Archive for the ‘Catholic-Jewish relations’ Category

Is the Pope still missing the point?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

News item:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) — Pope Benedict has written an “anguished” letter to Church leaders admitting the case of a Holocaust-denying bishop was mishandled and warning the Church risked “devouring itself” with internal squabbles.

In the letter addressed to the world’s bishops, which the Vatican will release on Thursday, the pope also says he was pained by Catholics’ criticism of him and that the Vatican could have foreseen problems if it had used the Internet more…

The Vatican said at the time it did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier but critics said a simple Internet search would have found he had made such statements.

“Doesn’t the Vatican know about Google?” one prominent Catholic critic said at the time.

In the letter, the pope says he was told after the crisis exploded that better use of the Internet would have revealed some of the problems. He says he “draws the lesson” and adds that in the future the Vatican must “pay more attention to this source of information.”

The pope says he could not have foreseen that the Williamson affair would overshadow his intention of bringing unity back to the Church by lifting the excommunications of the bishops who belong to the Society of St Pius X [SSPX].

The Pope’s letter will be released tomorrow, but from the details in the Reuters article it appears that he is still missing the point. The real problem is not that Williamson is a Holocaust denier and antisemite, as evil as he may be. The real problem is the SSPX.

As I wrote before (“Pope’s judgment on Williamson flawed“), the SSPX did not even attempt to hide its clearly antisemitic doctrines. They claim that they are simply remaining faithful to ‘traditional’ Catholicism, but, for example, the statement — which appeared until recently on the SSPX website — that

The heads of [international] Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name and the destruction of the Catholic order, and for the construction of a world wide Jewish empire.

has nothing to do with religious belief, and everything to do with inciting hatred of Jews.

Catholic doctrines concerning the language of the Mass don’t concern me, obviously. Neither do Good Friday prayers which ask God to “illumine [my] heart” or even “lift the veil” from it (although I admit to being bothered a little by “perfidious Jews”). The critical piece of Vatican II for me is the Papal declaration of Nostra Aetate, which insists that while Catholicism is the true religion, nevertheless a Catholic must respect non-Christian religions, which represent other approaches to spiritual truth.

So, for example, the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter [FSSP] which was founded in 1988 by SSPX priests who were unwilling to separate from the Church also uses pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy and holds relatively conservative positions on other issues. But the FSSP does not reject Nostra Aetate and its doctrines are not antisemitic.

SSPX represents a sizeable number of priests and adherents, with over 100 chapels in the US alone and a presence in numerous countries. I’m sure it’s quite uncomfortable for the Pope to have such large organization in a schismatic position, especially since he is something of a ‘traditionalist’ himself.

In my opinion, reconciliation with the SSPX should require an explict statement that they accept Nostre Aetate. Judging by what I’ve read on their site and from their friends and apologists, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to obtain this. But we will learn a lot about the Pope — and the future of Jewish-Catholic relations — from how firmly he stands on this issue.

Update [11 Mar 2009 1604 PDT]: The full text of the Pope’s letter is available here. It includes this, I think, encouraging remark:

I intend to connect the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, which since 1988 is responsible for those communities and individuals who, coming from the Fraternity of Pius X or similar groups, want to return into full communion with the Pope, in the future with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This shall make it clear that the problems now being treated are essentially doctrinal in nature, especially those concerning the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Magisterium of the Popes.

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Pope’s judgment on Williamson flawed

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

'Bishop' Richard WilliamsonFollowing the flap about the Good Friday prayer, we have another ‘crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations’ as a result of the actions of the Pope, Benedict XVI. This is old news which has been beaten to death in many forums, but nevertheless…

On January 21, the Pope lifted the decree of excommunication on Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite. Williamson (seen on video here) claimed that “not one Jew had been killed in gas chambers” and that only 200,000-300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps.

Williamson and four other members of the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 when the society’s leader, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated them as bishops in defiance of the Vatican. He also declared the society in schism with the church (they dispute this, but see Pope John Paul II’s letter).

Lefebvre was quite a guy. He disapproved of the French Revolution, preferring absolute monarchy. He supported the Nazi puppet Vichy regime in WWII, and expressed unhappiness  at the liberation of France, calling it an “invasion of barbarians without faith or law”.  He bitterly opposed  the reforms of Vatican II (1962-65), including the encyclicals Nostra Aetate, which called for religious tolerance and declared that the Jews of today do not bear guilt for the death of Jesus, and Dignitatis Humanae, which condemned civil coercion of religious belief. In his view, much of Vatican II constituted heresy.

