This text is based on the unedited transcripts of lectures given in the series "The Catholic Church and the Jewish People from Vatican II to Today" delivered at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome between October 19, 2004 and January 25, 2005 under the auspices of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies. The full collected texts of the course of lectures will be published during the first half of 2005 by:

Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana

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The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee


Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli

Rome, 23rd November 2004 at the Pontifical Gregorian University


When on October 22nd, 1974 , Paul VI established the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (CRRJ), a so-called International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC)[1] had already been in place for four years, having been instituted in Rome on Nov. 23, 1970 . This Committee, which initially included five delegates from each side, would continue its activity without interruption over the following thirty-five years, holding to date eighteen ordinary plenary sessions and two extraordinary ones. These initiatives have normally been coordinated by a joint executive committee; and the number of ILC members has progressively grown, so that now it includes about twenty-five Catholic experts and delegates, and an equal number of Jewish ones. The five initial Jewish delegates were selected by the five bodies that had established the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC), whose institution also goes back to 1970[2]; the Catholic members had been appointed with the approval of Pope Paul VI. The work of the ILC follows the principles and the norms established in a Memorandum, or agreement, signed in Rome at the time of its institution, at the end of a foundational four-day meeting that saw the participation of representatives of the then Secretariat (today’s Pontifical Council) for Christian Unity, of the Vatican Office for Catholic-Jewish Relations, of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the Oriental Churches and for Catholic Education, of the Commission (today’s Pontifical Council) for Justice and Peace, and of the Secretary of State. The Memorandum that was agreed upon at the time[3], and whose original English version can be found in the Appendix at the end of this talk, begins by acknowledging that “the character of the relations between Catholic and Jews has a religious foundation, though their relations extend to all areas of human activity, wherever the latter takes place. A model for the concrete development of these relations must consequently be based on a structure having religious faith as its premise”. According to an evaluation given in 1985 by Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, who was one of its chief supporters and animators for two decades, the Committee is “the only body that unites the Holy See and the Jewish community[4]. Despite its limits it is a symbol and an effective instrument of our relations. I believe that we must further evaluate very carefully the ways in which we can make use of it, so as to deepen, sustain, and apply in many parts of our life this relation of ours, all the while respecting the terms of reference established in the Memorandum of December 1970. This Committee is effectively the only place where it is possible to meet as officially delegated Catholic and Jewish representatives (with the asymmetry that is so characteristic of our relations), face to face, fully aware of the responsibility with which the state of our relations burdens us today, separately as well as jointly[5].

            The work of the ILC up to the present day can be summarized by distinguishing three different stages, the first of which, from 1971 to 1973, was merely experimental, and was effectively over as soon as the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was established in the following year. During these three years, in the course of the meetings held in Paris, Marseilles and Antwerp, the main topic under discussion was “people, land and state” that is so important in the Biblical tradition and that has so many concrete implications concerning the way in which we consider the question of the Middle-East and the re-establishment of the State of Israel.

            After the creation of the CRRJ there were about twenty years of intense and fruitful dialogue, from 1974 to 1993. During this period thirteen sessions were held, among which were two extraordinary ones at the Vatican. The focus of all these sessions was on the theme of education, as well as on human rights, mission and witness, anti-Semitism and the Shoah[6]. The two extraordinary sessions took place on August 31st- September 1st 1987 and on December 5th-6th 1990; the latter marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate

            The third stage, whose beginning coincides with the establishment of regular diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel on December 30th-31st, 1993, includes the sessions 15 through 18, from the first held in Jerusalem in May 1994 to the most recent one held in Buenos Aires in 2004[7]. This third period, which continues to the present day, is characterized by two mutually interdependent facts: the periodic publication, beginning in 1994, of joint documents on various themes, and a more decisive orientation towards a practical collaboration geared towards areas of common interest in the field of social action and anti-Semitism. As one can see from the five ILC joint documents, whose original English versions are here included in the Appendix, these short texts effectively mark a new phase in the evolution of the official Catholic-Jewish relations in terms of both form and substance. The Jerusalem meeting (1994) ended with a declaration on the family; the following ILC encounter at the Vatican (1998) led to the drafting of a joint text on ecology, while in  New York (2001) two declarations were published: a highly detailed document on the holy places of all religions and on religious freedom, and a declaration on education. The eighteenth session, in Buenos Aires, led to the elaboration of a common text on the themes of charity and justice, entailing also a joint effort to support the Catholic and Jewish centers that in Argentina’s capital organize social, cultural and charitable activities to help the poor.

