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Presentation on Catholic-Jewish Relations

Catholic University of America

It is a joy to be again with Rabbi Jack Bemporad. In 1987, when the controversy over Chancellor Waldheim of Austria threatened the meeting planned between Pope John Paul II and Jewish leaders in the United States, Rabbi Bemporad emerged as one of those who represented the Synagogue Council of America in meetings with representatives of our Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee.

Eventually, succeeding Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, Rabbi Bemporad became co-chair of the group that met twice annually and dealt with subjects like moral values in public school education, pornography, and – this was a continuing agenda item – Israel, the emerging Palestinian state, and the small but ancient Christian population there.

This occurred against the background of the great changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations. The foundation for our new approach was first presented to that Council’s assembly of the world’s Catholic bishops in 1962-1963 by Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German scriptural scholar who had been a close advisor to Pope Pius XII. Cardinal Bea was named by Pope John XXIII to lead efforts for dialogue with Christian and Jewish leaders on issues of common interest.

On November 19, 1963, Cardinal Bea rose to address the Council on the theme of Catholic-Jewish relations. In an address which struck me at the time as extremely significant and challenging, Cardinal Bea recalled how Pope John XXIII personally directed the Council to take up the issue and explained why it was “so necessary” to treat it. He cited the Holocaust and how Nazi propaganda used arguments “drawn from the New Testament and from the History of the Church.” It was a question, he continued, “of rooting out from the minds of Catholics any ideas which perhaps remain fixed there through the influence of that propaganda.”

Thus began the legislative history of what was to become Nostra Aetate, the Council’s Declaration on the Relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian Religions. Solemnly enacted by the Council on October 28, 1965, its third chapter presented the relationship between Church and Synagogue in terms which responded to Pope John XXIII’s original directive.

The Declaration made these principal points:

  1. There are profound spiritual ties which link the people of the Church to “that people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy established the ancient covenant.”
  2. As St. Paul points out, Christ, “according to the flesh,” pertains to the Jewish people (cf. Romans 9:4-5). The Virgin Mary, the Apostles and, indeed, very many in the infant Church, were Jewish.
  3. 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 the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (cf. Romans 11:28-29).”
  4. The Church draws nourishment from the revelation contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Law, the Prophets, and Psalms and the wisdom literature – all are part of a heritage given to that people with whom God made a covenant through Abraham. (Addressing this point further, the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews in 1985 underscored the Catholic belief that the covenant between God and the Jewish people continues to exist. Pope John Paul II in Australia referred to “an irrevocable covenant”; in Warsaw, to “that election to which God is faithful.”)
  5. “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.”
  6. 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 or pretext for anti-Semitism.

Several years ago I contributed an article to the Festschrift honoring Rabbi Alexander Schindler. Here I presented quotations from public statements of the Catholic Bishops of the United States during the years of the Shoah, the Holocaust.

In one case, the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, condemning the teaching of Nazism, especially its “racialism,” had an a galvanizing effect on the American Catholic community.

The American bishops, meeting in Washington in November of 1938 just after Kristallnacht, utilized the entire period of a national radio broadcast they had organized to issue a series of denunciations of what one called “a shameless orgy of ruthless oppression, even extinction, willed by the mad lust for power…upon a helpless, already shackled people.” Gershon Greenberg, assessing the role of “American Catholics during the Holocaust,” cites a number of public and private interventions of members of the Catholic hierarchy, such as the Cardinal Archbishops of Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, to denounce Hitler and “to safeguard the rights of Jewish victims.”

Mr. Greenberg speaks also of the numerous interventions with the United States and other governments made by the Apostolic Delegate of the Holy See to the United States, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, who represented Pope Pius XII to the Catholics in our country.

