Italians have a wonderful phrase they use when things donât work out as they had hoped: âIt was better when it was worse.â
That was the thrust of controversial comments about the Catholic Churchâs relations with Israel by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, currently the Vaticanâs nuncio (ambassador) to the United States and formerly the papal envoy to the Jewish state.
Sambi, who was nuncio in Israel from 1998-2005, could not have been clearer about his discontent: âIf I must be frank, relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomaticrelations.â
I want to pause here and note how easy it would be to turn this into a watershed moment for Catholic-Jewish relations, a revert back to 1960 or, worse, 1492. Sambi, it seems, is not trying to incite a pogrom or propagating the blood libel. He is reflecting on his experience with the Israeli government. (Yes, this is certainly questionable timing considering the peace summit at Annapolis next week.)
The Catholic culture regarding Jews has significantly improved during the last two papacies. Pope John Paul II was, of course, beloved by Jewish leaders, not least for his memorable visit in 2000 to Israel and the Western Wall. The German-born Pope Benedict XVI, who served in the Hitler Youth, also has proven a better friend of world Jewry than many expected.