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One decision won’t undo 40 years of change
July 13th, 2007
I know that telling Jews not to start worrying or geshrei-ing too soon about a possibly negative development may be like trying to tell the sun not to shine. But we Jewish humans do have somewhat more control over ourselves than a big ball of flaming gas, don’t we?
So I would caution our community not to get bent out of shape over how Pope Benedict XVI this past weekend authorized wider use of the old Latin Mass and its associated pre-Vatican II prayer in Catholic churches — at least not yet.
Yes, the old liturgy did include Good Friday prayers for the conversion of “the faithless Jews” to Catholicism. And yes, that was an insult and an indication of a long-standing “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism in Catholicism.
However, it has been more than 40 years since the Vatican II conference promulgated the changes of doctrine in the famous document “Nostra Aetate.” This document transformed the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism and paved the way for such developments as the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of Israel and a widespread repudiation of the “teaching of contempt” for Judaism in Catholicism.
Indeed, these actions have had powerful and wonderful repercussions in the Milwaukee area specifically. I was present during the celebration of 25 years of Milwaukee’s Catholic-Jewish Conference, when then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland delivered a speech at Congregation Shalom in November 1999 that asked forgiveness of the Jewish people for the wrongs that the Catholic Church and Catholic individuals did to them.
I was also present when the CJC began its yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” in January 2005 at Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue.
As I reported in my Editor’s Desk column in the Feb. 4, 2005, Chronicle, I heard Rev. Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, say things that no Catholic cleric of his rank could possibly have said before Vatican II: “The foundation of our Christian existence is the faith of Israel”; “it is clear to me as a Catholic and as a bishop that even God can’t imagine a world without the Jewish community”; “the doctrine of Christianity succeeding and replacing Judaism is not acceptable”; and more.
Every instinct I have for history and human institutions tells me that 40 years of such changes cannot be undone by one decision about one ritual.
Unfortunately, at least one significant Jewish community leader already appears to be having serious overreactions. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, on July 6 issued the following statement:
“We are extremely disappointed and deeply offended that nearly 40 years after the Vatican rightly removed insulting anti-Jewish language from the Good Friday liturgy, that it would now permit Catholics to utter such hurtful and insulting words by praying for Jews to be converted.
“This is a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations. It is the wrong decision at the wrong time. It appears the Vatican has chosen to satisfy a right-wing faction in the Church that rejects change and reconciliation.”
“A body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations”? Hardly — or at least not yet.
First, one must recall a few facts about this revival of the Latin Mass. This prayer for Jews to convert is said on one day during the Catholic liturgical year — and as French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard said, according to a July 7 Reuters article, that passage could be changed.
The use of this Latin Mass and its associated prayers is optional, something that worshippers may ask their local priest to do. It is not a requirement. And according to the Reuters report, Benedict himself “rejected criticism within the church that his long-awaited move could â€¦ roll back the clock on reforms introduced in the 1960sâ€¦. ‘This fear is unfounded,’ the Pope wrote.”
But second, we ourselves should be reluctant to criticize other religions and their practices, unless it is truly necessary to do so. As Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, a Jewish scholar of the Christian Bible, said at the 2005 event: “If we want respect, we owe the same courtesy.”
Still, one decision may be a sign of changes coming down the road. So it behooves us to watch to see if revival of pre-Vatican II liturgy is followed by a pattern of other decisions and actions that do seem to be trying to turn the clock back in interfaith relations. Then it will be time to protest and to mobilize the many allies we now have within Catholicism to hold the line.
Until then, my inclination is to say that whether Catholics choose to say the Latin Mass or not really is none of our business. But I do have one very personal comment to make about this issue.
I was a music major who did some graduate level study of Renaissance-era settings of the Latin Mass, a repertoire that includes some of the most beautiful and spiritually elevating music I have ever heard. I think it would be wonderful if Benedict’s decision led to new performances of this splendid old music, a real treasure of Western civilization that we all could share.