Roman Catholics, Jews try to mend old injustices

November 01, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

About 30 Roman Catholic priests led by Bishop P. Francis Murphy went to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Friday for a scholarly reconciliation with the Jewish community 500 years after the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Conviviality reigned at the synagogue -- during its lunch for the Catholic clergy, the afternoon discussions among scholars and an evening service of commemoration -- but it was not always that way.

Eugene J. Fisher, chief adviser to the nation's Catholic bishops on Jewish-Christian relations, referred to a Spanish archbishop who said recently that "what was done by Christians to Jews 500 years ago was exactly the opposite of what should have been done under the tenets of the church."

Such statements are "the spirit of the Spanish church today" and yesterday's gathering in Baltimore was "a moment of healing," Dr. Fisher said, but he offered a correction to the view that it took 500 years of change to reach this point of interfaith harmony and mutual respect.

"The real changes took place not over a period of 500 years but over the last 25 years -- since the Second Vatican Council," Dr. Fisher said.

Martin A. Cohen, professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said the persecution of Spanish Jews was more political than religious in the 15th century. He called the Spanish old guard's selective distrust of Christian converts from Judaism "a racial myth invoked for political ends" and "the precursor of all right-wing movements in Europe since then." The Spanish Inquisition was "the first of the modern totalitarian institutions," he said.

Citing the example of King Ferdinand himself, who was descended from a noble Jewish family, Dr. Cohen said that politics, rather than religious belief, was the basis for erasing his Judaism.

History has distorted the truth about Queen Isabella, who was "a very practical monarch" and "consummate politician and diplomat," Dr. Cohen said. "Isabella, I think, has been given a bad press."

Dr. Fisher said this is just as true of Christopher Columbus, no being accused of "genocide" because of "the microbes that were brought here by Europeans." Pointing to the greater survival of Indian identity in Central and South America under the Spanish than in North America under the English, Dr. Fisher said, "The National Council of Churches tends to blame poor Columbus for everything."

Rabbi Murray Saltzman described Baltimore's Jews as "buoye by the movement toward [diplomatic] recognition of Israel at the Vatican." And the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent De Paul Roman Catholic Church in the city, said of the joint restudy of history and the resulting reconciliation between Christians and Jews that "coming clean is part of it."

Dr. Cohen's subject for the Rabbi Morris Lieberman Memorial Lecture Friday night at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was "1492-1992: What We Owe to the Spanish Jew."

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