In interfaith dialogue, everyone enjoys meeting one another and sharing good times. But the quality of interfaith dialogue and the relationship between dialogue partners is often best gauged by the way and the extent to which they are able to discuss issues of sensitivity and disagreement.
The Symposium held at the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in St Kilda on 29 April 2012 - "A Cross Too Heavy: Pius XII and the Jews of Europe" – therefore testified to the health and maturity of the Christian Jewish dialogue in Melbourne. Hosted by the B'nai B'rith Melbourne Mitzvah Lodge and the Council of Christians and Jews - Victoria, it addressed an issue that has been of great concern to both Jews and Catholics for some time now.
Approximately 300 people, the majority from the Jewish community, attended the event to hear Sydney-based historian Dr Paul O'Shea speak. The author of the book "A Cross Too Heavy: Eugenio Pacelli: Politics and the Jews of Europe, 1917-1943", Dr O'Shea is the Dean of Mission at Rosebank Catholic College and has also taught for Jewish centres of education. Following his presentation, Rabbi Fred Morgan of Temple Beth Israel and Mr David Schütz, the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, both spoke briefly on issues pertaining to the topic.
The symposium was harmonius. Despite the headline of a newspaper report of this symposium, there were no “raised voices”. The speakers were palpably amicable. The addresses were scholarly, frank, honest and thought-provoking. The subjects addressed are confronting but there was no antagonism.
Dr Paul O’Shea presented an epitome of his four years of research in the Vatican archives and other historical records into the relationship of Pope Pius XII with the Jews. He described the vastness of those archives and their limitations. He referred to the theological and political constraints within which the pope worked. He spoke of efforts to help the Jews and raised questions as to whether more could and should have been done. He concluded that the more one delves into the archives, the white does not get whiter, the black does not get blacker, the grey just gets murkier. Dr O'Shea did not offer an opinion on the cause for the canonisation of Pope Pius XII, but limited his remarks to the results of his historical research.
Rabbi Fred Morgan spoke about the effect of the Holocaust on post Holocaust Jewish thinking. He said, first, Jews recognised the need for their own country as a safe haven for Jews as there were almost no open doors for Jewish refugees in the late 1930s; secondly universal ethics had been challenged as people were killed because the Nazis declared Jews were not people; and thirdly genocide should never occur again to Jews or any other ethnic group.
David Schütz explained the criteria for, and process of beatification and canonisation. This has been an area of some misunderstanding. It is sometimes incorrectly thought that to declare someone 'a saint' is a mark of approval for all that that person did (or did not do) in their life. Mr Schütz explained that 'sainthood' has to do with holiness, and that the Catholic Church believes it is God who makes saints, not the Church.
Following the speakers, there was an opportunity for questions from the floor, sometimes raising confronting issues and concerns. Clearly at this time there remain many questions which cannot now be answered (and may in fact never be). But all three speakers agreed that the historical study must proceed unimpeded, that the cause for beatification or canonisation of Pope Pius was a matter for the Catholic Church to determine on its merits, and that this is a topic on which both Jews and Christians must continue to dialogue to overcome misunderstandings or any possible offence in the years to come.
Many thanks are owed to the vision and efforts of the organising committee: Philip Bliss, Penny Jakobovits, Thilo Troschke, and Walter Rapoport of the Council of Christians and Jews, and Janice Huppert, Bernard Korbman, Sue Newman and Faye Dubrowin of B'nai B'rith.
(By David Schütz with contributions from Michael Cohen. A transcript of the three presentations will be posted on the websites of the Council of Christians and Jews and B'nai B'rith.)