Catholics and Jews: Where We Have Been, Where We Need to Go
by Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg
The history of relations between Catholics and Jews has been a dramatic tale of biblical proportions.
Starting with the Genesis narrative about Cain and Abel, we know that brothers have fought and killed each other throughout human history, often for unclear reasons. But at the same time, Genesis provides us with another narrative, that of Joseph and his brothers—a story of profound reconciliation.
When it comes to the complicated relationship between Christians and Jews, there is much scholars still don’t understand about the nature of the split between the Jewish followers of Jesus and the other Jewish sects that existed at the end of the Second Temple period two thousand years ago.
What we do know is that, sometime after the second century CE, Christianity and Judaism began a painful and acrimonious separation. This adversarial split fostered hostilities and eventually led to the persecution and death of millions of Jews during a series of Crusades, Inquisitions, and the Shoah—the Hebrew term for the Holocaust—from 1939 to 1945. It was during this period, the Second World War, that more than six million Jews were killed. Their crime? They were Jews.
The aftermath of the Holocaust served as turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations. Like the rest of humanity, the Shoah triggered much soul-searching among religious people of good will who strove mightily to understand the targeted persecution and murder of millions of people because of the faith they were identified with.
These religious thinkers sought to understand and explain how a loving God could permit such unspeakable evil against millions of innocent men, women, and children. In the Christian community, religious leaders, philosophers, and thinkers started exploring how the Christian history of antagonism and hatred of Jews planted the seeds for the Shoah.
This extraordinary process of self-reflection led Pope John XXIII in 1962 to convene the Second Vatican Council. The council undertook an official reexamination of the anti-Jewish history of the Church and sought a new path of understanding between Judaism and Christianity (as well as other religions). Ultimately, a groundbreaking Vatican document was drafted and approved in 1965. It called for a profound reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. The document, known as Nostra Aetate, declares anti-Semitism a sin against God at any time or place, affirms the continuing validity of God’s covenant with Moses and the Jewish people, and calls for greater respect and understanding between Catholics and Jews. Nostra Aetate rejects the false deicide claim that all Jews are responsible for the Death of Jesus.
When the Vatican launched the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews ten years later, a new age of communication and partnership was born, where Jewish and Catholic leaders could meet as equals on a regular basis. They could discuss ways to educate each other and their respective faith communities about how to understand one another better and work cooperatively for the benefit of mankind after two thousand years of strife.
Since then, a succession of popes has built upon the foundations of Nostra Aetate, taking the Jewish-Catholic relationship to ever greater heights.
Without a doubt, Pope John Paul II led a revolution that transformed relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. He was the right person at the right time. As Karol Wojtyla, he grew up in Poland with many Jewish friends. He was an eyewitness to the death and destruction of the one-thousand-year-old Polish Jewish community during the Holocaust.
Wojtyla’s life story informed his actions to reconcile his Church with the Jewish people. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the Great Synagogue in Rome. He was the first to visit the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. He established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. He coined the term “beloved elder brothers” as applied to Jews. He validated as eternal and everlasting God’s Covenant with Moses and the Jewish People made at Mt. Sinai some 3,500 years ago.
His successor, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, carried on this process of reconciliation when he was elected pope in 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI. Like the biblical Isaac retracing his father Abraham’s footsteps as recounted in Genesis, Pope Benedict also visited the Great Synagogue in Rome and prayed at the Western Wall, thus reconfirming the importance of these actions and beginning a process of normalizing these trips as part of the evolving fabric of Catholic-Jewish relations.
