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Panel Considers Vatican Excommunication Move

February 5, 2009 By:
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From left: Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Carroll, professor Philip A. Cunningham and Rabbi Alan Iser discuss a recent controversial move by the pope.
Participants in an interfaith panel at St. Joseph's University expressed hope that Pope Benedict XVI's recent decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops associated with a breakaway sect -- including one who all but denied the Holocaust -- would not put a long-term strain on Catholic-Jewish relations. Yet each of the speakers also acknowledged that they had great uncertainty as to how it would all play out.

"I don't think this puts Jewish-Catholic relations behind 50 years," said Rabbi Alan Iser, who sits on the executive committee of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and teaches at St. Joseph's. But, he added, "this hits on a very gut level."

The university's Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations sponsored the Feb. 3 program. Rounding out the panel were Philip A. Cunningham, the institute's director, and Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Carroll, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Few students attended; instead, the classroom was filled with faculty, religious leaders and community activists.

Cunningham said that he organized the panel as a means to provide the campus and wider community with a context and a forum to discuss the controversy resulting from the Vatican's decision, made public on Jan. 24, to lift the two-decades-old excommunication of the four bishops associated with the Society of St. Pious X.

It's a group that Cunningham surmised might have thousands of followers, and rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, passed in the 1960s, including the church document, known as Nostra Aetate, that has paved the way for a warming of ties between Catholics and Jews.

The Vatican has said that the move came as part of an effort to unite the church and prevent the schism from becoming permanent.

On Jan. 21, Swedish television aired an interview with one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, in which he stood by previous comments stating that no Jews died in gas chambers during the Holocaust. The society has tried to distance itself from this, and Williamson offered an apology of sorts, but has not disavowed his views.

Still, Cunningham said that, far from an isolated incident, anti-Semitism is ingrained in the theology and literature of the society. He pointed to a 1997 article posted on one of the society's Web sites called "The Mystery of the Jews," which has a certain affinity with the rabidly anti-Semitic tract known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Many Jewish groups have expressed outrage with the Vatican; the chief rabbinate in Israel has temporarily broken off contacts. And locally, several Jewish groups put out a statement criticizing the pope's decision. Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, said that he's meeting with Catholic officials in the hopes of generating sustained dialogue on the issue.

The contretemps comes after a 2007 dispute in which Benedict -- considered more of a traditionalist than his predecessor -- ended the prohibition on a segment of Catholic liturgy that called for the conversion of Jews.


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