The Cardinal Comes to the Board of Rabbis

In a historic address to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California last week, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, called for the elimination of centuries of Catholic and Christian anti-Semitic teaching and a new era of Catholic-Jewish understanding and cooperation.

Praising pioneering efforts of Los Angeles Catholics and Jews in ongoing dialogue between the two faiths, Mahony told about 70 rabbinical, church and Jewish community leaders at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation that “the prospects for Catholic-Jewish relations in the 21st century are more promising than at any other point in our shared history.”

In earlier periods, Mahony admitted, “the Christian conscience vis-à-vis the Jews had been lulled.” But the doctrine of “Nostra Aetate” — the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on the church’s relations with non-Christian religions — articulated for Catholics a new understanding of Jews and Judaism, an understanding in which there is not the slightest hint of contempt, and not an iota of a ‘conversionist’ agenda,” he said. Even though this new Catholic understanding had yet to be fully implemented, the cardinal conceded, “I can assure you that we are well under way.”

In his half-hour of prepared remarks, Mahony suggested several goals for Catholic-Jewish relations in the next century. Among them: the elimination of all vestiges of anti-Judaism and anti-Jew — commonly known as “the teaching of contempt” — from Catholic preaching and teaching, as well as deeper Jewish understanding of Christianity; just as Christians are correcting ancient stereotypes about Judaism, Jews must overcome deep misunderstanding and ignorance of church life and practice, Mahony said. Since both the Catholic and Jewish communities have long histories of responding to the needs of impoverished immigrant groups, Mahony suggested the two groups join in helping Los Angeles’ vast numbers of inner-city poor. In the wake of the controversial Vatican Document — “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah,” issued last March — the two faiths should undertake joint studies as well as institutionalize Holocaust studies in elementary, secondary and college schools and religious education programs, Mahony said. “The goal,” Mahony declared, “is nothing less than the healing of memory in order to frame a common understanding upon which to base educational programming for future generations.”

Beginning with the Lenten season 1999 through 2000, Pope John Paul II is going to be “much more specific about asking for forgiveness,” Mahony said in response to a question on why the church hadn’t spoken out more forcefully against clerics who actively aided Hitler or stood idly by while Jews were deported.

Mahony also roundly condemned the murder of a New York doctor who performed legal abortions. “How anyone in their right mind could be ‘pro-life’ and shoot somebody is such a complete contradiction that it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

The cardinal’s address, at the invitation of Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, marked the first time that a Los Angeles cardinal had spoken to the religious body, Goldmark said. “I think it says a lot about this one man that not only did he come to this Jewish group… but he was very open to being asked serious, if not difficult questions.”

Having someone of Mahony’s stature address the rabbinical body “is a gesture that can’t be overstated,” observed Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “He was willing to come to us and spend generously of his time with us because it’s important to him, and it’s important to where the church is today.” The cardinal’s suggestion that Jews reciprocate Catholic efforts at tolerance and understanding by learning more about Catholicism is well founded, Artson added. “We have demanded of Catholicism that it reassess its position about Jews and Judaism, and [yet]… many Jews treat the Catholic Church as if it’s still the year 1492.”

In a written response to the cardinal’s speech, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom praised Mahony for being “one of the first individuals to lend his name and prestige to the organization of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous which helps support over 1,500 Christian rescuers who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi predators.” Since Jews and Catholics are “family,” Schulweis said, “we can expect in the coming millennium many irritants that come from families such as those we have experienced in the question of the crosses and churches of Auschwitz and the canonization of [Jewish-born nun who perished in Auschwitz] Edith Stein.” But, he cautioned, it is also important to hold onto hope and not to focus exclusively on the tragic and bitter past.