BCEIA-NCS Consultation

Dialogika Resources

News Release: Catholics, Jews Compare Perspectives on Religious Significance of Holy Land


WASHINGTON—Christians respect the spiritual bond between Jews and the land of Israel. Yet they look to the Biblical land through a different theological lens, said Wilhelmus G.B.M. Valkenber, Ph.D., Visiting Professor of Theology at Loyola College of Maryland, at the fall consultation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) with the National Council of Synagogues (NCS) of America, December 2, in Baltimore.

"Even though Jews and Christians, along with Muslims, look to Abraham as the common spiritual ancestor, Christians have traditionally identified with the Abraham of faith and not with the Abraham of the land," said Valkenberg, who assists the U.S. bishops in Catholic-Muslim and other interreligious relations.

In one of two presentations on theological perspectives on the Holy Land, the Dutch theologian argued that Catholics make pilgrimages to Israel and Palestine chiefly  because of the territory's association with the life and saving work of Jesus Christ. For Catholics the land is "sacramental," suggesting that its symbolic power lies in the fact that it points beyond itself to the ultimate homeland, Heaven.

The Jewish presenter at the meeting was Rabbi Reuven Hammer, Ph.D., head of the Massorti Beth Din of Israel, the rabbinical court in Jerusalem charged with regulating Jewish communal life on the basis of the Torah, Talmud, and Halachic law. In his presentation, Rabbi Hammer called upon Christians to see the return to Israel—also called "Aliyah"—as normative for Jews today. Drawing on well known Jewish thinkers of the 20th century like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hammer argued that abandonment of the land by Jews is a repudiation of God's promises in the Bible.

The former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly also pointed to the development of Catholic approaches to the Zionist movement, from Pope Pius X who withheld support for Jewish settlements in the Holy Land, to Pope John Paul II who visited Israel in 2000, and placed a prayer for reconciliation in Jerusalem's Western Wall.

In the discussion after the presentations, Catholic participants acknowledged the spiritual connection that Jews have for the Holy Land. They also noted that the Vatican's recognition of Israel as a sovereign state is based on international law and not primarily on theological considerations. The Holy See continues to support a two-state solution in the Holy Land in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side within secure borders. The Catholic Church also favors a political arrangement that recognizes Jerusalem's international status as a spiritual center for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Participants also discussed other Catholic-Jewish issues. Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun, President of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, chaired the afternoon session and reported on Jewish reactions to the controversies over the Good Friday Prayer in the 1962 Missal and the movement to declare Pope Pius XII a saint. Scholars involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue express a preference for the Good Friday Prayer in the Missal of Paul VI over the 1962 prayer because of the former's avoidance of conversionary language and because of its recognition of the Jewish people as "the first to hear the word of God."

Catholic participants at the consultation included Cardinal William Keeler, co-chair; Bishop Dennis Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore; Father James Massa, USCCB staff; Christian Brother David Carroll; and Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen.

Jewish participants included Rabbi Alvin Berkun, co-chair; Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, NCS staff; Sarae Crane; Rabbi Lewis Eron; Ms. Judith Hertz; Rabbi Shira Lander; Rabbi Joel Meyers; Mr. Mark Pelavin; Rabbi David Sandmel; Rabbi Jonathan Waxman; and Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg.