- In 1967, during the early thaw of Catholic-Jewish relations,
Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg addressed a Catholic audience about
the conflicting Messiah beliefs.
- The Orthodox rabbi noted that one difference between
Jews and Catholics is whether the Messiah is coming for the first or second
time. Christians believe the Messiah - a Jew from Nazareth called Jesus
- came 2,000 years ago, and after dying and being resurrected, will someday
return to redeem the world.
- Jews say the Messiah has yet to arrive - a belief that
led to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and killings of Jews who refused
to accept the Christian view.
- Rabbi Greenberg suggested the dispute be tabled until
the Messiah arrives. When the Messiah comes, Jews and Christians "can
ask him if this is his first coming or his second," finally putting
the issue to rest.
- But this week, the Messiah debate suddenly took center
stage in Jewish-Catholic relations, in an appropriately bizarre and mysterious
- It follows the revelation last week that the Vatican's
top biblical scholars recently issued a report that for the first time
in nearly 2,000 years apparently validates as legitimate the Jewish wait
for the Messiah.
- A 210-page document titled "The Jewish People and
the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible," by the Pontifical Biblical
Commission and authorized by the Vatican's top theologian, Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, reportedly states that "the Jewish messianic wait is not
- It reportedly says Jews and Christians share their wait
for the Messiah, although Jews are waiting for the first coming and Christians
for the second.
- The new document also reportedly contains an apology
to the Jewish people for anti-Semitic passages contained in the New Testament,
and also stresses the continuing importance of the Torah for Christians.
- The book comes to light as anti-Semitism appears to be
increasing around the world from Christian and Muslim sources.
- For example, the Associated Press reported this week
that Russian prosecutors are investigating an anti-Semitic Russian Orthodox
Church priest, Sergei Nilus, who allegedly openly calls Jews the antichrist
and enemies of Christianity.
- But despite the potential significance of the new Vatican
document, it was seemingly buried upon publication, quietly placed in bookstores
in Rome last November. There was no press conference or public announcement,
unlike many other important Vatican documents such as the 1999 "We
Remember" Holocaust report.
- In fact, the world was unaware of the new "Messiah
doctrine" until last Friday, when The New York Times published a story
about it based on a short report two days earlier by the Italian news agency
- "Everything in the report is now considered part
of official Church doctrine," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls
acknowledged after it became public.
- Despite its potential significance, the document still
was unavailable in English this week, being translated only in Italian,
French and Polish. Further, the Vatican did not post it on its Web site
in any language.
- "For the time being the document ... will not be
available [on] the Internet," the Pontifical Biblical Commission told
one American rabbi Monday, adding, "an English translation will be
available [in] days."
- That left American Jewish and Catholic interfaith leaders
scrambling this week for any information.
- Initial speculation generally was positive, even as the
interfaith leaders stressed that they were speaking without having seen
the text. They also all questioned the "strange" behavior of
the Vatican in failing to publicize such a significant document.
- "The way it was released is extremely strange,"
said Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic Jewish Studies Program
at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "Normally they launch
these things with fanfare and press conferences. Also the lack of an authorized
English translation is particularly disturbing."
- "It's very strange, " said Michael Signer,
professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
"This is not the most salutary way this could have been done."
- In Rome, Vatican officials denied they tried to hide
the document fearing criticism from right-wing Catholics who oppose theological
- "There was no intention to hide it," said a
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
- In the United States, Eugene Fisher, ecumenical director
for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, blamed a Vatican leadership
that is understaffed and "clueless" about what is important to
- But Fisher, who said he saw an English draft of the text
last year, expounded on its importance. He noted that the theologically
conservative Cardinal Ratzinger - the second most powerful person in the
Vatican after the Pope - signed off on it.
- Ironically, it is the same Cardinal Ratzinger who alarmed
Jewish leaders last year when he declared that the Church is waiting for
the moment when Jews will "say yes to Christ."
- Asked if Jews must, or should, acknowledge Jesus as the
Messiah, Cardinal Ratzinger told an interviewer, "We believe that.
The fact remains, however, that our Christian conviction is that Christ
is also the Messiah of Israel."
- How that declaration squares with the new "Messiah
document" was a source of much speculation this week. But Fisher contended
it's a major positive development.
- "If you put off the moment that Jews will come to
recognize Jesus as the Messiah until the end of time, then we don't need
to work or pray for the conversion of Jews to Christianity," he said.
"God already has the salvation of Jews figured out, and they accepted
it on Sinai, so they are OK."
- "Jews are already with the Father," he continued.
"We do not have a mission to the Jews, but only a mission with the
Jews to the world. The Catholic Church will never again sanction an organization
devoted to the conversion of the Jews. That is over, on doctrinal, biblical
and pastoral grounds. Finito."
- Signer, also a Reform rabbi said, "What's really
new is the validation of the Jewish position as truth, that the Jewish
waiting for the Messiah is a correct theological viewpoint. If the document
says what we think, it is another very important theological step in the
respect for Judaism as a living tradition."
- "It's a very important, critical statement,"
said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, head of the Center for Interreligious Understanding.
"Up until now they were saying Jews are completely and absolutely
wrong and we are waiting in vain and blind to the truth."
- Others were more cautious, noting continued significant
differences in Messiah beliefs - particularly that Christians believe that
their Messiah is Jesus who is also God, while for Jews the Messiah is not
a divine being and cannot be Jesus because he died before bringing the
- Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser to the
American Jewish Committee, raised several concerns.
- "Does the new book instruct Catholics to fully accept
the fact there is not only theological space in God's universe for Jews/Judaism,
but they must also affirm that the identity of long awaited Messiah, so
ardently prayed for by Jews for centuries, is unknown and will remain unknown
until the Messiah appears?" he asked.
- "That is a clear affirmation of Judaism with no
theological strings attached, no Jesus waiting for Jews at the end of the
theological day. If this is the book's message, then it is an important
step forward on the part of the Catholic Church."
- Father Pawlikowski stressed that the new document also
appears to affirm the importance of the "Jewish Bible," a new
term for the Vatican that he said would be highly significant if it replaces
the traditional "Old Testament," which has a negative implication
as being replaced by the "New Testament."
- "The document seems to say that Christians should
never deprecate or see the Jewish Bible as inferior, which coming from
major Vatican biblical scholars could have profound implications for Catholic
religious and educational material," Father Pawlikowski said.
- All the scholars said the next step is for the Vatican
to make available the English translation as soon as possible so it can
- "We hope to see it before the Messiah," quipped
one frustrated interfaith expert.