NEW YORK (JTA) – A measure intended to promote greater unity within the
Roman Catholic Church by increasing the use of the Latin Mass is sparking confusion
and controversy among Jewish groups as they scramble to understand the full
extent of the decision.
On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI issued a Motu Proprio,
literally a declaration in the pope’s own name, authorizing wider use of the
Latin Mass, an older form of Catholic worship that includes a prayer read only
on Good Friday for the conversion of the Jews. The pope removed a rule that
had required a bishop’s permission before the mass could be used. Now, the
liturgy can be used on the authority of an individual parish priest.
Reaction in the Jewish world was divided between those
warning of possible setbacks in Jewish-Catholic relations and others saying
clarification was needed from the Vatican before judging the pope’s
Leading the charge of those voicing alarm was the Anti-Defamation
League, which even before the pope’s decision had been made public, issued a statement
calling it a “body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations.”
The main question for Jewish organizations is whether the
pope intends to permit churches to recite the conversion prayer on Good Friday.
Allowing the prayer to be read, Jewish communal officials said, would appear to
run counter to the spirit of Nostra Aetate, the landmark 1965 Vatican
declaration, and subsequent reforms that absolved Jews of responsibility for
the killing of Jesus and laid the groundwork for four decades of
improved Catholic-Jewish relations.
In particular, Jewish groups say that a prayer to
convert the Jews would undermine previous steps taken by the church recognizing
the validity of Judaism.
According to a Vatican translation of the pope’s decree,
masses celebrated “without the people” – that is, when priests
celebrate mass on their own – may be used at any time except for the three
days prior to Easter, including Good Friday. No similar restriction is placed
on the use of masses celebrated “in the presence of the people.”
Some Jewish groups took a more cautious approach than the ADL, as they sought
to gain a clearer understanding of the pope’s decision. In a letter to the
Vatican’s point man on Jewish relations, Walter Cardinal Kasper, the
International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations sought
clarification of the pope’s ruling that the older liturgy not be used in the
days leading up to Easter.
The letter, signed by Rabbis David Rosen and Richard Marker
and Seymour Reich, noted that the pope’s commitment to the Catholic-Jewish
relationship would seem to preclude the use of the Good Friday prayer, but
seeks confirmation that this is indeed the case.
“We appreciate that limitation has been made on the use of this liturgy
leading up to Easter, but it is not clear as to whether or not this is
general,” the letter stated.
Vatican observers broadly agree that reinstating the prayer for Jewish
conversion is incidental to the pope’s larger goal, which the pontiff himself
said was to come “to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the
church.” The Latin Mass is seen as possessing a certain spiritual grandeur
that some Catholics – even those who accept the wider reforms that did away
with the mass – have an emotional attachment to.
“It comes from an acknowledgment on the part of the Holy Father, Pope
Benedict, that there were many Catholics that had a difficult time in the
transition,” said Father James Massa, executive director of the
Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops. “They had a difficult time in transitioning to the new
mass. What they were attached to was the beauty, the solemnity, the majesty of
the older form of Catholic worship.”
The problem, some Jewish observers said, is that on the surface it would seem that
the Good Friday prayer runs counter to Nostra Aetate and other reforms.
“It is as if the document Nostra Aetate had never been promulgated and
placed in the body of official Catholic teaching,” said Rabbi Gerald
Meister, an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Christian affairs.
Though praying for the conversion of the Jews represents “a rather
primitive form of spiritual anti-Semitism,” Meister said, he added that he doubts that
the prayer will be found in widespread use on Good Friday.
“If not, we will have to examine this further,” Meister said.
“I’m not going to the barricades right now.”
For their part, the bishops conference maintains that Nostra Aetate remains in
force as the focal point for relations with the Jews. As to how the church
reconciles the seeming contradiction, Massa told JTA that alternative
understandings of the liturgy would likely be forthcoming from Catholic
“I think this document is going to be interpreted over the next few
weeks,” Massa said. “I think we do owe an explanation as to what
the Motu Proprio implies about the use of the 1962 Missal with respect to the
Good Friday liturgy.”
Massa stressed that concern for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations are
unfounded. “I firmly believe that our relationships with our Jewish
partners are deep and abiding,” he said. “I think we will be able to
weather the tensions that might arise from certain understandings of the Motu Proprio.”
The criticism of the Vatican by the ADL and its national
director, Abraham Foxman, was assailed by conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan.
In an article published Tuesday on the conservative Web site Human Events,
Buchanan challenged the ADL’s claim that it was “hurtful and
insulting” for Catholics to pray for the conversion of Jews.
“What is Abe talking about?” wrote Buchanan, an erstwhile
presidential candidate. He argued that it would be anti-Semitic not to pray for
Jewish conversion if one truly believed that Jesus was the only path to heaven.
“Indeed, if one believes, as devout Catholics do, that Christ and his
Church hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” Buchanan said, “it
would be anti-Semitic not to pray for the conversation of the Jews. Even