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The Jewish-Catholic Crisis: How Bad is it -- and Why?

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Pope Benedict XVI is set to visit the synagogue of Rome on Sunday, just across the Tiber River from the Vatican. Yet this short trip also represents one of the most grueling treks he has taken. Nearly five years after Joseph Ratzinger, who grew up in Bavaria as an eyewitness to the rise and fall of Nazism, was elected pope, Jewish-Catholic relations have sunk to perhaps their lowest point in the last 50 years.

Much of that deterioration, critics say, can be traced to many of Benedict's own actions. In previous meetings with Jewish groups, and most notably during a 2006 address at the Auschwitz concentration camp, the pope has played down the responsibility of Germans for the Holocaust and the role of Christian anti-Semitism, preferring to pin the blame on "a ring of criminals"-- the Nazis -- who he said "used and abused" the German people "as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power."

Benedict's 2007 decision to restore the old Latin Mass also struck Jews as elevating a passé Catholic culture that had been inimical to Jews, and Jewish dismay turned to anger when it was revealed that the pope would also restore a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. The Vatican later modified the prayer somewhat, but that did not mollify critics.

Then in January last year the pope rehabilitated four schismatic right-wing bishops with anti-Semitic leanings (one an outright Holocaust denier). The echoes from that controversy were still reverberating when the pontiff announced just before Christmas that he would go forward with the canonization process for his controversial wartime predecessor, Pius XII.

For many Jews, Pius XII is viewed as a villain of the war, a pope who remained "silent" while thousands of Jews were deported from Italy and while millions more went to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps. For many Catholics, on the other hand, Pius is seen as a hero who did all he possibly could. Benedict XVI is one of those supporters of Pius, declaring that Pius had "spared no effort in intervening" on behalf of the Jews, though in many cases "secretly and silently."

Jews were not convinced, and anger among the Jewish community was such that the synagogue trip was nearly postponed. But it will go on. The question is, will Catholic-Jewish dialogue move ahead as well?

The immediate challenges can seem daunting. As Jewish criticism of Benedict's actions has mounted, some Catholics responded in kind, telling Jews that saint-making or other decisions were nobody's business but the pope's. The Vatican told critics at one point to stop pressuring the pope on the canonization cause of Pius XII. After Benedict decided in December to go ahead with the sainthood process, the Vatican released a statement asserting the decision "should in no way be seen as a hostile act against the Jewish people."

Many Jews disagreed. B'nai B'rith Europe has started an online petition protesting the possible beatification, a step toward sainthood, of Pius XII. Holocaust scholar Debórah Dwork and the Anti-Defamation League's director of interfaith policy, Eric Greenberg, wrote an op-ed calling Benedict's decision on Pius "an act of aggression against the Jewish people." In Jerusalem, where Benedict last May had carefully navigated around many of these same flashpoints during a week-long visit to the Holy Land, ultra-Orthodox youths have increasingly taken to spitting at Christian clergy and monks and nuns. The Bet Din Tzedek, the highest authority in the ultra-Orthodox community, sent out a letter urging an end to the practice. But as J.J. Goldberg noted at The Forward, the Bet Din stopped short of a halachic, or Jewish legal ruling, which would have stopped the problem. "If they don't rule against it, it's a signal that they aren't very serious."

Some Catholics are also critical of Benedict's track record on Catholic-Jewish relations, and say the pope needs to send a strong, positive signal during the visit to the synagogue on Sunday. "This is maybe his last chance to establish himself as a major positive figure in Catholic-Jewish relations," Father John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, told Religion News Service. "If he blows this one, he won't have too many more opportunities to do anything constructive."

Seen from a wider perspective, Christian-Jewish relations are always likely to have problems and flashpoints simply because the two faiths are so close. Jesus was a Jew, and the early church grew up in the vast network of synagogues around the Roman Empire even before Christians thought of themselves as Christians. When Benedict's immediate predecessor, John Paul II, went to the Rome synagogue in 1986 -- the first time a pope had been inside a Jewish house of worship since Saint Peter -- he referred to Jews as the church's "elder brothers in the faith."

But there are no feuds like family feuds, and when Christianity and Judaism went their separate ways, the split was nasty. For much of the past 1,900 years, Christians had the upper hand in the struggle, and weren't afraid to use it. So history weighs on Catholic-Jewish relations, and on Pope Benedict's visit this Sunday.

