Recent Challenges in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue

“Our interreligious partners find it difficult to accept there is a new pope. Benedict XVI represents a change in both style and focus,” said Rev. Dennis McManus at the National Workshop on Christian Unity April 27-30 in Phoenix, Arizona, in a session on “Recent Challenges to Catholic-Jewish Relations.”

While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI are from the World War II era and both were stalwarts against communism, “John Paul II was a philosopher, an ethicist, whose instinct was that when you see evil, you do something about it. His focus is on ‘the acting person’,” said McManus. “Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is an ecclesiologist. His interest is the Church at prayer, the liturgy.”

John Paul II exerted influence through his charismatic presence. “The institution (of the Church) was out of breath trying to keep up with a charismatic who loved to travel and whose visits were many and whose gestures were big,” said McManus, a lecturer at both Catholic University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Pope John Paul's visit to a synagogue in Rome where he addressed the Jewish community as elder siblings was a historic “first”, as was his placing a piece of paper between the rocks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site, asking the Jewish people for forgiveness for the crimes that have been perpetrated against them in the name of the Church. On all his travels around the world John Paul II always made sure to meet with the Jewish community in every place.

McManus observed that John Paul’s actions, however, did not institutionalize the changes in relations with other religions wrought by his visits. “The risk in this scenario is that when the charismatic personality dies, so might the changes.”

Pope Benedict travels and visits, but less so. “His strong hand is his teaching, his pastoral letters are clear, accessible, profound. Benedict is working in ways that will help institutionalize the changes,” McManus said, citing Benedict’s rewrite of a prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy of the 1962 extraordinary Roman Rite in Latin, and his request that the name of God which is never pronounced in Judaism—Yahweh—not be used in the Roman liturgy. Both these initiatives were the results of requests from the Jewish community.

Also of note is his unprecedented invitation to Rabbi Cohen of Israel to break open the Word of God for his brother bishops at the International Synod of Bishops in September 2008 on study of the Bible. About a decade earlier, John Paul II made a proposal that we should read the scriptures in their Jewish context. Benedict XVI invited Rabbi Cohen to explain to the bishops the Jewish interpretation of the Bible, whose first five books comprise the Torah, Judaism's most sacred writings.

Committed to Partnership and Dialogue

The Jewish community resented, said McManus, what looked to them like the Church’s effort to make itself appear as a co-victim with the Jewish people in the holocaust through the canonization procedures of Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolb and the Carmelite nun Edith Stein.

The candidacy for beatification of Pope Pius XII has also incited controversy, with the Jewish community wanting to know the attitude of the Holy See during “the killing years” of 1939-1945. In a spirit of partnership and sensitivity, Pope Benedict has asked a second group of both Catholic and Jewish scholars to examine the historical material.

When his lifting of the excommunication of a group of Pius X Society bishops exploded in controversy over the fact that one of them, Bishop Williamson, had publicly denied the holocaust, Benedict met with Jewish leaders, apologized to them, and assured them that Williamson cannot be accepted unless he accepts Vatican II’s teachings in general and in particular accepts as a point of doctrine the Church’s vital relationship to an external community such as the Jews.

“Pope Benedict insists on dialogue,” McManus said, “and is not afraid of taking on the tough issues in a sensitive way. There is a need for us to change the structure and style of Jewish-Christian dialogue. It’s been reactionary--to the latest crisis. It has not been a structured dialogue that takes control of things and works through them with consistency, but rather a collection of unresolved hurts.”

“Over 2000 years, the Catholic Church has not proven trustworthy to Jews,” he said. “It will take them a long time to be able to trust us.”

At his meeting with the chief rabbis in his mid-May visit to Israel, the pope issued a plea for trust in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Catholics. And to reporters on the plane home he said, "We should do everything to learn the language of the other, and it seems to me that we have made great progress".

On May 22, the executive representatives of the World Jewish Congress which represents 100 Jewish communities worldwide visited the Vatican to thank Pope Benedict for his May 8-15 Holy Land pilgrimage.

A statement from the congress explained, "Despite being a complicated trip, its outcome had been positive and was a milestone for strengthening mutual understanding between Christians and Jews."

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

June 2009