One of the major efforts of the Second Vatican Council to reform and modernize the Roman Catholic Church was a revolutionary document that Catholic and Jewish leaders agree has produced more positive encounters between the two faiths in the last 22 years than occurred during the first 1,900 years of Christianity.
A ringing indictment of anti-Semitism, "Nostra Aetate" (In Our Time), repudiates the once widely held Christian view that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. The roots of the document, adopted on Oct. 28, 1965, reach back to the re-examination among Catholic thinkers that followed the Holocaust of World War II.
But to Jewish leaders the world over, today's scheduled official meeting at the Vatican between Pope John Paul II and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim represents a serious setback to hard-fought progress in overcoming religious bigotry and political persecution. The negative reaction by Jews--if not mitigated--could seriously damage the fragile relationships between the Jewish community and the Vatican for years to come.
Jewish groups charge that Waldheim, the U.N. secretary general from 1972 to 1982, covered up a wartime past in which he acted as a senior intelligence officer for German army units in the Balkans involved in the deportation of thousands of Jews, Greeks and Yugoslavs to Nazi death camps between 1942 and 1944.
Waldheim, an active Catholic, has admitted his wartime service but denies any wrongdoing. He became president of Austria last July, and the visit to the Vatican is his first official trip abroad as president. He was expected to meet alone with the Pope this morning for about 30 minutes and to be accorded full honors, including a Swiss Guard salute and the playing of national anthems.
And, despite unprecedented progress in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, the Waldheim affair is only the latest in a series of recent Vatican diplomatic moves that have disturbed Jews and supporters of the Jewish state of Israel.
In 1982, John Paul overrode similar strong protests from Israel and Jewish groups when he received Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a private audience at the Vatican.
Last November, the Vatican ordered Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York to cancel meetings with President Chaim Herzog and other Israeli leaders in their Jerusalem offices for fear that a meeting there might be interpreted as accepting Israel's claim to sovereignty over the city--a claim that is challenged by Arabs. In a last-minute compromise that was compared to the wisdom of King Solomon, O'Connor met in the home part of Herzog's mansion rather than in his office, which is in the same building.
The incident angered many Jews, however. And only after a three-hour meeting with Jewish leaders upon his return to New York was O'Connor able to mollify them. He apologized to the Israeli nation for what he called his "mistake" of failing to be familiar with Vatican protocol forbidding such official meetings in Jerusalem.
John Paul's beatification on May 2 of a Jewish-born Catholic nun who was killed at Auschwitz in 1942 involved another highly charged religious issue that did not sit well with many Jews.
The ceremony, the second of three steps to sainthood in Roman Catholicism, was held in Cologne, West Germany, for Edith Stein. The issue was sensitive because many Jews insist that Stein was gassed not because she was a Carmelite nun but because she was born a Jew. The Vatican maintains she suffered martyrdom for her Catholic faith.
Jews Remain Vexed
In a related matter, European Catholic and Jewish leaders decided in February to move a Catholic convent away from the Nazis' old Auschwitz concentration camp in deference to those who said the convent's presence detracted from the physical site that many Jews regard as the most important symbol of the Holocaust.
And the plan of the Carmelite nuns who occupy the convent to name it after Edith Stein--an idea since abandoned--further rubbed nerves that were already raw.
On the international level, Jews remain vexed about the Vatican's unwillingness to extend full diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel and to recognize Jerusalem as its capital. The Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with 116 countries, including many of Israel's neighbors, but has declined to grant official diplomatic recognition to either Israel or Jordan, citing the need for their border conflicts to be resolved.
Centuries of Persecution
Israel claims united Jerusalem as its political capital, having captured the eastern half of the formerly divided city from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
But because Jerusalem has religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Vatican believes that the city should be under special, international supervision. The Pope also supports the idea of a homeland for Palestinian refugees.