This past week, along with approximately fifty other Jews and Catholics from about a dozen countries, I attended the International Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leaders Conference at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Berkshires, Connecticut. Organized by IJCIC (International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations) and the Holy See’s (the Vatican’s) Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, this partnership – known together as the ILC (International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee) – seeks to promote Jewish-Catholic dialogue.
As we are all well aware, to put it lightly, Jews have not fared well under Catholic hegemony throughout the ages. Nonetheless, since the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II) in 1965 passed the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with non-Christian Religions (aka Nostra Aetate – “In our time,” which are the first two Latin words in the document) along with two other declarations, the Church has been bound by a religious obligation to view Jews (and other religious traditions as well) more positively.
Pre-Vatican II, the Catholic masses, following the preachings of many of their priests, claimed that the Jews killed Jesus (deicide). If Jews had only killed the Catholic god, that would have been bad enough, but Catholic theology, much of it rooted in certain interpretations of the book of John, had identified “the Jews” as the enemies of Jesus, plotting against Jesus to kill him, identifying them with ‘darkness’ and even the devil. Obviously, these animadversions led to tremendous persecution, antisemitism and blind hatred towards Jews for over a millennium.
With the help and prodding of countless individuals, Pope Paul VI made sure that this declaration – Nostra Aetate – would pass. In short, in respect to Jews, the document states that the Jews cannot be collectively blamed for Jesus’ death, nor should they be presented as rejected or cursed. It decries antisemitism and discrimination. Last, dozens of interfaith groups centering on Jewish-Catholic dialogue and appeasement have been established because of it. The conference I attended should be seen in light of this last point.
The conference spanned four days, included over a dozen speakers and several workshops. The topics spanned from theology, family ethics, American law to history. Nonetheless, for many of the participants, the most impactful element of the conference was not the intellectual side, but the social. Most Jews, regardless of their denomination, have not spent several days in a row eating, laughing, learning, and sleeping in the same rooms as Catholics. Traveling to Manhattan to meet Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, at his house, then traveling to three Jewish sites in Manhattan only solidified this bond of friendship.
It is hard to generalize the goal of the conference. On the one hand, Catholics have a religious mandate to engage in this type of dialogue, and that is the reason that they attended. For Jews, this is not the case. If anything, I believe Jews would be justified in boycotting such an enterprise based solely on the quantity and quality of carnage inflicted on the Jews by the Catholic Church throughout the ages. But, IJCIC (along with the Vatican) see it differently. In the following, I want to present four reasons why Jews ought to engage in such interfaith dialogue, if not to state the obvious, to at least clarify the issue for myself.
- Impact – Without a dialogue, one cannot have any impact on the Catholic Church. Rabbi Rudin recounted how every Good Friday he attends mass to ensure that the local priest does not hate on the Jews. If the priest does promote hatred, antisemitism or the deicide libel, he calls the priest and informs him that any type of hating speech from the pulpit is forbidden since Vatican II and not in line with Church theology. Without engaging in the type of retreat that we enjoyed last week, the educational tools and foundations for a relationship to ensure some type of change would not exist.
- Mutual Issues – Jews experience exorbitant school tuitions, and so do Catholics. Jews are conservative on certain issues, and so are Catholics. Jews encounter pastoral issues, and Catholics encounter almost identical ones. Jews have a personal attachment to Israel, and so do Catholics, etc. As we enjoy several shared values and contemporaneous problems, it makes sense for us to work together.
- Religious Bond – We are not atheists; we are not secular humanists. We believe in some form of organized religion. We are fighting very similar battles for our traditions and trying to ensure people care about our specific religions and fill the pews. Accordingly, we have a shared interest in promoting awareness of this religious bond to the public and joining forces whenever it is appropriate and feasible. By working together, we can share ideas, empathy and form bonds that promote a moderate form of our religions.
- Geography – We live in the same neighborhoods and towns. Without the local leadership espousing a positive relationship with other faiths, each individual practitioner will strongly identify other faiths as the “other” and discriminate appropriately. This type of conference encourages local leadership to see themselves as a team and as friends. Hopefully, this positive rapport will trickle down to others.
Of course, even while noting these four important issues, one must be wary. I noted at the conference, if one Jew were to go off the derech because of these inter-religious dialogues or intermarry, it would be nothing short of a tragedy. To be pondered.