ADL Vatican Newsletter
A Periodic Report From ADL on Vatican-Jewish Issues
Signs for Concern
ADL"s National Director, Abraham Foxman, visited Rome and the Vatican from July 17 - 24
at a particularly sensitive moment for relations with Israel and the Jewish world. In some
respects the Vatican has cooled its relationship with the State of Israel, and at the same
time, European Jewry is experiencing waves of renewed anti-Semitism often camouflaged by
"moral concern" over the Middle East crisis.
ADL"s message to all dignitaries in Rome related to the anti-Semitic aspects of
anti-Zionism, and the singling out of Israel for criticism while major injustices and
massacres in the world go unchallenged. Good people can make a difference by having the
courage to act and speak out regarding the rising anti-Semitism as measured by ADL surveys
in Europe, the U.S., among immigrants from Latin America, and in the Arab press.
Pope John Paul II received Abe, his wife Golda, and ADL"s representative in Italy, Lisa
Palmieri-Billig, in a private audience. Mr. Foxman thanked the Holy Father for everything he
has done in his life to fight anti-Semitism in the world, and expressed hopes that the Lord
continue to bless his efforts. As always, it was very moving to feel the great energy and
determination of the Pope"s spiritual commitments, rising above and beyond the physical
constraints of his suffering.
During the visit, the Roman Jewish Cemetery was desecrated. Though deeply shocked, the
Jewish community was not alone. ADL noted that the highest authorities of the Catholic
Church, of Catholic movements, of the Government and Civil Society expressed their outrage
and condemnation. Rome"s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni, received a telegram from Pope
John Paul II and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
In meetings with Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Commission for Religious
Relations with Jews, with Cardinal Jorge Mejia, former Secretary of the Commission and
presently Director of the Vatican’s Library and Secret Archives, and with Archbishop
Leonardo Sandri, Deputy Secretary of State, Mr. Foxman expressed his concern over the
present situation. "The Vatican"s distancing from Israel right now does not serve the
cause of peace and can only worsen the crisis of anti-Semitic flare-ups all over the
world", he said. He presented the results of a recent ADL survey in 5 European
countries and on Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. The European surveys showed alarming
increases in classical anti-Semitic attitudes, almost doubling those found in the U.S.
Similar results were found among Hispanic Americans born abroad.
To correct this, it is important to renew our co-operation with the Latin American
Bishops Conference (CELAM) in joint projects to smother the revival of theologically rooted
anti-Semitism. ADL has had a working relationship with the Conference since 1968 when CELAM
first published several ADL interfaith materials in Spanish including Guidelines on how to
teach the New Testament without incurring anti-Semitism.
With synagogues being burned and episodes of violence against Jewish individuals, we need
good people and religious leaders to speak out once more against anti-Semitism, because
their words can make a difference. During World War II, the Archbishop of Assisi, Giorgio
Perlasca, the King of Bulgaria, a young police officer in Trieste, nuns and priests, good
people everywhere took stands and saved tens, hundreds and thousands of Jews in difficult
Several considerations, described in the following analysis, provided the background to
the Rome visits and conversations.
The Vatican - Current Issues
After Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel in the year 2000 and his historic request for
pardon for the sins of the "sons and daughters of the Church" that caused
centuries of suffering for the Jewish people culminating in the Shoah, after his visit to
Rome’s Main Synagogue and his having called anti-Semitism "a sin against God and
man", it seemed that never again would there be a turning back to the dark ages of
theological anti-Semitism. Certainly, each new generation of priests and teachers would have
to conscientiously apply historical context to the teaching of the Gospels in accordance
with precepts promulgated by the Ecumenical Council’s, "Nostra Aetate"
and subsequent Vatican documents. ADL, with its commitment to inter-religious dialogue and
an exhaustive list of Catholic-Jewish educational publications by ADL"s Interfaith Affairs
Department, had accepted the challenge of ensuring that the "new" religious
teaching would reach the grass roots levels everywhere.
We knew there would be work ahead for decades (if not centuries) to come. But we did not
foresee theological anti-Semitism transformed into the populist anti-Zionism that now
pervades large sections of international public opinion, including some authoritative voices
of the Catholic Church.
Recently, there have been at least three disturbing signs of a downgrade in Vatican
policy and sensibility:
1. A cooling, or distancing of the Vatican from relations with Israel’s Embassy to the
Holy See has been perceptible ever since last May’s "Yom Ha"azma"ut" celebrations
in Rome. Once prolific in attendance, red and scarlet caps have now vanished from the scene.
There has been a near zero presence of Vatican officials at this and subsequent events
organized by the Israeli Embassy, even at a lovely performance of sacred music. A planned
joint archaeology exhibit has been called off and journalists report Vatican officials have
turned down interviews on projects already underway involving cooperation with Israel in
developing countries. Informed sources close to the Curia say that the Vatican"s different
departments received directives to cool relations and keep them low profile.
This has led to an awkward vacuum, certainly not conducive to the confidence building
necessary for strengthening the peace process, nor to fraternal support by the Church in
this moment of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe linked to biased media reporting on the
Middle East. And yet in the Fundamental Agreement that sealed diplomatic relations between
the Vatican and Israel, a cardinal point was the joint commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
2. Secondly, the taboos so painstakingly erected over the past 40 years against
pre-Vatican II imagery and the "teaching of contempt" of Jews, based on the
ancient deicide accusation, are beginning to weaken in the very places that should be
serving as models for world Catholicism. One of the first signs that the Vatican was
becoming less sensitive and more tolerant to verbal anti-Judaic transgressions in a
"political" context was its lack of response to the statements of Syrian President
Assad during the Pope’s visit last year. Assad said Israelis were killing Palestinians in
the same way that they had crucified Christ and planned to murder Mohammed. This was
obviously a revival of the "deicide" accusation, banned by Vatican II. The Pope
did not reply at the moment, which was understandable according to Vatican protocol since he
was a guest in Syria. What was not understandable was the lack of rebuttal by the Vatican
following the Pope’s visit.
The so-called "political" excuse for anti-Jewish semantics has been carried to
further extremes by the Vatican newspaper, "L’Osservatore Romano". In
reporting on the Middle East, facts have been couched in religious terminology, leading
readers to identify the Palestinians with a suffering Christ and Israelis, "the
Jews", as the bad guys impervious to and disrespectful of all that is holy to
Christianity. This type of journalism reached its peak during the occupation of the Church
of the Nativity in Bethlehem by armed Palestinians, which the Italian media re-defined as
"the Israeli Siege" of the Basilica.
An article entitled "A Ferro e a Fuoco la Terra del Risorto" ("The
Land of the Risen /Christ/ put to Fire and Sword") subtitled, "A Priest killed in
Bethlehem in the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Brigida" was printed in the April 2-3
issue of the Osservatore Romano and kept on the Vatican’s internet site for ten
days - even though the "killed" priest called in the next day to say he was alive
and well and protests from Jewish leaders to the Osservatore Romano had begun to
arrive. Remarkably, the Osservatore Romano never issued a denial or apology for its
error. On April 5, it merely stated that, "...it is certain by now that no priest was
For ten days on the Internet, people could read the following. "Rarely has history
been violated with such coarseness and pushed backwards by a clear will to offend the
dignity of a people. With irritating superciliousness it is professed that Israel’s
attacks are being launched as a defense against terrorism. In reality what is happening
takes the form of an attack launched against persons, territories, places: the Holy Places.
The land of the Risen is being desecrated by iron and fire and daily becomes the victim of
an aggression that is turning into an extermination. The arms did not cease today, not even
for one who gives witness to the Verb," i.e. the priest falsely reported as having been
killed/ "just as little over two weeks ago they did not hesitate to hit the statue of
the Mother of Jesus."
In an essay entitled "Thus Spoke the Vatican" published by the periodical,
"Limes" (2/2002), Alberto Melloni, Professor of Modern History at the
University of Modena and Reggio Emilio, comments on this Osservatore Romano article.
"It is not by chance or without significance that the language of conspiracy is used,
of sacrilege committed by those who trample on a land they believe is theirs but which,
instead, belongs to Christ, of willful blasphemy against the Christian faith and its
obligation to evangelize. It is also striking that the word "extermination" is
used, not only because of the attempt to affirm that the State of Israel is
inflicting on others that which the Jews have undergone, but because it retrieves the
idea that a single thread binds together the desecration of things and lives."
For two months, March and April, this pseudo-theological whip-lashing and incitement to
hatred against the Israelis/Jews continued in the Vatican organ. Then it subsided, without
The change was probably due to high level protests, not only from the Jewish and
diplomatic world but also from Catholic and political leaders. Most important, some dissent
came from within the Roman Curia itself, especially with regard to the use of the word
"extermination" as applied to Israel’s action against the Palestinians.
A significant exception to the chorus of accusations against Israel was the position
taken by Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran, The Holy See"s Secretary for Relations between States
commonly referred to as the Vatican"s "Foreign Minister". He was concerned with
the "occupation of the Basilica by armed Palestinians" rather than by the
"Israeli siege", as a great part of the media put it. In an interview published by
"Le Figaro" on April 11, the point of view of this important Vatican official
seems diametrically opposed to the Osservatore Romano’s line.
Responding to a question concerning the President of Israel’s promise to John Paul II
that Israel would not violate its commitment to the protection of the Holy Places, Monsignor
Tauran replied, "President Katsav in his letter of April 9 indeed assured the Holy
Father that the Israelis have absolutely no intention of violating their commitment....What
they want is that the people inside the basilica and the adjacent convent leave without
being harmed. Bethlehem is still blocked but one must admit that the Basilica has not been
touched." On the other hand, "The occupation by armed men of the Basilica of the
Nativity is a dramatic situation, unheard of since the Ottoman Empire....The problem...is
serious, first of all from a human point of view...two hundred people with the majority
armed, and about fifty Christian religious....Never, since the Ottoman epoch have the Holy
Places been occupied for days by armed men...."
Clearly there are different opinions throughout the Vatican and the Church hierarchy.
There are those for whom the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, cleared of the vestiges of
theological anti-Semitism, is essential to a vision of brotherhood and world peace. Our sad
discovery is that those vestiges are still harbored in the minds and souls of highly
educated leaders of the Church or, at best, are not seen as important obstacles. Only two
years ago, an aged, courageous, suffering, very moving Pope requested pardon for errors
committed by members of the Church for nearly two millenium. It is too soon to close the
books and forget. Without active commitment to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism, we are
walking up a down escalator.
The Pope’s health impedes him from keeping track of everything and therefore different
voices occasionally steer the helm and have greater power today than before. The Osservatore
Romano follows directives given by the Secretary of State. There too, contrasting voices
are heard. John Paul II’s great and deep commitment to fight anti-Semitism so that
"the Shoah, the worst trauma of the 20th century, can never happen
again" (as he told two ADL delegates to the Prayer for ex-Yugoslavia at Assisi in 1991)
must not be allowed to fade from hearts and minds as new generations of Catholic leaders
3. The third sign of a troublesome change in the Catholic Church is what high prelates
are reported to be saying about "an orchestrated plan to corrode the prestige of the
Church", as Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City, said in an
interview published by the Italian Catholic monthly, "30 Days" (No 6/7 2002). His
words followed the statements by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in the previous
issue. Cardinal Maradiaga had said, "It gave me considerable food for thought that, at
a time of total media focus on developments in the Middle East with all the injustices being
perpetrated against the Palestinian people, U.S. television and press people were obsessed
with sex scandals of 30 or 40 years ago."
As John L. Allen Jr. states in the July 19 National Catholic Reporter.
"...the logic of his comments seems clear: Someone in America doesn’t like the
pro-Palestinian tilt of the Catholic Church, and used their media clout to deliver payback.
It’s not much of a reach to imagine who Rodriguez might suspect that ‘someone’ to
Such comments are contributing to the circulation of a new anti-Semitic myth regarding a
conspiracy by alleged Jewish-controlled American media to exploit the current controversy
over sexual abuse by U.S. Catholic priests, to divert attention from developments in Israel
and to punish the Church for its support for the Palestinians. The scapegoat mechanism is a
scary, familiar story, employed purposefully over the centuries to blame "the
Jews" and "Jewish plots" for various natural, social and economic
misfortunes, often to focus attention away from other issues with political implications.
Jews were blamed for the plague, for economic depressions, were accused of "Passover
plots" on the trumped up "blood libel" or "blood accusation"
charges, all the way up to the September 11th canard that it was an Israeli plot, that Jews
knew in advance and didn"t show up for work at the Twin Towers that day. The motto is, when
you have a problem and don’t want to face the true cause or need to find a culprit
quickly, blame it on the Jews.
We had thought that in our times, in the Third Millenium of our Common Era, enlightened
spiritual leaders would be immune from such dangerous nonsense. Apparently we were mistaken.
In this light, it seems all the more important that the Catholic - Jewish dialogue
receive a renewed impetus, and a return to the basic principles of "Nostra Aetate"
be emphasized. Although there has been no direct repercussion on "religious
relations" with Jews by the new policy of political distancing of the Vatican from
Israel, somehow the dialogue has also slowed down. Since Father Remi Hoeckman"s retirement
last year, the position of Secretary on the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations
with Jews has been vacant, and so the work of keeping up contacts and projects falls solely
on the shoulders of Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his double role as President of the
Commission but also of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity to which it belongs.
Relations with IJCIC have been slumbering since the International Scholars Committee
researching the Vatican and World War II disbanded because it felt nothing new could be
written without full access to the Secret Archives. It has been announced that the archives
in the German language dating up to 1939 - the period when the future Pope Piux XII,
Cardinal Pacelli, was Papal Nuncio in Berlin - will be made available in January 2003. All
the rest, up to 1939, will be opened in 2005. Work in ordering and restoring the archives of
Pius XII"s papacy will begin after that date.
Thankfully, important work continues to be done on local levels. There have been regional
meetings between Jewish and Catholic leaders, such as one successfully organized in Paris
some months ago. Most important, a highly qualified dialogue structure has been formally set
up in Israel with the participation of Israel"s two Chief Rabbis, and Cardinal Jorge Mejia,
Father Pierfrancesco Fumagalli, and Father Pierre Cottier. The former two Vatican officials
both worked previously as Secretary for the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews and
Fr. Cottier is the Pope"s theologian who, before the Jubilee Year, presided over an
International Theological Committee meeting on "Anti-Judaism in Christian
Circles". Another positive achievement is a new theological document that states that
proselytizing in the Catholic-Jewish relationship is not acceptable. It is entitled
"Reflections on Covenant and Mission" and was issued August 12 by the U.S.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops in co-operation with the National Council of
Prepared by Lisa Palmieri-Billig
ADL Representative in Italy and Vatican Liaison