Special Interview Status of Catholic-jewish Dialogue

The Catholic-Jewish dialogue, doting back to the travailed birth on Oct. 28, 1965 of the ” Nostra Aetate” document of the Second Ecumenical Council, and matured after the publication on Dec. 1, 1974 of the Catholic “Guidelines” for implementing the document, is presently considered by the Vatican, in its efforts to improve relations with other religions, as a shining example to be followed.

This was made clear in on exclusive interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by a top Vatican official, Msgr. Pietro Rossano, Secretary of the Secretariat for Non-Christians. Judaism, according to Rossano, occupies a special place in Catholic theology, setting it in a closer relationship with Christianity than other non-Christian religions.

In fact, while contacts with other “non-Christians” (e.g. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the African religions) are dealt with by the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians, the Catholic-Jewish dialogue is under the sole competence of the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which is joined to the Vatican Secretariat for promoting Christian unity.

Difficulties encountered by the Vatican in the past in drawing up a basic document for relations with the Jews, now seem minimal in respect to some large roadblocks in the way to Catholic dialogue with other religions. The Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians. adjourned an international plenary session last month which saw the first draft of a similar document sent back for major revisions, postponing its publication until, probably, the year’s end. The document will deal with all non-Christian faiths except Judaism which, as noted, already has its own address and its own document at the Vatican.

THE VATICAN AND ISLAM

In speaking to the JTA of the Vatican’s relations with Islam, Rossano expressed his hopes that some of the major difficulties might be overcome by emphasizing those aspects of the religious heritage held in common by both faiths–the concept of one God, parts of the Bible, the veneration of Christ and Mary. Moreover, he said, he hoped the Catholic-Islam dialogue would eventually attain the same advanced levels as those already achieved by Catholics and Jews.

“While Christianity was born of Judaism,” Rossano said, “and this creates a special bond between the two religions, it is also true that Islam came to being after Christianity and therefore contains inherent points of contact as well.”

As for the current draft of the document regarding all non-Christian religions, Rossano said, “Consideration of the wide diversity of religious forms taken by communities in different socio-political systems in the world will force us to eliminate any reference to steps for practical action in the document. Our only hopes are in finding common theological roots, including even the basic concept of divinity in African religions.”

The unofficial and still-to-be revised summary of the plenary session’s discussion of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue–considered a “working paper.”– speaks of various difficulties to be overcome, necessarily of a different nature from those that plagued the beginnings of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Most seem to be centered around the effects of the explosion of Islamic nationalism in various parts of the world.

According to Rossano, this is in part a reaction to feelings of humiliation in relation to Jews, Christians, Israel and the Western nations. Its main danger is considered lying in the reversion to religious fundamentalism in some countries, to the revival of ancient legal codes which are intolerant of “different” behavior. Dialogue, ideally based on a sense of equality between the two partners, thus becomes difficult and further impaired by feelings of superiority of each towards the other.

ISSUE OF PROSELYTISM

Mutual dedication to proselytism is also seen as a danger as it was by Jews before the publication of the Catholic “Guidelines” which allayed Jewish concerns by stating “. lest the witness of Catholics to Jesus Christ should give offense to Jews, they must take care to live and spread their Christian faith while maintaining the strictest respect for religious liberty in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council….”

But in the Catholic-Islamic dialogue, the problem is greater because it is two-sided: Judaism, unlike Islamism, has not actively sought proselytes for centuries.

Rossano pointed out that another focal point for Catholic-Islamic dialogue is the Vatican’s consideration that dialogue with the Islamic world is facilitated by communication between individuals rather than with large groups defined by institutional or national boundaries. The greatest opening to dialogue is perceived by the Vatican in “enlightened individuals” of the Islamic faith in countries “where Islam is a minority religion.” Catholic-Jewish dialogue considers “joint social action” and “human rights” of primary concern, and the Vatican hopes to achieve the same aims with Islam.

An example of this could be the way a meeting last month in Paris between representatives of the Secretariat for Non-Christians and Libyan government officials was handled. “Political issues were completely taboo, only religious matters were discussed, ” Rossano said.

As concerns the Mideast, the Vatican has noticeably increased its efforts at equidistance in its relations with Jews and Moslems, with Israel and the Arab nations, ever since the first unsteady steps towards the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Following and expanding on Pope Poul VI’s initiatives, Pope John Poul II supported the peace process fully from the beginning and inserts positive comments on the Mideast in his sermons wherever he can manage.

From a human point of that view, the way this correspondent’s conversation with Rossano ended illustrates better than any generalities, the way the Vatican is presently concerned with avoiding any possible misunderstandings. Rossano suddenly glanced at his watch and politely excused himself for having to rush off not to be late for the open house which was being held at the Israel independence Day. “I have so much work, ” he confided, “but Cardinal Pignedoli (head of the Secretariat) reminded me how important it was for us to accept the invitation….You know…in these delicate times.”

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