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Cassidy’s open ears a sign of hope for dialogue


The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, spent the final months of his life attempting to create a common ground on theological issues that divide so many of us. He wasn’t looking for some compromised agreement. He simply sought to clear away misunderstanding so that believers could arrive at genuine disagreement.

Cited in Martin Marty’s newsletter, Context, Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Orthodox Christian, marvels: “You cannot imagine how healing this is. To have someone that you thought hated you, and someone that you’re pretty sure misunderstood you, actually understand you.”

It was that way a few weeks ago during an intensive three-day consultation, jointly sponsored by the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at the renowned Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City. The consultation brought together over 40 Jewish and Catholic scholars and religious leaders. Their task was to explore the 1998 Vatican document “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah [Holocaust].”

With the exception of one lecture, the conference was closed to the press and the public. It was just as well. The dialogue got pretty dense. But when the scholars emerged and partook of preprandials and dinner, they talked openly about the already much-discussed year-old document that had been both welcomed and criticized.

The consultation was held while NATO was bombing Yugoslavia and Milosevic’s troops were cleansing Kosovo. There is a temptation to view this conflict as a mini-Holocaust, but it is an inept comparison. “The Holocaust has no analog,” Time essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote in the April 12 issue. “That is why almost 60 years after the fact, it is still impossible to fit it into the rest of history.”

Rosenblatt stated that the Holocaust cannot be compensated for. “Injustice prevails. ... Injustice wins. ... There are no moral equivalents,” he wrote. “[It] not only lies beyond compensation; it also lies beyond explanation, reconciliation, sentiment, forgiveness, redemption or any of the mechanisms by which people attempt to set things right. ... Here is a wrong that can never be set right, and people are left groping for something to take the place of the irreplaceable.”

The Catholic-Jewish dialogue may be filled with faults because it is filled with logistical problems. For example, worldwide, there are over 1 billion Catholics compared with less than 15 million Jews. In the religiously polyglot United States alone, Catholics outnumber Jews by over 17 to one. And both groups bring heavy ethnic and cultural baggage that can severely hobble their religious differences.

The document attempted to draw a distinction between the “anti-Semitism” of the Nazis and the “anti-Judaism” so prevalent in general society. Critics claimed that such distinction amounted to slicing the ham a bit too thin.

Jewish leaders did not cheer the document, which had been nearly 11 years in preparation. They stated that members of the Catholic hierarchy in Germany, France and Poland have issued statements that go much further in accepting responsibility for the failures of the church in the Nazi era than the Shoah document does.

The miracle of this small conference was that, before the three days were out, one Jewish participant said that there were times when she couldn’t be certain whether the person contributing to the discussion was Jewish or Catholic.

The evening’s main speaker was Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He is one of only two Australian cardinals -- “Two is plenty,” he observed. (The other is the archbishop of Sydney.)

The 74-year-old Vatican prelate has had a brilliant career that began in 1949 in the diocese of Wagga Wagga, which means City of the Crow. By 1952, he was in Rome for doctoral studies at the Lateran. He never returned to Australia. He joined the diplomatic corps and was posted to India, Ireland, El Salvador, Argentina, China, Bangladesh, Burma, Africa and the Netherlands.

“When you’re in a country for a few months, you feel that you could write a book about the place,” he said. “After a year, you think you might be able to write an article. After a few years, you realize that you could never understand the place.”

It may be that way with the differences that separate Jews and Catholics.

In 1988, Cassidy was named sostituto or deputy secretary of state, making him the third highest ranking prelate in the church, a post he held for just a year before being appointed to his present position. The sostituto post is traditionally held by an Italian. The position generally controls much of what the pope sees. Clerical gossip claims that Cassidy’s genial but blunt-spoken manner and his penchant for telling it like it is was unacceptable in the Vatican’s world of subtlety and indirection.

“He troubled the pope with reality,” one priest commented -- something no Italian would dream of doing.

Cassidy will reach 75 in July but he could be kept on. During the wine and cheese portion of the conference, participants and guests were already speculating that the job could go to Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore or Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, two cardinals with some ecumenical experience.

In 1989, Cassidy was named to his present position, replacing Dutch Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, now nearing 90. In 1991 he got the red hat. You would have to be a troglodyte not to like him.

Cassidy believes that Catholic-Jewish relations today are the best they have ever been. But he admitted that a great deal more needs to be done. “It is not possible in a period of 35 years,” he said, “to change deeply rooted anti-Jewish attitudes in each and every member of a church of 1 billion people spread throughout the world.”

Of late, John Paul II has been preparing for the millennium by expressing deep sorrow for the failures of the church’s sons and daughters in every age. Some observers have claimed that the pope was blaming all of the church’s children while protecting the institutional church. Cassidy was quick to point out that “all” meant just that -- everyone from the pope on down.

But it gets sticky. Jews can readily find evidence of long-standing mistrust and hostility among people in positions of authority and even renowned teachers of the faith. They can accept such behavior as what the Shoah document refers to as “anti-Judaism.” But they ask just how much this attitude also contributed to “anti-Semitism.” Cassidy acknowledged a relationship between these two evils but not one of cause and effect. He found no intrinsic link between the anti-Judaism of the Christian church and the anti-Semitism of modern, neo-pagan National Socialism, the belief system of the Nazis.

“We Remember” also defends Pope Pius XII and his efforts on behalf of the Jews during World War II. An extended footnote cites the praise given to Pius XII by Jewish leaders after the war.

The church’s compulsive need to defend its past popes can tie it in knots. Cassidy tried, citing incidents during World War II in which small groups of Jews were protected. “None of this would have been possible without the active support of Pope Pius XII,” he said.

Nonetheless, he left the door open for further study of Pius’ record, an issue that simply won’t go away. Indeed, he stated that there is need for a much greater effort in the work of formation, so that a new spirit could replace the former spirit of “suspicion, resentment and distrust.”

Cassidy called on Jews and Catholics to be for something. He suggested, for example, that they call for a halt to the expenditure of billions of dollars in armaments and weapons of mass destruction while millions lack the basic necessities of human existence. He asked Jews and Catholics to move beyond the “anti-anti” distinctions and to work together for a better society. He called for a sincere dialogue marked by genuine respect for one another. “We cannot and should not forget the past,” he said, “but we must not remain chained to the past.”

Cassidy displayed a willingness to listen and, during a post-lecture news conference, acknowledged that the listening had paid dividends. He was not bothered by the criticism that followed the “We Remember” document. “If it causes some reflection, that’s good,” he said. “It could cause us to go beyond mutual respect.”

“We have reached a milestone in our relationship,” he continued. “Now, it is time to consolidate this into a real partnership.”

It will take much more time -- many, many years. Even now, a Vatican congregation -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- is investigating theologians who work in interreligious dialogue, while other Vatican congregations attempt to promote it. For example, the congregation is investigating Fr. Jacques Dupuis, a leading expert on Catholic dialogue with Eastern religions. Dupuis is supportive of religious pluralism.

Enormous progress has been made. But as Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, said to the conference, “After Auschwitz, there can be no solutions, even theological ones.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999