The Vatican’s new chief liaison to world Jewry met mixed reviews during his debut visit to the United States, thanks in part to statements on the pending canonization of Catholicism’s World War II-era pope.
In what turned out to be a bumpy start, Cardinal Kurt Koch angered some Jewish and Christian leaders when he told an audience at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J. that many Jews approve the potential canonization of the controversial Pope Pius XII.
Koch added that the long-demanded opening of the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives — which many historians believe will help resolve allegations that Pius did not do enough to protect Jews — would shed no more light on the question.
“The very important things [that need to be] said are said and on the table,” Koch said. The cardinal’s assertions — plus a few others such as that Jews can look upon the cross as “a symbol of reconciliation” — were met with either blank expressions or grumbling from the audience of about 60 rabbis, priests, theologians and specialists in interfaith dialogue.
Earlier in the day, members of this interfaith audience were among hundreds who gathered at Seton Hall to hear the cardinal deliver the 18th annual Oesterreicher Memorial Lecture titled, “Theological Questions and Perspectives in Jewish-Christian Dialogue.”
Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said the cardinal’s opinions raised issues that demonstrate “the continuing challenges facing Catholic-Jewish relations.”
Greenberg said the cardinal’s views on Pius XII were of particular concern because they “espoused the viewpoint of Pius XII apologists, rather than the majority of noted Jewish and Catholic scholars.”
Koch said some Jews have told the Vatican “don’t avoid canonization of this pope.”
“We have other Jews who come and say, ‘declare this Pope as Righteous among the Nations,’” Koch said, referring to the Israeli title bestowed on non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
The ADL’s Greenberg said he was concerned that the cardinal “cites opinions of solitary or fringe Jewish voices to validate perspectives on these issues, giving them the same weight as mainstream Jewish positions, which disagree.”
Greenberg found other statements made by Koch troubling. “What does Koch mean that there is only ‘one people of God’ and not ‘two peoples of God?’” Greenberg said. “Why does he choose to describe Jews and Christians as ‘thorns’ in one another’s ‘sides?’ This is the language of the Crucifixion.”
The cardinal was chosen by Pope Benedict to head the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews in July, 2010.
This past July, he came into conflict with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, when he wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the cross is “the permanent and universal Yom Kippur” and a symbol of reconciliation.
Di Segni responded in a subsequent edition of L’Osservatore Romano, “If the terms of the discussion are those of pointing Jews to the way of the cross, it is not clear why there should be dialogue.” Di Segni’s response was reported in English on the website Spero News.
Similar tensions involving language and sacred vocabulary arose in New Jersey during the hour-long question-and-answer session on October 30, which was organized by the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations.
The cardinal answered questions slowly and deliberately. But his English was shaky and there was a palpable sense of frustration as the cardinal gave either opaque or rambling responses. At one point, he was pressed a couple of times on the question of whether the Church believed that Jews could be saved without accepting Jesus Christ. He offered a long and winding reply that appeared vague until an aide, Father Norbert Hoffman clarified that Jews would ultimately be “safe,” though just how would only be known in “the last days.”
Shortly before the question-and-answer session, Deborah Weissman, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), said one of the major problems of Jewish-Christian dialogue is that certain words familiar to both groups have totally different connotations. “It is precisely because we share so many of the same terms and use them in such different ways that it creates difficulties,” Weissman said.
When Koch was asked about his statement regarding the cross as the eternal Yom Kippur and the cross’s connotation to Jews as a symbol of persecution, he said, “I know the history what Christianity have made with the cross and I think that it is our duty to show that the cross isn’t a motive for hate. In the Christian view the cross is an invitation of reconciliation and I can’t understand because Jews can’t be content with this invitation.”
After the talk, Rev. John Pawlikowski, former president of the ICCJ, said the cardinal failed to answer questions “fully” and sometimes appeared to skirt them altogether.
“I don’t think he’s quite on a par with his predecessor,” Pawlikowski said, referring to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who left the post in 2010.
During the discussion, Cardinal Koch frequently quoted the work of Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Neusner, a prolific author on rabbinic Judaism, is a favorite of Pope Benedict.
But audience members protested that Neusner’s work on Catholic-Jewish history is not as highly regarded outside the Vatican as it is within.
Pawlikowski, a founding member of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, interrupted one of the cardinal’s answers in which he was quoting Neusner. “I hate to say it,” Pawlikowski said, “but you are barking up the wrong tree.”
After the session, Alan Brill, chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, said he found the cardinal “personable” and “open for future discussions.”
“I think on many things he gave us very complex evasions,” Brill said, “but we hope to work with him in future to have him clarify more.”
Brill added: “This is his first public appearance. Ask me when he has been in the post a year because having seen cardinals in the past, they grow into the job.”
Koch’s meetings the following day went more smoothly. The cardinal appeared at the Jewish Theological Seminary for an invitation-only luncheon on October 31.
Burton Visotzky, JTS professor of Midrash and interreligious studies, said he was “genuinely impressed” by Koch’s warmth and willingness to “listen and learn.”
“He seems like a very lovely man,” Visotzky said, “and when dealing with people you can respect as a lovely human being, it augurs well for a lovely relationship.”
Visotzky said Koch’s references to Rabbi Neusner were fine. He said Neusner made a significant contribution to the study of Judaism and was a respected figure.
Later the same day, Koch met with members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group in charge of official relations with the Vatican.
IJCIC chair Lawrence Schiffman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Yeshiva University, said the meeting was “excellent” despite disagreements regarding the Vatican archives.
IJCIC has no official position on whether Pius XII should be beatified, Schiffman said. But the group does demand that the archives be opened before a decision is made.
At the meeting, Schiffman said, Koch reiterated his view that there is nothing in the archives that is not already known. But the cardinal did say the archives would be opened in three or four years. The Vatican initially promised to open its World War II-era archives 25 years ago, after a meeting between IJCIC leaders and Pope John Paul II.
The cardinal also assured IJCIC that the Vatican would never accept controversial Bishop Richard Williamson as long as his group, the Society of St. Pius X, continues to deny the Holocaust, Schiffman said.
Schiffman recalled that when Koch’s predecessor, Cardinal Kasper, took up his post 10 years ago, he too had a bumpy start. But the relationship became a fruitful one.
“I am hopeful that as he gets increasingly educated what this is really all about, we will also have accomplishments,” Schiffman said.