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Jews and Christians, together as witnesses to the one God

An essay published in L'Osservatore Romano. Fr. Hofmann is Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. Unofficial translation courtesy of Murray Watson.

Today­, January 17, 2013, ­when the “Day for Judaism” is celebrated in the churches of Italy, Poland, Austria and Holland, is an ideal occasion to look back over the activities undertaken by the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews in 2012. Since 1965, this Commission’s task has been to translate into reality the orientation suggested by the conciliar decree Nostra Aetate (#4), continuously reinvigorating it in terms of the concrete relations between Jews and Christians, deepening mutual friendship, and giving it new “boosts”. In that conciliar text, which is fundamental for the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, the primary intention that is highlighted is: “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.”

In the final analysis, these fraternal dialogues are meant to encourage collaboration between Jews and Catholics on behalf of justice and peace, to strengthen our commitment as stewards of creation and, on the basis of a growing friendship, to deepen our mutual knowledge and esteem, so that it might be possible to offer a common witness to the presence and saving work of God in this world. If it is true that the major crisis of our time is a “crisis of God” ­that is, of a forgetfulness of God, and an expulsion of God from daily existence­, then Jews and Christians are, more than anything else, called today to make this God present in every circumstance, to speak of Him and to proclaim His teachings, which are meant to promote a peaceful and joyful living-together of all peoples.

An increasingly widespread political atheism in our part of the world, and an aggressive secularization in all fields of daily life, urge Jews and Christians to unite their efforts, in order that the religious dimension not be erased from public life, but, rather, that it be defended energetically. The fact that Jews and Christians can speak with a common voice in the public debate about religious rites was shown in the discussion that recently took place in Germany over circumcision, a practice that Jews are accustomed to perform on the eighth day after the birth of a male child. A court in Cologne had issued a judgment against the circumcision of a Muslim child, arguing that it harmed the child’s welfare. Jews, Muslims and also Christians jointly made their voices heard concerning this, such that, in December 2012, the legislator was forced to issue an order which was explicitly favorable to this religious rite. Since the start of that debate, the German Episcopal Conference had taken a position in favor of circumcision, offering in that way a significant support to our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is, therefore, one of the fruits of the dialogue that we are able to count on [each other] as reliable partners when our respective religious traditions are called into question by society.

The example of this case in Germany highlights how important is the mutual support of Jews and Christians for each other in concrete problematic situations. Nourishing mutual trust, which includes reliability and safety, is part of the intense friendship between Jews and Christians. The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has an international mandate, which puts it on the front lines [in places] where Jews and Catholics live side by side on a daily basis.

The dialogue with Judaism varies greatly from country to country, inevitably being influenced by the concrete situations of the local Jewish community. The vast majority of the (roughly) 14 million Jews in the world live in the United States and in Israel (approximately 11 million). In both countries, numerous dialogue initiatives are underway, even if the contexts are notably different: whereas in the United States, the Jewish community represents a small minority of the population, living alongside a great variety of Christian denominations, in Israel the situation is reversed: the Christian communities are a minority alongside the Jewish majority. In that country [Israel], however, the Jewish-Christian dialogue experiences the consequences of the political conflict, while in the United States—because of the religious freedom which has been asserted there since the beginning—­this dialogue has become a real and true model. In Europe, Jewish-Christian dialogue often experiences “the weight of history” ­since, on that continent, the Shoah was responsible for the extermination of two-thirds of the Jewish population. The European nation with the largest number of Jewish communities today is unquestionably France, whose episcopal conference, following in the tradition of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, is actively involved in promoting increasingly intense connections with Jews. In South America also, especially in Argentina and Brazil, there are strong and flourishing Jewish communities. In those countries (which have a predominantly Catholic majority), it is, therefore, particularly important for Jews to enter into dialogue with the Catholic Church, and numerous initiatives have been undertaken to foster understanding and collaboration. In July 2004, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews organized in Buenos Aires, together with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC, an organization which brings together different Jewish communities, and which is specifically concerned with interreligious dialogue) the 18th meeting of the “International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee,” on the theme of “Justice and charity,” to provide new “boosts” to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Argentina. On that occasion, the solidity and vitality of the relations existing between the two communities was reaffirmed.

