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:

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Steps Taken and the Questions Still Remaining in Jewish-Christian Relations Today

Thirty Years of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews


Cardinal Walter Kasper

President, Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews

Rome, 19th October 2004, 5 Heshwan 5765, at the Pontifical Gregorian University


It is an honour for me to have the opportunity to speak this evening to this distinguished assembly and to speak about thirty years of the “Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.” I am convinced I do not exaggerate when I say that the years since Nostra Aetate (n. 4) – and next year 2005 we will celebrate its 40th anniversary – mark one of the most surprising developments of the 20th century, a development which changed to a great extent the 2000 year history of Jewish-Christian relations, with momentous consequences for the whole world.

The urgency of better Jewish-Christian relations is even greater in these times of tragic and bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, a conflict which cannot leave anybody indifferent because of so many innocent victims on both sides. While in this context we are not called to deal with the political aspects of this conflict, they cannot totally be put aside because they evoke fundamental ethical problems and are intimately linked with the religious dimension which is the only mandate of our “Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews”. Some people are of the opinion that this conflict forebodes the end of the dialogue or at the least brings it almost to an impasse. I do not share this pessimistic vision. On the contrary, this tragic conflict highlights the very urgency of the dialogue between the three Abrahamitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Middle East conflict serves to demonstrate what is already often said: there cannot be peace in the world without peace between the world religions.

This insight clarifies the challenge and the urgency of the work of our Pontifical Commission on which I am invited to speak to you this evening. I hope it is not arrogant to say that even in this conflict our Pontifical Commission is and wants to be a small and modest sign of hope, a small light shining in the darkness.

I. The beginning of a new beginning

But before I come to our present endeavours, I would like to trace the origins of our Commission. It is a truism worth recalling that only those who know history can understand the present and master the future. And it is also worth recalling that the Commission was a challenge from the very beginning. It was indirectly initiated by Pope John XXIII who was elected to be a Pope of transition, an interim Pope so to say, but who was himself to be the architect of transition in the Church and indirectly in the world, for since his pontificate it is the very Church which lives in an interim situation and in a situation of transition. One of the most fundamental shifts he made was the beginning of a new era in relations between Christians and Jews. “I am Joseph your brother,” he told Jews he met soon after his election. On Good Friday 1959 he abolished from the liturgy the formulation speaking of the “perfidious Jews”. This was a new and unaccustomed tone after so many centuries where the relations between Jews and Christians were anything but brotherly and friendly.

The first approaches after the long period countersigned by a “language of contempt” (Jules Isaak) were made – paradoxically – in the Nazi concentration camps, where often Jews and Christians together were confronted with a barbaric neo-pagan totalitarian system and together discovered their common heritage and common values. Then there were courageous forerunners who prepared and paved the way. Jews such as  Leo Baeck, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Jules Isaak, Schalom Ben-Chorim, Joseph Klausner, David Flusser and many others, and Catholics like Jacques Maritain in France and Gertrud Luckner in Germany. Pope John XXIII himself as Nuncio in Istanbul during the Second World War personally intervened to save Jewish lives. His own background therefore lent solid credibility on which to usher in an age of new relations.

But to implement such a new start can be a challenge for a Pope too. Popes have according to Catholic doctrine the fullness of jurisdiction within the Catholic Church; but it would be more then naïve to think that a Pope himself is not conditioned by those around him.  Pope John XXIII was fortunate to find an able cooperator in a fine, highly regarded German Old Testament scholar and at the same time a man who knew the Curia and who knew to deal with it, a man gifted with wisdom, prudence and courage, human sensitivity and a wakeful spiritual mind, Cardinal Augustin Bea. The Pope appointed him the first President of the then Pontifical Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1960). But it was only in 1974 that the “Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews” was established within what is now the “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity”.

The work of the then Secretariat and later of the Commission was challenging from the outset. The challenges grew when Pope John XXIII after a memorable visit of Jules Isaak in June 1960 decided that the Second Vatican Council, which he had convoked to the great surprise of the Curia and the whole Church, should publish a Declaration about the Jews and charged Cardinal Bea to prepare it.

The way ahead was to become a thorny one. After the document had made its passage through the Council, Cardinal Bea told a friend: “If I had known all the difficulties before, I do not know whether I would have had the courage to take this way.” There was vehement opposition both from outside and from within. From inside the old well–known patterns of traditional anti-Judaism emerged, from outside there was a storm of protest especially from Muslim countries with serious threats against the Christians living there as small minorities. In order to save the furniture from the burning house it was decided to integrate the envisaged Declaration as one chapter in the “Declaration about the Non-Christian Religions”, to be known later as Nostra Aetate.

Yet this was a compromise, for Judaism is not one religion among the non-Christian religions, but as the Chapter 4 of the Declaration made very clear,  Christianity has a particular and a unique relation with Judaism. We cannot define Christianity and its identity without making reference to Judaism, which is not the case with Islam, Buddhism or any other religion. Judaism belongs to the very roots of Christianity. But to share this conviction, to formulate it and to find a majority within the Council was not an easy accomplishment. It was not only the well–known French Archbishop Lefèbvre who raised opposition, but many others, especially from countries with Muslim majorities.

