2022 PLENARY ASSEMBLY
Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews
P. Norbert Hofmann SDB, Secretary
The last two years of the Jewish‒Catholic dialogue were marked, like all the dialogues, by the pandemic. Important meetings and conferences that had been planned for 2020 were cancelled due to healthcare security risks. The same can be said about 2021, when in‒person conferences could not be held. Furthermore, it was impossible to organize visits by Jewish delegations to the Vatican during this period. It was only this year that visits by Jewish groups recommenced, although individual rabbis had already visited the “Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews” in the previous months. In general, contact with Jewish partners was not interrupted during this time, since communication continued by telephone and via social media.
Since the Jewish‒Catholic dialogue concerns primarily the deepening of existing human relationships and friendships through joint conferences and joint initiatives, it seemed inappropriate to substitute face-to-face encounters with zoom meetings. Nevertheless, a few were organized online in order to maintain contacts, rather than to engage on new questions in terms of content. Personal encounters are irreplaceable for a lively dialogue between Jews and Catholics. In the coming months, in line with the pandemic situation at the worldwide level, attempts will be undertaken to give new life to the dialogue in its traditional format.
1. The two institutionalized dialogues with the IJCIC and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel
The “Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews” organizes two institutional dialogues in cooperation with Jewish partners: the first since 1971 with the “International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations” (IJCIC) and the other since 2002 with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
The delegation of the Chief Rabbinate normally meets annually, either in Jerusalem or in Rome. The last meeting took place from 18‒20 November 2018 in Rome on the theme “The Dignity of the Human Being. Children in Jewish and Catholic Teaching”. The subsequent meeting, the 17th in the series, between the two delegations was planned for 9‒12 December 2019, later postponed to 1‒4 June 2020, could not be held due to the pandemic; it is hoped that the dialogue can resume under normal conditions next year in 2023. The next phase of dialogue is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem, although the topic remains to be decided.
With regard to the “International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations” (IJCIC), the last meeting, that is, the 24th “International Liaison Committee Meeting”, took place from 13‒16 May 2019 in Rome. The following was due to take place from 26‒29 October 2020 in São Paolo, Brazil, on the theme “Created in the Image of God. Safeguarding Human Dignity”. As well, the “Emerging Leadership Conference”, at which Jews and Catholics of student age gather with a view to becoming familiar with one another and to engage in an exchange of ideas, had been planned together with the IJCIC to take place from 5‒9 July 2020 in Seville, Spain. Neither of these two international conferences could be held due to the pandemic. A “leadership delegation” from the IJCIC will visit the Vatican from 27‒30 June 2022, with a view to discussing further steps together with our “Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews”. Above all, the discussion will focus on the reorganization of the conferences that have been cancelled.
2. The 55th anniversary of the promulgation of “Nostra aetate” in October 2020
The meeting planned with the IJCIC to be held in São Paolo was intended to celebrate together the 55th anniversary of the promulgation of “Nostra aetate”. As this conference was cancelled, the anniversary was commemorated differently. To mark the occasion, on 28 October 2020 there was an exchange of messages between Cardinal Kurt Koch and the then President of the IJCIC, Rabbi Noam Marans, as well as a joint statement, which was also published on the Vatican’s web site.
Cardinal Koch spoke of “a community of brothers and sisters among Jews and Christians”, underlining the common spiritual heritage of the two religious traditions. In its message, the IJCIC noted that after “Nostra aetate” (no.4) we are now experiencing “an era that transformed two millennia of enmity into a blessing of amity”. Indeed, the most important aspect is the growing friendship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, making it now possible to discuss controversial questions with openness and trust. The two messages have been a clear sign of the great progress in Jewish‒Catholic relations over the last 55 years, in line with the thought of Pope Francis in his encyclical “Fratelli tutti”, where the Holy Father recalls that we are all brothers and sisters created in the image of God.
3. The disruption of dialogue in August 2021
A phrase of Pope Francis, which was extrapolated from its context and taken from the general audience on 11 August 2011 (“the Law does not give life, it does not offer the fulfilment of the promise”) prompted our Jewish partners in the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and the IJCIC to take a written position, expressing concern about the perceived disparagement of the Torah on the part of the Pope. These letters, which were leaked, were taken up by the press, which in turn sought to provoke a crisis in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.
Ultimately, however, it was a matter of a “theological misunderstanding” because in the cited phrase the Pope had interpreted a passage in the letter to the Galatians against the background of Saint Paul’s theology (cf. Gal 3:19,21-22). One cannot extrapolate certain affirmations either from the context of the Pope’s address or from that of Pauline theology, isolating them and proposing them in absolute terms. In a letter dated 3 September 2021, Cardinal Kurt Koch replied on the Pope’s behalf that Pope Francis neither disparaged the Jewish Torah nor wanted to jeopardize friendship with the Jews. Rather, it is a question of the unassailable Christian conviction that, for Christians, salvation cannot be achieved by following the Torah, but solely by professing Jesus Christ as the only universal mediator of salvation. This minor controversy was more or less settled by this clarification. Public opinion seems to have little familiarity with theological questions, and one cannot expect that the Jewish side could have a detailed understanding of the mysteries of Pauline theology.
4. Topics of dialogue and prospects for the future
After the pandemic, and with the gradual normalization of the healthcare situation, it is to be hoped that the dialogue may resume in its usual forms. Over the years they have proven to be useful and effective, so they should be revitalized. The “Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews” is always open to new ideas and new contacts. However, due to the very character of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, personal contacts, exchanges and meetings should continue to be priorities and should not be limited to online formats.
As far as the topics of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue are concerned, the shared struggle against anti-Semitism will most likely again be emphasized by the Jewish side in the near future, especially since conspiracy theories circulated during the pandemic that affected also Jews. Another topic is currently being hotly debated on the Jewish side and also among some Catholic experts, namely the theological meaning and importance of the land of Israel. For example, on 5-6 April 2022, a conference was organized by the “Augustin Bea Center” (Pontifical Gregorian University) and the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the theme “Catholics and Jews on the Land and the State of Israel”. Since the Holy See itself is a subject of international law, it can only express itself politically or diplomatically in this regard, but cannot express theological affirmations, which could then also be used politically.