Catholic-Jewish dialogue – a new era

We have moved from persecution to partnership, from confrontation to cooperation, from helplessness to hope.

June 13, 2012 21:22
Vatican Assembly

Vatican Assembly (R) 311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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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 religious changes.

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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.

The 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 years).

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.

In 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 commitment.

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 2000.

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.”

There will 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 dialogue.

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 Jerusalem.

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 ( and as director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (

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