Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Concentrate on Catholicism's Crown Jewels

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Concentrate on Catholicism's Crown Jewels

Article excerpt

Editor's note: In this issue we publish a series of three essays by Jewish writers reflecting on their experiences with the Catholic community. For more detail, see Page 2.

Since 1968, I have been a professional "Catholic watcher." As the American Jewish Committee's interreligious director and senior interreligious adviser, I have joined with hundreds of priests, nuns, seminarians, laypeople and parochial school students on myriad pioneering Catholic-Jewish educational programs and projects, academic conferences, media appearances and countless visits to the Vatican, Israel, Germany and Poland.

I nave had 15 personal meetings with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and authored a book describing how three American cardinals--Richard Cushing, Francis Spellman and John O'Connor--played major roles in the adoption and implementation of the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate declaration that called for mutual respect, knowledge and understanding between Catholics and Jews.

I have been an overnight guest in numerous monasteries and spoken publicly in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and in other Catholic churches. I hold honorary doctorates from St. Leo University and St. Martin's University, and I am a proud co-founder of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies on the St. Leo University campus in Florida and a professor of religion at that university.

For all these reasons, and many more, I can assert without exaggeration, irony or condescension: "Some of my nearest and dearest friends are Roman Catholics."

And that is precisely why I have profound rachmoness--the Yiddish word meaning "compassion" and "sympathy"--for the Catholic Church and its members as they experience the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has been called the church's greatest crisis since the Protestant Reformation. Some church leaders are fearful that an actual schism is possible within their global faith community as the sordid record of widespread sexual exploitation and shattered public trust continues to emerge on the world stage.

However, despite being a "Catholic-friendly" rabbi, I cannot enter into internal church issues that include the question of clerical celibacy, the intense criticism directed by some Catholics against Pope Francis for his alleged tepid leadership regarding clergy sexual abuse, and the growing number of disillusioned Catholic families who are "voting with their feet" as they leave the church.

Those issues and others like them must be addressed, but they can only be resolved by Catholics themselves. But I do wonder whether a large ancient church community numbering over a billion people can achieve a healing, compassionate and just resolution before permanent and irreversible damage is done. That remains an open question that will ultimately determine the future of the church.

But even as Catholics confront the pathology of sexual abuse among their clergy, I urge them not to abandon or divert attention from two specific aspects of modern Roman Catholicism that I admire: the revolutionary change in the church's relationship with the Jewish people and Judaism, and its remarkable and steadfast commitment to social justice. Those areas of human engagement represent two of Catholicism's crown jewels. They are too important, too significant, too vital to be diminished, or, God forbid, relegated to the ecclesiastical dustbins of history.

Let me explain.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in Rome, Catholic prelates from around the world confronted a century that had produced scientific and intellectual revolutions, Nazism, fascism, communism, two world wars, the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the Holocaust. High on the council's agenda was the need for the Roman Catholic Church to change its often-negative and harsh teachings of contempt toward the Jewish people.

Pope John XXIII, who convened the council, believed it was imperative for the church to discard its traditional adversarial stances about Jews and Judaism, and replace them with a constructive relationship built upon mutual respect and understanding. …

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