In May 2012, for the first time in the history of Jewish-Christian dialogue since 1965, a delegation from the Latin American Jewish Congress came to the Vatican. On May 10, Pope Benedict XVI greeted the group, which was made up of around 25 high-level Jewish leaders from South America, coming primarily from Argentina and Brazil. In his message, the Holy Father underscored the historic character of the meeting, and recalled the strengthening of Jewish-Catholic relations in Latin America, thanks to numerous initiatives which are deepening mutual friendship. Referring to the declaration Nostra Aetate (#4), in the context of the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, he underscored its clear condemnation of any form of anti-Semitism, and its theological character. With regard to the good relationship which exists between Jews and Catholics, he added: “Considering the progress that has been made in the last fifty years in Jewish-Catholic relations throughout the world, we must give thanks to the Almighty for this obvious sign of His goodness and providence. With the growth of trust, respect and goodwill, groups which initially related to each other with a certain reticence have gradually become reliable partners and good friends, able to confront crises together and overcome conflicts in a positive way”. Benedict XVI invited them to continue on the path of dialogue, of reconciliation and collaboration, and expressed his hope that further bonds of friendship might be developed between Jews and Catholics, so that common testimony might be given to the power of God’s Word, to justice and reconciling love, for the good of all humanity.

The task of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews is not only to maintain an ongoing contact with major organizations and international Jewish communities on a global level, ­promoting a dialogue “ad extra”,­ but also to advance a dialogue “ad intra” ­to support Catholics involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, and provide them with renewed “boosts” for the future. In this regard, from October 28 to 30, 2012, the Commission organized a plenary assembly, which gathered 8 consultors and 18 delegates who were responsible for relations with Jews in their respective episcopal conferences—conferences which are involved, in a significant way, in this dialogue. Since October 28, 1965 was the date of the promulgation of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, the start of the plenary assembly was chosen precisely to coincide with that, and such that its conclusion would also coincide, in a solemn celebration, with the XIII Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization. This was the third plenary assembly of the Commission, the first having taken place in 1982, and the second in 2005, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. In addition to a fraternal discussion of the general situation of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on the world level, the plenary also allowed for a reflection on several specific topics, such as the introduction of a “Day for Judaism” [to be observed] on the part of other episcopal conferences, and preparations for the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, on October 28, 2015.

In his opening address, His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch (the president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews)  underscored the importance of Nostra Aetate (#4) as a point of reference which still remains valid for Jewish-Catholic dialogue, reiterating that, as the “founding document” or “Magna Carta” of the dialogue, it has borne rich fruit in the history of its impact. Neither within our church or outside it is there any reason to call into question, or relativize, the weight and significance of this declaration. As the president of the Commission also said, Nostra Aetate is not an isolated meteorite among the Council texts, but is linked in a cross-disciplinary way, for example, to Lumen Gentium 9 and 16, and Dei Verbum 14-16. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the texts as a whole, not in an oppositional way. Cardinal Koch then mentioned the major commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue that Pope Benedict XVI has demonstrated; as a theologian, he has always been convinced of a “concordia testamentorum”. In fact, a central element of his theology is the effort to highlight the profound links between New Testament themes and the Old Testament message, so as to accentuate the intrinsic continuity between the Old and New Testament and, at the same time, the newness of the New Testament message. Cardinal Koch then spoke of developments in the Commission’s two institutional dialogues, that is, the dialogue with IJCIC and that with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which have already been taking place for ten years now, with great success. He furthermore referred to [the pope’s] two major trips: to the United States in November 2011, and to Israel in May 2012, which were undertaken with the goal of becoming familiar “up close” with the situation of local Jewish-Christian dialogue, and offering it new “boosts”. Naturally, in his address, Cardinal Koch also concentrated on the theological dimension of the dialogue with Judaism. For example, in the past a systematic Christian theology of Judaism has not yet been sufficiently developed, although some of those involved in the dialogue have already offered their own promising reflections on this topic. It is unquestionable that Nostra Aetate (#4) is an absolutely theological document, but it only points to some important theological questions which will need to be studied further  Finally, Cardinal Koch, looking toward the future of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, outlined some perspectives about it. The Catholic Church must undertake a deeper theological reflection, inasmuch as one of its most important tasks is that of theologically clarifying the new relationship which has developed with Judaism since Nostra Aetate (#4). It will, therefore, be necessary to continue with passion, patience and perseverance the two institutional dialogues of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, continuously re-energizing them with new “boosts”. A final idea is to conduct the dialogue with Jews together with Orthodox Christians. In ecumenism, as in interreligious dialogue as well, we could say, summing things up: what we are in a position to do together, we are obliged to do together.