Catholic-Jewish Dialogue: A Developing Agenda

Cardinal William H. Keeler 

June 7, 2004


Cardinal Keeler is the Archbishop of Baltimore and the Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This address was delivered at a Jewish-Catholic dialogue sponsored by the Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishop in Salvador, Brazil. 


With two very important exceptions, the Shoah and the deeper levels of theological discourse, which I will deal with at the end of this paper, the agenda for dialogue between Catholics and Jews has been rather remarkably constant since its early days at the time of the Second Vatican Council.  One of the first formal dialogues in the United States, for example, was held at St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in January of 1965, almost a year before the issuance of the document, Nostra Aetate.  The papers, edited by Philip Scharper, were published by Sheed and Ward in 1966 under the title, Torah and Gospel: Jewish and Catholic Theology in Dialogue.  The table of contents of that classic collection of seminal essays in the field remains even today a suitable frame for considering much of the future agenda of Catholic-Jewish relations, although a wealth of literature in each category has greatly enriched the Church’s understanding of the deeper issues involved.  In this brief paper, I shall list the six theological and social themes put forward for the Latrobe exchange and attempt a brief status quaestionis of where we are at the present time, standing, as it were, on the shoulders of the giants, the pioneers of the dialogue and looking to our shared future together as Catholics and Jews in a relationship renewed by the Council and the efforts of so many of the greatest thinkers in both of our communities.  Then let us consider the two categories, which, though underlying much of the initial agenda, had not yet reached the stage in Jewish or Catholic consciousness where they could be confronted, as it were, head on.


1. Evaluating the Past: Lessons for Today from the Pain of the Past

Leading this discussion at Latrobe were Rabbi Solomon Grayzel of Brandeis University and Father John Sheerin, CSP, editor of The Catholic World.  The starting point in the discussion, in both texts, was the thesis set forth by French historian and Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac[1], whose classic works of the 1940’s in the field, Jesus and Israel and The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism, which were translated into English only in the early 1960’s by Claire Hutchet Bishop.  These publications helped pave the way for the Council’s declaration.  The two scholars agreed with Isaac’s contention that the ancient Christian “teaching of contempt” against Jews and Judaism went back to the earliest Fathers of the Church and must be uprooted from Christian theology lest the tragedies of history repeat themselves.

But they parted company over two key issues with a distinctly contemporary ring:

1)            Whereas Grayzel, following Isaac, sought to place the beginning of the teaching of contempt within the New Testament, Sheerin, following Catholic scholar Gregory Baum, argued that it was rooted not in the New Testament but in “misunderstandings” of the New Testament by Christians beginning in the 2nd century.  One can see the nuanced language preferred by Sheerin in 1965 echoed in recent statements by Pope John Paul II and the Holy See’s 1998 statement, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah[2].  It is important to note that the “anti-Jewish” polemics in the New Testament originally reflected internal disputes in the decades after Jesus’ time between Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not accept the claims about him.  In Jesus’ own time, as the statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001), makes clear, few Jews aside from the leadership of the Temple priesthood would have opposed Jesus.

2)            The second difference between Grayzel and Sheerin is that the former, though taking a nuanced view of history which acknowledged the papal protectiveness of Jews over the centuries and the many periods of tolerance, insisted with Isaac that Nazi anti-Semitism was in continuity with ancient Christian anti-Semitism, and was in fact its culmination, if not an inevitable one.  Sheerin, on the other hand, cites Charles Journet, Gregory Baum and Henri deLubac to the effect that “Hitlerian anti-Semitism had no roots in Christian preaching or teaching,” though he does allow that “Christian preaching has created a type of Jew whose image has entered the Christian subconscious, producing a psychological mechanism of which pagan hate can take possession.”[3]

Today, I believe we would hold the two, continuity and discontinuity, in more equal balance.  While distinguishing between Christian polemics against Judaism and Jews over the centuries and the modern racial, genocidal anti-Semitism of the Nazis, for example, the US document, Catholic Teaching on the Shoah also insists on the historical continuity between them.  “The Christian teaching of anti-Judaism (leading to anti-Jewishness) . . . is a ‘necessary cause’ to consider in explaining the development and success of (Nazi anti-Semitism) in the 20th Century—but not a ‘sufficient cause’.  To account for the Holocaust, one must acknowledge the historical role of Christian anti-Judaism.  But Christian anti-Judaism alone cannot account for the Holocaust.  Semi-scientific racial theories and specific historical, ideological, economic and social realities within Germany must also be taken into account.” 

