Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made the statement in an unusual "meditation" printed on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
In the article, "The Inheritance From Abraham, the Gift of Christmas," the German-born prelate strongly condemned anti-Semitism, which he blamed for the failure of some Christians to help Jews during the "atrocity" of the Holocaust.
But, he said, it may be due to the Holocaust that "a new vision of relations between the church and Israel was born, a sincere will to overcome every type of anti-Judaism and to open a constructive dialogue of reciprocal knowledge and reconciliation."
"To be fruitful, such a dialogue must start with a prayer to our God that he gives first of all to us Christians a greater esteem and love toward this people, the Israelites," he said. "We pray equally that he gives also to the children of Israel a greater knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, their son and gift that they have made to us."
Ratzinger's warm tone and repeated emphasis on Christianity's roots in Judaism appeared aimed at easing severe strains caused by the controversial document on salvation that his congregation issued in September. The "Declaration Dominus Iesus" asserted the primacy of Catholicism and said followers of other religions are in a "gravely deficient situation" regarding salvation.
"The entire story of salvation," Ratzinger said in his new statement, "had Israel as its initial protagonist. For this reason, the voices of Moses and the prophets have resonated in the liturgy of the church from the beginning until today; Israel's Book of Psalms is also the church's great book of prayer."
"Even if the ultimate, execrable experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology that sought to strike the Christian faith at its roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance by Christians to this atrocity is explained by the anti-Judaism present in the soul of more than a few Christians," he said.
Ratzinger's acknowledgment of the failures of Christians to come to the aid of Jews echoed a statement on the Holocaust issued by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews in 1998.
Many Jewish leaders criticized the statement on the grounds that the church did not itself accept guilt for Catholics' complicity in the Holocaust and offer a full apology.
The declaration on salvation, issued Sept. 5, and Pope John PaulII's beatification two days earlier of Pius IX, the 19th century pope who severely restricted the civil and religious rights of Jews living in the papal states, caused renewed anger. In protest, two rabbis dropped out of a scheduled symposium on dialogue between Christians and Jews, forcing the Vatican to cancel the Holy Year event.
Although the pope strongly endorsed "Dominus Iesus," he has been at pains to reassert the Vatican's commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. He told his general audience on Dec. 6 that the gospel teaches that "those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes will enter God's Kingdom."
In his meditation, Ratzinger said that because of their joint belief in the Old Testament, dialogue between Christians and Jews "is placed on a different plane with respect to those with other religions." He said that although Islam also is descended from Abraham, "it has taken a different road that requires other parameters of dialogue."