“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — like the God of Jesus Christ — is the living God who maintains close and salvific relations with his people,” a possible successor to Pope John Paul II told a conference of Catholics and Jews in New York on Monday. The remarks Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice made to nearly 100 Jewish and Catholic leaders convened by the World Jewish Congress used new and explicit language as he expressed the sentiments of the pope, who has said that Jews and Catholics are brothers who share a covenant with God.
Scola’s comments, which adopted the language of Jewish prayer and Christian theology, also reveal the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church has transformed its outlook toward Jews in the last 40 years.
“Somebody who went to sleep 50 years ago and just woke up would be astounded to hear that,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “Almost no other church has anything comparable to that claim.”
The conference came amid the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the document that revolutionized Catholic thinking and declared Jews not responsible for the murder of Jesus.
The conference, which hosted several possible successors to the pope, also came as worldwide news outlets monitor the pope’s faltering health.
For Jewish observers, the question is whether the next pope will continue the advances made by the now-ailing John Paul II, who oversaw the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
In a visit to Israel in 2000, he prayed at the Western Wall, inserting in its cracks a typewritten note asking forgiveness for those who have caused Jewish suffering and committing Catholics to “genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.”
Judging by this conference, Catholic officials are determined to fulfill that legacy.
In speeches to the group, both Cardinal Claudio Hummes, another possible successor to the pope, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, a Vatican representative, reaffirmed the principles of Nostra Aetate, according to the WJC.
“What inspires Cardinal Hummes very much is the declaration contained in Nostra Aetate that indeed the Jews were chosen by God, the chosen people, and that God never ever regretted this choosing,” said Rabbi Henry Sobel of Brazil, translating for Hummes, to JTA.
It’s “very important that Catholics and Jews work together in solidarity to help remedy the ills of the world,” especially to promote peace, Hummes said, and added that Jews and Catholics must continue building understanding of one another.
For Scola, knowledge of the other leads to self-understanding.
For example, understanding the Passover seder sheds light on the Eucharist, just as the Hebrew Bible explains Christian liturgy, he told JTA.
In addition, the two faiths should work together to better the world, he said.
The conference, made up of an academic seminar and a tour of Jewish institutions in New York, was meant to advance Jewish-Christian relations, in part by initiating new cooperative projects.
Participants drew on past initiatives, like a joint effort to aid the impoverished in Argentina, in planning new initiatives to fight AIDS in Africa and genocide in Sudan.
Additionally, conference organizers invited Catholic leaders from places with few or no Jews as a key element in expanding the dialogue.
“We don’t have that many Jews in India,” said Bishop Thomas Dabre of India. “This helps me to be better predisposed” toward Jews and to working with people of other faiths.
For Jews, the conference also marked the growing participation of Orthodox Jews.
Many Orthodox Jews had abstained from such dialogue because of the pre-Nostra Aetate ban on theological dialogue by the late Orthodox rabbinical leader Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who was worried Jews might compromise their faith in an attempt to reach common understanding.
But that view seems to be changing.
Israel Singer, an Orthodox Jew and chairman of the WJC’s governing board, told JTA that he once derided Catholic-Jewish meetings as an excuse for people to have themselves photographed with the pope.
His belief has changed, he said. “Mutual respect is something that we have learned from trying.”
The Jews are looking for friends and allies around the world, he said.
According to Rabbi Yakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s two chief rabbis, Catholics can help Jews on certain issues better than Jews can help themselves.
He pointed to the work that Catholics have done to help identify and recover mass Jewish graves in the former Soviet Union by drawing on Catholic witnesses from the time.
But the relationship is not without its sticking points.
For example, Pope John Paul II’s recent remark equating abortion with the extermination of the Holocaust angered the Anti-Defamation League.
The Holocaust “is something that defies analogy, that exists as a unique event,” and drawing a comparison lessens its importance, said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the ADL’s national director of interfaith affairs.
“Even if one were to hew to the Catholic” belief “that life begins at conception, this is not a wholesale declaration on the part of women to destroy fetuses” in the way that Nazis killed Jews for being Jews.
Additionally, Scola’s use of the word “salvific” in terms of the Jewish people could lead to misunderstandings, Bretton-Granatoor said.
Christians reach salvation through Jesus, while Jews find salvation by adhering to religious commandments, he said. “These are very important philosophical questions that will help define each community for the other.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.