Forty years after Latrobe (St. Vincent Archabbey) and the Second Vatican Council, we are, sadly, experiencing a renewed anti-Semitism in which, as the statement The Church and Racism of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace warned as long ago as 1988, anti-Zionism is being used by certain intellectual circles of both left and right and in both Europe and the Americas “as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it.”  This has been dubbed “the new Anti-Semitism,” but it is really not so new.  What is, perhaps, new, is its particular virulence in parts of the Muslim world, where old results of Western anti-Semitism such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Talmud Unmasked are being widely circulated.  What is also new, in post-Shoah Europe, is the sharp rise in not only anti-Semitic rhetoric but anti-Semitic incidents.  So seriously is this taken that the European Union has itself initiated international studies and meetings to analyze and counter it.

It is no surprise, then, that the appearance of a very popular movie on “The Passion of the Christ” would cause profound concerns in the Jewish community.  The deicide charge, after all, lay at the very hear of the ancient teaching of contempt, and was incorporated into modern, racial anti-Semitism even though Nazi ideology was in fact as anti-Christian as it was anti-Jewish.  Passion Plays over the centuries caused innumerable incidents of violence against Jews, to the point that during Holy Week local bishops throughout Europe would place guards around the ghettoes, not to keep Jews in, but to keep marauding Christians out.  

Yet if the Gibson movie was, as many said, a “litmus test” of Christian-Jewish relations since the Holocaust, it must also be said that the dialogue and the relationship proved equal to the test.  Jews did not turn away from but toward their Catholic neighbors.  In the U.S. both local and national dialogues enabled Jews to express their deep concerns on the one hand, and Christians to express the deep faith in Jesus that they saw reflected in the movie on the other[4].  In addition, numerous reflective pieces on the movie and its aftermath were published in Catholic and Jewish journals such as America, Moment, Commonweal and Commentary.  One lesson for the future agenda that we can take out of the controversy over this movie is that Jews and Christians need to understand each other more deeply, since Christians in general were caught off-guard by the depth of Jewish fears.  Jews found it hard to believe that the movie would not—as it did not—precipitate the same sort of violence against them as would have occurred prior to the Second World War.

But the lack of anti-Semitic incidents after the film does not mean that we can rest easy in the belief that classical Christian anti-Semitism has been eradicated.  Rather, as the joint communiqué of the National Council of Synagogues/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (May, 2004) noted, the film should be a “teachable moment” for Christian teachers and preachers:

Any Catholic school or religious education group contemplating using The Passion of the 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.

The U. S. bishops issued in 1988 helpful 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 impressions of Jews. The key documents of the Church, including Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, 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 (  


2. The Bond of Worship: Our Debt to Each Other

One of the most significant areas of progress made by the Second Vatican Council was the reform of our Catholic liturgy.  One of the most significant sources of insight for this reform, in turn, was the rediscovery by Catholic scholars of the Jewish roots of our liturgy[5].  At Latrobe, Rabbi Solomon Freeh of of Hebrew Union College and Father Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, of St. Meinrad Seminary, ably recounted the cross-fructification of Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions over the centuries.  Here again solid foundations have been laid in the four decades since these talks were given.  But much more work needs to be done.  The reform of Catholic liturgy with respect to its traditionally negative portrayal of Jews and Judaism is not yet complete. The Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” has been radically altered into a respectful prayer that God will intensify the Jews in their faithful response to His ongoing covenant with them.  But this does not exhaust the challenges faced by Catholic liturgists.  The Passion is still read without official commentary or guidance on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, leaving it up to local churches and pastors to “fill in” how it is to be understood by their congregations.  Numerous questions of selections of lectionary texts abound.  Often, it is difficult in the juxtaposition of biblical texts to distinguish between a theological relationship of fulfillment, which is the Church’s teaching, and supersessionism, which clearly is not. 

More profound changes will come within the Roman Liturgy itself, but only when Catholic liturgists sit down seriously with Catholics and Jews who have worked together on these issues over the years in national and international dialogues. 

