By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Local Catholics and Jews met Feb. 3 for a panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in the wake of Jewish displeasure over the Jan. 21 lifting of the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, including English Bishop Richard Williamson, who publicly denied the fact of the Holocaust.

Panelists for the discussion were Msgr. Michael J. Carroll, director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Philip A. Cunningham, director of the Institute and Rabbi Alan Iser, a member of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and an adjunct instructor at St. Joseph’s and Villanova universities. Moderator was Nancy Fox, associate dean of St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science.

Earlier, in a statement issued on behalf of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community, Marc J. Sucker, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said in a news release: “We understand the reinstatement is the result of internal Church matters and is not a direct endorsement of these loathsome viewpoints. However we are concerned when an open Holocaust denier is welcomed into the Catholic Church without any recantation or apology. This contradicts the open condemnation of anti-Semitism in past statements by Pope John Paul II and similar statements made by Pope Benedict XVI.”

The statement also said Jewish groups welcomed comments from the Vatican “reaffirming that Pope Benedict XVI deplored all forms of anti-Semitism, denounced the ‘insane, racist ideology’ that produced the Holocaust, and urged all Roman Catholics to do the same.”

Most of the questions before the St. Joseph’s panel concerned the nature of excommunication in the Catholic Church, what it means when an excommunication is lifted, and the current standing of the Society of St. Pius X in the Church.

Msgr. Carroll explained the juridical aspect in the Catholic Church concerning the relationship of bishops with the Pope, and that while bishops can validly ordain, for the ordination to be lawful it must be mandated by the Pope. He also responded to the very technical questions about the meaning of excommunication and the lifting of it. “I do think the discussion raised the questions people had, and we were able to respond to some of them,” he said.

Rabbi Iser commented that Jewish concerns on a gut level were a response to Bishop Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust, but the larger issue was, is the Church distancing itself from Vatican II and the encyclical Nostra Aetate (Concerning Catholic and Non-Christian relations)?

As for the discussion, “a lot of Jews are not familiar with the intricacies of canon law; what excommunication means, what the steps of reconciliation mean,” Rabbi Iser said. “For me, personally it was helpful to understand the intricacies and nuances.”

“On both sides we need to work to reinvigorate our structures of communication,” Cunningham said. “Both Jewish and Catholic leadership need to tend to this more. We have let it slide these past few years. We need to invest more energy into it, because circumstances like this happen every so often and if we don’t have structures in place it only makes problems more difficult than they ought to be.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.