German Jews sever ties with pope

Move prompted by pope's decision to use rare prayer which urges Jews to convert to Catholicism.

Pope Benedict 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The German tabloid Bild splashed its broadsheet with "We Are the Pope" to announce the selection of the Bavarian-born Joseph Ratzinger as the successor to Pope John Paul II in 2005. Three years later, the feel-good headline has turned into a disappointment for many Catholics and Jews. A theological row over the pope's decision to use a rare Latin prayer for Good Friday, which urges Jews to convert to Catholicism, has prompted the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, to sever relations with the Catholic Church. "As long as Pope Benedict does not return to the previous wording, I assume that there will not be any further dialogue [such as we had] in the past," said Knobloch. The Vatican press office in Rome could not be reached for comment on Sunday. The prayer says, "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men... Almighty and everlasting God, you who want all men to be saved and to reach the awareness of the truth, graciously grant that, with the fullness of peoples entering into your church, all Israel may be saved." The Vatican's liaison to Jewish groups, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has argued that the prayer is not a missionary statement; rather, the wording reflects the desire of the Catholic Church for all people to be saved through Jesus Christ. Knobloch, however, says that "implicit in the Good Friday prayer is a subtle call to proselytize Jews, which I must characterize as an affront that is arrogant and clearly a backward step in the Christian-Jewish dialogue." The Central Committee of German Catholics "Jews and Christians" group urged Pope Benedict "to revise his decision" and in a written statement characterized the prayer as a "new burden" on relations between the two religions. The expectation among German Jews that Pope Benedict XVI would, because of his experiences as a German soldier during World War II, strengthen Jewish-Catholic relations has hit a dead end. Knobloch said she would have assumed that this German pope would know firsthand the consequences of ostracizing Jews. When asked if the Latin prayer could stoke a wave of anti-Semitism, Prof. Micha Brumlik of the University of Frankfurt told The Jerusalem Post that the prayer "would not immediately [spark] anti-Semitism, but it strengthened attitudes of traditional Catholics that Jews are less gifted and have darkened hearts." Brumlik said Benedict's decision to introduce the prayer was "a huge rollback" for Jewish-Catholic relations. The reinstated Latin prayer is not the first Vatican move to raise the ire of Jewish groups. The conservative pope, considered aloof by many, was criticized for failing to address the role of mainstream Germans in the extermination of European Jewry, during his visit to Auschwitz in 2006. He blamed a "band of criminals" who hoodwinked Germans into carrying out the murder of minority groups. At the age of 14, Benedict, like the majority of German adolescents, joined the Hitler Youth. "Why did it take so long to recognize Israel?" Die Welt reporter Hannes Stein asked the pope in the 1990s, when Benedict was still a cardinal. Speaking from New York, Stein told the Post that Benedict's answer had been "evasive" and that he'd said he was "not a specialist in the history of Vatican diplomacy." Stein views the Vatican's pro-Arab and pro-Palestine Liberation Organization position as perhaps more unsettling than the current theological dispute. He said that the Latin prayer was a natural part of Catholic theology, which sees Catholicism as the "epitome of everything," and that "all dialogue breaks down on this point" for Jewish-Catholic relations. The reporter added that the pope "recognizes Judaism as the foundation of his own faith" and noted that Benedict "supported all the steps of Johannes Paul II concerning reconciliation with the Jews." However, the public row has spilled over into Germany's annual Catholic Convention, scheduled for May. Leading Jewish figures such as Brumlik and Rabbi Daniel Alter plan not to attend the convention because Benedict has declined to rescind the Latin prayer. But Rabbi William Wolff, who serves a largely Russian Jewish community in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, urged continued dialogue with the Catholic Church. "I am willing to leave this dispute to the church," wrote Wolff in this week's German-language Jewish newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung. Wolff argues that the pope "does not have the power to change the intellectual climate in the world."