Nation of Islam leaders' incendiary remarks about whites, Jews and the pope should be understood in their historical context and compared with the Roman Catholic Church's vitriolic attacks on Jews in the 15th century, a Catholic priest said in
"Sometimes it's good to have those embarrassing comments in the historical record," the Rev. Robert E. Albright, Catholic campus minister at Towson State University, said.
Like St. Peter's embarrassing denial of Jesus in the Gospel accounts, the priest said, "They're in there to teach us."
Father Albright spoke to members of the Civitan Club of Baltimore. His subject was recent dramatic progress in Jewish-Christian theological dialogue. The luncheon program at Johns Hopkins University also honored the memory of four Army chaplains -- a Jew, a Roman Catholic and two Protestants -- who drowned 51 years ago in the North Atlantic as they prayed together after giving their life jackets to soldiers on the Dorchester, a sinking troop ship.
The priest's reaction to the controversy over anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic statements by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis T. Farrakhan, came during a question-and-answer session.
Father Albright likened the statements of Mr. Farrakhan and Mr. Muhammad to the "awful things about Jews" that the official Roman Catholic Council of Ferrara-Florence and Martin Luther -- as a Catholic monk -- said in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Now, Christians and Jews study Jesus "as an observant Jew" and increase their mutual understanding of Judaism and Christianity in the process, Father Albright said, "while Lutherans are starting to deal with Luther as a Roman Catholic priest."
It was not always that way, he said.
He recalled his own bewilderment and embarrassment as a child "growing up in a Catholic ghetto" in Pittsburgh because the negative attitude toward Jews expressed by nuns and priests whom he respected conflicted with his close, warm friendship with an elderly Jewish couple.
Interfaith biblical studies in Baltimore since 1985 "are resolving the confusions of my childhood," the priest said.
He described improved theological dialogue based on "openness to new experiences" by the participants, and said this openness has succeeded in bringing Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims closer together.
"But while we're here saying what we are about improved relations, other people elsewhere are saying devastating things," Father Albright said. "Maybe those things need to be said, out loud, and we have to listen. Then, the world can deal with it."
Just as church historians must deal with what Luther and the Ferrara-Florence council said five centuries ago, Christians and Jews today must listen to the comments of the Nation of Islam leaders "and consider them in terms of where they are now," Father Albright said. "I don't think it's where they are going to stay in years to come."
Also yesterday, the nine black bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, led by Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard, issued a statement calling "the blatant anti-Semitic remarks" Mr. Muhammad delivered at Kean College Nov. 29 and "his deplorable reference to Pope John Paul II" an insult to "more than 2 million African-American Catholics" in this country.
Mr. Muhammad was quoted as saying that black South Africans should "kill everything white" in their country, that the pope is a "no good . . . cracker" and that Jews have names like Rubinstein, Goldstein and Silverstein because they have been "stealing rubies and gold and silver all over the earth."
Bishop Ricard said, "Black Catholics in the United States not only look up to Pope John Paul for moral and spiritual leadership, but also hold him in great esteem for bringing about understanding and tolerance among diverse groups and people in this troubled world."
The pope's "numerous journeys to Africa, most recently to the war-torn nation of Sudan, demonstrate his pastoral concerns for African people and his efforts to bring about healing of the ancient wound of slavery and exploitation," Bishop Ricard said.