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After Scholars Snafu, Vatican Seeks More Ties to World Jewry

January 8, 2002
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The wartime record of Pope Pius XII, the need to open the Vatican’s secret archives and other unresolved Holocaust issues remain key obstacles in Vatican-Jewish dialogue.

But Jewish and Catholic experts alike say these issues should not hold back a process that otherwise is unfolding in a positive way.

“Jewish-Catholic relations have never been so good,” David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs, told JTA from his Jerusalem office.

“In that context, issues such as Pius XII” should be “seen as what they are, fleeting clouds over a positive horizon,” he said. “Though obviously, for those caught in a thunderstorm under those clouds, the clouds are all they see.”

In recent months, in fact, thunderstorms over Pius XII brought relations between the Vatican and its traditional primary Jewish partner, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations to their lowest point in years.

Pope John Paul II has long planned to beatify Pius XII, a step toward making him a saint. But some Jews accuse Pius of virtual complicity with the Nazi regime because of his public silence in the face of Nazi genocide against the Jews.

A Jewish-Catholic team of scholars set up by the Vatican and IJCIC in 1999 to study the Holocaust role of the Vatican and Pius XII foundered last year amid acrimonious attacks from both sides after the team was denied full access to the Holy See’s wartime archives.

The bitter rupture, writes IJCIC Chairman Seymour Reich in the current issue of Congress Monthly magazine, “threatens to derail the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

“For those of us on both sides who have invested years in an effort to repair the historic breach between the church and the Jewish people the current roadblock to continuing dialogue is disconcerting and disheartening,” he writes.

But Reich, too, recognizes that Jewish-Catholic dialogue is increasingly multifaceted and encompasses a much broader agenda.

“Aside from the issues of Pius XII and the archives, Catholic-Jewish relations are on a high plane,” he told JTA.

“These issues are not going to go away,” he added. “They have to be addressed, but that is not to take away from the need to address positive aspects. Important as these issues are, dialogue cannot be held hostage to them.”

Against this background, the Vatican is actively seeking to develop diversified avenues of contact that, at least on certain matters, may bypass IJCIC, an umbrella body of several Jewish organizations plus religious representatives of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the chief Vatican representative to the Jewish community, “does not see IJCIC as an exclusive partner or as a major partner,” Rosen said. “He recognizes that the Jewish community is diverse and that there needs to be relations with different interests.”

Already, for example, the Vatican has opened an interfaith exploration of theological issues with a new U.S.-based Jewish group set up for this purpose, the Rabbinical Committee for Interreligious Dialogue. The Vatican long has pushed for such contacts, but opposition from IJCIC’s Orthodox members prevents the group from engaging in extensive theological dialogue.

Also, Kasper has let it be known that he will look for other experts to continue the work of the failed scholars committee, without IJCIC’s collaboration. He also made clear he wants to foster closer, direct contacts with Jews in Israel.

“The Vatican wishes to continue dialogue, but Kasper rightly draws the conclusion that the framework is not good. He wants to find a new framework,” an Israeli source said.

“Over the years, official dialogue with IJCIC had mainly become dialogue with American Jews,” he added. “Israelis were part of IJCIC, but their voice was weak. But how valid can such dialogue be if Israeli Jews, who make up 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population, are not involved?”

A German theologian, Kasper was appointed head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews last March, replacing Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who retired after more than a decade in the post.

He laid out his priorities in November in a major policy speech on the “foundations, progress, difficulties and perspectives” of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Some observers said it was significant that he gave the speech during a visit to Jerusalem undertaken at the invitation of the Israeli government and with what one source called “the blessing” of the Chief Rabbinate.

“We may not and we cannot forget the horrors of the Holocaust; we must remember them as a warning for the future,” Kasper said.

But “our dialogue should not be merely past-oriented, but future-oriented,” he added. “Our dialogue should more and more become a contribution for the solution of today’s and tomorrow’s spiritual and ethical problems and challenges.”

In his address, Kasper only mentioned IJCIC once.

But he dwelt at length on Dabru Emet — Speak the Truth — a Jewish theological statement on Christians and Christianity published in September 2000, which senior Catholics have pointed to as a new basis for future discussions.

Formulated by a group of Jewish scholars, Dabru Emet was signed by scores of Jewish scholars and rabbis from all denominations. It lists eight points on which Jews and Christians find common ground and can build further dialogue. It also called on Jews to relinquish their fear and mistrust of Christianity and “learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism.”

In a response to Kasper, Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, called Dabru Emet a “revolutionary statement” that could foster “a new era of reciprocity” in Jewish-Catholic dialogue. This, he said, would inevitably embrace “theological territory.”

“In the past, the dialogue was all too often asymmetrical, based on our very asymmetrical history,” he said.

Reich told JTA that IJCIC “has no problem if the Vatican wants more outlets.”

In fact, he noted, many of the individual groups taking part in other contacts with the Vatican — including Kronish’s Interreligious Coordinating Council and the American Jewish Committee — are members of IJCIC.

“IJCIC is alive and well and engaged in dialogue, not just with the Catholics, but with other denominations,” he said. “The value of IJCIC is that it is a world body,” the “most broadly representative of any group dealing with Jewish interests in this area.”

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