It can be assumed that Archbishop Cicognani encouraged the one major statement of the American bishops during the course of the Second World War. It was issued on November 14, 1942, and contained the following strong appeal with regard to the Jewish plight:

“Since the murderous assault on Poland, utterly devoid of every semblance of humanity, there has been a premeditated and systematic extermination of the people of the nation. The same satanic technique is being applied to many other peoples. We feel a deep sense of revulsion against the cruel indignities heaped upon the Jews in conquered countries and upon defenseless peoples not of our faith. We join with our brother bishops in subjugated France: ‘Deeply moved by the mass arrests and maltreatment of Jews, we cannot stifle the cry of our conscience. In the name of humanity and Christian principles our voice is raised in favor of imprescriptible rights of human nature.’ We raise our voice in protest against despotic tyrants who have lost all sense of humanity by condemning thousands of innocent persons to death in subjugated countries as acts of reprisal, by placing other thousands of innocent victims in concentration camps, and by permitting unnumbered persons to die of starvation.”

Among the bishops who joined in that 1942 statement was Cardinal Dennis Dougherty of Philadelphia and Cardinals-to-be Spellman of New York, Stritch of Chicago and Mooney of Detroit.

Implementation of the document was encouraged by the Holy See, especially through the issuance of Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews, in 1974, and by numerous actions on the part of Episcopal conferences throughout the world. The efforts of the implementation have been measured in different ways. I must emphasize that much of it happened quietly, as the major theological, liturgical, and pastoral shifts for which the Council called were effected rapidly in university and seminary teaching with repercussions in every level of religious education as well as in catechetical materials prepared over a period of time.

Three doctoral dissertations, the first in 1959, before the Council, the next in 1976, ten years after the Council, and most recently, one in 1992, have demonstrated a remarkable increase in both accuracy and positive treatment in Catholic educational materials on the subject of Jews and Judaism. Often, it should be noted, teachers themselves were unaware of the shift in emphasis insofar as these affected Catholic-Jewish relations; the changes were part of a larger reordering of our teaching which included a greater stress on understanding biblical passages in the context of the times in which they were written and the goal of the sacred writers.

Also, in many dioceses, in-service workshops for teachers in Catholic schools and religious education programs have enabled them to better understand such issues as Holocaust studies. Of course, not every preacher or teacher has necessarily learned the conciliar approach to this and other concerns, but the progress has been truly phenomenal. Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, this new moment was reaffirmed, and many new developments have been made possible because of the continuing dialogue which the Pope encourages.

On September 1, 1987, twenty Jewish and Catholic leaders from around the world met at Castelgandolfo. The Jewish delegation was headed by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. Pope John Paul II came into the room, and after we had recited a psalm (in Hebrew and Latin), he recalled that forty-eight years before, to the day, his country, Poland, had been invaded by Nazi Germany The Pope told us how, in the years that followed, his Jewish friends and neighbors from Wadowice had been deported and killed. He spoke also of his meditation that morning on the meaning of the Exodus, and remarked that out of the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel stood before the world as a symbol of hope for the Jewish people. The memory of the Holocaust, the Pope said, is a warning to Christians and, indeed, all others on this planet of an evil which must never be repeated.

Following the meeting, World Jewish Congress officer Gerhard Reigner told a Rome press conference: “This Pope understands the Shoah and what it means to us.” A very accurate article in Parade magazine has helped to bring this to a wider audience.

In Jerusalem in 1994, Chief Rabbi Israel Lau told some of us of his meeting several months earlier with Pope John Paul II. The Rabbi recalled to the Pope a story he had read about a young Father Karol Wotyla. Father Wotyla, now Pope John Paul II, had refused the request of a Catholic woman in Krakow to baptize a Jewish boy left in her care by his parents before they perished in the Holocaust. Father Wotyla asked, “What did the parents want?” “That he walk in the ways of his people.” “Then you should not try to have him baptized.” That boy today is an observant Jew living in Brooklyn.

