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News Analysis: Catholic-jewish Dialogue Advances Amid Dismay over Vatican Document

March 30, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Vatican’s recent document on the Holocaust, and a series of meetings it hosted last week with Jewish leaders, show how far relations between the two faiths have come in recent years — but also how far they have to go.

At an audience last week with Pope John Paul II, and in discussions with senior Vatican officials, an international group of Jewish leaders bluntly conveyed their disappointment with “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” saying the recently released document assessing the Roman Catholic Church’s behavior during World War II “did not go far enough.”

But the same meetings underscored unflagging momentum in Jewish-Catholic contacts and raised for the first time the possibility that the Vatican archives from the Holocaust period may eventually be opened to study, as Jews have long demanded.

“There was such honesty and frankness in our meetings that it augurs well for Jewish-Catholic dialogue,” Rabbi Marc Schneier, a participant in the talks, said in an interview.

“It’s come a long way since 1965,” Schneier added, referring to the year when the Vatican issued its landmark Nostra Aetate declaration, which repudiated the concept of Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and called for mutual respect and dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

The meetings last week of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee – – the first session of the joint group in four years — had been scheduled long before the Vatican issued its document on the Holocaust March 16. But its release may have been timed to enable the document to become centerpiece of the high-level formal discussions.

The sessions were described as “intense but not contentious” by B’nai B’rith’s international president, Tommy Baer, who also participated in the talks.

Another who took part in the talks, Rabbi A. James Rudin, pointed to the joint communique issued after the discussion as evidence of significant progress on the part of the church. According to Rudin, who is interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, the statement calls for:

the formation of a joint team of Catholic and Jewish scholars to “review the relevant material” in an 11-volume study of the church’s behavior during the Holocaust, produced by a Jesuit team of scholars between 1965 and 1981;

the establishment of a working group to continue dialogue and work toward implementing interfaith education around the world; and

the transfer of a 23-foot-high cross at the site of the Auschwitz death camp to another location.

Religious symbols at Auschwitz have exacerbated tensions in Catholic-Jewish relations for more than a decade. The cross, which is the final religious symbol standing at the concentration camp, made news last week when Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland declared, in a provocative March 22 sermon, that the cross “has stood and will stand” at Auschwitz, despite commitments by the Polish government and other church officials that it would be removed.

“Many have not liked the Eiffel Tower, but it is not the reason to move it or tinker with it,” said Glemp, whose hard-line statements on symbols at Auschwitz have often outraged Jewish leaders.

Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, chairman of Poland’s Catholic Church council for dialogue with Jews, who attended the Vatican talks last week, made it clear that Poland’s Bishops Conference does not support Glemp’s unyielding stand.

And the liaison committee’s communique said: “We have learned about recent statements concerning the cross at the former Auschwitz convent and wish to express our deep concern and to appeal to all those involved to work together patiently in order to find an acceptable solution for the transfer of the cross to an appropriate alternative site.”

“This is a very emotional issue,” said Rudin of the AJCommittee. “That a high- level group of Catholics would make this statement is a very important step.”

The working group to implement interfaith education around the world will continue a process that began in 1971, when Jews and Catholics began meeting on an official basis.

But perhaps the most significant potential step forward is the formation of the Catholic-Jewish scholars team, to review documents on the church’s conduct during the Holocaust.

Jewish leaders have long called on the Vatican to open its archives so that the church’s wartime role could be studied more thoroughly. This demand has gained momentum since the release of the Vatican document on the Holocaust.

That document praised the wartime pope, Pius XII, for saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives “personally or through his representatives.” But Jews and some Holocaust historians have long maintained that Pius XII remained silent in the face of Nazi genocide.

While the creation of the team of scholars falls far short of opening the Holocaust archives, the lia???son committee held out the possibility that “if questions still remained,” the team would “seek further clarification.”

Rabbi Schne???er called the move “quite a significant step.”

So while Jewish leaders remain deeply disappointed by the Vatican document on the Holocaust, those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue appear to be taking the longer view, saying it should be seen as just one step by the Church toward reconciliation.

In the past 30-odd years, they say, the church — and this pope — has gone a long way from blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus.

The Vatican’s current tough stance on anti-Semitism is also a development since the 1965 document. That document merely “deplored” anti-Semitism. Current church teaching calls it an “offense against God and the Church.”

In 1986, Pope John Paul II prayed at Rome’s main synagogue, the first ever recorded visit of a pope to a synagogue.

In 1994, Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations.

“With all of its flaws,” said Rudin, the document “could never have been issued 20 or 30 years ago.”

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