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How the Catholic Church transformed American Jewish life

Our path to Jewish self-actualization has not merely taken us back to Jerusalem or New York, but also to Rome.

Then-Pope Benedict XVI receives a gift from Israeli chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar, right, and Yona Metzger, left, at the center for the Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem, on May 12, 2009. The pope told Israel's two chief rabbis that the Catholic Church is

(RNS) — Sixty years ago, the Catholic Church was the largest ideologically antisemitic organization in the world. Many of its leaders and adherents publicly blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. Today, it is the largest philosemitic organization in the world.

The Catholic Church presents the Jewish community as a sibling in faith, and successive popes have condemned antisemitism in its many forms. Pope Francis has declared the hatred of Jews to be “neither human nor Christian.” At a time of rising religious conflict and political polarization, we should heed this example and try to live out our potential as peace builders.

This week, I had the privilege of joining a delegation of 20 rabbis and Jewish leaders from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) to the Vatican for biannual meetings with senior church leaders. The delegation met with Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. We also received a message from Pope Francis, who was unable to meet with us in-person as expected, due to intense knee pain.

The camaraderie between our traditions was on full display. We had substantive dialogue about the opening of the Vatican Archives for Jewish scholars, reflected upon the ongoing suffering of Christians in the Middle East, and sought input about relations between Catholics and Jews in Israel. Yet, the warmth of relationship eclipsed the content of the interchanges. It was clear that most members of the Curia with whom we were meeting were in regular conversation with Jewish friends and colleagues, including many from our own delegation. We were not gathering at the Vatican as strangers, but as a reunion of friends. 

Pope Francis reflected to our delegation in his written remarks: 

In our turbulent times, it is critical that Jews and Christians encounter one another more frequently and work together in an effort to counter certain negative trends found in our western societies: idolatry of self and of money, extreme individualism and the culture of indifference and of waste.

He advised us to seek out friendships across faith lines and to embrace the learning we can do together. Pope Francis then connected our dialogue to God’s presence in the world:

Interreligious dialogue is a sign of our times and, I would say, a providential sign, in the sense that God himself in his wise plan, has inspired, in religious leaders and in many others, the desire to encounter and come to know one another in a way respectful of religious difference. This is a privileged path to growth of fraternity and peace in our world.

Pope Francis’ heartfelt appeal represents a high-water mark and a measure of just how far our religious communities have come.

Such evident friendship, much less clear statements about the good we can do together, would not have been possible without the work of our forebears. In addition to the prominent figures of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, there were many other Catholic and Jewish leaders who gathered less visibly for years in the wake of the Holocaust to ensure that “never again” could be lived out in practice through the allyship of one of the world’s largest faith communities. After countless meetings and unimaginable toil, their work bore fruit.

On October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated Nostra Aetate (literally meaning “In Our Time”) as a “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” With these carefully formulated words, the Pope affirmed that Jews born from that point on could not be impugned for Jesus’ death and that “Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles.”

The Church built on this proclamation with organizational changes to normalize relationship between Jewish and Catholic leaders. In 1974 it established the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, remarkably under what is now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Its position within the Vatican suggests that Jews are to be understood as part of the family of faith for which the Catholic Church provides care. 

For those of us who sit on the Jewish counterpart to the Pontifical Commission, IJCIC, it is evident how these internal changes have borne fruit on the ground in the United States. Our parents or grandparents grew up hearing on the radio the hateful and pro-Nazi rhetoric of Father Charles Coughlin. Today, it is doctrinally impermissible for antisemites to become ordained as priests. Jews and Catholics have collaborations of a sort that would be unheard of at the time of Nostra Aetate’s promulgation. Rabbis and cantors call Catholic priests, nuns and lay leaders our mentors, teachers and friends. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is filled with allies of the Jewish community and works actively with the National Council of Synagogues to combat antisemitism.

Far more than many of us realize, the doctrinal transformations of the Catholic Church have shaped Jewish life today, giving space for us to find our voice as a diaspora community in ways unfathomable for much of the past two millennia. Our path to Jewish self-actualization has not merely taken us back to Jerusalem or New York, but also to Rome.

(Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Spiritual Leader of East End Temple and Director of Leadership and Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is coauthor with Rabbi Benjamin Spratt of Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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