Jewish leaders speak of tensions before meeting Pope Benedict
Two Jewish leaders due to meet Pope Benedict on Thursday say he has to ensure the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) changes some of its core views before current Catholic-Jewish strains can ease. We’ve run a news story on my interviews with them and a timeline on Catholic-Jewish relations. To give a fuller picture of what they’re saying, here are the transcripts of our talks.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
(Photo: Conference of Presidents)
What do you hope to get from the meeting with the pope tomorrow? Can steps be taken to put this behind you?
Yes, I do believe that steps can be taken for us to turn this very negative experience into something positive and that is to use this as an opportunity, a pervasive opportunity in the Church, to root out those who engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism of any form, for the Church to declare that there is no place within the Church for people who espouse such abhorrent views, that they renounce them and say that they will not countenance their presence. It is not just Bishop Williamson but members of that group, the organisation of which he is part, who have espoused anti-Semitic views over the years. I think it is important that before there can be an reconciliation with them, that not only there has to be a complete renunciation of those views and the Church establishing this as a standard and that the message will go out, especially at a time when we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, that the Church can play a critical role in helping to stem it and to declare it morally objectionable and religiously unacceptable.
What do want to hear from the pope tomorrow and what do you think he must say to start putting this behind us?
There are several things we hope to hear from His Holiness tomorrow. I think that he must renounce the organisation and their views and make it clear that there can be no reconciliation until there is complete transformation in their views and public renunciation not only of Holocaust denial but of their anti-Semitic expressions as well and there will be an effort by the Church to address this within the Church itself and to the public to help make clear that there can be no justification for such views, that the views of people like (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, who espouses Holocaust denial, will find comfort in the fact that this group could be reconciled with the Church.
So, it is imperative for there to be a clear statement of declaration. There can be very great efforts by the Church and His Holiness tomorrow can help issue a clarion call about the rise of anti-Semitism, the unacceptability of anti-Semitism in any form, including those who call for the destruction of Israel, the de-legitimisation of Israel, a clear reaffirmation of the principles and tradition of Nostra Aetate. This I think (would be) a very important statement on the part of the Church at this time, for a group that renounces those principles and those provisions, to make clear that the Church stands by the commitments and that it expects all of the members of the Church to adhere to it.
Well, it certainly raises questions, some of which remain unanswered, and we heard from the members of the hierarchy that they are deeply disturbed by the process. The question is at what point in the hierarchy were there people who knew but didn’t think it was significant or who may have even agreed with some of those views or didn’t believe that that this was reason
enough not to permit this process to go forward and to inform His Holiness, who has said he did not know about the views of Bishop Williamson and others. It seems this is a problem within the Church, not for us to decide, but for the Church itself to investigate and perhaps proper action taken to prevent its recurrence but also to hold to account those who were responsible.
(Photo: Pope Benedict with cardinals and archbishops at the Vatican, 22 Dec 2008/Max Rossi)
Did this wipe out decades of dialogue? You are now on the road to recovery but do you thing that the pain will be there forever?
The pain is very deep, especially for survivors in our community who went through the hell of the Holocaust and then are told that it is denied by people and that the Church didn’t feel that that wasn’t a litmus test for the actions that were taken. And for the community as a whole it seemed as not only symbolic but substantively very significant. But I believe that everyone wants to go into a process of reconciliation, a positive and constructive cooperation. We want it, I know that the Church has told us they want it. The question is what steps will be taken now, how do we take this opportunity and the Church take this opportunity to assert positively its positions on the issues of concern, on the issues that we have raised and see to it that we turn a negative into a positive.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi at New York’s Park East Synagogue, where he hosted the pope last year
(Photo by Gary Hershorn, 18 April 2008)
You welcomed the pope to your synagogue last year in New York. How did you feel when the whole Williamson affair exploded?
I am a Holocaust survivor. I lost my family in Auschwitz. I am a witness of man’s inhumanity to man. Therefore it was a despicable ideology that has no place, no room in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. I must say that I think that Pope Benedict’s visit, the first papal visit to a synagogue in
America, was a very significant moment because it shows his personal outreach and commitment to the Jewish community.
What would like to hear from him tomorrow about Williamson, about anti-Semitism and about the SSPX?
I can rely on Pope Benedict to send the right message. He already made a statement, a very clear statement, a firm statement, condemning Holocaust denial but also describing the relationship between our two communities and therefore I think what needs to be reiterated is a reaffirmation of the guidelines of Nostra Aetate and a very firm stand against anti-Semitism. There is no room for anti-Semite or Holocaust denier in the Church post-Vatican II.
What do think of the SSPX? Is the problem deeper than Williamson?
I think the problem is deeper than Williamson because of what the Pius X Society stands for, that is why they were excommunicated to begin with, because they rejected Vatican II. But I must say, as a Holocaust survivor, you have to look beyond the moment and we have a great opportunity to even strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations after this particular event.
(Photo: Clouds over the Vatican, 12 Dec 2008/Chris Helgren)
Really, I like to be constructive. The meeting with Pope Benedict tomorrow, when I will present leaders of the American Jewish community to Pope Benedict, is a very important statement in itself. Second, we need to find ways to heal the wounds and the pain, and particularly as a Holocaust survivor you can understand that I don’t have to read history books. I’m an eyewitness. We need to heal the wounds and then just build on the future because we need each other. Catholics and Jews need to work together. There are so many issues facing mankind. For the benefit of our own communities and in service to humanity. So, let’s not get stuck. There has to be not only clarification, there has to be a reiteration of the policy of Vatican II which
is the basis, the foundation, the road map of a relationship that really has come a long way. We have made many, many achievements. I also thing that the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict to Israel will also be a very significant moment to even strengthen our relationship.
Do you think the visit to Israel will help heal this the way his visit to Turkey helped heal the Regensburg affair?
Let’s be clear. This is not just a Catholic-Jewish issue. Holocaust denial, yes, it certainly afflicts those of us who survived the Holocaust and the memory of those who perished. It’s beyond that. I think the very basic commitment of Vatican II, the vision of a Church reaching out, inter-religious dialogue, which has happened, that is being questioned by the Pius X society. So it’s just not a question of the Jewish community vs. the Catholic Church position. We have worked together on Nostra Aetate and were are very proud of some of our achievements, considering the past history of tensions. But we are going to go beyond that. We will emerge, I’m convinced, much, much stronger, with better understand of one another and
working together. However, there has to be a very clear affirmation that those who reject some of the values that we cherish, that are very basic in the Bible, in the Torah, that those values of respect for human dignity, respect for your fellow man, human rights, religious freedom, these are basic rights that every human being has and these rights are, again, reaffirmed in Vatican II. As a result of the reaffirmation, we have been able to work together all these years and have made progress. We still have a long way to go, but still … so yes, I feel that, yes, this is a painful moment, but on the other hand also an opportunity to go beyond this crisis and emerge in the better understanding and cooperation that we need to have.