In 1969 Lefebvre formed the Society of St. Pius X (St. Pius X was Pope from 1903-14 and also opposed modernism). He established a seminary in Switzerland, denounced the Vatican II reforms as heretical and celebrated the traditional Latin Mass. Ordered by Pope Paul VI to close his seminary in 1976, he refused and his right to perform sacred functions was suspended.

After the 1988 excommunication of Lefebvre and his ‘bishops’ the SSPX continued to exist, although its status with the Church remained as a schismatic sect. Since then, it has flourished. In the US, the SSPX has chapels in 37 states, schools in 13, and four retreat centers. There are numerous seminaries and headquarters around the world (Lefebvre himself died in 1991).

Although Williamson’s Holocaust denial is extreme even for the SSPX, there is no doubt that SSPX doctrine is anti-Semitic. Here’s an excerpt from a 1959 letter from Lefebvre associate Bishop Gerald de Proenca Sigaud which appeared — with approval — on the SSPX website until very recently:


1.    We condemn all persecution of Jews for their religion or for ethnic reasons. The Church is against “anti-Semitism”.

2.    But the Church can not ignore the facts of the past and the clear affirmations of international Jewry. The heads of this Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name and the destruction of the Catholic order, and for the construction of a world wide Jewish empire. This is what Masonic sects and the communists stand for.

Money, the media, and international politics are for a large part in the hands of the Jews. Although the Jews are the biggest capitalists and should on that account be the greatest adversaries of the Russians and the communists, they do not fear them, but on the contrary, they help them to win. Those who have revealed the atomic secrets of the USA were: Fuchs, Golds, Gringlass, and Rosemberg: all Jews. The founders of communism were Jews. They are the promoters, organizers and bankers.

This is the reality. Should this foster hatred? No! But with vigilance and clear-sightedness we should launch a systematic and methodical opposition to the equally systematic and methodical onslaught of “the enemy of man”, whose secret weapon is “the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy”.

International Judaism wants to radically defeat Christianity and to be its substitute. Its chief armies are the masons and the communists. This process of the Revolution began at the end of the Middle Ages, developed itself by pagan Renaissance, jumped forwards by leaps and bounds with the Reformation, destroyed the political and social basis of the Church by the French Revolution, tried to overthrow the Holy See with by an attack on the Papal States, emptied the Church’s resources on the occasion of the secularization of the goods of religious [orders] and dioceses, was the cause of a very grave internal crisis with the advance of Modernism, and finally, with communism, it invented the decisive instrument to delete the name of Christian from the very face of the earth.

Much anti-Semitic material has now been removed from the site, but this letter is still available in Google’s cache. And on the website there remains a 1985 letter to the Pope from Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer which counts Jews among “declared enemies of the Church”.

The lifting of the excommunication does not include a full reconciliation with the doctrines of the SSPX. But its purpose was to open the door for a rapprochement between the Church and the SSPX, which would take place when certain “open matters” had been resolved.

On the one hand, it can be argued that since the four priests were not excommunicated because of anti-Semitism or historical revisionism — these are highly unlikely to be subsumed under the specified actions that can be punished by excommunication under canon law — but rather because of their part in Lefebvre’s forbidden consecration of them as Bishops, their readmittance does not imply acceptance of their pernicious ideas. This is the line that the Vatican has taken, and the Pope himself has taken pains to denounce anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. The Vatican even said that the Pope was unaware of Williamson’s statements about the Holocaust.

But on the other hand, the intention of the Pope’s action was to heal the breach between the Church and the SSPX. Given the anti-Semitic bent of the SSPX, should not more have been demanded — both of the society and the ‘bishops’  — before beginning the process of reconciliation?

Certainly Pope Benedict holds traditionalist views about ritual, and for example has relaxed restrictions on priests who want to use Latin liturgy. He is also not likely to call for liberalization of doctrine prohibiting abortion or euthanasia. And in these areas he has beliefs in common with SSPX. But I would like to think that he has strong differences with them regarding religious tolerance — the principles set forth in Nostra Aetate (he was the first Pope to visit a US synagogue, when he was present at a service — something that would be anathema to SSPX). He should have made this clear — and gotten agreement from SSPX — at the outset.

The timing was also quite unfortunate. Anti-Semitic attitudes and expressions around the world today are possibly greater than at any time since the end of WWII, as the virulent anti-Israel propaganda that has been flooding the media from Arab, Iranian and left-wing sources becomes more and more overtly anti-Semitic.

