabbi Rudin and others refused to sign, objecting to the Holocaust section. The statement declares that "without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out."

But it also proclaims that "Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. If the Nazi extermination of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians."

Rabbi Rudin said the section was "inadequately written and historically inaccurate."

"It sets up a very dangerous moral equivalency between Jews and Christians as victims," he said. "It also fails to call for Christians to take responsibility to teach future generations what happened in the heart of Christian Europe."