on the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews

Revd Fr Norbert Hofmann, SDB, Secretary


1. Significant events involving Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and 2010

The events involving Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and 2010 have had and continue to have a positive impact on relations with the Jews. Following the so–called ‘Williamson Case’ in January 2009, a papal audience was organised for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in the Vatican on 12 February 2009, during which the Holy Father unequivocally affirmed that there is absolutely no room in the Catholic Church either for the denial of the Holocaust or for anti–Semitism. He also firmly reiterated the commitment of the Catholic Church to Jewish–Catholic dialogue on the basis of the Conciliar declaration Nostra aetate (no.4) and confirmed the will to strengthen and deepen relations with the Jewish people. The Holy Father spoke in a similar way during the private audience on 12 March 2009 with the delegation of the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem which had come to Rome to take part in conversations with representatives of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism. During the audience in February, Pope Benedict XVI officially announced his visit to Israel from 11–15 May. This visit clearly demonstrated the Holy Father’s commitment to make his own John Paul II’s aspiration to improve relations with the Jewish people. He visited the Yad–wa–Shem memorial to the Holocaust and the Wailing Wall, and took part in an interreligious meeting between Muslims, Jews and representatives of all the Christian traditions in the Holy Land. He also responded positively to the invitation of the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem to meet with the leading exponents of national and international Judaism. These encounters and gestures are a clear sign of the Holy Father’s deeply felt commitment to reconciliation and growth in dialogue. His visit to the synagogue in Rome also demonstrated that the journey commenced with the Second Vatican Council is irreversible.


2. The dialogue with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC)

The IJCIC was created by our Jewish partners in 1970 in response to the Vatican’s suggestion to establish a coordinating body for interreligious dialogue given the difficulty in pursuing dialogue with a wide range of individual Jewish organisations rather than a unified structure. The IJCIC thus became the official dialogue partner of the Vatican. The IJCIC and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews have jointly organised 20 meetings since 1971 on various themes and in different venues. More recently, the meetings have taken place every two years. The last meeting was held in Budapest in November 2008 on the theme Religion and Civil Society, and included an official representation of youths and students (5–6 participants) in order to motivate the future generation to pursue Jewish–Catholic dialogue. To this end, the IJCIC and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, together with the Focolare Movement, organised a meeting at Castel Gandolfo in June 2009 gathering 50 young leaders considered to be the ‘vanguard’ of future dialogue.

The IJCIC changes its presidency every two years. Its president since July 2009 is Rabbi Richard Marker, and its vice–president is Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman (both from New York). The next meeting is scheduled for March 2011 in Paris on the theme Forty Years of Dialogue – Reflections and Future Perspectives. In reflecting over the last seven or eight years, the atmosphere of the meetings has improved considerably, difficulties are approached in a constructive spirit of shared effort, and relations have resisted tensions and crises.


3. Dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has taken place since 2002, with nine rounds of discussion taking place during that time, alternating between Jerusalem and Rome on a yearly basis. The Catholic delegation is nominated by the Commission for Religious Relations for the Jews, while the Jewish representation is appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Each delegation is made up of six to eight members. The conversations have focused a diverse range of topics, such as sanctity of life, the value of the family, the importance of Sacred Scriptures for society, the foundation of ethical values, religious liberty, the safeguarding of life in a technological era, the relationship between civil and religious authorities, etc. Due to the controversy arising in February 2008 relating to the re–formulation of the Good Friday prayer according to the 1962 liturgical rite, and the ‘Williamson Case’ in January 2009, meetings did not take place during those years. A delegation of the Chief Rabbinate sought clarification during its visit to Rome on 12 March 2009, during which it was received in a private audience with the Holy Father.

The last round of discussion took place in Rome from 17–20 January in conjunction with the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the synagogue in Rome. Focus was placed on ecological issues, within an overall framework of the theology of creation. A meeting is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in 2011, although the date has yet to be established. In overall terms, we can be grateful that the dialogue has given good fruits, and has also helped to improve political relations between the State of Israel and the Vatican.


4. Involvement of Jewish representatives in Vatican synods

A Jewish rabbi from Israel was invited for the first time in history to attend a Synod of Bishops and to speak to the Synodal Fathers in October 2008  on its theme of The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear–Yashuv Cohen, highlighted the centrality of the Holy Scriptures in the Jewish tradition. This symbolic gesture was very positively perceived by our Jewish partners. A rabbi was also invited to speak to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in October 2010 on the situation of the Church in the Middle East. Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, although resident in Jerusalem, spoke to the Synodal Fathers on 13 October 2010. He reflected on the progress in Jewish–Catholic relations, and on the situation of Christians in Israel and on how they are perceived in Jewish society.


5. Theological aspects of the Jewish–Catholic dialogue

The re–formulation of the Good Friday prayer according to the 1962 rite introduced by Pope Benedict XVI in February 2008 brought to light the main theological difficulties in the Jewish–Catholic dialogue. The prayer was understood by the Jewish community to be an appeal to the conversion of Jews to Christianity. The question therefore arises of how the Conciliar understanding of the salvific universality of Jesus Christ can be reconciled with the affirmation – which was clearly made by Pope John Paul II himself – that the covenant between the Jewish people and God has never been revoked? Does this mean that the Jews are saved without believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God? What relevance does the proclamation of the Gospel have to the Jewish people? What is the relationship between the old covenant of Israel and the new covenant in Christ? These and other theological questions relating to the Jewish–Catholic dialogue have never been dealt with explicitly by the Magisterium of the Church; there are therefore no doctrinal  guidelines. Such issues tend to be left to academic debate, which has shifting points of focus. The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews does not take direct part in this debate, although it does follow it. For example, the Commission took the initiative to establish a working group in 2006 of distinguished Catholic theologians to look at the themes that are relevant to the Jewish–Catholic dialogue. Known as Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today, the group has met several times over the years in various locations. The outcomes of their reflections will be published next year in a book entitled Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today. In this context, mention should also be made of the special session of the World Council of Churches which took place in June 2010 in Istanbul and gathered experts from all the Christian traditions to look at these theological questions. The Secretary of our Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews took part in the plenary session.


6. Involvement of Muslims in the Jewish–Catholic dialogue

The suggestion to invite moderate Muslim to take part in the Jewish–Catholic dialogue was put forward by our Jewish partners some years ago. Of course, the interreligious dialogue between the three monotheistic religions does not aim at substituting the Jewish–Catholic dialogue, but rather to be complementary to it. From the theological point of view, Christianity has a special relationship with Judaism. For this reason, our Commission has theological reasons underlying its insistence on the fact that the dialogue with the Jews must retain a certain priority over all other types of dialogue with world religions. However, the Commission has accepted the suggestion of the IJCIC to organise a session including some Muslims. After some delay, a meeting took place from 8–10 December 2009 in Seville, thanks also to the cooperation of Tres Culturas, a regional interreligious centre. The Christian delegation included Catholic as well as Orthodox members invited by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Vatican was represented by a delegation from both the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and was guided by Cardinal Tauran. The theme of the meeting was Human Dignity. The very fact that the meeting took part is a positive development, despite some difficulties with the Muslim delegation, which had been formed with a certain delay and had therefore had little time to prepare for the meeting. The Jewish side reiterated its intention to involve Muslims in the Jewish–Catholic dialogue. We need to wait for future developments to emerge in this regard.


7. Overall evaluation of the dialogue on the part of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and future prospects

The relatively rapid resolution of the crises in 2008 and 2009 (the Good Friday prayer and the ‘Williamson Case’) demonstrates the solid foundation on which relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism are based. Despite negative reactions in the mass media, efforts undertaken in the background by both sides aimed at limiting destructive repercussions and at resolving the conflicts within a few weeks. Such an atmosphere of friendship and mutual trust has enabled us not only to bear complex situations but also to overcome them together. It is now a question of continuing our journey together with renewed heart, and to use judiciously the means that are available to us.

At the moment, we can identify the following prospects for the future of the dialogue:

  • To pursue the commitment to the formal dialogue and cooperation
  • To encourage the new generations by involving young people in the dialogue
  • To promote the Jewish–Catholic dialogue, particularly in Eastern European countries
  • To promote shared dialogue with the Jews and both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches

The Orthodox Churches have a dialogue with the Jews that is similar to our own. There are therefore various ways in which cooperation could be promoted. The dialogue for the Orthodox Churches is coordinated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople under the responsibility of Metropolitan Emmanuel (Orthodox Metropolitan of France and delegate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople at the European Union). A first step towards such a form of cooperation took place in a meeting held in Minsk from 9–11 November 2009. For the first time, the Orthodox Church of Belarus, under the guidance of the Patriarchal Exarch Philaret, organised a session of Jewish–Christian dialogue in which a high–ranking delegation of the Vatican also took part. Metropolitan Emmanuel showed great willingness towards pursuing this cooperation. There is therefore every likelihood of a meeting in the near future between Latin Catholics and Orthodox representatives together with Jewish partners.