Jewish Journal


March 16, 2000

“Mea Culpa,” Meet Mea Shearim

A papal apology is met with Jewish suspicion, leaving Catholics hurt and angry


A day after Pope John Paul II offered his unprecedented apology for historic Catholic sins, Father Dennis Mikulanis was sitting in his parish rectory in San Diego, CA, feeling just a bit miffed.

For Mikulanis, the pope's March 12 confession was a personal milestone. As ecumenical affairs director of the Catholic diocese of San Diego for the last 15 years, he's played a vital role in fostering religious understanding in America's sixth-largest city. Putting old suspicions to rest is a lifelong mission. "He even has a mezuzah on his door," says Rabbi Aaron Gold, a longtime friend.

Last week, though, after hearing the largely negative Jewish responses to the pope's message, Mikulanis himself was feeling somewhat, well, misunderstood.

"I'll be very honest with you -- I'm disappointed in the Jewish reaction," he said. "Here's the Catholic Church, bending over backward to say mistakes were made, we were wrong. But nothing is ever enough. Can't we ever hear a simple 'Thank you'?"

The pope had captured the world's imagination with his dramatic confession of Catholic wrongdoing through the centuries. The ritualized atonement was part of the first Sunday Mass of Lent, the first of Christianity's third millennium.

The Church, the pope intoned, "kneels before God and begs for forgiveness for past and present sins of her sons." Then seven cardinals rose and confessed seven types of Catholic sins: against Jews, women and minorities, heretics, native peoples, the poor, the unborn and "general sins." The pope answered each with a prayer for forgiveness.

In a 21-year papacy filled with drama and innovation, this confession was seen worldwide as a peak moment. The Associated Press called it "an unprecedented moment in the history of the Church." Reuters said it was "the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that one of its leaders has sought such a sweeping pardon." The impact was magnified by the timing, a week before the pope's historic visit to Israel.

Almost as stunning was the gesture's speedy dismissal by Jewish spokesmen.

Israel's Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman -- one after another they leaped forward to voice "disappointment." Their shared complaint: the pope hadn't mentioned the Holocaust.

There were variations, mostly in emphasis. The American Jewish Committee's statement was largely upbeat, though it too began with disappointment. Rabbi Lau, despite his distress, said he welcomed the pope's "initiative to seek the forgiveness of the Jewish people" (actually, forgiveness was asked of God, not the Jews). A handful of voices, notably Rabbi David Rosen of ADL's Jerusalem office, accepted the confession as a moment of Catholic soul-wrestling. But they were virtually lost in the flood of negativity.

Many Catholics were left stewing. Even Catholic ecumenical activists, normally Jews' staunchest defenders within the church, sounded uncharacteristically testy.

"It's interesting that people will make comments about what they expected from the confession," says Father Lawrence Frizzell, director of the Institute for Judaeo-Christian Studies at New Jersey's Seton Hall University. "It's not quite appropriate when discussing somebody else's liturgy. I don't criticize Yom Kippur."

For Father Mikulanis in San Diego, what's most disturbing about the Jewish response to the confession is the implication that the Holocaust is a crime of the Church, comparable to the Crusades or the Inquisition.

That's a distortion, he says. "Not a single Catholic bishop supported Hitler. The Evangelical Lutheran church did. The Catholic Church didn't."

It's true, he says, that Catholics and their Church failed, like many others, to do all they might have to save Jews. That's been acknowledged over and over. "My question is, what will ever be enough? The Church is not going to condemn Pius XII."

Catholic-Jewish relations have moved light-years in recent years, since the Second Vatican Council voted in 1965 to absolve Jews of deicide. Pope John Paul II personally proclaimed anti-Semitism a "sin" and declared the Jews' covenant with God "irrevocable." Thanks to him, Catholics are no longer permitted to seek Jewish conversion.

But, Catholics complain, Jews remain woefully unaware of the sea change.

They blame internal Jewish divisions, plus the continuing Orthodox refusal to permit a full-scale Catholic-Jewish dialogue on religious beliefs. Also at fault is a growing isolationism among the most active Jews, who should be leading the way toward reconciliation.

In the last decade relations have moved backwards, dogged by a series of Holocaust-related disputes. Since 1987 recriminations have flown over a convent near Auschwitz, a papal audience for one-time Nazi Kurt Waldheim, a large cross over Auschwitz, the canonization of murdered Jewish-born nun Edith Stein, more crosses at Auschwitz, and the wartime role of Pope Pius XII.

The Vatican vowed early on to address the Church's role in the Holocaust in a special document. The document, "We Remember," issued in 1998, only fueled the flames. Jewish leaders claimed it ignored Pius' culpable silence. When word leaked out that the Vatican was planning to make Pius a saint, a worldwide Jewish outcry ensued.

Finally, a year ago Cardinal Edward Cassidy, chief Vatican spokesman on Jewish affairs, ceremonially broke off relations with a Jewish committee that had been the church's chief Jewish dialogue partner for a generation.

He accused the World Jewish Congress of "a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic church."

Jewish leaders largely dismiss the crisis as an organizational spat between religious bureaucrats. But that's a mistake, local Catholic leaders warn.

The anger is filtering down to the pews.

"There's a growing Catholic resentment," says Father James Loughran, ecumenical affairs director of the New York archdiocese. "Pius XII has strong support. He's one of the great popes of the century."

Pius, Loughran says, is widely revered as a chief architect of the modern Church. But Jews should give him a second look, too, he says. His 1948 encyclical on Scripture, "Divini Afflante Spiritu," encouraged Catholics for the first time to read the Old Testament, "and that opened the way for a new Catholic appreciation of Jews and Judaism as the source of Christianity." That, Loughran says, led directly to Vatican II.

Loughran's view isn't unanimous, even among Catholics. Father Mikulanis, while insisting Pius "has gotten a bum rap on the Holocaust," says the idea of sainthood "boggles my mind."

In the end, Mikulanis says, "Jews have a natural and understandable suspicion of Christianity. That's why the Holy Father apologized."

Still, he says, "just once I would like to see somebody say 'Thank you for taking this step.' I would like to see an embrace rather than a kick in the ankles."

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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