By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
CHARLESTON — Since the mid-’60s, Catholics and Jews have been trying to come to grips with the Holocaust and the massive entanglements that have come to symbolize the deep divisions between the two religions. However, a gathering on Nov. 12 offered insights on how these difficulties might be ultimately resolved.
“Catholics and Jews Confront the Past and Build for the New Millennium” was the theme for a talk last Sunday morning at the College of Charleston Stern Center Ballroom by Eugene Fisher, Ph.D., the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He is also one of eight members of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jewish Persons, and he has published over 20 books and 300 articles in scholarly and popular journals.
His appearance in the Holy City was sponsored by the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the college and was featured as part of its regular adult education series.
Fisher said the Second Vatican Council turned on its head the common understanding of the relationship between Catholics and Jewish people. The Vatican II documents are both negative and positive, said Fisher, in that they contain corrective actions for the past as well as look to the future.
“For centuries Christians missed the point of the New Testament. Facts seldom got in the way of ideological bents. It was a handy sort of apologetic,” he said. “Vatican II said you can’t blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. It offered a specific mandate on how to understand the four Gospels.”
A second element that is just as important, Fisher said, is to take a direct look at the church’s relationship to Judaism. “God has chosen the Jewish people to be his people, and they are still his people. The Jews give witness to that in this world. The church stands by the Jews in claiming the validity of God. There is a distinctiveness to the Christian proclamation, and there is a distinctiveness to the Jewish proclamation. It is a special relationship,” he said. “Jews make up most of the figures of the New Testament. It is a series of writings by Jews for Jews. It’s the interpretation that divides us.”
In discussing various aspects of the Catholic Church, Fisher said one positive attribute of a hierarchical organization is when it moves definitively, things change.
“After the firm statement of teaching came out from Vatican II, religious education programs were changed and textbooks were revised. Textbooks made major changes and are vastly different,” Fisher stressed. “The basic element of the ancient teaching of contempt for the Jews can’t be found anymore. That aspect of council teaching worked. But there are lots of areas that still need improvement.”
Pope John Paul II has visited many Jewish communities across the globe during his pontificate, and he has set the dialogue for the church worldwide, said Fisher, adding, “he has been consistent in acknowledging the primacy of Jewish suffering.” He alluded to the fact that Pope John Paul II has appointed the vast majority of the cardinals who will select his successor upon his death, and Fisher believes it is unlikely that the new pontiff would have any animus to the Jewish people.
“There is a percentage of racists and anti-Semites, but it is not the teaching of the church,” he said. “It’s not how our community operates.”
Fisher said the crises that have developed between the Catholic Church and Jews haven’t taken place in America “because we all came across in the same boats together.” The problems in racial relations have been with the African-Americans who did not come here willingly, he said.
Difficulties regarding the Carmelite monastery at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and the meeting between Pope John Paul II and Austrian president and accused Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim were then analyzed by Fisher.
One current controversy involves the release of Vatican archival material relating to the Holocaust. Fisher said the Vatican releases documents in chronological order, and they are still working through the records of Pope Pius XI, who was in office from 1922 to 1939. He explained that some departments in the Vatican are terribly understaffed and that only two people are currently assigned to examine Vatican historical records. “The Vatican also just got computers a few years ago,” Fisher said, adding that in an era of e-mail, there are still many officials in Rome who cannot even type.
After 1965, the Vatican released 12 volumes of material from the tenure of Pope Pius XII, “but these sorts of things take time. There is symbolic freight on each one of them,” said Fisher.
As for the Holocaust, he said, “Catholics don’t always understand where Jews are coming from, that two out of every three European Jews were killed between 1940 and 1944. When we try to dialogue through newspaper headlines, we get tangled up. We need to avoid trigger phrases and words. Most Catholics want to understand where Jews are coming from, and most Jews want to understand where Catholics are coming from.”
After Fisher’s talk, Martin Perlmutter, Ph.D., director of the College of Charleston’s Jewish Studies Program, asked for questions from the attendees. Fisher was asked about school vouchers, his opinion on the book Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell, which he called “fiction” with “obvious failures,” the Vatican’s position on the internationalization of Jerusalem, and the church’s stand on whether non-Catholics can go to heaven.
As to the question regarding the status of Jerusalem, Fisher said the Vatican’s response to Zionism is not theological, but “how we must protect the church.”
“There is no objection to the Jews in the land, but the church wants protection of holy places,” said Fisher.
Lastly, he was questioned by one listener as to why the Catholic Church has not repudiated recent statements by Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, such as his assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian. “I repudiate them,” said Fisher to a rousing round of applause.