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    Catholic-Jewish relations in Australia – a personal view

    By Rabbi Raymond Apple, AO RFD

    Few religious documents have produced so much commentary as the Nostra Aetate chapter on the Jews. Looking over my files I find that, for better or worse, a fair amount of commentary emanated from me before, during and after my rabbinic incumbency at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. I don’t flatter myself to think the pope knew of my existence, but I do know that at crucial moments I was consulted behind the scenes by Australian Roman Catholic leaders and often notice was taken of my suggestions, including ideas about how to finesse the nuances in Church documents.

    Telling the story involves two farewells. The first farewell was in Melbourne in early 1958, when a function at the Toorak Road Synagogue hall marked my departure for postgraduate study in London. The Catholic aspect will be related in a moment. In London I gained rabbinic ordination, a wife and children, worked for the Association for Jewish Youth and ministered to two London synagogues, before returning to Australia in late 1972. The second farewell was in early 2005 in Sydney, when the Great Synagogue tendered my wife and myself a reception on our retirement after 32 years in office. Why these functions involve Catholic attitudes has to do with their symbolism. In 1958 a Catholic lady who worked in the Jewish Education Board office felt unable to come to a synagogue because she felt it would infringe Church doctrine. By 2005 Church doctrine had relaxed to the extent that a synagogue function was attended by three cardinals: no-one seemed to think it strange, not even the cardinals themselves.

    The change was mostly due to Nostra Aetate. As a child I was aware that Australia had a tradition of Christian sectarian warfare, with Jews as rather bemused onlookers. Though our school had few Catholic pupils, the playground echoed anti-Catholic slogans. In our street, Protestants were hesitant to be friends with Catholics. I don’t remember much antisemitism, but I do recall anti-Catholic prejudice. Only later did I learn with a sense of shock that (with the possible exception of Archbishop Mannix) the Australian Catholic hierarchy could not weep for Jewish suffering in the Sho’ah but blamed the victims for their own fate. The Church in Australia (as elsewhere) picked the worst possible time to be cold towards the Jews.

    By 1988 when I joined the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services the climate had changed. RACS had six members – five Christians and a Jew. The Catholic bishop, Geoffrey Mayne, became a dear friend. When I came to Canberra for a meeting, I brought him a box of matzah. He often said that he wanted me to speak at his funeral; I kept answering, “Geoff, what’s the hurry?” In the end I was unable to go to the funeral as it was Erev Rosh HaShanah, but I sent a tribute for someone else to read.

    I was in London in 1965 at the time of Nostra Aetate and spoke about the event as well as establishing links with the Sisters of Sion, but that is not part of the Australian story. The Australian aspect, however, enabled Cardinal James Freeman to attend my induction at the Great Synagogue in early 1973, though some rabbis criticised him for wearing his crucifix in the synagogue. I had many occasions to see and speak with the cardinal, whose warmth and good sense I appreciated. He told me about coming to Flood Street, Bondi, the Chabad headquarters, when he visited his sister on Saturdays.

    In 1973 a group of us tried to establish a Council of Christians and Jews in Sydney. The Catholic archbishops was on side. His Anglican counterpart was reserved, so we changed the plan for the time being, and set up a Christian-Jewish Luncheon Club which met at the Great Synagogue every two months. By now, Catholic-Jewish cordiality was axiomatic. The Vatican was constantly refining its policies towards the Jewish people, producing a series of additional documents, often consulting Jewish views. Some of these documents will be addressed later in this paper.

    There was no formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue structure as yet. Some orthodox rabbis objected to the involvement of liberal rabbis and to a lay body being the conduit. Further, not all the rabbis favoured theological dialogue; the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others said the Jewish priority was “inner faith”, not “inter-faith”. Eventually a private meeting took place at the Sydney home of Dr Joachim Schneeweiss, the lay leader of the Jewish community, with the attendance of a handful of both orthodox and liberal rabbis. I was one of the orthodox participants. I believed that the Catholic Church was genuine in its desire for repentance and friendship, whilst realising that neither a Jew nor a Christian could ever get completely inside the head of the other. When news of the “secret” meeting got out, the orthodox attendees were criticised but would not resile.

    The Catholic Church in Australia realised that the amity between Catholics and Jews would not reach the grass roots level without the assistance of priests and teachers. Many priests were getting old and rather set in their ways; the younger ones needed a positive view of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, and I was involved in addressing and teaching in Catholic seminaries. Sisters Joan Nolan and Verna Holyhead of the Good Samaritan Teachers’ College asked me about starting a postgraduate course in Judaism. I thought of my wife Marian to conduct the course, which she did for ten years. She not only taught numbers of Catholic teachers but brought her students to synagogue services and invited them to Sabbath dinner at our home. So warm were the bonds that for many years, any Catholic teacher I met asked me, “How is Marian?” The course eventually moved to the Australian Catholic University. Some of the students were exercised by women’s role in the Church, and we were asked for our views.