But Benedict did not just retrace John Paul’s steps. In some ways, he walked even further. He became the first pope to visit synagogues in New York City and Cologne. As the only German pope who was an eyewitness to the Holocaust, he made a series of important defining statements against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
As in any evolving relationship, there were some serious stumbling blocks during Benedict’s papacy that raised great concern for Jews and Catholics. Perhaps the most controversial was his decision to expand use of the pre-Vatican II 1962 Latin liturgy, which includes the anti-Jewish Good Friday prayer. Pope Benedict’s decision triggered worldwide concern from both Jews and Catholics. His rewritten Good Friday prayer for the 1962 Latin liturgy is still titled to this day “For the Conversion of the Jews”—an issue that needs resolution. Also sparking worldwide reaction was Benedict’s lifting of the excommunication of four bishops from an anti-Semitic schismatic group. Yet, at the same time, Pope Benedict issued profound positive theological and historical statements about Judaism. He said that the Catholic Church should stop trying to convert Jews (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011], 45). He reinterpreted problematic passages in the Gospels of Matthew and John, dismissing negative images and false charges against the Jewish people. He is the first pope to quote from “Pirke Avot,” the ancient rabbinic text called “The Ethics of the Fathers,” using it as a model for Catholics. When Pope Benedict shocked the world in February 2013 by announcing his resignation—the first pope to do so in six hundred years—Jews wondered aloud what would happen to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Many expressed concern that the next pope would have little understanding of Catholic-Jewish relations, and the relationship would wither. But to the great surprise of the Jewish community and the world at large, the Cardinals made history by electing the first pope from South America and the first Jesuit pope, Cardinal Bergoglio of Bueno Aries. And as it turned out, Cardinal Bergoglio had deep friendships with Jews and rabbis in Argentina. Indeed, one of his closest friends is a rabbi with whom he wrote a book on Catholic-Jewish relations.
I was privileged to play a role in publishing this book in English in the United States. In reading the book, I knew in advance his enlightened and positive thinking about Catholic-Jewish relations, and knew he would be able to take the relationship to even greater heights. I was also honored to be invited to the Vatican to witness the investiture of the newly named Pope Francis. During his first interfaith meeting the next day, I was able to feel up close the warmth and spirituality of the new pope.
Pope Francis has not disappointed. A year into his papacy, he has already brought Catholic-Jewish relations to the next level. He has already visited Israel and Jerusalem. He has invited his many Jewish friends several times to stay with him in Rome.
Where Do We Go from Here?
With Pope Francis at the helm, there is an amazing opportunity to address major items on the table to continue this historic reconciliation and build even deeper relations.
As observed, the title of the problematic Good Friday prayer remains today “For the Conversion of the Jews.” This should be dealt with as soon as possible. Could there be other prayer texts that also need a second look in the light of Nostra Aetate?
We still have much work to do in learning what it means to be partners. Decisions that affect our relationship are still made unilaterally by one side without consultation or advance notice. Perhaps the most important issue involves creating and maintaining programs that will educate members of both faiths about the historic gains made over the last fifty years. This should include interreligious programs built into the regular training of priests and rabbis so that they will be able to teach their own congregants about the new paradigm of respect and understanding between loving brothers and sisters in Catholic-Jewish relations.
As we deepen our dialogue and trust, we will also be able to better understand through honest and respectful dialogue our core religious differences when it comes to a host of “controversial” social and life cycle issues.
For instance, Judaism and Catholicism generally view issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and what constitutes a “just war” through different religious lenses. Trust and honest dialogue will allow each side to learn and understand the religious belief of the other without trying to change their position.
In a larger sense, we still have much work to do to repair a deeply broken world that is increasingly filled with suffering innocents, oppression, hatred, poverty, violence, and war. More than ever, religious people of good will must stand together against extremists who persecute and kill in the name of their religion, claiming only their view is the correct one, and nonbelievers deserve death.
As we prepare to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, we have a historic opportunity to review and celebrate together the profound improvements in Catholic-Jewish relations over the last half century, and to rededicate ourselves to deepening our bonds into the future.
Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to
duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Eric J. Greenberg is National Director of the Christian-Jewish Initiative and
Director of Interfaith Relations and Communications for the Multifaith Alliance
for Syrian Refugees. He is co-editor of "The Saint for Shalom: How Pope
John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations."