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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Three U.S. archbishops have issued separate apologies in recent weeks for the role played by the Catholic church in fostering anti-Jewish prejudice, leading to violence and oppression.
The most recent apology came from Denvers Archbishop Charles Chaput, in a Dec. 10 letter to the Jews of northern Colorado. It follows a similar letter from Cardinal John OConnor of New York to Jewish leaders on Sept. 8, and a speech by Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee to a conference of Catholics and Jews on Nov. 7.
According to an official of the U.S. bishops conference, the statements were not coordinated, and other bishops may issue their own apologies in coming months. The apologies were prompted, the official said, by Pope John Pauls call for a church-wide examination of conscience in preparation for the year 2000.
Reaction from Jewish leaders has been generally positive, with several calling the apologies an advance on the 1998 Vatican document We Remember. While We Remember offered contrition for the Catholic role in anti-Semitism, that document also defended the wartime record of Pope Pius XII, an issue that sharply divides many Jews and Catholics.
Experts in Jewish-Catholic dialogue say Weaklands comments may prove to be the most memorable. Alone among the three prelates, Weakland specifically acknowledged a Catholic role in shaping the context in which millions of Jews were murdered during World War II.
I confess that we Catholics contributed to the attitudes that made the Holocaust possible, Weakland said.
Weaklands talk contained three affirmations and five requests for forgiveness (see accompanying story). In response to each, he asked the Catholics in his audience to act like good Baptists and shout Amen.
I acknowledge that we Catholics, by preaching a doctrine that the Jewish people were unfaithful, hypocritical and God-killers, reduced the human dignity of our Jewish brothers and sisters and created attitudes that made reprisals against them seem like acts of conformity to Gods will, Weakland said.
Local media reported that several Jews in attendance said they never expected to hear such comments from a high-ranking Catholic official.
I firmly believe that the God we worship together cannot go back on his word, Weakland added. A covenant made by God will not be a covenant rejected by God.
Christians have often claimed that Christ superseded or annulled Gods older covenant with Abraham, an argument sometimes used to justify forced conversions or restrictions on Jewish religious life. In that context, Jewish leaders said, Weaklands affirmation of their covenant was particularly welcome.
Weakland called for Jews and Catholics to move forward together in four ways. First, he said, we must come to see that our God loves the starving baby in the Sudan as much as the dieting middle class in the United States.
Second, Jews and Catholics must work together to reverse the Cain syndrome that has spawned an overemphasis on individual rights almost to the exclusion of the common good.
Third, Weakland said, If we want all to live in a just world, we must honor those who speak out [about] the injustices against some of our members.
Finally, Weakland encouraged works of charity.
OConnors statement came in the form of a Sept. 8 letter to Jews, timed to coincide with Rosh Hashanah. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel published the letter as an advertisement in the Sept. 19 New York Times.
A spokesperson for OConnor said he consented to the advertisement.
OConnor expressed his abject sorrow for the anti-Semitic history of the Catholic church, though he never mentioned the Holocaust.
I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic church, high or low, including myself, who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way, OConnor wrote.
OConnor referred to the popes call to make Ash Wednesday of the year 2000 -- March 8 -- a special day of repentance for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium.
We most sincerely want to start a new era, OConnor wrote.
Chaputs Dec. 10 letter, timed to coincide with the last night of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, had a similar tone. He said he was writing with the love of a younger brother in faith.
The Christian faith is rooted in the Jewish people, Chaput wrote. In turning away from them, in persecuting G-ds chosen people down through the centuries, in ignoring or cooperating in violence against Jews especially during this century, too many Christians -- including Catholics, and most shamefully, even some ordained to do G-ds ministry within the church -- have betrayed the gospel and been a countersign to its message of redemption and love.
Chaput used G-d in keeping with the Jewish belief that spelling Gods name compromises the holiness of the deity.
On behalf of Catholics throughout the archdiocese of Denver, and for myself alone, I ask your forgiveness for the wrongs committed by Catholics against the Jewish people in the past, and the ignorance and prejudice which still exist, Chaput wrote.
Chaputs letter appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of the Intermountain Jewish News, the leading Jewish journal in the Rocky Mountain area.
Anyone who reads these statements has got to believe these three people are sincere, said Dr. Eugene Fisher, the U.S. bishops expert on Catholic-Jewish relations.
Fisher said he hoped that Catholics would use Weaklands affirmations and requests for forgiveness in the Sunday liturgy. They could easily be adapted for this purpose, and given Weaklands background, thats probably not accidental, Fisher said.
Weakland is a Benedictine and former chancellor of Romes leading liturgical institute.
Using Weaklands formulae in the liturgy could be an important step toward mainstreaming these issues in Catholic life, Fisher said. We need to remember, so we dont slide into these sorts of problems again.
Earlier episcopal statements from around the world, as well as the Vatican document We Remember, are gathered in the 1998 publication Catholics Remember the Holocaust, put out by the U.S. bishops.
Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee offered the following affirmations and requests for forgiveness in an address to members of a Catholic/Jewish organization Nov. 7. An official of the U.S. bishops conference recommends that parishes incorporate these points into the liturgy, either as part of the rite of confession or during the petitions.
National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999