            The first joint document of 1994 discussed a theme of crucial relevance for both Jews and Christians - the theme of the family, concerning which there is a substantial agreement between the views of the two religious traditions. It is thus useful to take into consideration at least a few opening sentences of this text, which claim: “The Jewish and Christian understandings of the family are based on the Biblical description of the dual creation of the human being - man and woman - in the image of God, as well as on the dual nature of God’s covenant with the patriarchs and the matriarchs - as for instance in the joint case of Abraham and Sarah. We affirm the sacred and intrinsically positive value of the family and of marital stability. We wish to emphasize their value in the transmission of our moral and religious tradition from the past to the present and to the future. The Jewish people and the Catholic Church represent two ancient traditions that over the centuries have offered and received the support of the family. Today, during this international year devoted to the family, we are in the position to contribute together to the general debate on these themes.” In this paragraph we ought to note what is effectively a reference to the normative authority of the Hebrew Bible, and in particular of the Torah, which in its first book (Bereshit, or Genesis) provides us with the main term of reference shared by both Jews and Christians. This same fundamental orientation reappears also in other texts, as for instance in the document of the 16th ILC encounter that took place at the Vatican in 1998. In this second declaration, which chiefly concerned ecology, it is claimed: “Concern for the environment has led both Catholics and Jews to reflect on the concrete implications of their faith in God, creator of all things. Turning to their holy Scriptures, they have both discovered the religious and moral foundations of their duty to take care of the environment."  Even in this case, the explicit Biblical reference is to Genesis 1-2, but there are also quotes from three other books of the Torah: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. A similar Biblical reference to the passage in Genesis 1, 26 is also present in the New York 2001 declaration on religious freedom and the protection of holy places, precisely where it is remembered that “Freedom of religion and of conscience, which include the rights of religious communities within societies, has its roots and its origin in the freedom of every individual in front of God. As Jews and as Christians, we discover the roots of this concept in the dignity of all people created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1, 26).” Religious freedom can be realized whenever people are granted certain specific rights. Among these are included the freedom of worship, the freedom to profess publicly and to practice one’s own faith, the freedom of religious communities to organize themselves autonomously and to direct their own activities without [external] interference, the right to give expression to the social implications of their own creed, the right to hold meetings and to establish educational, charitable, cultural and social organizations in line with the spiritual goals of one’s own religious tradition.” In the last joint text of Buenos Aires (2004), for the first time is introduced an explicit reference also to the parallel passages in the Gospels, and to later sources in both traditions, including recent pontifical documents: “Our shared commitment to justice is deeply rooted in both faiths. We recall the custom of helping the widows, the orphans, the poor and the foreigners among us, in line with the divine commandment (Exodus 22, 20-22; Matthew 25, 31-46). The ancient wisdom of Israel developed a comprehensive doctrine of justice and charity towards all, established on a high understanding of the notion of Tzedeq. On the basis of the tradition of the Church, Pope John Paul II, in his first encyclical letter Redemptor hominis (1979) reminded all Christians that a genuine relation with God demands a substantial commitment to the service of one’s neighbor.”

