Recent Challenges in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue
It took a French Jew, a professor of history, to radically awaken the Christian conscience. His name was Jules Isaac. After surviving the death of many family members including his wife in the holocaust, Isaac made it his sacred mission to study Christian scripture and the theology of the Church Fathers to demonstrate, once and for all, the relationship between early Christian theology and anti-semitism. The title of his book left no doubt about his conclusion: The Teaching of Contempt.
It was not long before Isaac’s work caught the attention of Christian theologians and scholars around the world, including that of a kindly old man whose name was Pope John XXIII, the initiator of what we now refer to as “Vatican II”. In its ground-breaking document Nostra Aetate/Our Age, it heralded a new era of openness in the Church in its recognition that all religions contain that which is good and true and holy.
Nostra Aetate was the seed of a whole new relationship with the Jews. Along with other Council documents, it represented a purification of some of the ancient Church’s teachings to harmonize them with the spirit of democracy and freedom which was spreading throughout the world. Nostra Aetate brought to fruition Jules Isaac’s work in a few paragraphs in section 4. It was the beginning of the end of theologically justified anti-semitism.
A New Beginning
In 1986, Jews and Christians around the world witnessed “a first”—a visit by a pope, John Paul II, to a synagogue, and they heard how he declared Jews to be Christians’ elder siblings. Through his initiative, in 1993 the Holy See established full diplomatic relations with the modern state of Israel.
On all his travels around the world John Paul II always made sure to meet with the Jewish community in every place. The pope was committed to the fight against anti-Semitism, which he saw as a sin against God and against humanity. In the build-up to the millennium, Pope John Paul II called on the Catholic Church to examine its conscience regarding its relations with the Jewish people and all those who have suffered as a result of the Church's teachings.
Prior to his historic visit to Israel in 2000, the pope asked the Jewish people for forgiveness for the crimes that have been perpetrated against it in the name of the Church. He later wrote that message on a piece of paper which he placed between the rocks of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, during his visit to Jerusalem.
New Leader, New Style
At the National Workshop on Christian Unity April 27-30, in a session on “Recent Challenges to Catholic-Jewish Relations”, Rev. Dennis McManus, a lecturer at both Catholic and Georgetown Universities in Washington, D.C., said that “our interreligious partners find it difficult to accept there is a new pope. Benedict XVI represents a change in both style and focus.”
While both are from the World War II era and both were stalwarts against communism, John Paul II was Polish, and Benedict XVI is German. “There are more differences here than just the way one prepares sausage,” McManus wryly noted. “John Paul II was a philosopher, an ethicist, whose instinct was that when you see evil, you do something about it. His thesis focused on ‘the acting person’. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is an ecclesiologist. His interest is ‘the Church at prayer’, the liturgy.”
John Paul II exerted influence through his charismatic presence. “The institution (of the Church) was out of breath trying to keep up with a charismatic who loved to travel and whose visits were many and whose gestures were big,” said McManus, observing that John Paul, however, did not institutionalize the changes in relations with other religions wrought by his visits. “The risk in this scenario is that when he dies, so might the changes.”
Pope Benedict will travel and visit, but less so. “His strong hand is his teaching, his pastoral letters are clear, accessible, profound. Benedict is working in ways that will help institutionalize the changes,” McManus said, citing his rewrite of a prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy of the 1962 extraordinary Roman Rite in Latin, and his request that the name of God which is never pronounced in Judaism—Yahweh—not be used in the Roman liturgy. Both these initiatives were the results of requests from the Jewish community.
One could also note his unprecedented invitation to Rabbi Cohen of Israel to break open the Word of God for his brother bishops at the International Synod of Bishops in September 2008 on study of the Bible. About a decade earlier, John Paul II made a proposal that we should read the scriptures in their Jewish context. Benedict XVI invited Rabbi Cohen to explain to the bishops the Jewish interpretation of the Bible, whose first five books comprise the Torah, Judaism's most sacred writings.
Committed to Partnership and Dialogue
The Jewish community resented what looked to them like the Church’s effort to make itself appear as a co-victim with the Jewish people in the holocaust through the canonization procedures of Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolb and the Carmelite nun Edith Stein. The candidacy for beatification of Pope Pius XII has also incited controversy, with the Jewish community wanting to know the attitude of the Holy See during “the killing years” of 1939-1945. In a spirit of partnership and sensitivity, Pope Benedict has asked a second group of both Catholic and Jewish scholars to examine the historical material.
When his lifting of the excommunication of a group of Pius X Society bishops exploded in controversy over the fact that one of them, Bishop Williamson, denies the holocaust, Benedict met with Jewish leaders, apologized to them, and assured them that Williamson cannot be accepted unless he accepts Vatican II’s teachings in general and in particular accepts as a point of doctrine the Church’s relationship to an external community such as the Jews.
“Pope Benedict insists on dialogue,” McManus said, “and is not afraid of taking on the tough issues in a sensitive way. There is a need for us to change the structure and style of Jewish-Christian dialogue. It’s been reactionary--to the latest crisis. It has not been a structured dialogue that takes control of things and works through them with consistency, but rather a collection of unresolved hurts.”
“Over 2000 years, the Catholic Church has not proven trustworthy to Jews,” he said. “It will take them a long time to be able to trust us.”
At his meeting with the chief rabbis in his mid-May visit to Israel, the pope issued a plea for trust in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Catholics. And to reporters on the plane home he said, "We should do everything to learn the language of the other, and it seems to me that we have made great progress".
On May 22, the executive representatives of the World Jewish Congress which represents 100 Jewish communities worldwide visited the Vatican to thank Pope Benedict for his May 8-15 Holy Land pilgrimage.
A statement from the congress explained, "Despite being a complicated trip, its outcome had been positive and was a milestone for strengthening mutual understanding between Christians and Jews."
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations