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Pope: 'Jews Are Not Responsible For Killing Jesus'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Coming up, we'll hear about a basketball star at Brigham Young University who has been benched for breaking that school's honor code.

But first, to what could be a major development in interfaith relations. Pope Benedict XVI has declared that there's no basis in scripture for the belief that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus. That, according to excerpts from his forthcoming book, "Jesus of Nazareth, Part II." The Catholic Church officially disavowed that belief in 1965, but it has remained a source of tension in relations between the church and Christians more broadly and the Jewish community.

Joining us to talk more about this is Michael Sean Winters. He writes the Distinctly Catholic blog for the National Catholic Reporter and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, the book, as we said, hasn't come out. But the efforts have come out. What exactly does the pope say?

SEAN WINTERS: Well, this is not a book about Jewish-Catholic relations. It's a book about who Jesus is, but - and specifically this part of the book treats his crucifixion.

And, you know, you can't escape the issue of Jewish-Catholic relations when you focus on Jesus because Jesus, all of his disciples, all of his family were Jewish. And this relationship has haunted the Catholic Church for 2,000 years. And mostly, it has been a tale of misery and crime and, really, horribleness. And that's only changed, as you mentioned, since 1965, when the Vatican too said the charge of deicide against the Jews was false.

MARTIN: Now, as we discussed, though, that the church officially dismissed this back in the 1960s, said it was false then. Why is there a need for the pope to come out again and say this? And clearly there's an intention here. Because, as we said, the entire book has not yet come out. These statements were clearly released early for a reason.

SEAN WINTERS: Right. I think, you know, this is a slightly different audience. A council issues documents, your average Catholic in the pew may or may never read those documents. But the first volume of this book by Pope Benedict sold over two million copies. So this is really an effort to get the teaching out to more people.

I think the other part of this is that Pope Benedict, one of his themes of his pontificate is that Europe cannot forget its Christian roots. But all religious traditions teach that you have to purify, you know, and take responsibility and apologize for the criminal and sinful behavior in your past. So as he's calling Europe not to abandon its Christian roots, he's also very much concerned to make sure that we're not dishonest about those roots. And we face the crimes that were committed by the church against the Jews.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, then, what practical effect do you think that these statements will have?

SEAN WINTERS: It's, you know, it's hard to say. I mean, I think, again, the most important thing is that millions of Catholics will read this and be educated about it. That's, you know, part of the pope's job is to be a teacher. The other part of it that I think shows his courageousness, and we now have two popes in a row who've really taken the lead on the issue of reaching out to the Jews and treating them with respect.

You know, Pope John Paul II was the first to go to the synagogue in Rome. You know, it was a powerful moment that a Polish pope, who grew up, you know, very few minutes from Auschwitz was the first one to make that jump. And that Benedict, who, you know, when he was elected five years ago, we also have pictures of him in his Hitler youth outfit, is following up on this.

And there's not a lot of support for this within the Vatican diplomatic core. They have, I think, a kind of European anti-Israeli bias. And there is some anti-Semitism in the church, among the clergy and among some bishops. I mean I've heard things in my dealings that were shocking and that still showed this animus. And so, I really commend Benedict and John Paul for taking the lead on this.

MARTIN: How are these statements being received in the Jewish community? There have been other statements that the pope has made or gestures that he's made that have angered Jewish leaders, or he felt that he was not taking this matter seriously at all by elevating one particular figure, put him on the step to sort of beatification. So can you just - do you know to this point how these statements are being received?

SEAN WINTERS: I saw Prime Minister Netanyahu has already responded with a letter to the holy father thanking him for this. And I think you will see, again, it's still a fraught relationship and there's a sense in which we're still learning how - what we mean by the words that we use. Because when a Jewish person says Israel, they mean something so much more than a geographic national identification. And that Christians have to reclaim that.

I think that's, you know, again, this is a very internal document. It wasn't intended for a Jewish audience. And the aim is to educate Catholics about this. But it has to be a step forward for Jewish- Catholic relations.

MARTIN: Michael Sean Winters writes the Distinctly Catholic blog for the National Catholic Reporter. He's also the author of a forthcoming book on Jerry Falwell. He was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. studios. And if you'd like to read his blog about the pope's statements, please check out our website, go to npr.org, go to the Programs tab and then click on TELL ME MORE. Michael Sean, thank you so much for joining us again.

SEAN WINTERS: Always a pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.