Scholars address painful past in search of ‘reconciliation, esteem, and respect’ between Catholics and Jews

VATICAN CITY—“Christians who surrender to anti-Judaism offend God and the Church itself.” This was the central message of the international conference entitled “Roots of Anti-Judaism in Christianity” recently held at the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II invited conference participants to take a “lucid look at the past, in order to arrive at a purification of memory.” He affirmed the Church's absolute condemnation of anti-Semitism, and of every type of genocide, while emphasizing that, for Christians, the genocide ordered by Hitler was particularly deplorable because Jesus, in his human origins, was of Jewish ancestry.

The fact that Jesus was a Jew, John Paul II explained, is not an incidental fact, but a “mystery,” and a part of “God's plan for salvation.” Thus, according to John Paul II, the Shoah was characterized not only by the moral wickedness of every genocide, but by the “abomination of a hatred that was an attack against God's plan for salvation in history. For this hatred, even the Church must respond.”

The Pontiff called together 60 Christian theologians and historians in order to examine the origins of anti-Judaism in Christian history. The conference, which took place Oct. 30-Nov. 1, was held behind closed doors to encourage an honest exchange between scholars, according to Vatican officials.

In a statement, the Vatican said that the conference, sponsored by the Theology-History Commission of the Jubilee 2000 Committee, “aimed to get beyond the misunderstandings and the divisions of the past” to “look to the future with serenity and hope.” Re-examining the past, it added, would offer a “correct orientation to the life of the faithful” and promote “reconciliation, esteem, and respect” between Jews and Catholics.

The Vatican explained that the conference is to be considered “a stage in a long journey” toward a new understanding between Jews and Catholics. It is also meant to be a contribution to the Catholic Church's long-awaited final document on anti-Semitism, which has been in preparation since 1987, and which many Jewish leaders hope will offer a solemn mea culpa.

“In the Christian world,” said Pope John Paul II, “several erroneous interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jews and their alleged guilt have circulated for too long, generating sentiments of hostility. This hostility has contributed to assuage many consciences. Consequently, when the wave of persecutions inspired by a pagan antiSemitism, which was also essentially anti-Christian, spread throughout Europe, there were Christians who did everything in their power to save the persecuted, but the spiritual resistance of many others was not what humanity had the right to expect from the disciples of Christ.”

According to the final conference document issued by the Vatican, “the first step toward conversion is a loyal recognition of the facts.… Knowing how to forgive, as well as how to ask for and accept forgiveness is a condition that contributes to freedom.”

Just before the conference began, the Vatican declared that a re-examination of Church history in a penitential light requires that the end of the 20th century coincide with “the end of anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, and racial hatred—sins that contributed to creating an atmosphere that made the Holocaust possible.”

The Vatican conference continued Pope John Paul II's emphasis on the Church's examining past episodes of intolerance and violence “perpetrated in the name of faith,” in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.

In addressing visiting clergy from England and Wales last month, the Pontiff reaffirmed the goals put forth in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near) by declaring that the voyage toward the year 2000 “should take the form of a genuine pursuit of conversion and reconciliation by purifying ourselves of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act.”

In opening remarks to participants, Cardinal Roger Etchagaray, president of the preparatory Committee for the Great Jubilee, said that the conference would be a theological examination of the ageold controversy regarding the relationships between Christians and Jews, which must prepare the Catholic Church to celebrate the Jubilee with a renewed mentality toward its older brothers in the faith of Abraham.

Cardinal Etchagaray explained that the conference would emphasize anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism, in order to stress “the study of religious motivations, which, since they touch consciences, are much more meaningful than simple racial or political motivations.”

Father Georges Cottier, president of the conference organizing committee, told participants that anti-Judaism refers to the prejudices and pseudo-theological affirmations that have long circulated among Christian populations and have served as a pretext for unjustifiable oppressions which Jews have suffered in the course of history.

According to Father Cottier, “such prejudices have suffocated in many the capacity for an evangelical reaction when anti-Semitism, which was of a pagan and anti-Christian nature, spread throughout Europe.”

The theologian said only Christian scholars were invited because “this is an internal matter that we as Christians are called to reflect upon.”

