NEW YORK – The cardinal in charge of Vatican relations with Jews landed in controversy during his first U.S. visit in his new position.
After a speech on theology and Jewish-Catholic dialogue at Seton Hall University, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch repeated a comment he made earlier this year in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, that the cross should be viewed as the "definitive" Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Rabbi Alan Brill, a Seton Hall professor who helped organize Koch's talk Sunday in New Jersey, told The Associated Press that Koch was responding to an audience member who had asked about the article the cardinal had authored. Koch had written that, "Since the cross of Jesus erases any desire for vengeance and calls everyone to reconciliation, it rises above us as the permanent and universal Yom Kippur."
Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni of Rome had complained that Koch seemed to be indicating that Jews should consider Christian beliefs definitive. Koch wrote in a clarification that he was addressing the Christian duty, because of the cross, to reconcile with other religions.
At Seton Hall, Koch repeated the explanation but did not elaborate, Brill said.
"We did feel a certain level of communication gap because in certain things, he did not move past what he has already said," Brill said.
Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the Seton Hall talk, called Koch's comments "not helpful."
"We really do have a lot of further dialogue to do," Greenberg said.
Through an aide, Koch declined to comment Tuesday to the AP.
In meetings with Koch that continued through Monday, Jewish leaders expressed concerns that the canonization process for Pope Pius XII was moving forward before all Vatican archives had been opened on the World War II-era pontiff, according to Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious relations with the American Jewish Committee, who helped plan Koch's meetings.
Jews and others who oppose beatification for Pius say that the pontiff failed to speak out enough to stop the Holocaust. Koch said nothing significant would be revealed in an additional investigation of the archives and that whatever information is learned would be subject to interpretation and would therefore not settle the issue definitively, Marans said. Koch noted that even among Jewish leaders, there is disagreement over whether Pius should be canonized.
"It was a disconcerting moment that was part of a larger positive context," Marans said. "It was part of a larger positive conversation and needs to be understood as such."
Greenberg called Koch's comments on Pius, "tired old rationales for not doing what's right and opening the archives." However, the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, an information and advocacy network, issued a statement saying there was no anger at the cardinal, only some "frustration" due to language differences. The organization noted that Koch acknowledged Christian "complicity" in the Holocaust and that Jews are "participants in God's salvation."
Koch was appointed about a year ago as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the office in charge of Vatican relations with other Christians and Jews. The former bishop of Basel, he was known for his experience dealing with Orthodox and Lutheran churches. On Wednesday, Koch was scheduled to travel to Washington for more meetings and a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.