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Along with a conservative approach in other matters this sensitivity went back to his native Poland, where he had formed close friendships with Jews as a boy.
Yet more important is the fact that the Vatican II declaration on the Jews is authoritative Church teaching, pronounced by the highest authority, an ecclesiastical council, and cannot be revoked by a pope. It was instructive to witness the embarrassment among Benedict’s advisors after release of the Good Friday prayer. Within hours, Cardinal Walter Kasper, responsible in the hierarchy for relations to Jews, was attempting damage control.
He wrote as follows to Rabbi David Rosen, Chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations: “The text is a prayer inspired by Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 11, which is the very text that speaks also of the unbroken covenant. It takes up Paul’s eschatological hope that in the end of time all Israel will be saved. As a prayer the text lays all in the hands of God and not in ours. It says nothing about the how and the when. Therefore there is nothing about missionary activities by which we may take Israel’s salvation in our hands.”
The Cardinal’s words were remarkable on two counts: first, they make no reference to the Pope’s actual prayer. But second, Kasper reaffirmed the Vatican II teaching that Romans, Chapter 11 is the source of the church’s understanding of its relation to the Jewish people. There, however, one finds no talk of illumination to the Jews. Rather, one finds the ideas that animated bishops at the Second Vatican Council:”Has God rejected his people, by no means!” “Have they stumbled…by no means!” “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
Jay Bernstein of Shalom USA Radio asked me whether the church’s new approach, based in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is not selective, as it seems to pass over much other scripture. What about the infamous call of the crowd in Matthew 27: “His blood be on us and our Children!” How can this be ignored if divinely inspired? Must not Christians think of Jews as damned because their own holy works say so?
The answer is that they must not and that this passage is not ignored. But to see that one must look to a story that is larger than the Catholic church and goes back to the years after World War II, when Jewish and Christian intellectuals gathered in small European towns, like Seelisberg, Switzerland, or Oxford England, and worked out new ways for Christians to think about Jews.