Walter Cardinal Kasper

Dialogika Resources

Achievements and Further Challenges in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Address delivered at the inauguration of the SIDIC Library Collection and Documentation Centre at the Pontifical Gregorian University.



This address on the occasion of the inauguration of the SIDIC Library Collection and the SIDIC-Rome Documentation Centre at the Pontifical Gregorian University cannot begin but with a warm word of thanks. Thanks to the Sisters of Sion and their work, or better for the implementation of their mission. The SIDIC Library Collection and the SIDIC Documentation Centre, which is today officially and publicly transferred to the Cardinal Bea Centre of the Pontifical Gregorian University, is – with its more than 6,000 volumes on the Biblical, talmudic, midrash sources of Judaism, on anti-Semitism, the Jewish–Christian dialogue, the Jewish Liturgy and Jewish history – an impressing and outstanding sign of the work which was done in the last decades, a signpost of a new momentum and new fruits for the Jewish-Christian dialogue: the healing of deep wounds from the past, the overcoming of misunderstandings and the promotion of reconciliation and peaceful collaboration between the two religions.

But the Library and the Documentation Centre – despite their importance – are only the outward dimension of a mission which goes much deeper and is much larger. It has been the mission of the Congregation of our Lady of Sion since its foundation in 1843 to witness through word and life to God’s faithful love for the Jewish people and to work towards the fulfilment of the promises concerning the Jews and the Gentiles, the promises of justice and of peace which were proclaimed by the prophets for all humankind.

The name Lady of Sion was chosen by her founder because Mary according to the Biblical tradition is the daughter of Sion par excellence, she was – although Christians have been known to forget – a Jewish woman, as Jesus was a Jew, and Sion is the Biblical name for Jerusalem, City of Peace. These origins evoke in these months much sorrow and sadness for all but the peaceful events we now witness – but nevertheless the unbroken promises which this name contains also evoke the hope so urgently needed in this difficult situation. The Sisters of our Lady of Sion were and are a sign of hope founded in the – by the faithfulness of God – unbroken covenant and its promises of peace.

I call to mind the foundation of the Congregation of our Lady of Sion in mid–19th century because in these days we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 and the promulgation of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate on the 28th of October 1965, which was a historical breakthrough in Jewish-Christian relations and at the same time a hopeful new beginning. In remembering both the foundation of the Congregation of our Lady of Sion and the promulgation of Nostra aetate makes one reflect that the Conciliar breakthrough had forerunners and was not possible without the courageous work of this Congregation. But also the implementation of what the Council in a solemn Declaration stated needed dedicated women and men who worked hard for its reception, realisation and continuation. Among them the Sisters of the Congregation of our Lady of Sion were the first.


In this context I could and should remember many other outstanding personalities who paved the way to the Council’s Declaration Nostra aetate and to our present Jewish-Christian dialogue. I limit myself to one, who is also important for this solemn inauguration, namely Cardinal Augustin Bea.

Pope John XXIII was elected to be a Pope of transition, an interim Pope so to say, but who was himself to be the architect of transition in the Church. One of the most fundamental shifts he made was the beginning of a new era in relations between Christians and Jews. Already as Nuncio in Istanbul during the Second World War he personally intervened to save Jewish lives. His own background therefore lent solid credibility on which to usher in a new age of relations. So he could tell Jews he met soon after his election: “I am Joseph your brother.” This was a new and unaccustomed tone after so many centuries where the relations between Jews and Christians were anything but brotherly and friendly.

But to implement such a new start can be a challenge for a Pope too. Popes have according to Catholic doctrine the fullness of jurisdiction within the Catholic Church; but it would be more then naive to think that a Pope himself is not conditioned by many others around him. Pope John XXIII was fortunate to find an able collaborator in a fine, highly regarded German Old Testament scholar and at the same time a man who knew the Curia and who knew to deal with it, a man gifted with wisdom, prudence and courage, human sensitivity and a wakeful spiritual mind, Cardinal Augustin Bea. The Pope appointed him the first President of the then Pontifical Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1960) and after a memorable visit of Jules Isaak in June 1960 charged him to prepare a document on Jews for the Council he had announced shortly earlier.