Personaly I don’t doubt Pope Benedict’s commitment to the principles of Nostre Aetate, I don’t doubt his understanding of history, and I don’t think he has an antisemitic bone in his body. But I do think that his decision to seek to bring the SSPX back into the fold without first obtaining an unambiguous recantation of their anti-Semitic (and in the case of Williamson, ahistorical) point of view was a serious failure of judgment.

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Catholics, Muslims and tolerance

Monday, May 26th, 2008

“What I like about the Catholic Church is that it is one of the few institutions left that still believes that some propositions are true” — Patterson Brown, c. 1964

Recently I was asked to appear on a show on a Catholic TV station to present the Jewish point of view about the controversial Good Friday Latin prayer adopted by Pope Benedict XVI (I’ve written about it here and here).

What I wanted to say was that I wasn’t bothered at all by the prayer, which asks that God may “illumine their hearts that they might acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Savior of all”.

This is because Pope Paul VI, in a declaration issued in 1965 called Nostra Aetate, made the following points quite clear:

  1. The Church believes that its doctrine is true and universal for all people
  2. Nevertheless, one must be respectful and tolerant of other religions

Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism are mentioned, and antisemitism is categorically singled out for condemnation. Arguments like “the Jews are guilty of the death of Jesus” are specifically refuted.

I do not object to Catholics hoping that I will ultimately see the light, as long as they have stopped inciting pogroms because of my refusal to do so. If it makes them feel better, they should hope.

What I would have said on the TV program was that yes, there is a long history of antisemitism based directly on Church dogma and in many cases incited by officials of the Church, going back to the first century. The stubbornness of Jews in refusing to see the ‘truth’ as propounded by Christianity was an excuse for many massacres, the Inquisition’s burning of ‘judaizing’ converts, and even the pogroms that drove my grandparents out of Czarist Russia.

But in 1965, the Church resigned from the ranks of the antisemites. Maybe it was because of the Holocaust, and one can wish that it had happened years earlier, but in any event it happened. Catholicism did not give up its insistence on the truth of its doctrines, but began to insist that correct belief be accompanied by tolerance.

Now the story — both my personal story and the historical one about antisemitism — gets interesting. Did antisemitism start to die out when the Church dumped it?

No. Actually, there was a resurgence of antisemitism which started in the 1960’s, and which came from an entirely different place. Instead of Christian dogma, it stemmed primarily from the radical anti-Zionism of the Arab nations, abetted by the Left (which took its cue from the Soviets, who had taken the Arab side in the Mideast conflict and who still had plenty of traditional Russian Zhid-hatred in their blood).

Arab and Persian Muslims found support in the Quran and other writings for their antisemitism — Muhammad had several conflicts with Jewish tribes in his conquest of Arabia and wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings. And Islam did not have a Vatican II to distinguish between a doctrinal disagreement and a casus belli. Making things worse, Muslim antisemites adopted the tried and true themes of European Jew-hatred such as the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so forth.

So now you can hear in one place that Zionist, colonialist Jews are sons of apes and pigs who drain the blood of non-Jewish children to make matzah and commit genocide against the Palestinians while undermining the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

This rejuvenated anti-Jewish incitement now plays exactly the same role as it did for the Nazis, setting the Jewish people apart, blaming them for their own persecution, and developing conditions under which they can be destroyed.

I wanted to contrast the attitude of today’s Church with that of the Islamic fundamentalists of Iran and Hamas. I wanted to say that I would far rather have someone praying for the veil to be removed from my eyes (as an earlier Good Friday prayer said) than the head from my neck.

Unfortunately, the TV producer told me that I was expressly forbidden to use the words ‘Muslim’ or ‘Iran’ on the program, and that the only antisemitism that could be discussed was that of the Catholic Church.

I wasn’t prepared to talk about antisemitism without mentioning the elephant in the living-room, the incitement from the Arab nations and Iran. And I couldn’t talk about the Holocaust and leave out the likelihood of another one within the next two years. So I won’t be on the program.

I think the producer would have preferred for me to say that the new Pope’s prayer was a step backward, because it states that we Jews are incorrect in our beliefs. But I don’t think that the Church ever accepted the radical view that all religions are equally true.

What I would have liked to emphasize was the other part of Nostra Aetate: the part that is clearly not accepted by so many Muslims, the part that says that you must respect and tolerate the religious beliefs of others, even if you think they are wrong.

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The sources of antisemitism today

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Antisemitism has taken many forms throughout its long career. It’s a frustrating rejoinder to those who believe that there is such a thing as social progress analogous to technological development.

