Priest, Rabbi trace Jewish-Christian relations’ progress
By Kathleen Ogle – The Catholic Spirit
October 2, 2008
NEW BRUNSWICK – A Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, both deeply engaged in the promotion of Jewish-Christian dialogue, discussed the transformation in relations between the two faith traditions and identified areas where additional progress is necessary Sept. 21 at the Douglas Campus Center.
The program was sponsored by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life in cooperation with the Diocese of Metuchen. Yael Zerubavel, director of the Bildner Center, served as moderator.
Characterizing the transformation of relations between the two faiths as one of the most remarkable and dramatic events of the 20th century, Father John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at the University of Chicago, and Rabbi Eugene Korn, scholar of Jewish ethics and Jewish-Christian relations, summarized the development of Jewish-Christian relations from their different perspectives.
Both agreed that if Jews and Christians could achieve reconciliation and peace then peace is possible between any two people.
“It is really a great source of hope for all of us that if a formerly antagonistic relationship can be transformed then other antagonistic relationships … can also be transformed and that we can move from a situation of human enmity to a situation of human solidarity and human cooperation,” Father Pawlikowski said.
Father Pawlikowski discussed various documents that addressed Jewish-Catholic relations beginning with the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) and continuing through the work of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
He cited the support of the American bishops for Nostra Aetate, claiming that the document would “never have seen the light of day if it were not for the very strong and almost universal support given it by the American episcopal delegation at Vatican II.”
He said the bishops’ support was rooted in the work of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in the 1930s and 40s which brought several Jewish and Christian organizations together to collaborate in the advancement of the working class.
The American bishops were also influenced by a study of religious textbooks, which “showed that it was impossible for Catholic Christianity or any form of Christianity to express its own self-identity without reference to Jews and Judaism.”
Although there was opposition to Nostra Aetate from some Catholic conservatives as well as bishops in Arab countries, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were committed to seeing the document through the council, Father Pawlikowski said.
The most important statement in the document, the priest said, was that Jews could not be held collectively responsible for the death of Christ.
“In removing that theocide charge, it really removed all the layers of theological understanding of the Christian-Jewish relationship that had permeated Christianity for centuries,” he said, including the idea that Jews had been expelled from a covenantal relationship because of theocide and that Jews were to be perpetually homeless people wandering the earth, never to have a state of their own, as punishment for rejecting Christ.
The council also said that Jews remained a part of the covenantal tradition, and emphasized Jesus’ identity as a Jew and his positive relationship with Judaism.
“Those three pillars established by the council have continued to be the basic pillars on which the church, scholars, educators have built a deeper understanding of the Christian/Catholic-Jewish relationship,” Father Pawlikowski said.
Referring to recent biblical scholarship which has concluded that the process of separation between Jews and Christians was longer and more complex than initially thought, Father Pawlikowski said, “our whole picture of the first few centuries of the Jewish-Christian relationship is undergoing profound transformation.”
To help attendees understand the depth of the transformation in the relationship between Jews and Christians, Rabbi Korn recalled examples from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century in which Vatican publications and popes refused to support the Jewish return to Zion.
He contrasted those examples with Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel when he met with the Jewish state’s president and chief rabbis and prayed at the Western Wall “for the welfare of the Jewish people as his elder brothers who remain the people of God’s covenant.”
He went on to discuss how three events in particular contributed to the transformation: the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation, Nostra Aetate.
While the Holocaust and Nazism were not a Christian doctrine, ideology or movement, they took place in the “heart of Christian Europe,” Rabbi Korn said.
“One can’t say with any integrity that Hitler, or Goebbels or Eichmann were in any way Christians in the religious sense, in the doctrinal sense. But the people who ran the crematory at Aushwitz were Christians, who went to Mass, who were schooled in Christian theology and whose attitudes toward Jews were shaped by Christian teachings,” he continued.
The traditional Christian teaching about Jews, which later came to be known as supercessionalism, held that Christianity had replaced Judaism, that the church was the new Israel that was in covenant with God and that Judaism or the Old Testament was no longer valid, the rabbi explained.
An entire tradition of church literature not only rejected Judaism but demonized Jews and led to persecution of Jews and anti-Semitism, Rabbi Korn said.
He cited theologians who said that such literature was significant in the ready acceptance of Christian Europe to extermination of the Jewish people.
“Christian theology was not sufficient condition for the final solution but it may have been a necessary component to Nazism,” he said.
As the Christian world reflected on the unimaginable evil of the Holocaust, the seed was planted for the Christian reappraisal of the history and its theology of the Jews, he said.
“Something in the Christian world had gone undeniably wrong and Christian thinkers recoiled from what had been wrought,” Rabbi Korn said. “Over the past 40 years this process of reassessment has spawned a discussion that is no less remarkable for its content than its form.”
He referred to Catholic theologian Sister Mary Boise who dubbed the transformation in contemporary Christian thinking regarding Jews and Judaism as the 6 Rs: repudiation of anti-Semitism, rejection of the charge of theocide, repentance after the Shoah, recognition of Israel, review of teaching about Jews and Judaism and rethinking about proselytizing Jews.
The establishment of state of Israel in 1948 not only gave the Jewish people hope for survival after the Holocaust but “it changed the image of status of the Jew in the world,” he said.
“The establishment of statehood I believe helped level the playing field between Jews and the rest of the world including the Vatican.”
Rabbi Korn said the Vatican, which is both the head of the Catholic Church and a city-state as well, understands that that which is political has spiritual implications for the status and recognition of the Catholic Church.
“Similarly statehood for the Jews transformed the way the world began to look at Jews. No longer vulnerable but powerful, having the right of self defense, having some clout both politically and militarily and need to be taken seriously,” he said.
Further, Rabbi Korn said that Jewish statehood constituted the Jewish return to the land of the covenant that was promised in the Bible, which reinforced the notion that the covenant between Abraham and his descendents on one hand and God on the other hand was still alive. This was the basis for the Christian covenant and the basis for the Jewish covenant.
Rabbi Korn said the Vatican’s proclamation Nostra Aetate “proved to be a point of departure for the Christian journey from which there will be no return.”