By Gabriel Weinstein
Last week a group of twenty cantors from the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) serenaded Catholic officials in Rome with rousing renditions of Adon Olam and other Jewish liturgical melodies. The concert was a part of the Interfaith Information Center’s conference on Catholic-Jewish relations. Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, said it was “very important to be here [at the concert] together and praising our god.” While Jewish-Catholic relations have been steadily improving for decades, a new Catholic push to mend ties with Muslims is pushing the Church’s Jewish priority to second place.
For thousands of years Catholic Jewish relations were marked by antagonism and contempt. For centuries, central tenants of Catholic doctrine included Supercessionism, the belief God rejected Jews and anointed Christians as his chosen people, and Translated Responsibility, which holds Jews accountable for Jesus’ death. From the medieval era until the 19th century, the Catholic Church endorsed an array of discriminatory proposals against Jewish residents.
Catholics’ relations with their other monotheistic peer, Muslims, were marked by similar confrontational episodes. When Islam emerged in the eighth century, Catholic scholars were quick to pronounce the new doctrine as heresy. Catholics’ initial dismissal of Muslim doctrine foreshadowed the bloody Catholic crusades against Muslim rule of Palestine in the medieval era.
By the early 1960s the Vatican grew tired of having frayed relations with other religious groups and reformulated their millennia old interfaith policy. In 1965 the Church issued Nostra Aetate, their seminal document on interfaith relations. Nostra was the first time the Vatican advocated for interfaith dialogue between Catholics and other religions. One of the Vatican’s primary objectives with Nostra was to rekindle its relationship with Jews. It is no coincidence that the section of Nostra discussing Jewish relations is the longest. Nostra renounced charges of Jewish deicide, acknowledged Jews’ covenant with God and decried anti-Semitism. Some Church officials challenged Nostra’s detailed discussion of Jewish relations and were joined by Arab countries in protest. However, the Vatican’s insistence on redefining Catholic-Jewish relations cemented the section discussing Judaism.
Nostra also discusses relations with Muslims, acknowledging the frazzled history of Muslim-Christian relations, but noting that both view Jesus as a prophet and the Virgin Mary as a holy figure. The Vatican pleaded in Nostra with “all [Muslims and Christians] to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”
In the 45 years since Nostra Aetate Catholic-Jewish relations have remained stable. The Church has issued a series of documents on Jewish-Catholic relations ranging from 1975’s Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4) to 1998’s We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Three popes have visited Israel since 1964, with Pope Benedict XVI making the most recent visit in May 2009.
But all that may be changing. According to National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen Jr., dialogue with Muslims is now the Vatican’s most important interfaith priority, perhaps displacing the importance of the Jewish-Catholic relationships. The bulging global Muslim population, increasing Catholic presence in Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East are some of the major factors fueling the detente.
One of the main priorities of the Catholic-Muslim interfaith effort is securing freedom of religion for Catholic minorities in Muslim dominated countries. The Vatican would like to see the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West extended to Catholic minorities in countries with large Muslim populations. For example, Pope Benedict has maintained steadfast support for Asia Bibi, a jailed Pakistani Christian who faces death for criticizing the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
The prioritization of Muslim relations has ushered in a change in the Vatican’s demeanor towards its Jewish relations. Whereas the Vatican consistently sought to apologize for past grievances against Jews when Jewish interfaith relations were the priority, now Catholics no longer worry about critiquing their Jewish peers or voicing their displeasure. For example, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent praise of Pope Pius XII has upset Jewish Holocaust survivors, as many believe Pope Pius could have done more to rescue Jews from the Nazi regime.
But Allen states that the Vatican’s Muslim interfaith efforts are redefining its interfaith relationships in a broader way. Catholic interfaith efforts have moved from “interreligious dialogue” to “intercultural dialogue” which emphasizes shared understanding of cultural issues such as religion’s role in civic life and eliminating poverty. Hopefully, the Church can avoid the trap of swapping out good Jewish relations for good Muslim relations by focusing on the important cultural and humanitarian issues important to all three monotheistic faiths.