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FEBRUARY 22, 2002 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

While the Messiah Tarries...


Last November's publication of a new Vatican biblical study and this month's public announcement of the partial opening of the Holy See's wartime archives have drawn wide attention. But both Vatican actions, while promising, still leave questions unanswered and ambiguities dangling.

For the benefit of Jewish-Catholic relations, these questions should be answered directly and the ambiguities clarified.

Recent news reports from Rome indicate that the 210-page book, "The Jewish People and the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible," authored by the 23-member Pontifical Biblical Commission, headed by the Vatican's chief theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presents positive new Catholic teachings about Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.

Because the new Vatican book is not yet available in English translation — it was published in French and Italian — it is much too early for most American Jews and Catholics to make any definitive statements about its actual content, and its future use within the church.

However, press reports hold out the promise that the Vatican offers an apology and a rejection of the way certain New Testament passages have been used throughout history to justify religious anti-Semitism. The Vatican publication is reported to declare the long "Jewish wait for the messiah is not in vain."

The new Vatican book focuses on well-trod ground: Christianity's emergence from its Jewish roots. Although Christianity became a separate faith, the Hebrew Bible was included in the new religion's sacred canon and re-titled the "Old Testament." Despite Christianity's Jewish roots, or perhaps because of them, the long record of negative Christian teachings and hostile treatment of Jews and Judaism remains a flashpoint between the two communities.

When the English translation becomes available, one key question will be whether the Vatican acknowledges that the Jewish longing for the messiah is not only "valid," but also that there are no theological strings attached. That is, the messiah's identity remains unknown, and Jesus, whom Christians believe is the messiah, is not waiting at the end of days for Jews to recognize the "error of their ways."

Because Judaism represented a living refutation of Christian truth claims, church leaders went to extraordinary lengths to "prove" the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus and his messiah-ship, something that Judaism does not accept. The Christian use and abuse of the Old Testament to buttress its claims remains a neuralgic point of dispute to this day.

In 1974 and 1985, the Vatican publicly issued new statements for improving the teaching of Judaism in Catholic schools. And the historic 1965 Second Vatican Council statement that began the remarkable revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations, "Nostra Aetate," received extraordinary public attention.

It was therefore surprising that the Vatican made no public announcement of this latest document when it appeared in November. In fact, the Italian news agency ANSA first brought the book to public attention when it published a brief report about it last month.

As a long-time observer of Vatican leaders and their public statements, I wonder why, four months after its initial publication, there is still no English translation of the new book. And if Pontifical Biblical Commission teachings are important for Catholics, why was there no news conference? The Vatican's uncharacteristic behavior is a mystery that requires answers.

Access to World War II Vatican archives has also been surrounded by secrecy and obfuscation. Last week the Vatican announced that in 2003 it would open part of its archival records from the World War II period. However, the archive documents relating specifically to Pope Pius XII's pontificate (1939-1958) will still remain closed for at least three more years. The action is intended "to put an end to unjust and ungrateful speculation." Since it is only a partial opening of the archives and because the Vatican did not cite the source of the "speculation, " questions about the Vatican's motives in not providing full access will only linger.

The announcement about the archives relates to questions regarding the Vatican's record and actions toward Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust and during World War II. Pope Pius XII, whose pontificate began in 1939 and continued until his death in 1958, has become a lightning rod of growing controversy for Catholics and Jews.

The present pope, John Paul II, wants to beatify Pius XII, a step leading to sainthood. Defenders of the wartime pontiff have mounted a strong campaign on his behalf, claiming that Eugenio Pacelli, as Pius XII, did all he could to save lives during the Holocaust. They assert it is unfair to judge Pius XII by post-Holocaust ethical, moral and political standards.

Just four years ago, the Vatican claimed in its "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" statement that Pius XII saved "hundreds of thousands" of Jewish lives during World War II. That surprising claim was vigorously disputed by many historians of the Holocaust period.

Pius XII's critics, including Christians and Jews, charge that the pope of the World War II period failed to exercise the necessary leadership that both his high spiritual office and the genocidal times demanded. To meet that criticism, the Vatican has apparently decided to release some primary source material including Pius XII's "charity and assistance" for prisoners of war.

But one thing is clear. Partial, incomplete or pre-selected archival records will not be enough in a world where transparency and full disclosure is now the norm if an institution — whether political, financial or spiritual — is to maintain its integrity. What is needed now is for the Vatican to fully open its World War II records to competent scholars so the public can reach its own conclusions. Nothing less will suffice at this unique moment in history.

Likewise, the Vatican needs to elaborate on its latest document regarding Jews and the messiah. If the Vatican asserts Jews have not erred in not accepting Jesus as the messiah, it will be an important step forward.

If, however, the church is simply restating its traditional position — that Jewish yearning for the messiah may be praiseworthy, even "valid," but nonetheless in error — then little if anything has changed.

Rabbi Rudin is the senior Interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee and a past chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

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