The Vatican conference comes at a time when Catholic leaders in France, Germany, and Poland have apologized for their Churches'refusal to more forcefully condemn anti-Semitism and teachings that fostered hatred toward the Jewish people.

An examination of the Church's anti-Judaism is no easy task, since the relationship between Christians and Jews has been fraught with misunderstandings and divisions since the time of the Gospels.

The first Pope to condemn antiSemitism was Pius XI, who was preparing an encyclical against all forms of racism when he died in 1939. The encyclical, however, died with him. His successor, Pius XII, though criticized in recent decades for not more actively condemning Nazism, was actually honored at the end of WWII by the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, and blessed by Jewish refugees “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy.” Upon his death he was praised for the same reasons by Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir before the United Nations.

Still, it wasn't until Vatican II (1962-1965) that the seminal declaration Nostra Aetate (In Our Age) repudiated the centuries-old doctrine that blamed Jews for the death of Christ, thus marking a turning point in the relationship between Jews and Catholics.

When John Paul II was elected Pope, the fact that he came from Poland, a country of often ferocious antiSemitism, was cause for consternation among Jews. This was a country where, in 1938, Cardinal August Hlond matter-of-factly claimed that “it is a fact that Jews fight against the Church … and that they are swindlers, usurers, and exploiters.”

During those same years, however, the young Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, lost many Jewish friends at the hands of the Nazis. The Pontiff reminded the world of this fact in 1979 when he prayed at Auschwitz.

On April 13, 1986, John Paul II became the first Pope to enter a synagogue. It was at that historic moment in the synagogue of Rome that the Holy Father called Jews “our elder brothers.” Eight years later the Vatican, under John Paul II, established diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Rome vicariate's recent decision to choose Jewish-American architect Richard Meier to design the cathedral that will symbolize the Great Jubilee was viewed by many as yet another important overture to Judaism.

Elio Toaff, chief rabbi of Rome, which is home to one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, praised the Pontiff's words at the recent conference as a turning point: “If what the Pope said were to be truly accepted and practiced by all Christians, I believe it would be a giant leap forward in contributing to an understanding between Judaism and Christianity.”

Rabbi David Rosen, Jerusalem-based co-liaison to the Vatican for the Anti-Defamation League, said the Pontiff's words are “very important, but not yet sufficient. The Church must go further in examining its responsibilities for anti-Semitism and its role during the Holocaust.”

Franco Pavoncello, commissioner for culture of the Jewish community of Rome as well as professor of political science at Rome's John Cabot University, believes that the conference took a step in the right direction but that a serious problem still exists.

“Pope John Paul II's efforts toward reconciliation are certainly commendable,” Pavoncello told the Register. “However, the idea that this conference is merely the first stage in a long journey is cause for concern. As Jews, we ask ourselves where this journey will end. Is this theological debate about Judaism being part of God's plan for salvation simply an attempt to bring Judaism into the sphere of Christianity—a type of faith imperialism?”

“A fundamental contradiction exists,” explained Pavoncello. “Christianity is not a theological problem for Jews. On the other hand, the idea that a savior came to the Jews and they did not pay heed continues to be a theological problem for Christians. This is the sore from which the blood of antiSemitism flows. Paradoxically, Christianity's attempt to solve this problem by saying that we are all part of the same plan for salvation might just rekindle rather than abate anti-Semitism.”

According to Pavoncello, a crucial challenge for Catholics is to try to move beyond the theological problem represented by Judaism.

“Instead of continuing to re-elaborate and justify the fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism,” he explains, “a much better act of contrition would be to simply accept that difference and let it be.”

John Paul II's willingness to address the Church's past transgressions has not been welcomed universally. The most outspoken has been Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, who has said that “expecting the Church to ask for forgiveness for the past is ridiculous.”

In a recent pastoral letter, the cardinal wrote that “the Church has no sins, because it is the total Christ: the head of the Church is the Son of God and nothing of a morally deplorable nature can be attributed to him. However, the Church can and must share in the sentiments of regret and pain for the personal transgressions of its members.”

If the past is any indicator, John Paul II will continue to chart the best course for the Church as he sees it, despite criticisms that he's gone too far in his over-tures—or not gone far enough.

Berenice Cocciolillo is based in Rome.