Many of us think of Christian antisemitism, forged in the struggle of the early Christians with the Roman Empire, as the seminal form from which later Jew-hatreds sprang. There’s some truth to this.

The recent film (from the book by James Carroll) “Constantine’s Sword” comes down quite hard on the Catholic Church:

In Carroll’s telling, Catholic hostility to Jews goes back at least to the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine conquered Rome, carrying a sword fashioned as a cross. At the time, he says in the film, there were roughly the same number of Jews as Christians in the world.

In subsequent centuries, the Church’s attitudes toward Jews ranged from cold tolerance to frenzied orgies of religiously inspired mass murder. Among the highlights of this tortured history is the total destruction of centers of Jewish life situated along the Rhine river in 1096. As the Crusaders journeyed to the Holy Land to make war on the Muslims — armed with shields bearing signs of the cross and with priests in the lead — they warmed up for the battles to come by wiping out the Jewish settlements in their path. — Ben Harris (JTA)

There is no question that it was bad for Jews in the Christian world long after the middle ages. Discrimination, pogroms, even mass expulsions were their lot in Europe for hundreds of years. My own grandparents fled the Pale of Settlement almost exactly 100 years ago to escape violent persecution by the locals, who used Christianity as an excuse for their actions.

In the mid-20th century the anti-Christian Nazis and the atheist Stalin cynically used Christian themes to buttress their own antisemitic programs, and the Jews suffered mightily. And there were also Catholic voices raised against the Jews, even here in America (see Charles Coughlin). But a funny thing happened, in part as a reaction to the massive evil of this time:

The Church grew up.

In one of the most important documents of the modern Church, Nostra Aetate (1965 – read it!), Pope Paul VI does not dilute what he sees as the fundamental principle of Christianity — that there is only one way to salvation — but calls upon Catholics to understand and appreciate the truths (albeit partial, in his view) found in other religions. Most importantly, he demands that the Church treat adherents of other religions with respect and tolerance, specifically denouncing antisemitism.

Unfortunately, at just about the same time that the traditional host of the antisemitism virus began to reject it, a new one appeared. During the 1960’s, the Arab-Israeli conflict had taken the form of a proxy struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets taking the side of the Arabs. This led to such absurdities as fascist Arab regimes like that of Syria declaring themselves to be ‘socialists’, but also to the international Left — which if not pro-Soviet was at least anti-American — taking a strong anti-Israel position as well.

Although not all anti-Zionism is antisemitic, there is a natural progression which has been followed here, and today the extreme Left has outstripped the neo-Nazi Right as a reservoir of antisemitic expression.

But the greatest outpouring of Jew-hatred today comes from the Muslim world:

Muslim anti-Semitism is growing in scope and extremism, to the point that it has become a credible strategic threat for Israel, according to a 180-page report produced for Israeli policymakers by the semi-official Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC)…

Among the report’s most worrying findings is the growth over the past three decades of uniquely Muslim roots to older European versions of anti-Semitism. Without discounting classical Christian Europe’s canards regarding secret Jewish conspiracies, the ritual slaughter of non-Jewish children and other allegations of Jewish evil, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world increasingly finds its own, Islamic reasons for anti-Jewish hatred through new interpretations of Islamic history and scripture.

From the Koranic story of a Jewess who poisoned Muhammad, to the troubled relations between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of Arabia, radical Islamist groups and thinkers have been using extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric that has grown increasingly popular with the Muslim public, particularly in Iran and the Arab states. Using well-known Koranic texts, these groups have been mapping out the Jews’ “innate negative attributes” and teaching a paradigm of permanent struggle between Muslims and Jews.

The goal of this “Islamified” anti-Semitism, according to the report, is to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a national territorial contest which could be resolved through compromise to a “historic, cultural and existential struggle for the supremacy of Islam.” — Jerusalem Post

The report goes on to describe how — instead of European antisemitic literature being imported to the Middle East, it is now exported to Europe, where it influences Muslim segments of the population there. And in the Middle East, antisemitism has government approval in many countries which are allegedly at peace with Israel — like Egypt, where you can buy Arabic translations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on many street corners.

The most worrisome thing in the report is that antisemitism as an instrument of national policy, last seen in Nazi Germany, has returned:

At the heart of this surge in Muslim anti-Semitism lies Iran, with the regime’s support for Holocaust denial and hosting of anti-Semites from around the world, along with formal calls for Israel’s destruction by many of the country’s leaders.