    The Sisters of Sion had a major role in the dialogue movement. They administered the Council of Christians and Jews and attended Jewish adult classes, and the Sisters became like members of Jewish families. Sisters Lenore Sharry, Shirley Sedawie and Marianne Dacy merit special mention. When Lenore died, CCJ planted a tree in her memory outside St Mary’s Cathedral and I had the honour of giving the address on the occasion. Since I lived nearby I often visited her tree and thought of our work together.

    The Great Synagogue organised synagogue and museum tours with a constant stream of visitors including classes from Catholic schools, for most of whom it was their first time in a synagogue. Their teachers often supplied a set of questions to be put to the synagogue guides. The method did not always work. We got predictable questions like “Why don’t you Jews believe in Jesus?” What we did not at first expect were questions such as “What happens at a Jewish Mass?” We had to explain that each faith has its distinctive tenets and practices which can only be understood on their own terms. In time the Sydney Jewish Museum and Jewish Museum of Australia also attracted large numbers of Catholic visitors, who had not usually realised beforehand the extent of their ignorance about Judaism or known that Jesus was a Jew.

    There was debate in the Jewish community and amongst Catholics themselves about the wartime pope. Everyone admitted that Pius preached human rights and made at least a token attempt to save some of Europe’s Jews, but Jews thought he was morally weak, lacking courage and humanity towards the Jewish victims. He appeared to have a feeling that Nazism was a punishment for Jewish “blindness”. In 1998 the Vatican issued a document entitled “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust)”, which said that the Church bore a “heavy burden of conscience” and many Christians “were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest”. It said that Catholics “deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church”. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Australian head of the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said the document was an apology and an expression of contrition and repentance. The cardinal maintained, however, that historians had concluded that Pius XII “does not have a case to answer”. It must be said, too, that the Vatican document stated that the roots of the Holocaust were outside Christianity in “a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime”. I told the Sydney Morning Herald that the document seemed ”to whitewash Christianity”, a point I made in remarks at a well-attended symposium held by Christian and Jewish organisations at the Wesley Centre. The main speaker was Cardinal Cassidy, the chairman was the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, and the Jewish respondents were Professor Colin Tatz and myself. Holocaust survivors headed by Marika Weinberger told the media that the document was welcome but did not say enough and seemed to want to deflect responsibility.

    Proceeding with this personal account, I now come to the 1986 visit of Pope John Paul II. The pope asked for a meeting with Jewish leaders, which took place in the presbytery of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry president, Leslie Caplan, gave a measured speech of welcome to the pope. The response, drafted by the Australian bishops, was unremitting in its condemnation of antisemitism and admitted that Christianity bore a major share of responsibility for anti-Jewish attitudes. Privately informed beforehand of the tenor of the speech, I urged the inclusion of a positive reference to Israel, though my advice was not accepted. The meeting took place early in the morning and I spent the rest of the day with the media, who all wondered why the pope had not mentioned Israel. I was able to respond that the Vatican had actually acknowledged the Jewish State since (as the Israeli ambassador had already told me) the previous day in Canberra the ambassador had been at a welcome function and said to the pope, “I bring you the greetings of the President and people of the State of Israel”, and the pope had replied, “Give my greetings to the President and people of the State of Israel”. I told the media that formal recognition of Israel was bound to come, which happened when at the end of 1993 there was an agreement for the Vatican and Israel to exchange ambassadors.

    John Paul II had actually said in 1948, long before he was a cardinal or pope, “To the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel and sustain on its soil the great value embodied in its history and faith, we wish the longed-for peace and deserved tranquility”. As pope he virtually became the world’s moral leader, though he had issues with modernity and preferred positions from the past. His youth in Poland brought him respect from many of the Jewish survivors from Poland who settled in Australia even though Jews as a whole had problems with some things he said and did. He visited Australia a second time in relation to the beatification of Sister Mary McKillop. I was involved in the organising team because of the support an Adelaide Jew, Emanuel Solomon, with whom I have distant family connections, gave Mary at a time of difficulty.

    Throughout, I found myself witness to and often a participant in the series of historic stages whereby Australian Jews came to be on speaking terms with Catholics and in some ways better friends than with other Christian groups. We appreciated the candour of the Catholic leaders whom we encountered. This applied particularly to the formal meetings held between ECAJ delegations and the Australian Catholic bishops, starting in 1998. These meetings reached a depth which stimulated minds and hearts. Bishop Michael Putney of Brisbane said in 1998, “How sorry I am that so many Catholics let you down so badly in your time of greatest need”. They looked at social, ethical and even political problems and discovered commonalities of spiritual outlook: an example was a discussion in late 1999 about the then approaching Millennium. The two sides did not always, or often, agree on the answers to the problems. But the walls of distrust were gone, as was the tendency to believe the worst about the other side. It was now possible to tell one another when they felt particularly upset, and for the bishops to even voice misgivings at Vatican policies and positions. This new openness showed that the encounter was doing its work. It also showed that – as JP2 said in a 1994 encyclical – the Church was now prepared to examine its conscience and admit that there were times “when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel”.

    An occasion of unique significance was the publication in 1992 of a landmark document about Catholic-Jewish relations drawn up by the Australian Catholic bishops with some Jewish input (mostly mediated by Lenore Sharry) from me and others. Launched at St Mary’s by Bishop Bede Heather, this document was a sort of Australian Nostra Aetate, though its more accurate nuancing of Jewish concerns owed much to the fact that decades had now passed and the ongoing study and analysis of the subject had created deeper understanding. The document placed Australia far ahead of most other countries in Catholic-Jewish harmony. It should be noted that whilst our meetings with the Catholic bishops alternated between Jewish and Catholic venues, the Catholics were always careful to ensure that the refreshments were kosher.

    Summing up all these events and developments, one finds similar language used by every Catholic spokesman, from Father James Scullion who told us at Dr Schneeweiss’ home that the Church had “irreversibly changed” (especially in its missionary targeting of Jews) to Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who told the Wesley Centre meeting in 1999 that there was now “a radically different relationship between Catholics and Jews” (particularly in relation to the deicide charge). “Irreversible” and “radically different” are highly important terms. Catholics deserve every credit for having the courage to say such things, even though they could have saved countless lives if in early times they had sufficient respect for difference to make the centuries of hostility unnecessary. As my own remarks in 1999 made it clear, Jews acknowledged the Church’s genuine outreach of friendship, even though, as the Sydney Morning Herald headlined its report of that particular meeting, “Despite coming closer, Catholics and Jews have old wounds to heal”. I would rather the Herald did not talk about wounds. But the new mentality was preferable to the old. We saw it at a dinner after the Wesley Centre meeting, when friends conversed openly and informally.

    These comments addressed two of the main Jewish problems with Christianity – proselytisation and deicide, and, as noted above, the Christian contribution to antisemitism and the Holocaust. The establishment of the State of Israel, the seminal event of modern history, was appreciated by JP2 in the passage I have quoted from 1948 and a significant addendum was offered by Bishop Bede Heather in releasing the Australian bishops’ guidelines when he admitted that the Vatican knew that the Arab-Israeli conflict was complex and would not be solved without “a spirit of peace”.

    Not that this entirely removes the question of whether that Israel and the Jewish people can be measured only in theological terms. My feeling is that many Christians think there is a distinction between Judaism as a theology and Jewishness as an ethnicity. Jews know that the two are aspects of each other: in Eugene Borowitz’s words, “folk and faith, community and covenant, people and pledge… Protestantism and Catholicism do not know this intimate fusion of people and religion. The history of religions knows many other social forms for organising religious groups, and we have no reason not to accept our own. Indeed, without it we could not have survived as we did, nor yet hope to fulfill the covenant in history”. Jewish identity seems to me to be the largest remaining issue on the Australian (and worldwide) Catholic-Jewish agenda.

    It helped the dialogue that the Catholic world was structured and based on visible leadership. When the Vatican spoke the Church sat up and listened even if it sometimes grumbled. Jews do not have (or probably want) a global religious authority. On the other hand, existential issues generally see world Jewry in agreement, despite internal debate at other times. The existential nature of Jewish concerns was rather cynically articulated by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in the New York Times in 1984 when he said that what bothers Jews is “how to avoid expulsions and pogroms”. I prefer a broader approach, working together to face global issues and benefit all mankind.

    I fear this paper has said too much about myself. I don’t over-estimate my part in events. It is unbecoming to imply, “My own power and the strength of my hand have won me this result” (Deut. 8:17). My files of speeches and writings show I spent a lot of time on Catholic-Jewish relations. But if I were a card-player I would have said, “These are the cards I was dealt, and I had to handle them”.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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