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Criticism of Pope Could Trigger Catholic Backlash, Cardinal Warns

May 21, 1990
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Frequent and strident criticism of Pope John Paul II by Jews might result in an anti-Jewish backlash in the Catholic community, the archbishop of New York warned a Jewish audience here last week.

“You must understand the backlash if the pope is attacked and attacked and attacked,” Cardinal John O’Connor said in a May 17 address at the 84th annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee.

“Catholics, even many who are dissident to a degree, have a deep-rooted fealty to the pope, as you have to Jewishness and to Israel,” he explained.

“If I seem to attack Israel, instantly I am attacked by many because of the deep, deep loyalties. That’s a two-way street. That’s the way we are about the pope,” the prominent Catholic prelate said.

O’Connor attended the dinner to receive AJCommittee’s Isaiah Interreligious Award for his work in Catholic-Jewish relations.

The award was presented to him less than a week after he sharply attacked the Israeli government in a newspaper column for helping a group of Orthodox Jews acquire a Greek Orthodox Church building in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The cardinal called the move into the building during Easter week “obscene” and said the Israeli government’s financing of the project was “reprehensible.”

His column, published May 11 in the weekly Catholic New York, was criticized by American Jewish leaders and by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who wrote O’Connor a letter saying he was “deeply and personally offended.”


O’Connor told reporters at the AJCommittee dinner that he did not regret using the word “obscene.”

“That act, in that context, at that time of year was perceived by the whole gamut of the Christian community as obscene,” he said.

When asked about Kollek’s letter, O’Connor said that he and the Jerusalem mayor “have a good understanding and friendship that will transcend any difficulty.”

He also told reporters he believed that he had been accurate in describing a “perception” that there was a “conspiracy” against the Christian community in Israel.

In his speech, O’Connor warned that “what is perceived about us can be even more important than the reality. It is perception that leads to so many grave errors, so much malicious and vicious action.”

The Catholic leader received applause when he told those assembled that it was his opinion that the Vatican has displayed “a sympathetic move toward a hastening of the day that there will be a formal diplomatic recognition of Israel.”

During the dinner, AJCommittee also presented its highest award, the American Liberties Medallion, to Vaclav Havel, the onetime dissident playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia, now known officially as the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.

Accepting on his behalf was Prague’s ambassador to the United Nations.

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