A new era of Catholic-Jewish dialogue

It’s been 40 years since Nostra Aetate and the Church no longer targets Jews for conversion.

There is no question 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 new courage and commitment. The historic Vatican document entitled "Nostra Aetate" ("In our Time"), which was proclaimed in October 1965, 40 years ago, set the stage for this revolution in the area of Catholic-Jewish Relations. Notwithstanding a long and torturous history, I would argue that we are clearly in a new era, since the declaration of Nostra Aetate. One of the most amazing things about all the changes that were wrought with Vatican II was the central role assigned to the dialogue with Jews and Judaism. 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 recent passing is a 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 of 2000. And the recently chosen Pope Benedict XVI is continuing in the footsteps of the previous pope, certainly in this area. Unfortunately the results of the New Era of Dialogue - and the revolutionary changes that have taken place between Jews and Christians in our lifetime - are not well enough known in the world. In fact, after all these years, we still know little about each other. In order to combat this ignorance, we need a multi-faceted, sustained and systematic educational program in many and diverse settings. IN A lecture that he gave in Jerusalem three years ago, Cardinal Walter Kasper - president of the Pontifical Council for Religious Relations with the Jews, who is here in Israel this week to mark this occasion - reviewed some of the history of Catholic statements on Jews and Judaism made by the Church during the past 35-40 years. The truth is that the Church has done much more to educate about Jews and Judaism than we Jews have done in our communities. This is, no doubt, due to the asymmetrical nature of Jewish-Christian history, and the fact that Judaism is more integral to Christianity than the reverse. In any event, the Catholic Church has felt the imperative to change their curricula, and we Jews have not. At least not yet. Educating Jews about the revolutionary changes in the Catholic Church toward Judaism and the Jewish People will not be a simple or short process. On the contrary, it will be a long-range but necessary evolutionary development. Many old fears and stereotypes will need to be overcome. The negative history of Christian-Jewish Relations of almost 2,000 years weighs heavily upon us, and people are not easily convinced that the Church has indeed changed some of its basic doctrines, which caused so much pain and suffering for so many centuries. Yet, we must begin where we can. For example, we need to let the Jewish People know that the Catholic Church no longer targets Jews for conversion. This has been made clear in countless statements by popes and cardinals in recent decades - including a statement by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, former President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, at a conference sponsored by ICCI 10 years ago in Jerusalem. Therefore, the objections by some rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Rome, to the participation of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (a convert from Judaism to Catholicism) at a major commemoration of Nostra Aetate at the Vatican last week are misplaced, since this did not signify a policy statement by the Vatican with regard to conversion. In the new Era of Dialogue, we must assert that just as it would be inconceivable for Catholics to teach about Jews in a pre-Zionist or pre-Israel fashion, it is impossible for Jews to continue to teach about Catholics - or Christians in general - in a pre-Vatican II way. We Jews - in Israel and the Diaspora - have an obligation to do much more to educate our communities about the revolutionary changes in Christian thinking on Jews and Judaism that have taken place in recent decades. The writer serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. A public symposium on "40 Years Since Nostra Aetate" with Cardinal Kasper will take place November 2. communications@icci.org.il