Address at the awarding of the John Paul II Prize for Catholic-Jewish Studies
Pontifical University of  St. Thomas Aquinas, 17 January 2022

Kurt Cardinal Koch


Father Ryan Muldoon, winner of the John Paul II Prize for Catholic-Jewish Studies,
Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Professor Hyacinthe Destivelle,
Ladies and Gentlemen

“The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.”[1] With these unequivocal words uttered by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Synagogue in Rome in 1986, I welcome you warmly to today’s award of the John Paul II Prize in Catholic-Jewish Studies to Father Ryan Muldoon. With his meaningful words, Pope John Paul II expressed the idea that, for us Christians, Judaism is not simply one of the many non-Christian religions, and the relation of the Catholic Church to Judaism is not simply a special variant of inter-faith dialogue. Rather, the church has a one-time and unique relationship with Judaism as to no other religion. This is because the relationship with the covenant people of Israel is so very much part of the Church’s intrinsic self-understanding that the Church cannot understand itself without reference to Judaism.

The Catholic Church became newly aware of this profound, family-like closeness between the two religions at the Second Vatican Council, above all with the adoption of the Council Declaration Nostra aetate. This was approved shortly before the end of the Council proceedings on 28 November with what amounted to moral unanimity, that is, by 2,221 votes in favour, 88 votes against, and two abstentions – a majority of 96% of the Council Fathers. It was then promulgated by Pope Paul VI. The fourth article of this declaration, devoted to Judaism, describes the significant shift in the relationship of the Catholic Church with Judaism, a shift reflected in two important perspectives.

The first perspective was expressed by Cardinal Augustin Bea, who played a major part in the origin of Nostra aetate, as follows: “The nearly two-thousand-year-old problem of the relationship of the Catholic Church with the Jewish people – a problem as old as Christianity itself – was exacerbated primarily through the terrible annihilation of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime, hence rendering necessary this consideration by the Second Vatican Council.”[2] Accordingly, the first important reason for the publication of Nostra aetate was to historically work through the disaster of the Shoah, the mass murder of the Jews in Europe planned and conducted with industrial perfection by the National Socialists. The Council therefore undertook to combat all forms of anti-Semitism and condemned all “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone”.

In a positive respect, the Council Declaration notably contains an emphatic affirmation of that “patrimony she (the Church) shares with the Jews”. In this common heritage the Council sees the foundation of the salvific community between Judaism and Christianity, and it highlights the Jewish roots of Christian faith. That is also linked with the commitment to overcome the fatal repercussions of an anti-Judiastic burden weighing on Christian tradition and to turn away from the traditional view of superseding Judaism in salvation history.

With the clear rejection of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and with the theological remembrance of the “shared spiritual heritage” Nostra aetate initiated a new view of the relationship between Christians and Jews in the Catholic Church. However, the two perspectives had to be further deepened after the Council. Primarily the popes contributed a great deal to this; they were, so to speak, the first protagonists of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. This is particularly true of Pope John Paul II, whose endeavours on behalf of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation were already rooted in his biography. After all, a quarter of the children in his class at the Wadowice primary school were Jewish. He formed friendships with some of them, e.g. Jerzy Kluger, that lasted into the time when he was Archbishop of Cracau and Bishop of Rome. To this day, many Jews admire Pope John Paul II as their friend.

In order to promote and accompany the dialogue with the Jews, Pope Paul VI in 1974 founded the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews and attached it organisationally to the then Secretariat for Christian Unity. In the very year of its founding, this commission published its first official document, called: “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No 4”.[3] This document already contained a comprehensive programme of Catholic-Jewish rapprochement and was supplemented eleven years later by a second document. The focus then was on the endeavour to raise the topic of Judaism in a historically and theologically appropriate manner in the fundamental daily life of the Catholic Church. Its title was: “Notes on the correct way to present Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church”.[4] The third document “We remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” reflects on the attitude of Christians towards the anti-Semitism of National Socialism and underlined the duty of Christians to remember the human disaster of the Shoah.[5] The commission published its latest document to mark the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra aetate in 2015 with the title: “‘The Gifts and Calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29).”[6] This document was inspired by the conviction that, after half a century of Catholic-Jewish dialogue the time had come in this conversation for Jews and Catholics to also work through and deepen open theological questions.

The dialogue between the Catholic Church and Judaism also met with a positive response on the Jewish side. There is impressive testimony to this in the substantial documents containing positions on the Catholic-Jewish dialogue and bringing in the Jewish perspectives. The first document was published by a group of more liberal Jews in the United States of America with the title “Dabru Emet” (“Speak the truth”) in 2000.[7] In 2015 this was followed by the document “To do the Will of our Father in Heaven. Towards a Partnership between Jews and Christians”.[8] This statement represents a private initiative by individual rabbis to provide a Jewish response to the Catholic Church’s fifty years of striving to achieve reconciliation between Christians and Jews. The statement recognises Christianity as a “monotheistic religion” desired by God, its chief merit being to have led “non-Jews to the God of Israel”. The latest response to Jewish-Catholic dialogue was published in 2017 by Jewish-Orthodox organisations, more precisely by the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate’s Commission for Dialogue with the Holy See. This document gives a positive assessment from the angle of Orthodox Judaism of the relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism, and bears the promising title: “Between Jerusalem and Rome. Reflections on 50 years of Nostra aetate”.[9]

With these three documents, the Jewish side has presented responses to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, and we may pay tribute to its importance in that it has ushered in a new phase of Jewish-Christian dialogue. There is no doubt that this dialogue needs further deepening, since it is a matter of healing the first division in the history of Christianity, which we have to perceive in the separation of church and synagogue. Catholic theologian Erich Przywara calls this the original schism (“Ur-Riss”) from which was derived the later progressive incompleteness of the Catholica: “Schism between eastern and western church, schism between the Church of Rome and the Reformation pluriversum (the countless churches and sects) belong to the original schism between Judaism (the non-Christian Jews) and Christianity (the Gentiles) to use the language of Paul’s letters.”[10]

If we take this diagnosis seriously the Judeo-Christian dialogue belongs at the centre of the reconciliation efforts of the Catholic Church. And it is coming to light that the Jewish-Christian dialogue will certainly not run out of material if it places itself at the service of healing the first division of the monotheistic world, i.e. the original schism between Church and Synagogue. I therefore thank the two institutions at the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, namely the Institute for Ecumenical Studies and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, for taking the initiative of awarding the John Paul II Prize and promoting Catholic-Jewish studies in this way. A special word of gratitude goes to Father Ryan Muldoon for sharing his scholarly work with us. I hope that the prize-giving ceremony today will encourage young academics to present further studies so that we can soon gather again for a similar celebration to this one. With these words of appreciation and congratulation I thank you for your attention.




[1]  John Paul II, Address at the Great Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986.
[2]  A. Kardinal Bea, Die Kirche und das jüdische Volk (Freiburg in Breisgau, 1966) 7.
[3]  Published in French in: AAS 67 (1975) 73-79.
[4]  Published in French in: La Documentation Catholique 76 (1985) 733-738.
[5]  Published in English in: The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Ed.), Information Service 97 I-II (1998) 18-22.
[6]  Published in the Collana „Documenti Vaticani“ (Città del Vaticano, 2015).
[7]  Cf. E. Kessler, Dabru Emet, in: ibidem., N. Wenborn (ed.), A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian-Relations (Cambridge, 2005).
[8]  Cf. N. J. Hofmann, „Auf dem Weg zu einer vertieften Partnerschaft zwischen Juden und Christen“, in: J. Ahrens – K.-H. Blickle – D. Bolag – J. Heil (ed.), Hin zu einer Partnerschaft zwischen Juden und Christen. Die Erklärung orthodoxer Rabbiner zum Christentum (Berlin, 2017).
[9]  A German translation can be found in : Kirche und Israel 32 (2017) 178-186.
[10]  E. Przywara, Römische Katholizität – All-christliche Ökumenizität, in: J.B. Metz inter alia (ed.), Gott in Welt. Festgabe für K. Rahner (Freiburg i. Br. 1964) 524-528.