Likewise of importance for the agenda facing us today is more serious work by Jewish scholars on Jewish liturgy.  Certain aspects of Jewish worship, for example, the medieval piyyutim were developed in times of tension between Jews and Christians, and can be read, though phrased more subtly, as polemics against Christianity that mislead Jewish worshippers as to the true nature of Christian faith and practice.  And I believe much more work needs to be done to surface and acknowledge areas of Jewish life and worship that have been deeply influenced by Christianity over the centuries.  Some work has been done in this area[6].  But I would suggest that a smaller percentage of educated Jews are aware of Christian influences on Jewish liturgy than educated Catholics are aware of the Jewish origins of their liturgical practices.   


3. Biblical Scholarship: Bond or Barrier?

The burgeoning of interactive Catholic and Jewish biblical scholarship has been one of the great achievements of the post-Vatican II era.  Here, Rabbi Samuel Sandmel of Hebrew Union College and Father Roland Murphy, O.Carm., of The Catholic University of America, presaged a solid generation of tremendously exciting interaction.  Today, it is common for Jewish scholars to publish articles in Catholic Biblical Quarterly and for CBQ to review Jewish books.  Indeed, the book review editor for New Testament and Intertestamental Studies for CBQ is now a Jew, Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt!  This would not, trust me, have happened in our grandparents’ generation, or even our parents’, such are the profound changes in Catholic attitudes toward Jewish biblical interpretation in our time.  Dr. Eugene Fisher, our long-time Conference staff person for Catholic-Jewish relations, who has for years reviewed books in the Spanish language in biblical studies for CBQ, reports, too, that this is not just a North American experience.  Catholic studies and textbooks on Scripture in Spanish are equally permeated with the best of Jewish scholarship.

It should be no surprise, then, that the recent major statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jews and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001) argues persuasively that Jewish and Christian interpretations of Scripture, even where they appear to differ in their understanding of a given text of Tanach, can both be considered to be valid, in a parallel or analogical fashion[7].  This, again, is a radical departure from past disputations.  The Catholic Church, both through her theologians and through her official statements, has announced to all Catholics that they may and should learn important insights from Jewish tradition of biblical interpretation that they cannot learn from Christian tradition alone.  The parallel for this on the Jewish side, of course, would be the remarkable statement signed now by hundreds of Jewish scholars, Dabru Emet.  (The text of and the commentaries on Dabru Emet can also be found on the website


4. Freedom of Conscience

Interestingly, while Rabbi Robert Gordis of Jewish Theological Seminary entitled his article only “Freedom of Conscience,” Bishop (later Cardinal) John J. Wright of Pittsburgh entitled his “Conscience and Authority,” again a title with a most contemporary ring at least in the U.S. in this presidential election year. (Cardinal Wright, by the way, was the one who had convinced Rome in 1962 to allow Fr. John Sheerin, who spoke at the Latrobe conference, and Fr. Gustav Weigel, S.J., to become the first official observers of the Holy See at a meeting of the World Council of Churches, held that year in the U.S.)  These talks were delivered at the height of the debate during the Second Vatican Council over the document Dignitatis Humanae (Religious Freedom) which the U.S. scholar, Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., played such a role in drafting.  (Gordis and Wright, being Americans, took similar positions regarding the respect both societal and religious authorities must give to the individual human conscience as the ultimate arbiter of one’s moral and social behavior.)

This fundamental position, I must say, is still, as it were “at play” in our respective traditions and in our American society in general.  So the articles remain timely reminders that we – neither Jews nor Catholics – have fully worked out the implications of our basic stances and can and must learn from each other as we work through the myriad issues involved.

Already in the 4th Century, St. Augustine laid the theological groundwork for acknowledging the Jewish People’s right to live and worship freely in Christian societies.[8]  Augustine argued that, though Jews might be “blind” about Christ, they witnessed authentically to the validity of the Jewish Scriptures upon which the New Testament was founded, and so must be allowed freedom of worship.  Centuries later, in 1977 in Venice, Professor Tomasso Federici, in a paper commissioned by the Holy See[9], argued that any organized attempt by Christians to convert Jews would violate the freedom of faith between God and the Jews by so raising the specter of forced conversions and other unsavory Christian practices over the centuries that it would violate not only the freedom of conscience of Jews but of God himself.  At this time it should be noted that there exist no official Catholic organizations to convert Jews. 