Pope John Paul’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, his address to an American Jewish audience in Miami, and his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, demonstrate how keenly he believes we must work to overcome the past and to build a future of deep respect, understanding and, wherever possible, collaboration. The Holocaust concert in the Vatican in 1994 was an immensely moving event for all present, but especially so for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

In 1994, we received the Catechism of the Catholic Church, hailed by Catholic and Jewish experts alike as informed and sensitive in continuing the positive direction of the Second Vatican Council. At that time, a priest teaching a course on the Catechism told me how he had begun to shape his weekly lectures to more than a hundred lay men and women to help them appreciate the Jewish dimension of the life and teaching of Jesus. Likewise, Rabbi Bemporad began to travel extensively in the United States to lecture clergy, often rabbis and priests together, on the positive impact of the Catechism and the ingredient of hope it injects into our common future.

The timely meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Prague in September, 1990, helped create another new moment. After the dissolution of Communist control of much of Eastern and Central Europe, the Church had an opportunity to rebuild, and to implement its new ideas in a number of ways. Among them was the Catholic Church’s internal teaching document on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism (an effort continued at Baltimore in 1992 and in Jerusalem two years later). This document, addressed to the whole Church, was finally published in 1998. Preparing the way, the Holy See sponsored a colloquium on “The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Christian World,” in October 1997. In September of that same year the French bishops announced a document acknowledging and expressing repentance for failures of French Church leaders during the Nazi occupation of their country.

In 1990, Rabbi Bemporad served as one who helped to draft the Prague Declaration, which defined anti-Semitism as a “sin against God and humanity.” From our meeting in Prague came a commitment to work at preventing anti-Semitism in its earliest stages in Eastern and Central Europe. The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Europe in December 1991 made a forceful declaration on opposing anti-Semitism, and the issue was taken up again during the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America building on the Pope’s statement that Catholics and Jews need to be a blessing for each other. In 1991, the Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a most helpful and aggressive statement on the whole range of Polish history and culture, with a strong call to the people to combat anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere. Pope John Paul did the same in the name of the whole Church. This commitment was incorporated into the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, along with an agreement to combat racism and religious discrimination. It appears also in the personal reflections and official statements of the Pope throughout his pontificate.

In the United States there have been ongoing dialogues on anti-Semitism with the National Council of Synagogues, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. They helped the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, with insight from a Jewish perspective in the preparation of our pastoral letters, The Challenge of Peace (1983), and Catholic Moral Teaching and the United States Economy (1986).

These consultations were especially helpful when we drafted our 1989 pastoral, Toward Peace in the Middle East. We spoke also with government and religious leaders and other interested parties in the Middle East and in the United States, including representatives of Arab and Muslim groups here. In Israel among those who met with us were then-Prime Minister Shamir and Defense Minister Rabin, in charge at that time of Occupied Territories. Our document still gives our Conference guidance for public statements and on the interventions we occasionally make with the U.S. Government. As I follow the situation in the Middle East, I am encouraged by the continued validity of our observations.

We are also living through new moments in our approach to Catholic-Jewish conflicts. Old points of contention – the issue of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, for example, and the Auschwitz-Carmel incident, have given way to new possibilities for mutual understanding and common, as well as separate, action. This includes defense of religious freedom in our own society.

In some parts of the world, to defend religious freedom still means to contend against active, overt, and often lethal persecution of the faithful – and all of us have a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with the persecuted Church throughout the world. But in our American circumstance, the defense of religious freedom today means engaging in respectful, but robust and very direct, dialogue with the federal government and with those who shape opinion in our culture.

The Constitution’s requirement that the United States not “establish” a national religion does not, and cannot mean that the federal government is obliged by the Constitution to impose on our people and our public life a regime of state-sanctioned secularism. If the most deeply-cherished convictions of our people are deemed inadmissible in our public life, then the concept of democratic governance “of the people, by the people” has been radically compromised. Sadly, we find a society today which, more and more, seems to be stripped of religious conviction, religious symbols, and religiously-grounded moral norms. The alternative to a radically secular society is not a sacred society. It is a free society! In a truly free society the moral convictions of our people, whatever their source, are welcomed in public and are expressed within the context of democratic civility.