In the end there were two well–known major decisions of the Council. On the one hand, the rejection of all kinds of anti-Semitism and, on the other, the remembrance of the Jewish roots of Christianity, our common heritage as sons of Abraham in faith. The present Pope, John Paul II, has pursued these insights energetically and has deepened both aspects. Anti-Semitism is for him a fierce violation of human rights, it is against the dignity of every human person, which is not contingent on descent, culture, religion or sex, and it is in strict contradiction of what is expounded on the very first page of the Bible, that God created the human person, and this means: created every single human person, in  his own image and likeness, so that therefore every human person possesses an infinite dignity which deserves absolute respect from his/her neighbour. Anti-Semitism is sin.

John Paul II has repeated again and again in many circumstances throughout his long pontificate that the Jewish people are the chosen and beloved people of God, the people of God’s covenant which for God’s faithfulness is never broken and is still alive. When he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome he called the Jews “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham”. On the first Sunday of Lent 2000 and in the moving scene at the Western Wall in Jerusalem he prayed for forgiveness for all the sins Christians had committed against Jews, he called the Shoah the Calvary of the 20th century.

Thus both these pontificates, that of John XXIII. and that of John Paul II  have initiated – it is our hope – a new historical period of partnership between Jews and Christians in the new century and in the new millennium. Both Popes have strived to prove that conversion, a new beginning and reconciliation are possible.

II. What happened in the meantime

To make reference to some of the important statements of the present Pope is to make clear that the challenge did not come to an end at the closure of the Council in 1965. The obstacles, opposition, conflicts and problems, and consequently the challenges continued. But also enormous progress was made. To have a fine Conciliar statement is one thing, to make it known and have it received in the body of a world-wide Church, and even more so to implement it at the grassroots level, is another thing.

The decades after any Council are shaped by lively debate and sometimes an obstinate conflict regarding the right interpretation and the appropriate realisation of the Council, and this was not different in terms of the 4th chapter of the Declaration, Nostra Aetate.

The “Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews” – after Cardinal Bea guided by Cardinal Willebrands and Cardinal Cassidy – committed itself unreservedly. The Council’s Declaration was only the beginning of a new beginning and it was necessary to build on the basis which the Council had laid and to translate the Conciliar message not only into the different languages but also into the very different individual situations and contexts. The present young generation was not yet born when the Council ended almost 39 years ago; it represents for them quite remote history.  So we must transmit the Council’s message again and again to the new young generation. Overcoming anti-Semitism and fostering positive and friendly relations between our faith communities cannot be done once for all, for it is a permanent educational task.

Alarming signs over the last few months of a new rising anti-Semitism have tragically shown that much has still to be done and new efforts have to be undertaken in order to introduce the Conciliar vision at the grassroots level.

A series of helpful documents was published: “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declarations Nostra Aetate No. 4" (1974), “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985), “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (1998). 

Documents are important, but they are not all. Documents can become dead letters; in contrast, dialogue thrives on personal face-to-face encounter.  As well as many individual encounters we initiated regular and positive, mostly friendly, sometimes – and how could it be otherwise?  – also conflictual contacts with Jewish institutions. I make mention of the ongoing and fruitful relations with, for example, the “Catholic-Jewish Liaison-Committee” and therein the “International Jewish Commission for Interreligious Consultation” (IJCIC).

But it would be an illusion and in any case absolutely impossible that everything could or even should be done at the highest universal level. The Catholic Church exists – as the Council affirmed – “in and out of local Churches”, which have their own responsibility. Thus, in the aftermath of the Council many individual Bishops’ Conferences established commissions for dialogue with Judaism and in turn issued important declarations. The collection of all these texts takes up two substantial volumes. 

The Pontifical Commission follows, inspires, motivates and sometimes initiates such activities on the national and local level. Whilst dialogue has been pursued over the last decades especially in the context of North American Judaism we now try promote such dialogue in Europe too. The Jewish-Christian dialogue in Latin America is also being followed with interest. In 2002 the “International Council of Christians and Jews” met in Montevideo (Uruguay); the last international meeting of the “Catholic-Jewish Liaison-Committee” in Buenos Aires in July of this year was without any doubt a highlight in our mutual relations, and would not have been possible without strong support from the local level.

Among the new endeavours to be undertaken I would like to mention only two.

I will begin by mentioning first the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993), prepared and made possible by a preceding “Fundamental Agreement”. Relations in the years since then have been strong enough to withstand difficult pressures and even tensions in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which touches also the Christians in the Holy Land very hard. This remains an abiding challenge, and we can only hope for an imminent just and peaceful solution which would be in the interest of all sides.

