Dialogue in Distress

There’s good news and bad news in Catholic-Jewish relations. The good news is, relations between Catholics and Jews have never been better. The bad news is, relations between the Vatican and world Jewry have gotten so bad that the Vatican has severed its formal diplomatic link to the Jewish people.

What’s worse, most Jews don’t even know there is a formal diplomatic link between the Vatican and the Jewish people. That’s one reason the Vatican is so upset.

To see how far we’ve come, consider ABC News’ “Nightline” from last Dec. 25. The subject was Steven Dubner, the Catholic-born author whose book “Turbulent Souls” chronicles his spiritual quest for his parents’ Jewish roots.

The program’s most arresting moment came when New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor described Dubner coming to him for guidance in his quest. O’Connor recalled counseling Dubner to follow his instincts and embrace Judaism.

Coming from a prince of the church, this is a bombshell. It wasn’t that long ago that the Catholic Church was burning Jews alive for that very offense: returning to their Jewish roots. They called it the Inquisition.

Now we’ve got cardinals acting like Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street,” advising restless parishioners to try Judaism. The pope encourages this. He reversed 2,000 years of church teaching by formally declaring in 1986 that Judaism was a legitimate pathway to heaven.

The change is part of an ongoing Catholic process of looking inward and reaching out, begun at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Right now, it’s in trouble. Last February, the Vatican’s chief liaison to the Jewish community declared that worldwide Catholic-Jewish relations were in a state of emergency, verging on rupture.

“I am becoming concerned that some of the good work that has been done is under threat,” said the cleric, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.

The problem is that Catholics are fed up. For all the progress in Catholic attitudes, Jewish attitudes toward Catholicism remain hostile and suspicious. “Jewish responses to what we seek to do to improve our relationship are often so negative that some now hesitate to do anything at all for fear of making the situation worse,” Cassidy said.

Things are so bad, Cassidy said, that the Vatican’s three-decade dialogue with an international coalition of Jewish organizations, the heart of its ongoing re-examination, is at a dead end. He said the coalition, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, is “no longer in existence.”

And he charged that one of IJCIC’s largest members “is involved in a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic Church.” He meant the World Jewish Congress, aides said.

From a Catholic point of view, this is a watershed. Cassidy’s commission, an outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council, exists solely to maintain a dialogue with the Jewish people. The Jewish partner has always been IJCIC. Breaking that link — that’s what Cassidy meant when he called IJCIC “no longer in existence,” aides say — amounts to severing the Vatican’s official channel to world Jewry.

The step follows a decade of mounting frustration. Catholics involved in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation have long complained that, despite all their work to change church teachings on Judaism, Jewish teaching about Catholicism mostly ends with the Spanish Inquisition.

“That’s not the whole story of Catholic-Jewish relations,” says Eugene Fisher, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Church leaders say their Jewish dialogue partners, instead of telling their fellow Jews the good news about Catholic progress, have spent the last decade in endless Holocaust-related recriminations: a convent at Auschwitz, a papal audience for ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim, a disappointing Vatican statement on the Holocaust, the canonization of Jewish-born nun Edith Stein, debates over Pope Pius XII, the opening of the Vatican’s wartime archives, more crosses at Auschwitz.

The Vatican was prepared to wait until the winds shifted, officials say. But last fall, their patience ran out. The reason: a series of research papers published by the Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress that linked the various Holocaust disputes into a single theory which sees the church trying to “Christianize” the memory of the Holocaust.

Catholics are furious. “This conspiracy theory is utter nonsense,” says Father John Pawlikowski, a University of Chicago theologian and member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “The publications have greatly distressed the Vatican, and have raised serious questions about the Vatican’s ability to work constructively with the World Jewish Congress.”

That’s why Cassidy went public, aides agree. He might have merely targeted the WJC and ignored IJCIC. But the WJC runs IJCIC. Breaking with the WJC, therefore, meant dumping IJCIC.

It was a long time coming. IJCIC was originally run by the Synagogue Council of America, a coalition of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox groups. But the Synagogue Council collapsed in 1995, a victim of interdenominational feuding. The secretariat of IJCIC was then transferred to the World Jewish Congress. In Vatican eyes, it’s been downhill ever since.

Blaming the World Jewish Congress is a mistake, though. It has flaws, but inability to manage a religious dialogue isn’t one of them. It wasn’t set up for that. It was created to pick fights with anti-Semites. That’s what it does.

No, the problem is with all the other Jewish organizations under the IJCIC umbrella — religious movements, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League — that saw the train wreck coming and didn’t bother to act.

Why didn’t they? Mainly because of American Jews’ congenital inability to understand what a representative Jewish body is. Blessed with dozens of independent Jewish agencies, each claiming to speak for Jews, American Jews simply can’t grasp the notion of a central agency speaking for all of them. IJCIC seemed foreign. They were happy to leave it to the WJC.

In fact, most Jewish interfaith affairs experts say they’re not worried by the Cassidy blowup. Vatican-IJCIC dialogue, they say, is just one of many Catholic-Jewish encounters that go on all the time, worldwide. “When the American Jewish Committee has a conference with the pope at the Vatican, I consider that a dialogue,” said the AJC’s interfaith affairs director, Rabbi A. James Rudin.

Rudin says that he’s called a meeting of Jewish interfaith specialists for April 15 to consider Cassidy’s complaint, but it’s not clear what they’ll be discussing. “IJCIC is not going to be on trial,” he says.

As for the Vatican, it’s waiting for the Jews to get it. They’d like a functioning dialogue partner. “It’s not up to us to construct Jewish partners,” says Father Remi Hoeckman, secretary of Cassidy’s commission, but they’d like it to be “representative of world Jewry,” and “ready to share with us in a common religious agenda.”

And, he says, “it will not be with IJCIC. We don’t consider that a valid partner anymore.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.