Saturday, March 5, 2011

Benedict XVI repudiates Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus

In the years since the publication of Nostra Aetate (1965) relations between Catholics and Jews have moved into a realm of public and private friendship, collaboration, joint scholarship and serious academic and theological dialogue.  The pace of change in less than fifty years has been one of the most significant features not only within world Catholicism and Judaism, but within human cooperation. 

The declaration by Vatican II that overturned the ancient theology of supercessionism and replacement, and the charge of killing God (deicide) was a revolution.  Sadly, the declaration was made possible in many ways, only after the Holocaust had shocked many Catholics into undertaking a serious re-appraisal of tradition teaching towards the Jews.  It also took the energy and commitment of Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII to find the will and resolve to effect the change. 

I believe much of Roncalli's efforts came from the realities he witnessed as a Vatican diplomat in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece during much of the war.  He witnessed first hand the agony of many Jews and he acted to save lives.  He must have felt the pain of the words of the Good Friday liturgy when he lead the Solemn Intercessions which named the "perfidious Jews" and how the power of those words had helped create an environment where more than a few Christians had little qualm in persecuting Jews.

Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI had re-affirmed with no reservations, the commitment to building positive and constructive relations between Catholicism and Judaism.  John Paul described the Jews as the "elder brothers" of the Christians; a term, that while no one doubted was uttered with great affection, belied the need for greater understanding.  For Jews the term, "elder brothers" is sometimes seen as a reference to Esau who was usurped by Jacob, the younger brother who took Esau's inheritance (See Genesis 27).  Benedict showed a great sensitivity when he described the Jews as "fathers in the faith" to Christians. (Light of the World, p82.) 

In his latest book on Jesus, Benedict demonstrates how far Catholicism has come in its growing understanding and respect towards Jews and Judaism.  This article from the Sydney Morning Herald echoes what has been a headline story around the world this week.

For centuries, the Jews of Europe dreaded the cry of ''Christ killers'', which preceded the rampaging mob murdering, raping and burning their homes, particularly in the pogroms in eastern Europe between the 1700s and World War II.

Usually engineered by the government of the day to distract the Christian majority from their own troubles, the pogroms were whipped up from the pulpits of Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Now the verdict is official: the Jews bear no collective responsibility for the death of Christ. Pope Benedict XVI yesterday became the first Pope to contradict personally the teaching of Jewish ''blood guilt'', releasing excerpts from a book to be published next week.

That teaching, used to justify and perpetuate hatred culminating in the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, was formally rebutted by the 1960s Vatican Council, but the Pope's personal endorsement was welcomed yesterday by Jewish leaders as a landmark attack on the foundation of anti-Semitism.

''So we can't send him the bill for the Last Supper?'' joked a Melbourne Jewish leader, Rabbi John Levi.

''I'm glad he said it. It's important to say it. But it raises all sorts of future problems regarding the reading of Christian Scripture.''

The Pope's detailed exposition of why blaming the Jews is biblically and theologically wrong is part of the second volume of his series on Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.

According to the publisher Ignatius Press, volume two looks at many controversial questions, including whether Jesus was a political revolutionary, what he taught about the end of the world, how he interpreted his own death, whether he really rose from the dead and what the early Christians believed about his second coming.

The Pope concludes that the blame belongs to certain Jewish leaders and a few supporters of the revolutionary Barabbas who, according to the Bible, was spared in Jesus's place. Roman authorities generally get a mention, too.

There are many verses in the New Testament that have been used to justify persecution, especially the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 27, which tells of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus's death sentence: ''I am innocent of this man's blood,'' he said. ''It is your responsibility.'' All the people answered: ''Let his blood be on us and on our children.''

However, according to Melbourne Catholic theologian Brendan Byrne, that verse was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD.

The inhabitants needed a theological justification for this calamity, and the Christians found it in the Crucifixion.

''The 'our children' is the next generation, and that's where it stops. It's not a particularly attractive motif even as it stands, but in no way is it meant to continue down the generations,'' Father Byrne said yesterday.

The Pope agreed, writing that Jesus's blood was shed for salvation, not punishment. It did not cry out for vengeance, it brought reconciliation.

The Pope has a strong record on Jewish relations, but with a couple of hiccups.

As a young teenager he had no choice about joining Hitler Youth, and as Pope he has visited Auschwitz, the worst World War II extermination camp, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

But he aroused Jewish ire by lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop last year and by restoring a Latin Mass that in its Good Friday liturgy refers to ''perfidious Jews''.

Warren Fineburg, executive director of Melbourne's Jewish Holocaust Centre, said the Pope's remarks were a powerful statement that would contradict past teachings from the pulpit.

''It's not the only major faith in which anti-Semitism is evident. It's possibly less to do with the church itself, but the teaching has given thugs an excuse to perpetrate their horrors,'' he said.

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