Despite the context of this dramatic situation, it is a source of happiness that we have been able to initiate an official Jewish-Christian dialogue in Israel itself including members from Israel appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, as well as representatives from the Vatican. It is our conviction that weapons cannot solve the conflict, that they only feed hatred on both sides and instigate a vicious cycle of violence. There is no alternative to dialogue, a process that respects the legitimate interests of both sides and aims at reconciliation and sustainable peace.

It has been even more difficult to confront the second task and challenge: the dialogue and reflection on the Shoah. This was a tragedy and atrocity of unprecedented proportions, a genocide in the midst of Europe which raises many questions and leaves us ultimately speechless. For Jews the memory of the Shoah and its millions of victims became a common point of reference and a constitutive element of their identity. For Christians it became the object of shameful repentance and historical and thorough theological reflections, the starting point for conversion and new relations with the Jewish people.

Our Commission took up these challenges, and after the publication of insightful statements of some Bishops’ Conferences and after long discussions and controversies issued its perhaps most important document, “We Remember” (1998). This text found respect, but it also encountered harsh criticism from the Jewish world. Ours is not the context to repeat all the arguments pro and contra. I only repeat what my predecessor, Cardinal Cassidy said: “This is the first word, it’s not the last word”. But who will dare to pronounce the last word? In the end we must all remain silent out of respect for the victims and for the unfathomable mystery of the hidden God. It is He only who can and will say the last word at the end of all time.

This does not exonerate us from doing what we can in effect do. We are indeed obliged to do whatever is possible to prevent such an atrocity in the future, and therefore to clarify the historical circumstances as much as it is possible for us as human beings to do so, not in order to accuse and to blame or to defend and to apologise, but in order to learn and to apply that learning to the future.

III. Future tasks and challenges

Let me conclude with some observations on future challenges and tasks. In the beginning I made the remark that the constitution of our Commission was only a beginning of a new beginning. Still today, thirty years after this memorable new beginning we are still only at the beginning. Difficult problems remain and new challenges arise.

Among the remaining difficult problems there are first of all historical problems which relate to our common, often difficult history. Besides the Jewish impact on Christian history, liturgy, Bible study, but also on literature, philosophy and art, there is also the much less known Christian influence on Judaism, which constituted itself in its post-Biblical rabbinic form after the destruction of the temple in opposition to Christendom, but nevertheless was later influenced by Christianity. There is, besides the questions relating to the Holocaust, still a lot of research work to do.

Secondly there are still fundamental theological problems. We are still very far away from a comprehensive theology of Judaism, and the problem of the one or the two covenants, and this means the theological relation between Judaism and Christianity, remains unsolved. In the fundamental conceptions which are constitutive for their respective identities, Jews and Christians, despite all they have in common, are and remain different. Therefore we should not approach the Jewish-Christian dialogue with naïve expectations of a harmonious understanding. It will remain a difficult dialogue.

Yet, precisely when we do not simply ignore our otherness, but rather bear with it, can we learn from each other. There is still considerable ignorance on both sides, and ignorance is one of the roots of reciprocal prejudice. For that reason we are at present considering how to include some basic knowledge of Judaism in the training of future priests; conversely, the training of future rabbis should include some basic knowledge of Christianity.

As a third and last point, which for me at this moment and in this context is the most important one, I would like to mention our practical co-operation. I think it was a most significant step and a sign of our progress we made in Buenos Aires that we were able to embark on a practical social and charitable form of co-operation. Together we successfully endeavoured to help the children who have suffered the most in the tremendous economic crisis in Argentina and we hope that in the future we can extend such activities in other parts of the world too. The rabbinical tradition has expressed what is meant here in the sentence: “He who has saved one human being has saved the world”.

In this, Jews and Christians – for so long adversaries when not merely indifferent to each other – should strive to become allies. They have a great common heritage to oversee: the common image of the human person, its unique dignity and responsibility before God, the understanding of the world as creation, the concept of justice and peace, the worth of the family, the hope of definitive salvation and fulfilment.

In this perspective, in the future our dialogue should not only deal with religious questions of principle; nor should it be dedicated only to clarifying the past. Our common heritage should be profitably made available in response to contemporary challenges: the sanctity of life, the protection of the family, justice and peace in the world, the problem of terrorism, and the integrity of creation, among others. After the tragedy of the Shoah, Jews and Christians alike are challenged to intervene and are responsible for preventing a similar human catastrophe. 

“It is our task to pass on to the new generations the treasures and values we have in common, so that never again will man despise his own brother in humanity and never again will conflicts or wars be unleashed in the name of an ideology that despises a culture or religion. On the contrary, the different religious traditions are called together to put their patrimony at the service of all, in the hope of building the common European home together, united in justice, peace, equity and solidarity” (John Paul II to the European Jewish-Christian Congress in Paris on January 28-29, 2002).

Jews and Christians together are a beacon of hope. For they can testify from the bitter and painful lessons of history that – despite otherness and foreignness and despite historical guilt - conversion, reconciliation, peace and friendship are possible. May thus our century become a century of brotherhood – shoulder to shoulder. Shalom!