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Jews Welcome Vatican Body’s Stand Against Beatification of Isabella

March 22, 1991
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A potentially serious rift in Catholic-Jewish relations has been averted as a result of a Vatican panel’s decision to recommend against beatifying Queen Isabella I of Spain.

The 40 bishops on the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity unanimously passed a resolution which reportedly states that the proposed beatification of Isabella contradicts current church positions on the freedom of conscience.

The resolution, which was not made public, also reportedly concludes there is no evidence that Isabella fulfills the requirements for sainthood, which include proof that the candidate performed at least two miracles during her lifetime.

It also suggests her beatification would work against the Vatican’s interest in promoting 1992 as the 500th anniversary of the advent of Christianity in the “new world,” rather than as the dark close to the golden age of Spanish Jewry.

Isabella is viewed as a despot by both Jews and Moslems, who were subjected to torture, forced conversion and expulsion during her reign from 1474-1504.

Under her leadership, the Inquisition was established in all of Spain. In 1492, Jews were required to convert to Christianity or leave Castile and Aragon. In 1502, Moslems were forced to make the same choice.

The resolution recommending against beatification was presented to Pope John Paul II.

Though the Pontifical Council has no formal jurisdiction over the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which oversees the actual process of making saints, several bishops participate in both groups.

The resolution carries great “moral weight,” according to one Catholic theologian.

“Though it doesn’t officially kill the effort, most people consider it a dead case now,” said the Rev. John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.


Several senior American Catholic officials agreed that the beatification of Isabella is now a dead issue. They said a statement may be issued by the Vatican confirming that her cause has been “postponed indefinitely,” which, in the language of the church, would mean that her case is no longer being considered.

A significant factor in the Pontifical Council’s decision was said to be the outcry from Catholic, Jewish and Moslem groups around the world once news of Isabella’s proposed beatification spread.

Jewish and Catholic leaders from Chicago sent a joint letter to Cardinal Angelo Felici of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, urging him to “put this proposal to rest in light of the significant damage it would do to contemporary interreligious relations.”

Nineteen religious and community leaders signed the letter, including Rev. Daniel Montalbano, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Archdiocese of Chicago; Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union; Michael Kotzin, director of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council; and Maynard Wishner, chair of the Chicago JCRC.

According to Wishner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, a member of the Pontifical Council, introduced the resolution at the Vatican.

News of its adoption was revealed to the American Jewish community at a March 5 meeting between Bernardin and Jewish leaders in Chicago.

The Pontifical Council was formed in 1969 to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which transformed the historical attitudes of the Catholic Church toward Judaism. The pope appoints each of the 40 bishops on the body.

The Pontifical Council has under its domain the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, the group that has regular contact with world Jewry through IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.


To many of the Jewish leaders who were vocal in their opposition to Isabella’s candidacy, the concern demonstrated by the Pontifical Council marks a maturation of the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

“This is a remarkable victory and evidence that our relationship is really working,” declared Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a member of the Synagogue Council of America’s interreligious affairs commission and a former IJCIC chairman.

“Without any big public demonstrations, through diplomatic channels, we communicated what a disaster Queen Isabella was to human rights,” he said.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, agreed.

“This shows the vitality of our communication, and that they are very sensitive to the teachings of Vatican II,” he said. “In the past, this would have been done without anyone hearing about it. Not only did we hear about it, we had many Catholic allies on this.”

“The whole issue of reconciliation is being helped by this move,” said Andre Sassoon, vice president of the International Jewish Committee for Sepharad ’92, the yearlong commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the dispersion of Spanish Jews to other lands.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, agreed. “It removes a potentially dangerous obstacle and is a tribute to the new dialogue we have entered into within the last year or two.”

But Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of interreligious affairs for the Synagogue Council, said the Pontifical Council’s resolution has less to do with Jewish objections than with Isabella’s own inappropriateness as a model of sanctity.

“The church is clear what the criteria for beatification are, and she doesn’t fill them,” he said. “Jews and Moslems were a consideration, but not a central consideration. If they felt a person deserved beatification, they would do it.”

Tanenbaum urged the Vatican to make a public statement about the decision on Queen Isabella, and to follow it up with education about her role in Jewish and Moslem history.

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