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Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations

By Tom Ryan, CSP


Christian and Jewish relations: a new day is dawning



On the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, The Catholic University of American’s School of Theology and Religious Studies and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs co-sponsored a three-day landmark symposium May 19-21 entitled Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims. Some of the highlights of the exchange between Christians and Jews:

In a session titled From One Who Was There: The Crafting of Nostra Aetate, Paulist Father Thomas Stransky, who was a member of the newly established Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity and who took part in drafting the document said, “Nostra Aetate is a 180-degree turn from the tradition and ordinary magisterium expressed in piety and attitudes. The document has only one footnote because we couldn’t find other statements that could support what Nostra Aetate was saying. That’s the reason why the majority of the Jewish leaders at that time were against having any kind of representation at the Council. Their feeling was, ‘The church is not going to change. Stay away.’ The Association of European Rabbis was against participation. American Rabbi Abraham Heschel was ready to help by giving feedback on the document which he hoped would help purify the church and help Catholics know Jews better.”

In a session titled The Catholic Church’s National Dialogue with Jews since Nostra Aetate, Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of inter-religious and intergroup relations, said, “for more than two millennia there was Christian contempt for Jews. With Nostra Aetate a new day is dawning.”

The rabbi related that when the final version of Nostra Aetate was first released, there were mixed reviews. One rabbi dismissed it as “too little, too late.” This ambivalence foreshadowed how American Jews would react. The document didn’t mention the Shoah (Holocaust); neither was there any mention of violence against Jews, nor an apology. Only two weeks later, however, the American Jewish Congress statement was more generous, calling it “a turning point in 1,900 years to bring about a new relation between Catholics and Jews.”

“It is only now from the perspective of 50 years that we can see how it has made a difference,” said Marans. In 1998 the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah which encouraged Christians to purify their hearts through repentance of past errors and infidelities, and to work with Jews for a world of true respect for the life and dignity of every human being. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had a full-time staff member cultivating Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

Nostra Aetate is not perfect, but it certainly is good,” said Marans. “Pope John Paul II reasserted Jewish peoples right to a homeland, and we have too much investment in the future to allow the Shoah and the church’s participation in it to have precedence.” He ended his talk with words offered by Pope John Paul II: “As Christians and Jews we are called to be a blessing for the world. It is therefore necessary for us to first be a blessing for one another. If we are not already there, we are certainly on our way.”

Casting out into the deep

Archbishop of New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan cited some areas of progress such as “talking with one another in candour through various fits and spats over Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the script of the passion play of Oberammergau, Pope Francis’ support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine.”

Dolan addressed other areas where “we have cast out into the deep,” the first of them being “the intensification of our reclamation of the primacy of God in a world that prefers to ignore or deny God.” He quoted Pope John Paul II who said that the toxin infecting humanity was its denial of the primacy of God. Such a culture of sidelining of faith must be reversed. He recalled John Paul II’s visit to Warsaw, Poland, where 2 million people in gathered in the public square and chanted, “We want God!”

Another way Catholics and Jews are casting out into the deep, said Dolan, is our effort to address the pastoral issues that befuddle us. “How to pass on the faith to our kids and grandkids. How the reality of interfaith marriage affects us. How to help our college kids stay connected to their faith.” 

Dolan noted a common front on the loss of our members. Statistics indicate that for both Jews and Catholics, while belief continues to be there, belonging does not. “Our belonging, our identity, has been for a long time like a birthmark. But no more!” he said. “We face two obstacles: the sociological phenomenon that belief takes precedence over belonging. And the obstacle of American post-modernism that emphasizes diversity, individuality, personal choice.”

“It’s time for churches and synagogues to reclaim our specialty: sin, grace, mercy, and redemption,” said Dolan. “I am incomplete, a sinner, and I need redemption.”

In the discussion following, Marans noted that if you look at inter-religious relations, the strongest friendships often come out of crises that force individuals to step up to the plate and find a better path.

“Christians generally know more about Jews than Jews know about Christians,” reflected Marans, “because we’re their ‘elder brothers’ and they need to know about the root on which, as Paul says, they are the branch. But Jews also need to know about Christians, and about Muslims. I like to go to church! It has transformed my understanding of my Jewish faith. And I trust that I will be able to say the same about going to the mosque as we go forward. We are all God’s people, and it is enriching for us to see one another’s ways of praising God.”

The theology of complementarity

In a session on The Art of Dialogue: Local Trends and Initiatives, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, the executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, shared how his religious path has been clarified and augmented by the religiosity of others. He called it “the theology of complementarity — how we are complemented and completed by other faiths. God seems to have chosen for God’s purposes multiple paths to the one God. Thus we have the opportunity and responsibility to learn from one another. To listen to how others pray and worship God.”

The rabbi noted that there are sources in Hebrew Scripture that affirm this: “If we are all originated from one couple, we are all beloved children of God. In the story of Noah, all humanity was contained on one ark. Similarly today we are on one ark — the planet earth. The story of the tower of Babel indicates that God’s plan was for there to be multiple languages. There are three places where we’re commanded to love: to love the Lord your God; to love your neighbour as yourself; and to love the one who is not like you.”

He noted that the Quran says you can’t love what you don’t understand. “That’s the motive for inter-religious dialogue,” said Serrota. “To better understand one another. And dialogue can manifest in a variety of ways: Breaking bread and eating together; going on pilgrimage together; working together; praying together. What is the ideal vision of God’s assembly? The nations coming together and gathering in one place: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer and be a home for all the nations’ (Isaiah). We pray under one roof in our own languages, and according to our own understanding.”

Current status and future perspectives

In a keynote address on The Current Status of International Catholic-Jewish Dialogue and Future Perspectives, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and Office for Dialogue with the Jews, said, “the church has a unitive and distinctive relation with Judaism that it has with no other religion. Its placement toward the end of Nostra Aetate should not be seen as placing Judaism just as one among many world religions. The paragraph concerning Judaism links the people of the New Covenant with the Tribe of Israel. That is the foundation of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Jesus cannot be understood without Israel,” said Koch. 

Koch explained how the new situation between Jews and Christians arose after the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. As a consequence, two different ways of reading the Old Testament arose. The New Testament came to be seen no longer as the fulfilment of the Old Testament but the replacement of it, and the church as the new People of God in the New Covenant.

“Eventually the church felt itself bound to set aside the replacement approach,” said Koch, “and to acknowledge that the church has received the revelation from the Jewish people. The New Covenant is neither a replacement nor an annulment of the Old Covenant, but the fulfilment of it. Any idea of replacement must be rejected. That the Jews are participants in salvation is unquestionable.”

From mutual bankruptcy to full partnership

In his response to Koch, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a leading thinker and activist in the American Jewish community, offered that the profound commonality between Jews and Christians was obscured because of the ongoing conflict concerning the role and nature of Jesus. For 2,000 years each community has interpreted the difference in as pejorative a way as possible.

“Christians say God came to us in person, and Judaism is at best a preparation,” said Greenberg. “And Jews say: Christians worship a human being. This religion purports to be a gospel of love, but it teaches hatred about us. It has taken Jewish teaching and warped it into an instrument of rejection. Each religion has paid a huge price for its denigrating interpretation of the other. The heart of Christianity — love — was compromised by establishing a sanctuary of hate, a culturally embedded anti-Semitism that could be exploited by the Nazis.”

“And Jews,” continued Greenberg, “have also paid a price for their separation from Christians, namely, persecution. Thus Judaism turned away from its call to ‘repair the world.’ Judaism turned inward and betrayed its divine call to be a light unto the nations. In Judaism, too, there was a development of contempt for the other. This mutual bankruptcy has been recognized in Nostra Aetate. The church acknowledged its failure. There is no similar recognition in the history of world religions. It’s a sign of the church’s viability. I have not seen in my own community a readiness to acknowledge its sins and failures,” said Greenberg .

“But redemption is already in our midst and is growing,” Greenberg affirmed. “Each generation is bound to move the world as far forward as it can. Christianity should be seen as God’s reaching out to the world. God was broadening the channels of redemption, not broadening one and closing another. It is time to acknowledge that our Father in heaven views a full partnership between Jews and Christians. We need each other as partners, along with many other allies.”

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.