Pope Benedict XVI's revision this month of a Good Friday prayer relating to conversion of the Jews has created some consternation within both Catholic and Jewish communities. What may perhaps be another bid to strengthen Catholic identity is being perceived as a step backward in interfaith relations.
Jewish organizations have expressed dismay, and last week the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement requested "clarification of the meaning and status" of the new text.
Roman Catholics long involved in interfaith dialogue worry that the prayer creates confusion over where the church stands on the nature of the Jewish covenant, and particularly on proselytizing.
The controversy comes just as the pope is making preparations for a trip shortly after Easter to the United States, where his visit is to include a meeting with prominent interfaith leaders.
In one sense, the revised prayer – which will only be used in traditionalist Latin services – is a clear step forward. It replaces a prayer in the Latin missal that was particularly offensive to Jews, using such phrases as "the blindness of that people," "lifting the veil from their hearts," and delivering them "from their darkness." Many saw that prayer as having historically contributed to anti-Semitic violence on Good Friday.
This "conversionist" emphasis differs from the prayer approved in 1970 for use in English services, which seeks the salvation of Jews but only in general terms.
"Why not just translate the 1970 prayer into Latin?" asks the Rev. John Pawlikowski, of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Father Pawlikowski heads the International Council of Christians and Jews and has engaged in Catholic-Jewish dialogue for nearly 40 years. "The church now seems to speak with two voices, and how do you maintain theological integrity when you do that?"
During the extensive Catholic-Jewish dialogue since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the church has made statements that the Jewish covenant was ongoing, and that it was inappropriate to target Jews for proselytizing. The new prayer seems to contradict that.
"Jews have been led to believe ... that the church viewed the Jewish people in a unique light," says Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. "Perhaps it was a degree of naiveté not to realize the issue was by no means unanimous in the church."
The Most Reverend Richard J. Sklba, chairman of the interreligious affairs committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement saying the church "remains steadfastly committed" to deepening its ties with the Jewish community. He also said the pope intended "the clear articulation that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and his Church."
For Jews, proselytizing remains an extremely sensitive issue, often perceived as an attack on their existence. "There is something sad about a profound world religion with more than a billion people feeling ... it needs to put in its prayers ... a call for another people, barely 15 million strong, to see the light," says Rabbi Irwin Kula, copresident of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In a recent letter to Rabbi Rosen, the Vatican's interfaith leader, Cardinal Walter Kasper, stated that the prayer is meant in an eschatalogical sense and that no mission to Jews is intended.
"We need that statement to be endorsed at the highest level. That would immediately defuse things," Rosen says. "In the longer term, we need to tease out the deeper question of our relationship."