In fact, Benedict's visit to the synagogue of Rome will take place on the Jewish feast of Mo'ed di Piombo, which commemorates the sudden rains that saved Rome's Jewish ghetto from burning to the ground after a pogrom in 1793. And that miracle could be considered a highlight of Jewish history in Rome. As Catholic News Service reports, for centuries the Jewish community in Rome was forced to take part in ceremonies surrounding the enthronement of new popes, and they were required to listen to "forced sermons" each Saturday evening from priests who used the same scripture readings that Jewish congregations heard that morning in the synagogue.

But as well as Mo'ed di Piombo, this Sunday is also the annual Day of Jewish-Christian Reflection in Italy, which John Paul II established in 1990 as one of several groundbreaking initiatives in Catholic-Jewish relations. Those initiatives advanced a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations that opened after World War II and gained momentum after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council reversed many of the church's antagonistic teachings on Jews and others non-Christians.

Benedict's own track record vis-à-vis Judaism has so far been far less promising. Indeed, last year's Day of Jewish-Christian Reflection was canceled when rabbis angry at the Good Friday prayer restoration announced they would boycott the event.

Why has Benedict stumbled so badly with Jews?

Many expected that, given his youth in Nazi Germany, he would have a unique perspective from which to inform Catholic-Jewish dialogue. But for all the breadth of his knowledge and experience, Benedict remains a child of Bavaria, the very Catholic region of southern Germany that formed him. As I wrote back at the time of his Holy Land trip, Benedict is parochial in the sense that he is often bound by the attitudes and loyalties of the community that was his home. He also sees Catholicism and religion in general as under siege from the modern world, so he is loathe to give its foes more ammunition by critiquing his church's past. (Benedict could also be seen as an equal opportunity offender, given that his impolitic pronouncements have in the past upset Muslims, Protestants, Buddhists, women and gays and others.)

Moreover, Benedict does not like to talk about himself, preferring to keep his discussions on the level of faith and doctrine and especially theology, his chosen field.

That theology tends to be conservative, however, and one reality that is often overlooked is that Jews are often just collateral damage in Benedict's wider campaign to steer Catholicism in a more traditional direction.

The restoration of the old Latin Mass, for example, was aimed at what Benedict has called a needed "reform of the reform" after the liberalizing changes started by Vatican II. And when Benedict last January lifted the 20-year-old excommunications of four bishops from a schismatic right-wing sect, including Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, he was focused on shoring up the church's right flank, not sending a message to Jews.

Benedict's insistence on preaching Christianity as the one true path to salvation, and the Catholic Church as representing the one full and complete expression of Christianity, is also integral to his effort to halt any wobbling on that score among Catholic theologians and the lay faithful. But that, too, can have unintended consequences as Jews increasingly fear the Catholic Church intends to convert them out of existence. "From a strictly religious point of view, the question is the significance of Judaism. Has its role ended? Must we all convert?" Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, told Catholic News Service in an interview ahead of Benedict's visit.

Last fall, the United States Catholic bishops had to revise a statement they had put out on Jewish-Catholic dialogue that was in keeping with the thrust of Benedict's preaching on the need for all to convert to Christianity but which was seen by Jews as a change in policy that seemed to advocate the conversion of Jews. That's something Catholics have avoided pressing given the history of Jewish-Catholic relations and the belief that God's covenant with the Jews endures. The reaction was so fierce that the bishops edited their statement and clarified that Catholic-Jewish dialogue "has never been and never will be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism," nor is it "a disguised invitation to baptism."

So what can Jews at the synagogue of Rome expect to hear on Sunday?

Most likely soothing words and shared truths from Benedict, praise for Judaism and for Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and a pledge to continue a conversation that all agree must be continued. But Benedict is not likely to change, and controversies and expressions of regret will likely continue, like a loop video of the movie "Groundhog Day," as crises erupt. The beatification of Pius XII will continue, as will negotiations with the right-wing Catholic schismatics over their full re-entry into the church. Benedict will continue to push the church toward an old-style version of Catholic practice, with an emphasis on the truth and uniqueness of Catholicism, and relations between the Holy See and Israel will remain a flashpoint, as they have been for a long time.

As Rabbi Di Segni put it, there is "a solid basis" for positive relations, but "with a storm every now and then."

And as the commemoration of Mo'ed di Piombo recalls, storms can at times be seen as a miracle. But forecasts for Rome on Sunday say the chance of rain is just 20 percent.
Filed Under: Religion, Disputations

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