Relations between Germany's Catholics and Jews have seen real progress over the past few decades, a German reverend and theological scholar said last month to a Philadelphia audience. Much of that progress had to do with the groundbreaking work of Pope John Paul II, whose papacy was dedicated to undoing some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric that was long embedded in church liturgy.
Not that there have not been some stumbling blocks along the way, Rev. Hanspeter Heinz admitted, and some of it has had to do with John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who doesn't have the same connection to the Jewish people as his predecessor.
The most significant of these setbacks popped up last February, when Benedict introduced a revised Good Friday prayer to be recited in Latin. It included changes that reintroduced the idea that Jews should become "enlightened" and, at long last, acknowledge Christ as the universal savior of mankind.
The reaction to the prayer was understandably fierce, not only among Jews, but also from Catholic allies, including Heinz, who made his remarks last month during a lecture sponsored by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph's University.
The priest called the new prayer "a step backwards" for both Catholics and Jews, citing that the previous version noted the Jews' ongoing covenant with God and pointed out that Catholics prayed for Jews -- though not for their salvation through Christ.
"The new prayer is so ambiguous that it awakens the fears of Jews, and their Christian partners, that the church would start missionizing again," said Heinz. He added that even if the prayer implies that God, rather than Christians, would lead Jews to Christ, it still has the same effect.
A professor emeritus of theology at Germany's University of Augsberg, Heinz is a member of the discussion group "Jews and Christians," which is part of Germany's Central Committee of German Catholics. The discussion group -- comprised of 15 Catholics and 13 Jews, some of them rabbis -- and the committee are affiliated with the Vatican, but not controlled by them; thus, the committee can issue statements that publically disagree with church doctrine, without having to clear it with church officials.
That freedom allowed Heinz and his colleagues to speak out about the prayer, which was the central topic of Heinz's lecture at Saint Joseph's.
Rather than write a letter to the Vatican -- which Heinz called "ineffective" and "the way of the bishops" -- he and his colleagues felt compelled to speak out.
So, on Feb. 29, they published "A New Burden on Christian-Jewish Relations." Their critique claimed that the new prayer showed contempt for Jews and disregard for the Old Testament. In response, they received little more than a letter from the pope's representatives, essentially telling them, as Heinz put it, "don't make trouble."
The frenzy over the new prayer made it a hot topic in the German media for a time, and Heinz noted that he was frequently invited to be part of TV and radio programs to argue his case. Heinz said that he always emphasized that the church should be against proselytizing to the Jews, "not only because the Shoah is so near, but because it would be a sin against our own faith."
While Heinz's article asked for the pope to revise the decision, he admitted that he was not optimistic that it would be changed anytime soon.