Revived Latin Mass Could Harm Interfaith Relations


Last week, Pope Benedict XVI issued a Motu Proprio, defined as a declaration issued in his own name, which authorized greater use of the Latin Mass, an ancient form of Roman Catholic worship that includes a prayer, read only on Good Friday which calls for the conversion of the Jews. As reported by Ben Harris in the JTA, the “measure intended to promote greater unity within the Roman Catholic Church by increasing the use of the Latin Mass is sparking confusion and controversy among Jewish groups as they scramble to understand the full extent of the decision.” Harris and other sources report that Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, issued a strong statement calling the pope’s decision “a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations.” Spokespersons for other Jewish groups have either expressed concerns or have sought “clarification” of the true meaning of the pope’s decision.

It is interesting to note a thoughtful Op-Ed piece by Raymond Arroyo in his weekly “Houses of Worship” column in last Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, which omits any reference to the “conversion of the Jews” clause, but reports on the fact that in issuing the decree to allow easier return to the full Latin Mass, Pope Benedict XVI predicted that “reaction to his directive would range from ‘joyful acceptance to harsh opposition.'” Arroyo adds that the pope did not anticipate the reaction among some Catholic clerics and scholars that his decision was little more than a “curiosity — a non-event that is likely to have little effect beyond a few ‘ultraconservative’ throwbacks.” Arroyo quotes David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church as saying the pope’s announcement is “much ado about nothing.”


While the full impact of the pope’s decree is being analyzed, it seems clear that his decision, to the world Jewish community, is certainly not “much ado about nothing.” The Tridentine Mass, which was codified in the 16th century, fell out of general practice following the historic Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, although it was never fully banned outright. Vatican II is best remembered by world Jewry for the historic issuance of the official Vatican document Nostra Aetate, “In Our Time,” in which the Catholic Church officially ended the charge of “deicide” against the Jews, stating that neither all Jews at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, nor those in later years should be blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus, which was carried out by the Romans under the Procurator Pontius Pilate. References in Catholic liturgy to “perfidious Jews” were also eliminated by Pope John XIII, who presided at Vatican II, which had been originally called by his predecessor, Pope Paul VI.

During the long and remarkable reign of Pope John Paul II, relations between the Roman Catholic Church, world Jewry and the State of Israel were vastly improved. On numerous occasions, Pope John Paul II expressed deep regret that the Church had not done more to prevent the Holocaust. He visited the State of Israel and established full diplomatic relations between the Jewish State and the Holy See, ending decades of non-recognition. On his visit to St. Louis in 2000, the late Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs thanked Pope John Paul II for “changing history” in regard to Catholic-Jewish relations; the pope warmly acknowledged that was his intent.

Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany, has gone out of his way to reach out to Jewish leaders to assure them of his desire to maintain cordial relations. But his decision to allow greater use of the Latin Mass appears to run counter to those assurances. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant churches have moved away from the “successionist” stance toward the Jews, the notion that the “Old Testament People” have been “succeeded” by the “New Testament People.” Any reintroduction of an official Catholic prayer calling for the “conversion of the Jews” would indeed be a setback to positive and mutually respectful relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the world Jewish community.

Rabbi Gerald Meister, an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Christian Affairs, expressed the concerns of many within the Jewish community in response to the pope’s decision, “It is as if the document Nostra Aetate had never been promulgated and placed in the body of official Catholic teaching.” He called the clause relating to the conversion of the Jews “a rather primitive form of spiritual anti-Semitism.”

We look forward to clarification of the impact of the pope’s decision from world, national and local Catholic leaders, and hope very deeply that it does not represent a step backward or an erosion of the enduring spirit of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate.