Catholics improve teachings on Jews but aspersions remain

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NEW YORK — The reading at the Roman Catholic feast day Mass was to be The Triumph of the Cross, which says, "Before Jesus Christ every knee must bend."

All 220 students of Notre Dame de Sion, a private Catholic girls' high school in Kansas City, Mo., were to attend.

But Kim Miles, director of religious education at the school, felt the reading "wouldn't be good for Judeo-Christian relations," so she appealed to the priest and the reading was modified.

Notre Dame de Sion, which was founded by the religious order Sisters of Sion, who devote their work to bettering relations between Christians and Jews, is particularly sensitive to Jewish concerns.

The pupils observe Holocaust memorial day each year, and recently marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht with discussions. Some also went to a local synagogue service, Miles said.

Sophomores last year learned about the Holocaust. Teachers, during their orientation, visit a synagogue and meet with a Jewish educator.

When a synagogue in town was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti last year, students expressed their outrage to the congregation.

But schools such as Notre Dame de Sion remain a minority, say Catholic educators.

Nostra Aetate, a 30-year-old document from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church's relationship to Jews and Judaism by rejecting the charge of deicide.

Since early Christianity, Jews have been portrayed in literature and liturgy as the people who rejected Jesus Christ as the Messiah, had him killed and were, in turn, rejected by God and scattered in a diaspora of punishment. Jews were also associated with the devil.

The charge of deicide — reiterated each year in the liturgy of the Catholic Holy Week preceding Easter — fueled pogroms for centuries, during which countless Jews were assaulted, raped and murdered.

After Nostra Aetate, Jews were to be viewed as a people who "remain most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts God makes nor of the calls God issues," according to Vatican II.

Much has changed since about how the Roman Catholic Church educates its adherents — some 58 million in the United States and 1 billion worlwide.

But the changes have not sufficiently reached Catholics in the pews and in their schools, say Catholic and Jewish observers.

Although much of the most overt anti-Judaism in Catholic liturgy has been eradicated, some Catholics continue to receive the message that Jews are something "other" than a people blessed by God, .

"There is a difference between what they [the church hierarchy] say about a new teaching of Jews and Judaism, and what they do," said Sister Mary Boys, of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and the ADL's co-liaison to the Vatican, said, "The changes have not been implemented at the popular level enough."

Before Nostra Aetate, Catholics recited the Prayer for Perfidious Jews on Good Friday, praying for their salvation through conversion. The prayer was gradually edited out of the liturgy.

Yet many churches and schools still stage Passion plays, re-enactments of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion in which Jews are sometimes portrayed as informants leading him to death.

Though a priest sermonizing about the death of Jesus during Holy Week has guidelines for the homiletic presentation of Scripture that indicate the church no longer blames Jews for Jesus's death, he rarely reads them aloud, said Sister Rose Thering.

As a result, the post-Nostra Aetate teachings are not known to the average churchgoer, said Thering, founder of the National Leadership Confer-ence for Israel, a group that advocates Christian support for Israel.

Transmitting the changes in Catholic views has been slow, particularly in training teachers and revising texts.

Students in Catholic schools across the United States learn often about Jews and Judaism from a rabbi once or twice a year.

So Jewish groups are working with Catholic leaders in Los Angeles, New York and Boston to teach teachers. Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., is the only Catholic-affiliated college offering a master's degree in Christian-Jewish Studies, and offers scholarships to Catholic educators to study Christian-Jewish relations for a semester or year.

In a 1961 study of Catholic school texts, Thering found widespread negative claims about Jews, mostly about Jewish rejection of Jesus, Jewish murder of Jesus and the Pharisees as blind hypocrites.

But a 1976 study by Eugene Fisher found that "American Catholic religious materials are significantly more positive towards Judaism" than before Nostra Aetate.

But Fisher, head of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops, also found there "were almost no references to Jews and Judaism between the close of the New Testament period and the 20th century," which perhaps reinforced the "idea that Judaism ceased to be vital after the coming of Christ."