When 2,200 bishops from around the world overwhelmingly adopted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in October 1965, they transformed a relationship of animus and suspicion that had existed for centuries between the Roman Catholic Church and its Jewish forebears. Jews were no longer considered the killers of Jesus Christ. Catholics were no longer required to pray for Jewish conversion. The mighty Vatican condemned religious persecution and hatred, and called for “mutual respect and knowledge” between Catholics and Jews.
Even if it took years more for the historic fear and skepticism between Catholics and Jews to subside, Vatican II was a watershed moment. It was a powerful prelude to a growing dialogue that has continued for more than half a century. Two generations of Jews and Catholics have grown up being formally taught a different way of regarding one another. Acts of antisemitism no longer find justification in church teachings. It would be only a matter of time before a pope knelt in prayer at Auschwitz and left a personal message amid the ancient stones of the Western Wall.
Now this relationship of comfort and trust has been thrown in disarray by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to revoke the excommunications of four schismatic bishops, including one who has denied the Holocaust. The four are members of the Society of St. Pius X, which rejected the Vatican II reforms and has, since its formation in 1970, been a sharp thorn in the side of a church that, especially under the current pope, values unanimity and cohesion. Jewish leaders, and many Catholics, have rightly decried the pope’s action, warning that the very future of Jewish-Catholic relations is at stake.
It’s not hyperbole, but the reasons run deeper than just this papal decree. In a prescient posting on his blog a week before Benedict’s bombshell was announced, the respected Catholic writer John L. Allen Jr. predicted that several historical forces are straining the relationship between Jews and the church: the reassertion of traditional Catholic beliefs and practices; a generational shift away from leaders for whom the living memory of the Holocaust is a powerful motivating force; a demographic shift in Catholicism away from areas like Europe, with its deeply rooted Jewish population, to places where Islam, Hinduism and Pentecostal Christianity are more important.
“In the Catholicism of the future,” Allen wrote, “Judaism will no longer be the paradigmatic religious ‘other,’ but rather one relationship among many, and in some respects not the highest priority.”
This didn’t happen overnight, and Benedict’s latest move was preceded by other discouraging ones that understandably leave Jews worried that the painstaking work of reconciliation is unraveling. This pope may, indeed, love his Jewish brethren, but he obviously doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand how deeply offensive it is to welcome into the church community a bishop who unabashedly denies the truth of Jewish suffering. As Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the University of Chicago, told us, “This should not only anger Jews but all Christians and all people who have respect for human decency.”