“Iran is the first example of its kind since Nazi Germany in which a state officially adopts an active policy of anti-Semitism as a means to further its national interests,” the report notes.

It goes on to say that while Iran does not deny that Jews were massacred during WWII, the current regime seeks to minimize the scale of the Holocaust in order to reduce support for Israel’s very existence in the West, which it believes comes from feelings of guilt over the world’s inaction while Jews were murdered during WWII.

So one can understand, in the face of all this, my unconcern about Pope Benedict XVI’s promulgation of a Latin Good Friday prayer that calls for Catholics to pray for the Jews to accept Jesus as savior — something which does not contradict Nostra Aetate, although it is perhaps uncomfortable for some Jews, and although liberal Catholics may wish that the Church had moved further along the road to ecumenicism than it actually did.

Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that other organizations, like the UN, have not followed the lead of the Church in this area. If the world has learned anything from the history of the mid-20th century one would expect firm condemnations — and real sanctions — of governments like those of Egypt and especially Iran, which today exemplify the racist philosophy that should have been buried with Adolf Hitler.

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Still fighting the last war against antisemitism

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

From Reuters:

Jewish groups complained last year when the Pope issued a decree allowing wider use of the old-style Latin Mass and a missal, or prayer book, that was phased out after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965.

They protested against the re-introduction of the old prayer for conversion of the Jews and asked the Pope to change it.

The Vatican last month revised the contested Latin prayer used by a traditionalist minority on Good Friday, the day marking Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, removing a reference to Jewish “blindness” over Christ and deleting a phrase asking God to “remove the veil from their hearts”.

Jews criticized the new version because it still says they should recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men. It asks that “all Israel may be saved” and Jews say it keeps an underlying call to conversion that they had wanted removed.

Vatican II changed the ancient Latin version of this prayer, removing the phrase ‘perfidious Jews’. But then it created a new collection of prayers in various local languages — the vernacular liturgy — which was supposed to replace the Latin one. The prayer which appears in the vernacular liturgy does not mention conversion, but the Latin version still did, although ‘perfidious’ was gone.

The Latin ritual did not totally disappear, however. Some conservative Catholics continued to use it, but were required to obtain permission from their bishop.

The present Pope, as mentioned in the article, is encouraging those Catholics who want to use the Latin ritual to do so, and has removed the requirement for approval. But some Jews and liberal Catholics wish that he had simply translated the vernacular prayer back into Latin. Instead, he chose to create a new prayer that took a middle course — but still mentioned conversion.

We can understand the concern, given the long history of Christian antisemitism based to a certain extent on the stiff-necked Jews’ refusal to see the light. And we can also understand the Pope — and many other Christians — for whom a primary part of their belief system is that it is universal.

I think, though, that the concern is misplaced in view of the nature of antisemitism today. Consider this:

Britain has become the epicenter for anti-Semitic trends in Europe as traditional, age-old anti-Semitism in a country whose literature and cultural tradition were “drenched” in anti-Semitism has developed into a contemporary mix of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, an Israeli historian said Monday.

The problem of anti-Semitism in Britain is exacerbated by a growing and increasingly radical Muslim population, the weak approach taken by a timid British Jewish leadership, and the detachment of the British from their Christian roots, said Hebrew University historian Prof. Robert S. Wistrich in a lecture on British anti-Semitism at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. — Jerusalem Post [my emphasis]

Wistrich goes on to argue that the roots of antisemitism in Britain are ancient, and of course they are entangled with Christianity. But it seems to me that today the major sources of antisemitism throughout the world are not Christian, but rather

  • Traditional right-wing Jew hatred (neo-Nazis, etc.)
  • Muslim antisemitism and extreme anti-Zionism

Indeed, the desire to see Jews converted to Christianity is dear to Evangelical Protestants here in the US, a group which is generally pro-Zionist and which does not express views common to contemporary antisemites, such as “the Jews are responsible for 9/11 (or the Iraq war, etc.)”, or “the Jewish lobby controls the US government”. Recent violent acts against Jews or Jewish property in the US have mostly been perpetrated by neo-Nazi or racist groups, and radical Muslims.

I am personally less bothered by Christian prayers for my conversion than, for example, Hamas’ interpretation of the Quran which calls for Muslims to kill Jews.

It should be noted that critics of the Pope are not required to go into hiding because of death threats from Catholic fundamentalists.

Possibly those of us who are particularly worried about Christian antisemitism today are like the generals who always prepare to fight the last war instead of the next one?

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