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Special to the JTA Ranking Vatican Spokesman Says Recent Papal Encyclical Being Studied with View to

February 13, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A ranking spokesman for the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With The Jews has informed the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that a passage in a Papal Encyclical offensive to Jews is “being studied and there will be a reply” to the questions raised by many Jews all over the world. “How and when the reply will be given has yet to be determined,” the Vatican official told the JTA in the course of an exclusive interview on the matter.

The passage referred to was contained in the Nov. 30, 1980 Encyclical, “Dives in Misericordia,” delivered by Pope John Paul II. The Encyclical, which dealt with distortions of justice in the modern world, stated in Part VI, Section 12; “Not in vain did Christ challenge his listeners, faithful to the doctrine of the Old Testament, for their attitude which was manifested in the words ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This was the form of distortion of justice at that time and today’s forms continue to be modeled on it.”


The Vatican spokesman told the JTA that the Commission “has received many letters from Jews all over the world” and that “the great majority of these letters contain high praise for the Pope’s Encyclical, while at the some time many point out that this one particular passage has created difficulties.”

A letter sent nearly two months ago by Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, observed that “This passage misrepresents the Judaism of the time of Jesus, which in fact understood and interpreted the Biblical ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ to require monetary compensation for injury inflicted on one’s fellow man. Indeed, there is no evidence that it was ever interpreted in Judaism to require or permit inflicting of physical injury.”

Siegman and other Jews who studied the Encyclical pointed out further, in letters to the Vatican Commission, that the offensive passage flatly contradicted a proceeding chapter of the Encyclical–Part III Section 4–which was dedicated to in-depth research and interpretation of the various Hebrew expressions for mercy, such as “hosed” and “rahamin” as attributes of God according to the Jewish conception.

That passage was in effect nullified by the disparaging remarks in the later section. According to Siegman, it is a step backwards “inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of the Vatican guidelines for implementation of Nostra Aetate of 1975” which urged Catholics not to set “the Old Testament against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”


When the JTA first solicited comment from Vatican sources more than a month ago, it was told that Vatican circles were aware of the problems created by the passage in question. But Jewish hopes that the Vatican would correct it seemed doomed to disappointment because an Encyclical cannot be modified once it has been delivered.

“Clarification” was, of course, possible, the JTA was told. But the initiative first had to be approved and coordinated at high levels since any such step would be considered “official” with all the consequences attached.

Nevertheless, the Vatican has since taken at least two actions that appear intended to mollify Jews and demonstrate good-will. The first was the invitation by the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Poletti, to Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff to meet with the Pope in a parish church bordering the old ghetto. That meeting occurred last Sunday and was hailed by the Rome Jewish community as an event of historic import.

The second gesture, on the same day, was the publication in the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano of a front page article titled, “Clarification–Dives in Misericordia: An Encyclical for Christians and Jews.” The author is Pinhas Lapide, an Israeli scholar who lives in Germany. His article expanded on the Encyclical’s section on the Old Testament which emphasized the “merciful” qualities of the Jewish vision of God which, he said, entirely coincide with the Catholic vision.

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