News in Christian-Jewish Relations:  May 2004

This month:


National Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Warns Against Antisemitic Uses of Gibson's Passion 

Discusses Jewish and Christian Attachment to the Holy Land




Council of 


May 19, 2004

Catholic and Jewish representatives, at the semi-annual meeting of the Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee in New York on April 20, 2004, shared with depth and intensity their respective views on the film, The Passion of the Christ. While for many Christians, the movie represents a work of artistic beauty that can provide the opportunity for faith values to be expressed on the screen in a way that has broad appeal, for other Christians and most Jews it recalls the Passion Plays of the past. Those dramatizations of Jesus' death in medieval and indeed modern European history often precipitated violence against Jews by triggering the insidious notion that "the Jews" were and are collectively guilty of the death of Jesus.

Even though Jesus, His mother, the Apostles, indeed all in the picture who are identified with Christ were Jewish, the film's depiction of the Temple leaders and its essentially ahistorical use of the Gospels could be twisted in an anti-Semitic way. We have reports of a few incidents where Jews are once again being taunted as "Christ killers," and those who have raised questions about the film have received antisemitic mail.

Though no major anti-Semitic incidents have been reported in this country or in Europe, it is with deep concern that the Consultation received reports that the film is being utilized in some countries, most regrettably in some Arab lands, to foment anti-Semitism and anti Jewish feelings. It is with great dismay, especially on the Catholic side, that, where relations are already difficult due both to long-standing and more recent policy differences, we see elements of ancient Christian anti-Jewish teachings now threatening to infect the Muslim world. We pray that the spiritual leaders of both Christianity and Islam will guide their faithful away from any such anti-Semitic implications.

Pope John Paul II has made it abundantly clear during his long pontificate that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and humanity and that the Church's teachings must never be perverted for the dissemination of such sentiments.

For almost forty years, the Catholic Church has worked to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council's landmark declaration, Nostra Aetate, which condemned anti-Semitism and rejected the ancient "deicide" charge indicting all Jews past and present for the death of Jesus. In a series of significant documents, the Holy See and national episcopal conferences have emphasized that any depiction of Jesus' death under the Romans should be so fashioned as to present accurately both the theological and historical causes of Jesus' crucifixion. Theologically, all humanity was responsible for killing Jesus, not just one group or people. Historically, Jesus was executed through collaboration between the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman-dominated high priesthood of Jerusalem. Jesus was popular with the people at large as his clandestine arrest at night shows. Catholic texts have been rewritten to incorporate these new understandings of ancient texts so that the teachings of the Church may never again give rise to contempt for and denigration of Jews and Judaism.

The U. S. bishops issued in 1988 important guidelines to ensure that any presentation of the Passion under Catholic auspices will not depict Jews as sinister killers of God. These guidelines, along with those of the Holy See, show how the Church reads the Gospels and how to avoid the temptation to selectively manipulate the texts to create erroneous and invidious impressions of Jews. The key documents of the Church have now been conveniently assembled in a new book, The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus available from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (  These should be studied, ideally by Jews and Catholics together, to discern the proper understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death as understood in official Catholic teaching. 

Any Catholic school or religious education group contemplating using The Passion of Christ in their programs should make use of these documents in developing solid educational programming around the film to guide students so they will be familiar with the deep theological significance and complex historical context of the passion narratives that no single film could fully convey.  Here, the U.S. Bishops' 1988 Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion will be most helpful in bringing out where its artistic vision may be inadequate or misleading either theologically or historically. Resources for teachers and clergy are posted on many diocesan websites, and also on that of Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning (  Also, caution is advised with regard to age levels, because of the graphic nature of the film's violence.  Some might feel it suitable only for the upper grades of high school, some for all high school students, but it would seem to be too overwhelming for elementary or middle school classes.
Study groups, seminars, adult education, parochial schools and seminaries can likewise benefit by using the recently issued six part video series, Walking God's Paths, also available from the USCCB, as well as the Union for Reform Judaism ( and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism ( Indeed, it is encouraging that many groups of Catholics, Protestants and Jews are doing precisely this: they are getting to the sources of Christian teachings in order to dispel dangerous misconceptions that make for hate instead of harmony. 

We have progressed significantly in building bridges of understanding between Catholics and Jews and we are determined to do all we can in pulpits, schools, seminaries, educational and media settings to prevent any outbreak of the ancient scourge of anti-Semitism. 

The Consultation also wishes to express its joint concern over the persistence of anti-Catholic attitudes in the US in the secular media and in certain intellectual circles.  While much of the coverage of sex abuse scandal in the media has been fair and balanced, far too much appeared to us to be exploiting the crisis in order to attack, not just the abusers and their enablers, but the Catholic Church as such.  Similarly, in the debates concerning immigration into this country, one can at times discern not very subtle evocations of the Protestant Nativist tradition of anti-Catholicism. 

The Consultation, in a rich exchange, shared the distinct but related religious attachments of Jews and Christians with the Holy Land, 'Eretz Israel, throughout history and today. Catholic representatives shared with their Jewish colleagues recent statements and letters by the bishops on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict urging renewed efforts by the U.S. government to revive the peace process. 

A deep concern is expressed for the plight of Christians in the Holy Land who suffer real difficulties and increasing pressures. We are greatly distressed, moreover, to learn that as a result of government bureaucratic confusion compounded by genuine security concerns, the situation of the institutional church in Israel, in the eyes of Catholic officials, seems to have greatly deteriorated. For that reason, the Consultation is encouraged to learn that the Israeli government has moved to establish a working committee of representatives of the key ministries involved to resolve the urgent question of visas for Christian church workers, who are vital to so many Christian institutions in the area, and also to address still-pending issues regarding full implementation of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel. As repeated commitments have gone unfulfilled over the past year, we hope that the committee will address these issues with the utmost urgency.

Leading the discussion of our respective theological and historical understandings of our relationship as People of God with the Land we both call holy were Professor Benjamin Gampel of  Jewish Theological Seminary and Monsignor Robert Stern of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.  Leading the discussion of Catholic-Jewish relations in the aftermath of the Gibson movie were Rabbi Michael Signer of the University of Notre Dame; Rev. John Pawlikowski, OSM, of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; Rabbi Joel Zaiman, rabbi emeritus of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore; and Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, staff member of the U.S. Conference of the Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.  The Consultation is co-chaired by Rabbi Zaiman and Cardinal William H. Keeler of  Baltimore, Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the USCCB. Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal serves as Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues.