The Vatican’s new leader of dialogue with the Jewish community came to the United States for the first time in his new position last week to help open a new interfaith center.
But he ended up reopening a division between Catholics and most Jews.
The day before he served as guest of honor Monday at the inauguration of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Kurt Koch stated that the canonization of Pope Pius XII, who has drawn criticism for alleged indifference to Jewish persecution during World War II, has substantial Jewish support.
In a speech at Seton Hall University, the cardinal also downplayed the importance of the long-requested opening of the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives, claiming that the “important things” that need to be known about Pius XII’s wartime actions are already “on the table.”
The cardinal’s statement about Jewish backing for the process that would declare Pius XII a saint was an apparent allusion to New York businessman Gary Krupp, founder of the interfaith Pave the Way Foundation. Krupp, who has been knighted by the Vatican, has close ties at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
Krupp has repeatedly defended the behavior of Pius XII, stating that the pope was responsible for directly or indirectly saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis. However, the leaders of most mainstream Jewish organizations are skeptical of this stance, urging the Vatican to withhold judgment on the pope’s sainthood until the archives are fully opened and all the facts are known.
“Of particular concern in the issue of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican archives is that Cardinal Koch espouses the viewpoint of Pope Pius XII apologists, rather than the majority of noted Jewish and Catholic scholars and institutions including, the Anti-Defamation League, which seeks the immediate opening of the secret Vatican wartime archives on behalf of Holocaust survivors and for independent study — before any definitive conclusions can be reached about the Holocaust-era pope,” said Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s interfaith affairs department.
“It is of concern,” said Rabbi Greenberg, “that the Vatican cites opinions of solitary or fringe Jewish voices to validate perspectives on these issues. Krupp is a virtually a lone Jewish voice, representing himself.”
Rabbi Greenberg said Cardinal Koch is following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, who, “since his papacy began … has supported the backers of Pius XII for sainthood … including the Pave the Way Foundation … that sponsors a campaign of misinformation about Pius XII and the Holocaust, claiming he did all he could to help save Jews, without real evidence. Most legitimate Catholic and Jewish scholars dismiss these claims. Pope Benedict has unfortunately lent Pave the Way legitimacy by meeting with them and publicly praising their error-filled scholarship, apparently believing it is legitimate, when it is not.”
Declining to comment on the effect Cardinal Koch’s comments at Seton Hall may have on Jewish-Catholic relations, Rabbi Greenberg reiterated that the ADL earlier this year “asked top Vatican officials to immediately open the [wartime archives] for the sake of Holocaust survivors who have a right to know what happened to their families and loved ones before they pass. Working together [with Catholic supporters], ADL is hoping this humanitarian initiative will lead to compassion and action.”
As the cardinal begins his second year in his interfaith office, “we hope that through a sustained and vigorous dialogue of mutuality and respect we can properly articulate for him the importance of acknowledging mainstream Jewish self-identification,” Rabbi Greenberg said.
Cardinal Koch, who last year was appointed by Benedict XVI to head the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Catholic Church’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, attended this week’s invitation-only luncheon that launched JTS’s new Milstein Center.
The center, based at the school’s campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, will sponsor academic and cultural activities among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
Members of the major monotheistic faiths are commanded “to become pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace,” the Cardinal said in brief remarks to the interfaith, interdenominational JTS audience. He urged the audience to “speak out against religious violence, especially in the Middle East.”
Cardinal Koch, who formerly served as archbishop of Basel, did not make any specific comments about political issues or about the current state of Jewish-Catholic relations.
Calls to JTS seeking reactions to Cardinal Koch’s Seton Hall comments were not returned by press time.
His itinerary at JTS included a tour of the institution’s library, which holds many rare and valuable manuscripts, and he met with representatives of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the Jewish community’s official venue for dealing with the Vatican.
“The new center will expand the long commitment of JTS to interreligious dialogue and partnership and enable us to highlight an annual schedule of distinct programs that range in complexity and content,” said Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at JTS, who will be director of the center.