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Pope’s Statements Raise Concerns About Interfaith Relations

Two separate documents issued by the Vatican last week are raising concern among liberal Catholics, Protestants and Jews that Pope Benedict XVI is turning back the clock on four decades of ecumenism.

On July 10, the Holy See reiterated a controversial statement from 2000 that the Protestant and Christian Orthodox denominations are not “true” Christianity. Four days earlier, the pope authorized the wider use of a Latin mass that may allow for the inclusion of a previously disavowed prayer calling for the conversion of Jews.

The pair of pronouncements has caused substantial consternation among the more liberal streams of Catholicism, who see the German pope steering the church in a more traditional direction. While some Jewish communal officials have urged Jews to stay out of what they perceive to be primarily an intra-Catholic debate, others are continuing to sound a warning about the statements’ effect on interfaith relations.

“The pope’s effort to bring the church together should not be done by bringing back the teaching of contempt,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Last week, Foxman branded the return of the conversion prayer as a “body blow” to Jewish-Catholic relations.

Rabbi David Rosen, interfaith director for the American Jewish Committee and head of the Jewish umbrella group in charge of official relations with the Vatican, lamented what he called the Jewish “overreaction.” Improving relations with Jews, he noted, is a priority for liberal and conservative Catholics alike.

“Benedict is just as committed to advancing Jewish-Catholic relations as his predecessor, and he has shown and stated it clearly,” said Rosen, who chairs the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. “As chairman of IJCIC, I will ensure that the official Jewish voice is levelheaded, responsible and constructive.”

IJCIC sent a letter to the Vatican, seeking clarification about whether the papal decree on the Latin mass, known as “Motu Proprio,” includes a restriction on its use on Good Friday, when the conversion prayer is recited.

Foxman countered that Rosen was speaking on behalf of the American Jewish Committee and that he was “entitled to be wrong.” The ADL head told the Forward that Vatican officials’ assurances — both prior to and following the issuance of the decree — that Jewish concerns would be taken into account proved to be empty.

Liberal Catholics are also charging the pope with disregarding the sensitivities of other faiths in the pursuit of a deeply conservative agenda.

“There is no question that the ‘Motu Proprio’ and the statement on the Catholic Church and the other Christian communions have created considerable tension in inter-Christian and Christian-Jewish relations,” said Father John Pawlikowski, a professor at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Pawlikowski is president of the International Council of Christians and Jews. “These statements, in my judgment,” he said, “add to a growing pattern of ill-advised statements by this papacy. The failure on the part of the Vatican to clarify the situation for more than a week now regarding the status of the demeaning Good Friday prayers has caused confusion and anger at the highest level, despite continued positive advancement in the Catholic-Jewish relationship at other levels.”

The pope gave his permission to revive the Latin mass, which fell out of use after the Second Vatican Council in 1965 made vernacular the norm for prayers and struck texts that Jews found particularly offensive, such as a Good Friday prayer referring to “perfidious Jews.” Benedict’s decree revives a 1962 prayer in which the word “perfidious” is removed but also in which a prayer is included that refers to Jews’ “blindness” and asks God to “take the veil from their hearts.”

Vatican officials stress that the pope has not undone the Second Vatican Council reforms and that it is only allowing the Latin mass to be used on a limited basis alongside vernacular liturgies.

Some observers have described Benedict’s action as part of an effort to reach out to followers of an excommunicated French ultra-traditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, which split with the Vatican over the introduction of the new mass and other Second Vatican Council reforms. The group welcomed the new decree in a statement.

Such outreach has convinced some liberal Catholics that the pope has firmly set the church on a traditional path. But in regard to interfaith relations, says one veteran of ecumenical dialogue, the latest developments are nothing more than a bump in the road.

“I fully expect that Benedict will continue on the same path as John Paul II regarding church relations with the Jewish people and Israel,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. “I expect the controversy over the new Latin mass to be resolved amicably — hopefully soon. Many are working constructively behind the headlines to achieve this.”

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