The way ahead was to become a thorny one. After the document had made its passage through the Council, Cardinal Bea told a friend: “If I had known all the difficulties before, I do not know whether I would have had the courage to take this way.” There was vehement opposition both from outside and from within. From inside the old well–known patterns of traditional anti-Judaism emerged, from outside there was a storm of protest from Muslim countries with serious threats against the Christians living there as small minorities. In order to save the furniture from the burning house it was decided to integrate the envisaged Declaration as one chapter in the Declaration about the Non-Christian Religions, to be known later with its first words as Nostra aetate.

Yet this was a compromise, for Judaism is not one religion among the non-Christian religions, but as the Chapter 4 of the Declaration made very clear, Christianity has a particular and a unique relation with Judaism. We cannot define Christianity and its identity without making reference to Judaism, what is not the case with Islam, Buddhism or any other religion. Judaism belongs to the very roots of Christianity. But to share this conviction, to formulate it and to find a majority within the Council was not an easy accomplishment. It was not only the well known French Archbishop Lefèbvre who raised opposition to, but many others, especially from countries with Muslim majorities.

There are two well–known major decisions of the Council. On the one hand, the rejection of all kinds of anti-Semitism and, on the other, the remembrance of the Jewish roots of Christianity, our common heritage as sons of Abraham in faith. Both positions have in the meantime been incorporated in the binding teaching of the Catholic Church.

The present Pope, John Paul II has pursued these insights energetically and has deepened both aspects. Anti-Semitism is for him a fierce violation of human rights, it is against the dignity of every human person, which is not contingent on descent, culture, religion or sex, and it is in strict contradiction of what is expounded on the very first page of the Bible, that God created the human person, and this means: created every single human person, in his own image and likeness, so that therefore every human person possesses an infinite dignity which deserves absolute respect from his/her neighbour.

John Paul II has repeated again and again in many circumstances throughout his long pontificate that the Jewish people are the chosen and beloved people of God, the people of God’s covenant which for God’s faithfulness is never broken and is still alive. When he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome he called the Jews “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham”. On the first Sunday of Lent 2000 and in the moving scene on the Western Wall in Jerusalem he prayed for forgiveness for all the sins Christians had committed against Jews, he called the Shoah the Calvary of the 20th century.


The names of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, of Cardinal Bea, of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II stand next to many others representing a very historical new beginning in Jewish-Christian relations. They are witnesses that conversion and new beginning are possible even after a long historical period of contempt, slander, polemics and oppression. But they point out only to a beginning of a new beginning. Their work is still unfinished. So it is correct, when in the invitation to this inauguration we read: “A new momentum, in the life of SIDIC”.

For it is necessary to build on the ground which the Council had laid and to translate the Conciliar message not only into the language but also into the very different individual and regional situations and contexts. The present young generation was not yet born when the Council ended 37 years ago; it represents for them quite remote history, almost a pre–diluvial period. So we must transmit the Council’s message again and again to the new young generation. Overcoming anti-Semitism and fostering positive and friendly relations between our faith communities cannot be done once for all, for it is a permanent educational task. I congratulate and thank therefore the Pontifical Gregorian University for the wisdom and the courage to take over and to make its own this important task. I hope and wish that other Pontifical Universities an Faculties follow this example and insert in their regular programs studies on Judaism.

A second task must also be called upon. Fundamental theological problems also remain unsolved. The inherent difficulties from this point of view are reflected in the heated debate now underway in the USA on a paper of the National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs with the title: Reflections on Covenant and Mission.

As we are well aware, the problem of mission the paper deals with has been for long time a fundamental but also a highly delicate question in Jewish-Christian relations, a question which touches bitter historical remembrances on forced conversions but also questions of Jewish and of Christian identity and their constitutive differences. For Christians the problem of mission is intimately linked with what constitutes the fundamental difference between us: our faith in Jesus the Christ. As Christians we cannot renounce giving witness of this our faith to all and we cannot remain silent on our hope in Jesus we call the Christ. Dialogue is only serious and honest when it withstands differences and recognises the other in his or her otherness.

It is worthy of merit that the paper raises the problem on the agenda. But as fundamental questions of identity are implied, no fast solutions and probably also no harmonious solution can be expected. Though I am quoted twice, it is not my paper and not my position. I take the paper as what it is meant to be: an invitation and a challenge for discussion. The paper urges for a way forward to completion and to further discussion on the question, but is not the final answer. Thus, there is still a lot to do for the Cardinal Bea Centre to implement the new basis of Vatican II and to struggle towards a satisfactory Christian theology of Judaism.


These incidental remarks lead to a thorny question, with which I will deal with very soon on an other occasion. In our context, I would like to discuss three other future tasks and challenges. These come under three basic Biblical categories.

1. I will begin with the “Remembrance” category. Remembrance (sechêr, anamnesis, memoria) is a fundamental category of both the Old and the New Testament, and therefore a fundamental concept of our two traditions. Judaism and Christianity live from a narrative tradition, in which the narrating past is at all times actual, effective and powerful. Could anything be more central for Judaism than the memory of the liberation from Egypt on Pesach-Feast? What is Christianity if not the memoria passionis et resurrectionis?

For modern Judaism, the memory of the Shoah has become a new identity–making point of reference. It is not a question of mythicizing Auschwitz, as is the danger in many post-Auschwitz theologies. But Jews and Christians alike, as well as all people of good will, should keep Auschwitz in their memory. “We remember” (1998) is the title of the Vatican document on this subject. “We remember” means: “We cannot and we must not forget”. Today and in the future, since the number of direct witnesses of that period is diminishing, it is an essential educational task to pass on the knowledge of historical events to the new generation.

Memoria is also “Remembering for the Future”, as Yehuda Bauer termed it in his opus magnum on the Shoah; as “memoria futuri”, it involves clarifying the past, cleansing memory (purification memoriae) as a warning for the future and an opening for a new common future.

Remembrance contradicts a widespread superficial conception of happiness. Friedrich Nietzsche held that fortunately we are able also to forget, and that only by forgetting does happiness become happiness. In contrast, Johannes Baptist Metz has rightly spoken of the need of a new culture of remembrance in opposition to the modern culture devoid of memory and history.

The Church should not fear confronting the historical truth; at any rate, she should not be afraid of the historical truth, but rather pay respect to it. To this end, the archives of the Holy See are being made available for historical research; beginning from next year (2003), the entire correspondence between the Holy See and the then government of the German Reich up until 1939 should be accessible.

Yet, remembrance is more than history. Memorial events and holocaust commemoration sites, which attract foremost prominence in the present public debate, are unquestionably significant; but they can also acquire the function of storing the past, laying it aside and packaging it in order to take it out again on solemn occasions as some sort of valuable family keepsake. In our information society pretty much everything can be stored. But storing information is not remembering. Remembrance takes place there where our soul is branded; only when it aches can a process of healing start. Remembrance must therefore bring about a turning back and thus – God willing – a bestowal of reconciliation.

2. The second category pertains to Messianic awareness. Judaism and Christianity are religions in which there is not only the backward glance, but also a promise for the future arising from the past. In both religions the world is open ahead to the kingdom of life, of freedom and of peace.

No unrealistic worldly utopia of the future can originate from such hope. Indeed, we both know from bitter experience that those who want to attain heaven on earth will turn earth into hell. The rediscovery of the messianic means something else; it is not a matter of some vague plans to improve the world. The rabbinic tradition has expressed what is meant here in the sentence: “He who saved has one human being has saved the world”.

The rediscovery of the messianic means becoming aware of our historical world responsibility from the perspective of hope. It is a matter of doing the truth. In this, Jews and Christians – for so long adversaries when not merely indifferent to each other – should strive to become allies. They have a great common heritage to oversee: the common image of mankind, the unique human dignity and responsibility before God, the understanding of the world as creation, the concept of justice and peace, the worth of the family, the hope of definitive salvation and fulfilment.

