Catholic-Jewish dialogue – a new era
We have moved from persecution to partnership, from confrontation to
cooperation, from helplessness to hope.
Vatican Assembly Photo: Reuters
Most Jews in Israel and around the world remain ignorant and unaware of the
revolutionary changes which have taken place between Christian groups and Jews
and Judaism since the end of World War II.
Many, if not most of the Jews
in Israel and abroad simply know virtually nothing about these theological and
Instead, they continue to hold negative attitudes
toward Catholics and other Christians, which are based on a very unfortunate
negative history of Church persecutions of Jews throughout the Middle Ages, and
even in the 20th century.
According to the normative Jewish narrative,
the pope of the Holocaust period (Pope Pius XII) apparently did not do enough to
save Jews during this period (this topic has been debated for decades by Jews
and Catholics in the highest circles, and still remains a bone of contention
among some Jews and Jewish organizations, especially since the Vatican archives
for the period of World War II have yet to be opened to the public.
cardinal from the Vatican who is responsible for religious relations with the
Jews – H.E. Cardinal Kurt Koch – was in Jerusalem recently for a few days of
meetings with officials, during which time he gave a public lecture on “Jewish-
Catholic Dialogue” (co-sponsored by Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, the
Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), the American Jewish
Committee, and the Israel Jewish Council for Inter-religious Relations, all
organizations which have been involved in Jewish-Christian Dialogue for many
CARDINAL KOCH’S visit to Jerusalem was another positive step in
the deepening of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people and
the State of Israel that has been going on for many years now.
contrast to those who say that Jewish-Catholic dialogue is regressing, Cardinal
Koch made it crystal clear in his lecture that, from his point of view, this is
certainly not the case.
Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate “enabled a fundamental
new beginning in the relations between Jews and Christians. With this
declaration, the Second Vatican Council not only repudiated and condemned all
outbreaks of hatred, persecutions and slanders and manifestations of force
directed against Jews on the part of so-called Christians. In a positive sense
the Council also affirmed the shared patrimony of Jews and Christians and
pointed to the Jewish roots of Christianity. Finally, the Council expressed the
ardent desire that the reciprocal understanding and the resulting mutual respect
of Jews be fostered.”
There is no question in my view that the Second
Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, was a major revolution in the
Catholic Church and enabled the Church to face the modern world with courage and
One of the most amazing things about all the changes that
were brought about as an outcome of Vatican II was the central role assigned to
the dialogue with Jews and Judaism in the process.
Pope John XXIII
charged those who were responsible for preparing Vatican II to take up the issue
of the Church’s relations with Judaism as a matter of priority. And the simple
gesture, accomplished by Pope John XXIII, when he greeted a Jewish delegation at
the Vatican in June 1962, by saying “I am Joseph your brother” was accompanied
by the Pope’s descending from his throne to sit with the Jews in a simple chair.
Indeed, according to historian James Carroll in his widely acclaimed book,
Constantine’s Sword, “the Council’s mandate to reform the Church was rooted in
the history of its relations with Jews.”
This history has been long and
tortuous. But, since Vatican II – i.e., since the beginning of the dialogue
(between Christians and Jews and between the Church and all other major world
religions), I would argue that we are clearly in a new era.
We might call
this “the new era of dialogue.”
We have moved from persecution to
partnership, from confrontation to cooperation, from helplessness to hope.
Moreover, there is no question that the leadership of Pope John Paul II, whose
passing a few years ago was a tremendous loss for all of humanity, gave
continued and consistent leadership to promoting the dialogue between Christians
and Jews in ways that were unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church,
culminating with his personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March
According to Cardinal Koch, “the instructions contained in Nostra
Aetate have been reaffirmed and reinforced on a number of occasions by the popes
since the council, not least through visits to the Great Synagogue in Rome by
Pope John Paul II on April 13, 1986 and by Pope Benedict XVI on January 17,
2012, and by the visit of Pope Benedict to Israel last year.”
always be naysayers that say that the Vatican has not done enough, that there
are conservatives in the Church who deny the Holocaust, that the Vatican is
stalling on opening the archives, and that they have regressed by returning an
anti-Semitic “Good Friday” prayer to the liturgy. But in the context of the
history of the past 2000 years, we are clearly in an unprecedented era of
This includes the Church’s groundbreaking document on the
Holocaust called We Remember (1998) and the signing of the Fundamental Agreement
between the Holy See and the State of Israel in 1993, which has charted a
completely new course in the relations between the Vatican and the Jewish state.
I was in the room when the document was singed at the Foreign Ministry in
In short, the Catholic Church has made enormous strides
forward on the subject of relations with Jews and Judaism since Vatican II in
the mid-1960s. According to Cardinal Koch, “Israel and the Church remain bound
up with one another, according to the Covenant, and interdependent on one
another, by accepting one another in a profound internal reconciliation drawn
from the depths of their respective faiths.”
Could one imagine a cardinal
from the Vatican, appointed by the pope, making such a bold and powerful
statement 60 years ago?
The writer, a rabbi and educator, serves as founder and
director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il)
and as director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations