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Catholic-Jewish Relations

American Jewish Committee, Washington, D.C.

I am very grateful to Rabbi David Rosen for the invitation to be with you today. Vividly do I recall the times we have been together: in 1992 in Baltimore for a meeting of the International Liaison Committee; in 1994, in Jerusalem for the same purpose; in 1997, in Auschwitz, in a panel on peace-making; in 1998, in Jerusalem, when our interfaith group listened to a report on interreligious work in Israel, and a week later, when we participated in a live and lively exchange on the Italian Radio Network. Especially moving was the time we were together in the year 2000 just before the arrival of Pope John Paul II in the Holy Land.

Each time we tried to take the temperature of the moment in the increasingly coincidental trajectories of measuring the progress of mutual understanding between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. The contributions of the American Jewish Committee to this effort are remarkable. The Second Vatican Council produced the charter for our Church’s work since then. It also posed for our Church the enormous challenge of seeking to get the word out to our billion members, with the changes in our teaching at every level, and even in the language of our worship itself.

At the Council, Cardinal Augustine Bea introduced the first draft of what eventually became the Declaration on the Relationship Between the Catholic Church and Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). It seems to me like yesterday when the Cardinal stood before us at the Council to speak with persuasive logic of the request of Pope John XXIII before he died that the Council take up this issue. Cardinal Bea referred to what had occurred under Nazi rule in Europe during World War II. He repeated the injunction of Pope John XXIII that the Council should take whatever steps are necessary to be sure that never again would the Christian scriptures or the teachings of the Church be misused in a way that might contribute to anti-Semitism.

The Council document reminds Catholics of these points:

  1. The Church, as Saint Paul points out, is founded by Christ who, "according to the flesh," pertains to the Jewish people (cf. Romans 9:4-5). The Virgin Mary, the Apostles, indeed practically the entire early Church could be correctly described as Jewish. Although some Jews opposed the spread of the gospel of Jesus, "nevertheless, according to the Apostle, the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues (cf. Romans 11:28-29)."
    "Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred Synod (The Second Vatican Council) wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies and of brotherly dialogues."
  2. With specific reference to texts of the Christian scriptures, the Council points out that what happened to Jesus in "his suffering cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today." What follows is the basis for catechetical instruction to ensure that neither Christian scriptures nor Christian teaching could be used in any way that would be an excuse for anti-Semitism.

A Baltimore native, Rabbi Mark Tanenbaum, represented the American Jewish Committee at our emergency International Liaison Committee meeting in Rome in 1987. There he helped all present realize better the complexity of the Holocaust in Poland, when he told us of a meeting of Jewish and Catholic survivors he helped to organize in Chicago. All was anger and confusion until he had each Jewish survivor describe how he or she succeeded in escaping. Every single one had been saved by a Catholic Pole! A book published earlier this year tells the story of many rescues: The Righteous, the Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, by Martin Gilbert. (Henry Holt & Co., L.L.C., New York, published in 2003)

Rabbi Jim Rudin was an immense help to us in the process of drafting our U.S. Bishops’ position paper entitled, Toward Peace in the Middle East, issued in November, 1989, which is on our conference website and still gives the principles we invoke in speaking of the situation there.

Rabbi Jim Rudin was a valued companion in a traveling dialogue, to Jerusalem, Israel, and some of the territory under the Palestinian authority in 1998. (This was a time when we were together with Rabbi David Rosen.) During this trip, where the group was made up of seven rabbis, six bishops, two priests, and two laymen, one Jewish and one Catholic, we shared in visits to each other’s holy places, in briefings from local authorities, and in growth in mutual understanding of what is important to each of us.

We Catholics attended synagogue services on the Sabbath and on the feast of Purim. Our Jewish friends assisted at our daily celebration of the Eucharist, at which we all exchanged a sign of peace, of Shalom. In all, we spent about an equal amount of time visiting each other’s significant shrines and services.

Together we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth. This reminds of another way in which we are indebted to Rabbi Rudin and the American Jewish Committee for joining in intervening with the Government of Israel to stop the construction of a mosque last year near the Basilica.

At Capernaum in Galilee an especially poignant moment came when we met on the site of the second-century synagogue. Dr. Eugene Fisher, of our Bishops’ staff in Washington, recalled that it was here, nearly two millennia earlier, that Jesus and taught in the synagogue of that day. Our coming meant that successors of the Apostles of that day were in peaceful dialogue with successors of the Scribes and Pharisees who were interlocutors of Jesus.

Especially engaging was our meeting with representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem. It was a talk at a time when we could speak of positive building blocks for peace. Since that time, the second Intifada has begun and we are faced with the reality of a cycle of hostility and violence that must sadden all of you, as it saddens thoughtful people everywhere.

As we have shown, by our close consultation with the Jewish community in writing our pastoral, Toward Peace in the Middle East, and in constant discussions since that time, I can affirm that our Conference of Catholic Bishops stands among the supporters of the State of Israel as well as supporters of a future, viable Palestinian State. The policy of the Church, internationally as well as in our country, is to be at once pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, affirming the essential rights and needs of both.

As you know, the Holy See has entered into agreements with both the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. What is distinctive in the fundamental agreement with Israel is its prologue. Here the Catholic Church acknowledges the theological significance of its relationship with the State of Israel as part of its larger, doctrinally significant dialogue seeking reconciliation with the people of God, which is Israel.

May the Lord grant that the end of a terrible Iraqi regime will soon lead to real progress toward a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The cycle of violence that we have seen simply has to stop. Somehow, one must get past the present mutual antipathy and continued recriminations to new attitudes of understanding and mutual respect. Without these, neither side will be able to attain legitimate goals.

I quote now from a recent talk of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, and for many years one who has been intimately involved in the International Policy Committee of our Bishops’ Conference. Just last week he said,

"Israelis rightly see the failure of some Palestinians to demonstrate full respect for Israel’s right to exist and to flourish within secure borders as a fundamental cause of the conflict… Palestinian leaders must clearly and unequivocally renounce terrorist violence and terrorist acts against innocent civilians and must show the Israeli people that they are fully committed to prepare their people to live in peace with Israel.

"Palestinians see the occupation as a central underlying cause of the present crisis. This becomes unfortunately more problematic when it is cemented by the growth and expansion of settlements and is maintained by force and marked by daily indignities, abuse and violence. As difficult as it may be, we are convinced that both Israelis and Palestinians are called to be partners in an historic peace. Despite the current crisis, the elements of a just and lasting peace remain the same: (and here we are echoing our statement of 1989) real security for the State of Israel, a viable state for Palestinians, just resolution of the refugee problem, an agreement on Jerusalem which protects religious freedom and other basic rights, and implementation of relevant United Nations resolutions and other provisions of international law."

Consistently, since the issuance of our statement in 1989, this has been our Catholic bishops’ position over the past many years and is the position of the Catholic community.

I want to put in a word now about the context of our local, Maryland history. Our State had its roots in the only colony settled from England under Catholic leadership. The colonists came in 1634 with the understanding that, under the Calverts, Catholics and others could freely practice their religious faith according to the dictates of the individual conscience. In the Acts of Toleration enacted in 1639 and in 1649, we had the first instance in the English-speaking world of the beginning of protected religious freedom as we know it. It was not perfect, because it embraced only the people then in the colony, who were Christians. But it did honor the faith of the Protestants, who comprised a significant percentage of the early settlers. Recently, I read a commentator who stated that it would cover the faith of anyone who came and wanted to assert his or own right to worship in accord with conscience.

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688), the English crown replaced the Calverts and sent Royal Governors to enforce in Maryland the English penal laws against Catholics. Within a few years, by 1700, all the Catholic churches in the colony were razed to the ground, and Mass could not be celebrated publicly. Priests could not hold property and were often arrested for little cause, and the Catholic laity could not hold public office or vote in elections. In time, they paid double taxes. Thus, when the American Revolution came along, Catholic leaders in Maryland gave strong support to the movement.

Father John Carroll, who was to become the first bishop in our country, and his cousin Charles Carroll of Carrollton, joined Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase as emissaries from the Continental Congress to Canada. They tried in vain to persuade the predominantly Catholic Province of Quebec to join in the quest for independence from England.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence with a large, boldly written signature to assert as strongly as possible his commitment to the cause. Back in Maryland, Charles Carroll, educated as an attorney in England but forbidden to practice law because of his faith, became the first president of the State Senate of Maryland and also U.S. Senator. He wrote what stands to this day as perhaps the most forceful assertion of religious freedom anywhere. And he ardently promoted the adoption of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Although Catholics, like the Jewish immigrants after them, continued to suffer many disabilities and encounter much prejudice, the protection afforded by the Constitution helped our people as it has helped the Jewish people, to flourish religiously in ways unique in the world. When my distinguished predecessor, Cardinal James Gibbons, went to Rome in 1887 to receive the red hat of a Cardinal, he spoke with pride of the liberty all Americans enjoyed in the practice of religious faith and in the pursuit of individual destinies. He spoke prophetic words: "There are indeed grave social problems which are engaging the earnest attention of the citizens of the United States. But I have no doubt that, with God’s blessings, these problems will be solved without violence, or revolution, or injury to individual right." (Ellis, Life of Gibbons, I, page 309)

Gibbons’ position, and that of our leadership in the United States, was not always welcome in some Catholic circles in Europe. When the Second Vatican Council came in the early 1960s, the Bishops of the United States were principal movers in promoting the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore and others from the States supported the vision of Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who taught at the Jesuit Seminary in Woodstock, Maryland. On December 7, 1965, the Council voted its approval, 2308 to 70, its approval of the Declaration. Subsequently, and this is very important for us to realize, agreements were reached with a number of countries where Catholics made up the majority of citizens, as in Spain and Latin America, to assure freedom for all faith groups to practice their faith where there had been legal restrictions before.

Along with the issue of religious freedom, there is another, more subtle, festering concern for us all, that of anti-Semitism. Already at the Second Vatican Council, the Church, speaking at its highest level, that is the bishops together with the Pope, affirmed the point that Cardinal Bea had made in introducing the document which became Nostra Aetate. The issue, however, has not gone away.

In September 1990 the International Liaison Committee met in Prague and there issued a stinging condemnation of anti-Semitism: "The Catholic delegates condemned anti-Semitism as . . . a sin against God and humanity and affirmed that one cannot be authentically Christian and engage in anti-Semitism." (This was the same meeting at which Cardinal Cassidy, in his opening remarks, spoke of the need for the Catholic Church to do T’shuveh - penance, conversion, in its relationships with the Jewish people.)

Pope John Paul II did just that when, a few months later, he quoted the Prague Declaration and, most emphatically, at the historic Penitential Mass in St. Peter’s in March, 2000, when he spoke of the Church’s past failures and sins with respect to the Jewish people and concluded with a prayer asking God’s forgiveness:

God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations... We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and, asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. (Jerusalem, 26 March 2000)

The injunction of the Prague Declaration found its echo in the pronouncements of Church leaders in Eastern Europe, notably Poland, where Cardinal Glemp led the Polish bishops in recalling the glorious moments of the history of Judaism in that land, the days of Hitler, and the need to oppose in strongest terms any show of anti-Semitism.

(Note also what the Synod of America said, as reflected in Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter Ecclesia in America, 1999:

. . . American society also includes Jewish communities, with which the Church has fostered increasing cooperation in recent years. The history of salvation makes clear our special relationship to the Jewish people. Jesus belongs to the Jewish people, and he inaugurated his Church within the Jewish nation. A great part of the Holy Scriptures, which we Christians read as the word of God, constitute a spiritual patrimony which we share with Jews. Consequently any negative attitude in their regard must be avoided, since "in order to be a blessing for the world, Jews and Christians need first to be a blessing for each other.")

Within the past year, on the occasion of the renewed Intifada, there have very sad instances of anti-Semitic activity, especially in Europe but also in this hemisphere. A word about Europe: it is clear that the activity, particularly in France, does not involve practicing Catholics, but elements in the large Muslim population in that country. It is also clear that the political leaders, well aware of the growing political clout of the Muslims, hesitate to condemn the offensive words and actions. There has been no such hesitation on the part of the Church in France. Witness what the French bishops said collectively last year:

In recent days, attacks were committed against several synagogues in France, in Lyon, in Marseille, in Strasbourg. The Jewish communities are deeply stricken in their most precious places of worship. Such acts of violence always make one fear the worst.

Even if the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has taken a dramatic turn in recent days, this does not permit such an escalation of intolerance. To strike a community, whomever it is, in its religious sensibilities and faith is a particularly grave act, which affects our democratic life with full force.

In condemning these attacks with the greatest firmness, the Catholic Church in France expresses its profound sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish communities. The Church calls all our fellow citizens to a particular vigilance. This is the cost of genuine social peace.

Father Patrick Desbois reports from France, "When the violence began against the Jews, the President of the French Rabbis, the President of the French Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the President of the Evangelical Federation and the Rector of the mosque in Paris, declared that any act of anti-Semitism and racism was against God and humanity. This common inter-religious declaration produced a great effect among young Muslims in France. After that, there were fewer acts of violence. In their dioceses, many bishops in France made the same public declaration, together with local Jewish and Muslims leaders.

"In many high schools, many catholic teachers and priests worked so that the young people would know that acts of violence against Jews or foreigners are sinful. In French public opinion it is well know that the Catholic Church definitively opposes anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, some organization of young Muslims go on presenting Jews as their enemy in the world. Even after September 11, most of them feel allied with Al Qaeda."

Following the leadership of Pope John Paul, the condemnation of anti-Semitism has been universal in all of our churches everywhere in Europe. Does that mean that every Catholic has heard the word? No, just as everyone in the United States has not yet fully absorbed this message. But, for example, graduates of Catholic schools have been shown to be freer of prejudice against people of other religions and races than those who graduate from other schools, including the public schools, precisely because they have learned, even unconsciously, the value of respecting every other human being as a sister or brother who is a child of God. This echoes the teaching of the Book of Genesis, that in each of us is the breath of life that comes from the Creator, and in this relationship to God we are also made sisters and brothers of one another.

In November 2000 at the death camp at Majdanik, just outside of Lublin, I witnessed a deeply moving service inspired by the teaching of the Pope. The Romanian Orthodox Patriarch, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the Muslim Imam of Poland and the ranking Protestant clergyman of the land helped lead the service. I had a part, reading in English the psalm with the words, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." The hour and a half program was televised live through all of Poland. All could hear the testimony of survivors that the loudspeakers carried as we walked, some 4000 strong, from station to station in the camp. By the end all felt the seriousness and the weight of the sad memories of the camp and I was reminded of another reality.

When Pope John Paul was born, his land was home to the largest number of Jews in the world. When he was ordained a priest a quarter of a century later-after the Nazis had taken the lives of millions of Jews-only a pitiful remnant remained. This priest from Poland has now seized the opportunity not just of a lifetime but of a millennium. The world will be forever better for it.