The institutional separation of Church and State does not require the separation of religion from public life. On the contrary, the Constitution’s provision for the free exercise of religious faith envisions a society in which religious conviction and religiously-grounded moral arguments are welcome. These points were clearly made by Pope John Paul II in his visit to Baltimore in October 1995. But the structure of obligations here runs in both directions. A civil society lays obligations on religiously motivated people. Public discourse requires us to be citizens who have learned how to listen, who have learned how to appreciate and engage differences. Tested issues of public life must be addressed by people of faith in genuinely public arguments that spring from faith.

This will require ecumenical and interreligious cooperation at a historically-unprecedented level. Such cooperation gave shape and birth to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act struck down several years ago by the Supreme Court. This kind of cooperation is needed urgently in responding to the court’s decision, which like the Smith decision in 1990, gives government power to enter that sanctuary, that sacred space, created by the first Amendment. People of different churches and faiths must make common cause in dealing with the government – with the courts, with the legislatures, and with administrations at every level. Such cooperation is needed in dialogue with the media, with public school authorities in promoting education in virtue, and with all those who can promote sound family life. It will require a new measure of confidence which is rooted in faith. The lesson of this blood-stained century ought to be clear: there is no peace within or among nations without religious freedom.

In our time, believers, both Jewish and Christian, must carry their faith as a living and resplendent sign of that kingdom beyond Caesar’s, the source of life and dignity and worth –that kingdom where we are all called to the freedom of the children of God.

Even as in a few words I try to capture a complex range of issues, I use this new moment to speak of a group which is often forgotten: the Christian minority. They are now less than 125,000 in Israel and their numbers in the Territories and in the old city of Jerusalem continue to diminish. These groups have been there for centuries. Now they feel neglected, even, in a sense, under siege.

This is the message we heard from Catholics in both Latin and Eastern churches, from Christian Orthodox, and from Protestants during various visits to the Holy Land. It was a message brought home to me insistently on one occasion, as we walked through the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, and saw offensive and inflammatory graffiti scrawled on the walls of churches and shrines, probably by young people.

A series of incidents illustrate the sense of pressure felt by these communities. Most recently, an Orthodox bishop was assaulted by a Jewish young man. The sense of pain has been greatly felt throughout the Christian world.

With the signing of the Fundamental Accord between the state of Israel and the Holy See on December 30, 1994, issues of this kind became more clearly into diplomatic focus. And yet, there is still a distance to travel, as has been demonstrated in a number of joint statements by the Christian community and statements we have been able to make most recently in the United States through our Inter-Faith Alliance on behalf of peace in the Holy Land.

As we watch painfully and prayerfully the troubled journey of the peace process, we know that the status of Jerusalem now has a high place on the agenda. Here, Muslims, as well as Christian and Jews, have a historically rooted and deep interest I what happens in the city all call holy.

When Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem in the year 2000, at an inter-faith service, he noted that Jews, Christians and Muslims have as basic teachings of their respective faiths the importance of reconciliation and peace.

Mutual respect is one part of the larger peace process, a process we Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, should accompany with our prayers. We must recognize that ordinary people on both sides are suffering from the tension of the long, drawn-out conflict. Many are personally, even bitterly, polarized, and yet, as we found several years ago – and it surely is the case today – ordinary people, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Muslim and Christian, hunger for a peace that will let them raise their children without fear and make their way in life without wasting resources on the implements of war. They hunger for a peace which will leave Israel strong, free and secure, and the Palestinians with their own homeland at last and a sense that their basic human dignity is acknowledged.

As one who has gone to Israel a number of times over the years, I want to observe how indebted we must be to Israel for making it possible for pilgrims and tourists to visit biblical and archeological as well as modern sites safely and comfortably. These sites are places of spiritual and historical significance without equal anywhere in the world.

My hope is that many can experience a visit which will offer them an opportunity to visit with those who can speak from various points of views: Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

Whether we are in Jerusalem or in the United States, we are all on a pilgrimage on a globe where believing people, deepening always their own commitment to the Lord, need to be able to stand together before a world which, often without realizing it, hungers for a witness to the living God and needs the service which flows from such a witness.