            The activity carried out by the CRRJ in order to promote dialogue through the plenary sessions of the ILC is of course only a part of the work of the Commission and of the Joint Committee. The activity of the ILC has been extremely precious as a support for the work of the Commission towards the elaboration of its three documents: Guidelines and Suggestions (1974), Notes (1985) and We Remember (1998). Beyond all the ambits that Cardinal Jorge Mejía recalled with great competence in his talk, we can at least mention some of the ecclesial documents promulgated between 1988 and 2004, in which, in one way or another, one of the CRRJ texts is either presupposed or is cited explicitly; and this effectively means that reference is also made to the work of the ILC, which has always greatly helped in the preparation and in the - sometimes quite critical - interpretation of these documents. In the text of the Pontifical Counsel for Justice and Peace known as The Church Confronted with Racism (1988), a long paragraph is devoted for instance to the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) discusses in more than one place the relations with the Jews, echoing the conclusions of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, while the Ecumenical Directory published in 1993 by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity invites all Christians of the various denominations to unite in the fight against anti-Semitism. Of particular importance have also been the 1997 intra-ecclesial symposium on the theme of Christian anti-Judaism[8], as well as the later documents somehow connected with it, one by the International Theological Commission[9], the other by the Pontifical Biblical Commission[10]. Finally, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004, where, under the number 506, the horrible crime of the Shoah is listed among the “crimes against God and humanity”.       

            The protagonists of these laborious thirty-five years of activity have been very numerous, since at the reunions of the ILC national and international experts have always been invited, involving the local Churches and Jewish communities, in a perspective that is both interreligious and ecumenical. In general, the ILC executive committee would alternatively meet in  Rome and in Geneva; among the chief Jewish protagonists of these meetings one ought to remember especially G. M. Riegner (1911-2001)[11], to whom these pages are ideally dedicated, upon the third anniversary of his death in Geneva

            The activity of the ILC required a mutual collaboration that increased year after year, involving on the Catholic sidet all those who were in charge of the CRRJ; on the Jewish side we ought to remember, among others, the contribution of Fritz Becker and Joseph Lichten in Rome, and Jean Halpérin in Geneva. In addition, from 1987 up to the present day, the IJCIC thought it best to ask Prof. Rabbi Leon A. Feldman of New York, executive secretary of the IJCIC, to follow more closely the activity of the ILC. To offer a particularly meaningful example of the atmosphere in which these meetings took place, we should briefly recall the talks that took place to prepare the extraordinary session of the ILC scheduled for the end of August and the beginning of September 1987 in Rome[12]. In Rome and at the Vatican they were then working to prepare the apostolic trip that the Pope was going to begin in the United States in the following days. A further source of concern came (and it was certainly not a novelty) from the recent tensions that were disturbing the relations with the world Jewish organizations. At this time the main worries during the summer had been caused by the papal audience granted to the Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis, and more generally by a certain impression that there was a deliberate strategy to "Christianize" the Shoah, or to turn it into something more banal. [I am thinking here of] the years-old question of the Carmelite convent in the “Old Theatre” at Auschwitz, as well as of the beatification of Edith Stein in Cologne a few months earlier on March 1st, 1987. The latter had been harshly criticized because of the Jewish origins of the Carmelite nun, who had been deported and murdered at Auschwitz like millions of other Jews, and who now was being proposed as a model of martyr for the Catholic faith.

            For these reasons, Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, President of the Synagogue Council of America and moderator of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, and Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, agreed to call an extraordinary session of about twenty delegates and experts. This session took the form of a special meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee. On the afternoon of Sunday, August 30th, Dr. Riegner, together with Rabbi Waxman, Fr. Pierre Duprey, vice-president of the Vatican commission, and the secretary Fr. Pier Francesco Fumagalli, met to prepare the details of the sessions in the Roman house of Cardinal Willebrands. Riegner, after having emphasized the importance of making a new step on the road of dialogue, in a tone that was calm, but at the same time vibrant and full of the memory of suffering, came to the main point: in order to overcome the suspicions and the lack of trust on the part of the Jewish communities as to the sincerity of the dialogue, and in order to reaffirm the authoritative orientation that the Pope gives through his teaching (as he had recently done in Warsaw), the times were ready for a Church document (maybe even an encyclical letter) that confronted in a comprehensive manner the difficult themes of the Shoah and of anti-Semitism in its historical and religious roots - aspects that in some way are connected with the history and the future of the Jewish-Christian relations. At the same time, however, he concluded “This is not a project that we, as Jews, can suggest or ask you to consider; you alone can autonomously begin such an initiative, which however would certainly have an extraordinarily positive effect on world Jewry; in particular, if announced now, at the eve of the Pope’s trip to the United States, the decision would deeply and positively impress the large and lively Jewish communities of America, which are now agitated by doubts and suspicions as to what the Church really thinks of the Shoah”.

            Riegner stopped…. There was a brief silence, full of intensity, a pregnant expectation, redolent with the weight of memories, as happens when two people recognize each other after a long separation. But it was little more than a moment: the words of Willebrands’ decisive assent sounded short but appeared to reflect a long, earlier reflection, as if they had been pronounced to fulfill an ancient expectation, answering a gesture of fraternal trust and truth, a gesture as strong as a cry. From this encounter would come the process of teshuvah and reconciliation that is still in progress now, within which we ought to include the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.

            Today, among the challenges that the ILC finds itself obliged to face, we also find that which the Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalifa al-Thani, Prime Minister of Qatar, expressed as a wish at the second International Conference on Dialogue between Islam and Christianity, held at Doha from May 27th to May 30th, 2004: “Interreligious dialogue shall be more complete when the Jewish community shall also take part in this forum.”


Documentary Appendix

International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee:


[1] Cf. International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985, Selected Papers, Roma-Cittá del Vaticano, Pontificia Universitá Lateranense-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988: also J.L. Lichten, Origine del Comitato Internazionale di collegamento cattolico-ebraico (1970-1982), in Le chiese cristiane e l’ebraismo (1947-1982), a collection of documents edited by G. Cereti and L. Sestieri, Marietti, Casale Monferrato 1983, pp. 376-383. For all the surveys and the general information concerning the activity of the ILC one may consult the bilingual (English/French) magazine, “Information Service/Service d’information” of the Secretariat, today’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Information and general documentation on this topic can also be found in the work Fratelli prediletti. Chiesa e popolo ebraico, Documenti e fatti, 1965-2005, Preface by W. Kasper, edited by P.F. Fumagalli, Milan, Mondadori 2005 (about to be published).

[2] The five Jewish organizations that established the IJCIC were: the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Section of the Israel Interfaith Association, the Synagogue Council of America, and the World Jewish Congress. 

[3] Cf. the Appendix. The text of the Memorandum can also be found in Fifteen Years of Catholic Jewish Dialogue, pp. XV-XVI.

[4] The more recent Joint Commission for Jewish-Catholic Dialogue in Israel would only be established in Jerusalem in 2002. 

[5] Cf. J. Willebrands, "Nostra Aetate: The Fundamental Starting Point for Jewish-Christian Relations" in Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, p. 274. 

[6] To this particular topic was devoted the whole of session 13 – a plenary session held in Prague. Thanks to the initiative of the ILC, the acts of this session were published in number XXXVI/3° of the journal Istina (Prague, September 3rd-6th 1990): Après la shoa. Juifs et chrétiens s’interrogent.

[7] Concerning this last session, cf. N.J. Hofmann, Dialogo su giustizia e carità, published in “Il regno-attualità”, 14/2004, p. 449.

[8] Cf. AA.VV. Radici dell’antigiudaismo in ambiente cristiano, Colloquio Intra-Ecclesiale, Atti del Simposio Teologico-storico (Città del Vaticano, October 30th- November 1st 1997), Città del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000 (Atti e documenti, 8).  

[9] International Theological Commission, Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past (1999).

[10] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001).

[11] Cf. G. M. Riegner, Ne jamais désespérer. Soixante années au service du peuple juifs et des droits de l’homme, Paris, Cerf, 1998 (German translation: Niemals verzweifeln: Sechzig Jahre für das jüdische Volk und die Menschenrechte, Gerlingen, Bleicher Verlag, 2001).

[12] The episode shall be the object of a more exhaustive commentary in the book Eredi [Heirs] which the author is currently preparing for the publishing house Mondadori.