In 2002, building on Federici and a number of other studies some members of the U.S. dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues issued “Joint Reflections on Covenant and Mission.”  The statement raised for further reflection certain theological issues with regard to the Church’s mission to the Jews and with that of the Jews to all humanity.  While some of the theological terminology used in the text has been questioned[10], the discussion has illustrated the need for Catholic systematic theologians to develop some new approaches to describing our contemporary understanding of these mysteries of salvation, in order to reflect more adequately the profound insights of the Council and to draw out the implications of subsequent teachings of the Magisterium.


5. Religious and the Public Order: Church, Synagogue and Social Actions for the World

The papers in this section were given by Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee and Father John F. Cronin, SS, of the National Catholic Welfare Conference.  Again, these are classics of their time.  Catholics and Jews in the U.S. both see themselves as immigrant communities into an “Anglo-Protestant” nation, at once welcomed for the labor and intellectual energies we give to the larger society and reviled and discriminated against, historically, and to some extent even today, as possible polluters of that dominant culture.  What the articles reveal, therefore, is a great deal in common in terms of social policy (labor unions, immigration questions, welfare issues, etc.).  But there was then and remains now a gulf in terms of some of the life issues, e.g. abortion, and in terms of what we in the U.S. call Church/State issues, particularly around aid to religiously affiliated educational institutions.  Yet even here we Catholics in the U.S. have a natural Jewish ally in the Orthodox community, which shares our interests and goals. With representatives of Orthodox Judaism, we are now, for example, working on a joint statement on issues of aid to private education. With the National Council of Synagogues, which represents Reform and Conservative Jews (90% of religiously-affiliated American Jewry), the USCCB has made a number of significant statements on social issues over the years, and most recently on theological insights as well.

“Moral Values in Public Education," 1989*

"Against Pornography," 1991*

"Against Holocaust Revisionism," 1993*

"Reflections on the Millennium," 1998

"To End the Death Penalty," 1999

"Joint Statement Condemning Acts of Religious Hatred," 2000

"Children and the Environment," 2000

"Filled with Sadness, Charged with Hope," 2001

"Reflections on Covenant and Mission," 2002

(* These statements were made with the old Synagogue Council of America, which included representatives of Orthodox Judaism.)[11]


6. Israel as Idea and Reality

Again, there are commonalities and differences with regard to the state of Israel.  Both Father Gerard S. Sloyan, then of The Catholic University of America and Rabbi Jacob Agus of Congregation Beth El speak not only of the historic but also of the theological significance of Israel as part of the history of the salvation of humanity. Both are acutely aware, as we are today, of the crucial nature of Israel for the survival of the Jewish People, and the threats it faces from a hostile Arab world.  Israel represents for both a “sign of the times”, a moment of the resurrection of the Jewish people from the death of the concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany, a contemporary exodus, in Pope John Paul’s words, from slavery and oppression to spiritual as well as temporal freedom.

But then as now there were tensions. Then it was the lack of official recognition of the state by the Holy See, a lack which was overcome with the Fundamental Agreement of 1993 and the exchange of ambassadors in 1994, though it must be said that the documents implementing the Fundamental Agreement have yet to be worked out in practice, because of bureaucratic foot dragging on the side of the Israeli government.  Here, a whole range of issues from visas to tax status need to be resolved, since lack of clear resolution is making the day to day lives of many Church institutions and of many Catholics very difficult.  Recently, the Israeli government has announced that it will establish a committee to work on these issues, but promises of this kind have been given before, and not acted upon.


7. The Agenda beneath the Original Agenda: Confronting the Shoah and the Theological Divide

As I indicated at the outset, two major issues which consume us today in our ongoing dialogues were not surfaced as separate items in the six categories of the Latrobe meeting.  The first is the Shoah itself, what it means to each of us and what it means for us together as, in the words of We Remember, memoria futuri, our joint memory to be handed on to future generations. It was not until the mid-1970’s that the Jewish community itself began to surface this enduring trauma for remembrance and meditation.  It was only then that the term, “Holocaust,” came into common usage.  The 1980’s and 1990’s saw at the same time the establishment by Jews of Holocaust museums to record the fact of the tragedy and to institutionalize the study of its meaning.  In the same period, surely not coincidentally, there commenced a series of Jewish-Catholic controversies over Holocaust-related issues:  Waldheim, the Auschwitz convent, the crosses at the site even when the convent had moved, the disputes over We Remember, and the issue of the Vatican archives of the period.  These controversies focused enormous energies of our respective communities on understanding each others’ experiences and memories of the massive atrocities of the Nazi attempt to conquer Europe and control the world.  They require even today a reconciliation of memories, a task made possible, I believe, by the truly remarkable gestures of contrition before God made by our Polish pope in the same period.   We have, difficult as it has been, made a very solid start in probing together the tragedy of the Shoah and, in numerous joint efforts, creating educational programs used widely in Catholic universities and high schools alike, to teach future generations how to respond constructively to it all.  More, of course, much more remains to be done.

The second great issue that has emerged from behind our initial discussions touches the deeper levels of the theological divide, the ultimate understanding of the nature of God, salvation/redemption, and therefore of human nature so much of which we share from our common scriptures and so much of which we see in light refracted differently through our intertwined yet ultimately different experiences of the one history of salvation of which we, the Church and the Jewish People, are chapters.

Can it be, as the 1985 Vatican Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism ask, coincidental to God’s plan for the salvation of humanity, that the Jews have survived through the centuries giving constant witness that there is One God and one final, glorious destiny for humanity?  Can it be, as many, including Pope John Paul II ask, coincidental to the sacred mysteries of salvation that the Jews, though vastly more than decimated by the Shoah, emerged in a very real sense, renewed, invigorated to the point of being able to gather into their ancient, promised Land?    Can it be coincidental to the sacred history of Israel that at one point, indeed at its very nadir, just before the destruction of its central institution, the Temple, an offshoot group of Jews espoused belief in a notion, a hope, as paradoxically breathtaking as the notion of monotheism itself, that God would become human in order to redeem humanity from its sins?   How can Christianity, from a Jewish point of view, be seen as an aspect of Jewish history, perhaps even as a gift of the Jews to humanity?  Dabru Emet and its Catholic counterparts point the way.  But the path to understanding still has to be walked by our two ancient communities.

[1]  Interestingly, while the Holocaust is clearly the context of Jules’ Isaac’s study and the two historical papers, it is not dealt with separately on its own as an agenda item, but simply listed as one of the chain of Jewish tragedies suffered at the hands of Christians over the centuries.  Nor is the term, “Holocaust” (or Shoah) used in the book, but just the reference to “Auschwitz.”  This was, of course, before either term came into common usage in Jewish, much less general conversation.  The fact that these terms are commonly used in the general population in Western society, of course, reflects the deep impact of the dialogue on contemporary society.  Ironically but also significantly, the term, “deicide,” is one with which most Catholics born after the Council are unfamiliar.

[2]  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops published in Catholics Remember the Holocaust the text of the Holy See’s statement in 1998 along with statements by European and US bishops’ conferences commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and a statement clarifying key points of We Remember by Cardinal Edward I Cassidy.  In 2000 the US bishops published guidelines for implementing We Remember, entitled, Catholic Teaching on the Shoah.

[3]  Scharper, op. cit., 27.  It should be noted that both Baum and Sheerin, in the years following the Latrobe conference modified their views to accept a greater amount of continuity between Christian and Nazi anti-Semitism.

[4]  Joint communiqués of the national dialogues with both the National Council of Synagogues (Conservative and Reform Judaism) and the Orthodox community can be found on the website of our Bishops’ Conference:

[5]  See, for example, the essays in Eugene Fisher, editor, The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990).

[6] E.g., Joseph Gutman, “Christian Influences on Jewish Customs,” in Leon Klenicki and Gabe Huck, editors, Spirituality and Prayer: Jewish and Christian Understandings (Paulist Press, 1983) 128-138.

[7]  The website of The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning of Boston College ( contains a link to the Holy See’s text as well as a number of excellent commentaries.

[8]  An excellent summary of Augustine’s position, which was contrary to that of his mentor, Ambrose of Milan, can be found in Marc Saperstein, Moments of Crisis in Jewish-Christian Relations (London: SCM Press and Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1989). 

[9]  Tommaso Federici, “Mission and Witness of the Church,” in International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985 (Libraria Editrice Vaticana, 1988) 46-62.

[10]  See, Avery Dulles, SJ, “Covenant and Mission,”America (vol. 187, no. 12, Oct. 21, 2002) 8-11, and Eugene J. Fisher, “The Catholic Church and the Mystery of Israel: the State of the Question,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, 2004, vol. 11, no. 1, 14-25.

[11]  One can see the commonalities of social policy stances in the joint statements of the US Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations and the National Council of Synagogues over the years,