(RNS) The head of a schismatic Roman Catholic sect known as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) recently labeled Jews "enemies of the Church."
The comments from Bishop Bernard Fellay could have triggered a public clash between Catholics and Jews, as in 2009 when then-SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson denied that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.
But rather than spark a crisis, Fellay has instead motivated Catholic Church officials to directly repudiate him and his teaching with strongly worded pledges of friendship with Jews.
"It is absolutely unacceptable, impossible, to define the Jews as enemies of the Church," said the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. "Anti-Semitism in all its forms is a non-Christian act and the Catholic Church must fight this phenomenon with all her strength."
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican's Commission on Religious Relations with Jews, lambasted Fellay: "The Jews are our older brothers," he declared. "We are inseparably linked with the Jews."
Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, wrote to some involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue: "I wish to assure you as both colleagues and friends that the Holy See and the USCCB find the statements of Bishop Fellay both false and deeply regrettable. ... The Catholic Church deeply values the friendship of the Jewish people and looks forward to the day when bias against them is eliminated everywhere."
Such statements reflect decades of Jewish-Catholic rapprochement, which the SSPX rejects. It began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking declaration, Nostra Aetate, in 1965. That document reversed 1,800 years of Christian teaching that Jews were collectively cursed by God to wandering and suffering because of the crucifixion of Jesus, condemned anti-Semitism and affirmed that Jews remain "beloved of God."
During Vatican II's deliberations, French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had strongly opposed Nostra Aetate. Although defeated by an overwhelming vote of the world's Catholic bishops, Lefebvre later established the SSPX in protest of many Vatican II documents, and one of the group's defining traits is its rejection of Vatican II's reforms.
In 1988, Lefebvre disobeyed Pope John Paul and ordained four SSPX bishops, including Fellay and Williamson, because he wanted his movement to survive his death. This resulted in their automatic excommunication. Hoping to woo the SSPX back into the fold, Pope Benedict XVI lifted their excommunications in 2009 so that conversations between the Vatican and the SSPX could begin.
Fellay summarized those ongoing talks in an address posted on YouTube in December. He declared that Jews and other enemies "from outside the Church" were "the most opposed that the Society would be recognized as Catholic." This shows, he argued, "that Vatican II is their thing. Not the church's. They see, the enemies of the church see their benefit in the Council. Very interesting."
Hostility to Jews seems inextricably woven into the SSPX's opposition to Vatican II. An analysis conducted last year by the Anti-Defamation League found various SSPX websites around the world that were riddled with anti-Semitic themes from the past.
The forcefulness of the church's reactions to Fellay's comments indicates that Nostra Aetate, the sapling planted nearly 50 years ago, has put down sufficient roots to resist storm winds of lingering anti-Semitism.
However, Fellay's rhetoric also has deep-seated theological aspects. And efforts to reverse or rein in Nostra Aetate are not restricted to external schismatic groups; they arise occasionally from within the Catholic community.
Koch recently called for "the Catholic Church to conduct a deeper theological reflection ... to throw light theologically on the new relationship with Judaism which has developed after Nostra Aetate." This new relationship also poses unprecedented questions for the Jewish community.
In 2000, in an iconic moment for the new relationship, Pope John Paul II prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, according to a Jewish custom. He inserted into the Wall a signed prayer formally committing the Catholic Church to "genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, that's a major task for both Jews and Catholics who seek to follow John Paul's call to forge "genuine brotherhood."
(Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League.)