These understandings are among the very foundations of our Western culture; today they run the risk of falling into oblivion and being disregarded. Cultural and moral depravation seem imminent. After the tragedy of the Shoah, Jews and Christians alike are challenged to intervene and are responsible for preventing that decline, in which the West and the whole world risks losing its soul. If that happened, the Shoah and the destruction of all religious and cultural values would have taken place a second and final time.

In this perspective, in the future our dialogue should not only deal with religious questions of principle; nor should it be dedicated only to clarifying the past. Our common heritage should be profitably made available in response to contemporary challenges: to issues involving the sanctity of life, the protection of the family, justice and peace in the world, the hostages of terrorism, and the integrity of creation, among others.

“It is our task to pass on to the new generations the treasures and values we have in common, so that never again will man despise his own brother in humanity and never again will conflicts or wars be unleashed in the name of an ideology that despises a culture or religion. On the contrary, the different religious traditions are called together to put their patrimony at the service of all, in the hope of building the common European home together, united in justice, peace, equity and solidarity” (John Paul II to the European Jewish-Christian Congress in Paris on January 28-29, 2002).

3. Finally, the third category pertaining to “dialogue”. The Bible considers humans as dialogical beings in relation with God, and in relation with one another. Not without good reason has it been that Jewish thinkers – Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas – have ardently proposed the paradigm of dialogical thought to a one–sided civilization marked by individualism, and have inspired us to discern that it is in the countenance of the other, in confronting the otherness of the other, that we discover ourselves. Not only do we undertake dialogue, we are dialogue.

Meanwhile “dialogue” has become a fashionable byword grown shabby by overuse, a worn out coin. In our own particular context, the word refers to ecumenical, interreligious, social, inner-church, and also to Jewish-Christian dialogue. Often such dialogue does not go beyond polite expressions of friendliness. That is still better than violent dispute. But is there not also the danger of minimization, of just tolerating each other, the risk of relativization, indifferentism, patchwork identity? In this sense one does not or cannot authentically bear and respect the otherness of the other.

The Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be of that kind. Jews and Christians, with all they have in common in their fundamental understandings, in the fundamental conceptions which are constitutive for their respective identities, are and remain different. These differences concern their religious convictions on the question of God and Christ, their notions of world redemption or otherwise, their different practices in the order of Sabbath and meals, as well as their attitude to what the Jews call “ha-arez”, “the land”, and what – after 1945 and after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 – is determined now more than ever by their political views. Therefore we should not approach the Jewish-Christian dialogue with naïve expectations of a harmonious understanding. It will remain a difficult dialogue.

Yet, precisely when we do not simple–mindedly ignore our otherness, but rather bear with it, can we learn from each other. Still much is to be done. There is considerable ignorance on both sides, and ignorance is one of the roots of reciprocal prejudice. For that reason we are at present considering how to include some basic knowledge of Judaism in the training of future priests; conversely, the training of future rabbis should include some basic knowledge of Christianity.

Ultimately, relations between Jews and Christians cannot be reduced to a simple formula and even less so can it be raised to a higher synthesis. Franz Rosenzweig and others have spoken of a mutual completion. Yet, Rabbi Professor Michael Signer (Chicago) is certainly right when he states that their highly tense relation can only be expressed through images and symbols.

One such image is found in the interpretation of the prophet Zechariah by rabbinic theology. The prophet looks into the messianic future where the peoples are taken into the alliance with Israel. “On that day the Lord will be one and his name one” (14:9). According to rabbinic interpretation all of us, Jews and all peoples, will stand shoulder to shoulder.

Only at the end of time shall the historically indissoluble relation between Israel and the church find a solution. Until then though they may not be united in one another’s arms, neither should they turn their backs to each other. They should stand shoulder to shoulder as partners, and – in a world where the glimmer of hope has grown faint – together they must strive to radiate the light of hope without which no human being and no people can live. Young people especially need this common witness to the hope of peace in justice and solidarity. Never again contempt, hatred, oppression and persecution between races, between cultures and between religions!

Jews and Christians together can maintain this hope. For they can testify from the bitter and painful lessons of history that – despite otherness and foreignness and despite historical guilt conversion – reconciliation, peace and friendship are possible. May thus the new century become a century of brotherhood – shoulder to shoulder. Shalom!