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So far, 2009 isn't shaping up as a banner year in Jewish-Catholic relations.We've seen continuing fallout from the revival last year of a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews, uproar over lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, and a trip to the Middle East where the pope drew rave reviews everywhere but Israel.
The revolution in Jewish-Catholic understanding over the last fifty years, which has gone a long way towards healing wounds that took almost 2,000 years to accumulate, was quite possibly the most important inter-religious accomplishment of the 20th century.
The question today is whether that momentum can be sustained in a new set of historical circumstances.
In that regard, recent vicissitudes seem to point to an inescapable conclusion: Lest Jewish-Catholic ties in the 21st century suffer death by a thousand cuts, it's time for rational people on both sides to confront a couple of hard truths.
For Jews: Old habits must go Here's the first hard truth, meant for Jewish leaders (many of whom, it must be said, already get it): The old habit of criticizing the Catholic church first and asking questions later has to go, because the historical wheels are turning, and before long you may find a church that simply isn't listening.
That's a tough thing for any Catholic to say, given that the church was experienced as a source of pain by the Jewish people for so long.
Yet the plain fact is that Jews do need to unlearn these psychological patterns, because pouncing on every perceived slight frustrates the best friends Judaism has on the Catholic side, and gives other Catholics an incentive to dismiss legitimate Jewish concerns.Pope Benedict's recent trip to Israel offers a case in point.Benedict went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to express solidarity with Jewish suffering.Yet when he said Jews had been "killed," rather than "murdered," he got pummeled.The pope was also faulted for not mentioning Christian anti-Semitism, even though he's acknowledged the point many times before.Ambivalence toward the pontiff hung in the air; an analysis after the trip in the asked, "Why have so many religious-Jewish leaders here been reluctant to accept the pope's gestures of dialogue and peace?"Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top official for relations with Jews, summed up widespread Catholic exasperation when he said to me in Israel: "There seems to be an official attitude of, 'That's good, but it's not enough.'" It's not much of a leap from there to thinking, "They're going to criticize us no matter what we do, so why bother?"Indiscriminate criticism also ignores demographic reality. The leaders of the Catholic future aren't going to be World War II-era Europeans who feel a personal investment in the relationship with Judaism, but Africans, Asians and Latin Americans who probably don't know many Jews, and who don't see their churches as carrying any historical guilt for the Holocaust.Say "Jews" to the typical third world bishop, and the immediate mental image isn't of Auschwitz; it's of the Israeli wall around the West Bank and of Jewish groups influencing American foreign policy.Of course, Catholic leaders in the global South know that Christianity shares a unique scriptural and theological bond with Judaism. bishops about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism illustrates another problem with hair-trigger criticism.But they don't have an instinctive "turn the other cheek" spirit, and when confronted with what seems like axe-grinding, their tendency is either to push back or to tune out altogether. In essence, the June 18 note said that Christ is the fulfillment of God's covenant with Israel, and that proclaiming Christ is the heart of the church's mission.