The Vatican’s top liaison to Jews has strongly criticized “Jewish agencies” for damaging Catholic-Jewish relations with “aggressive attitudes” against the Church, and has declared that the premier Jewish international interfaith umbrella group is dead.
Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, directed his most forceful criticism at one of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation’s “largest members,” charging the group with being “involved in a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic Church.”
An American Church spokesman told The Jewish Week that Cardinal Cassidy was referring to the World Jewish Congress, the feisty organization led by billionaire liquor manufacturer Edward Bronfman Sr., best known for leading the Swiss-Nazi gold restitution effort.
“It’s specific to the World Jewish Congress,” said Dr. Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Fisher accused the WJC of issuing a series of “nasty and false” pamphlets in recent months that he says casts aspersions on the Vatican and Pope John Paul II.
The Catholic-Jewish dispute comes even as preparations are being made for John Paul II to visit Jerusalem next year for the first time as Pope as part of a millennium celebration.
Cardinal Cassidy’s dismissal of IJCIC, a 30-year-old group comprised of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the WJC, and the congregational and rabbinic arms of Judaism’s three major denominations, is also shedding light on the internal fractures in the Jewish interfaith effort as its leaders are disagreeing over the need to continue IJCIC.
The rift is expected to grow larger as Cardinal Cassidy and some Jewish interfaith experts are calling for new theological interfaith discussions — an activity from which Orthodox Jews are prohibited.
Fisher expounded on Cardinal Cassidy’s attack against the WJC, which has been vocal in recent weeks in calling for the Vatican to open its World War II archives to determine the Catholic Church’s actions during and after the Holocaust.
The WJC’s recent publications, Fisher said, falsely claims the Church was involved in conspiracies after World War II to help Nazis escape Europe, criticizes the Vatican’s 1998 “We Remember” document on the Shoah and wrongly attacks Pope John Paul II.
“It’s canard after canard, attack after attack, falsehood after falsehood,” he said. “Cardinal Cassidy sees this as a campaign to vilify the Roman Catholic Church and this Pope,” referring to John Paul II, who most experts agree has taken historic steps to improve Catholic-Jewish relations during his 20-year reign.
“I think Cardinal Cassidy is quite rightly pointing out that this has gone beyond civil discourse, with these attacks on the motivations and intentions of John Paul II,” Fisher said of Cardinal Cassidy’s speech, delivered at an interfaith forum in Baltimore last month sponsored by the AJCommittee, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
(Cardinal Cassidy could not attend the Feb. 17 conference due to illness. The speech was presented by a Vatican official, Monsignor John Radano.)
But WJC executive director Elan Steinberg questioned Fisher’s identification of his group as the one Cardinal Cassidy meant.
“I certainly don’t know who Cardinal Cassidy was referring to. I think the remarks of Mr. Fisher are meant to be a provocation,” Steinberg said.
“Mr. Fisher has made specific accusations that we are engaged in a campaign to denigrate, that our policy papers are hate literature. These are shocking pronouncements from somebody charged with fostering Catholic-Jewish relations.”
Steinberg said the only campaign his organization is engaged in “is one for historical truth.”
“We are on a campaign for laying out all the facts of the Holocaust, and we are repeating the call of the Jewish world for the Vatican to open up its archives to independent scholarly inspection,” he said.
Besides naming the WJC, Fisher was not able to identify which other “Jewish agencies” Cardinal Cassidy was referring to in the speech when he wrote: “The reaction within the Catholic community to recent aggressive attitudes manifested in our regard by certain Jewish agencies is the cause of my concern.”
Cardinal Cassidy added: “Jewish responses to what we seek to do to improve our relationship are often so negative that some now hesitate to do anything at all for fear of making the situation worse.”
Cardinal Cassidy could not be reached for clarification about which groups he meant.
But Father Remi Hoeckman, secretary of Cardinal Cassidy’s Vatican commission, headquartered in Vatican City, told The Jewish Week: “The organizations which the cardinal had in mind have very well understood whom he was referring to.”
Jewish defense groups reacted strongly, but in different ways, to Cardinal Cassidy’s remarks.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said he was “flabbergasted” by Cardinal Cassidy’s accusations.
“I don’t know where he comes to these judgments and conclusions,” Foxman said.
He retorted that the Vatican is “hypersensitive” and “overreactive” to Jewish criticism of such recent actions as the canonization of Jewish-born nun Edith Stein, its Holocaust document or plans to bring several key World War II-era Catholic figures — including Pope Pius XII — into sainthood.
“We have a right to ask questions. We respect the fact that the Pope is infallible to the Church, but he is not in the Jewish community,” Foxman said.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, head of interreligious affairs for the AJCommittee, said he is very concerned about Cardinal Cassidy’s charges and is calling a summit of Jewish interfaith experts next month to discuss them.
In his speech, Cardinal Cassidy said he is sounding “a signal of alarm for Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Rudin. He added that Catholics involved in interfaith affairs are fed up with “negative” Jewish responses to Church actions.
“Catholics who for many years have been engaged in promoting Jewish-Catholic relations have come to me to express their dismay at what is happening and their loss of interest in continuing along this chosen and I believe blessed path,” Rabbi Rudin said.
Perhaps most stunning was Cardinal Cassidy’s declaration that IJCIC was dead.
“Our partner in dialogue for so many years, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation is no longer in existence,” Cardinal Cassidy announced.
Seemingly explaining the cause of its demise — the barbs from the WJC — Cardinal Cassidy added: “One of [IJCIC’s] largest members is involved in a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic Church.”
Rabbi Rudin said he agreed in principle with Cardinal Cassidy. “De facto, he’s right — it’s very, very moribund,” he said.
Both Rabbi Rudin and Foxman agreed that IJCIC has outlived its usefulness.
“It’s not necessary,” Foxman said. “I don’t care about it.” He added that the ADL and other groups can fill the gap individually.
The WJC’s Steinberg, however, disputed Cardinal Cassidy’s pronouncement. “That’s news to me and it’s an insulting remark. WJC is a member of IJCIC and as far as I know, they and other members also retain their standing in this body.”
Cardinal Cassidy in his speech said he was not happy about going public with the Vatican’s concerns, which have been discussed privately for many months, but felt it crucial.
“We expect and hope that the Jewish partner will at least show us respect. You can hardly claim to respect someone if at every possible opportunity you are ready to criticize that person,” he said, “even without making a real effort to understand or appreciate the position of that other partner.”
Foxman said the Vatican dialogue is in more serious trouble than he thought.
- Elan Steinberg
- John Paul II
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Eugene Fisher
- A. James Rudin
- Roman Catholic Church
- Edward Cardinal Cassidy
- American Church
- Edward Bronfman Sr.
- Monsignor John Radano
- Abraham Foxman
- Catholic Church
- Staff Writer
- Anti-Defamation League
- executive director