Catholic Views of Jews and Muslims — by John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D.

The 1974 Vatican document on Catholic-Jewish Relations is primarily known for its emphasis on the need for Catholics to come to understand Jews as they define themselves or, in other words, to refrain from creating what I would call “straw Jews.” The 1985 document focused its attention on the correct presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic religious education and preaching. The 1998 document on the Holocaust emphasized the importance of Holocaust education and tried to come to grips with Catholic responsibility during the Shoah. On the latter point some, including myself, have judged it incomplete even though it moved in the right direction on the question of Catholic collaboration with the Nazi effort at Jewish annihilation. Beyond the actual points made in these Vatican statements they helped immeasurably in creating a positive ethos for constructive scholarly work on the question on the part of theologians biblical exegetes.

As the scholarly effort begun to probe the implications of two of the major assertions of Nostra Aetate’s chapter four, i.e., the continued validity of the Jewish covenant after the coming of Christ and Jesus’ deep integration with the Judaism of his time, two initial approaches came to the fore in terms of a revised understanding of the Jewish-Christian relationship from the standpoint of Catholicism. While within each approach, different nuances appear from scholar to scholar, we can generally characterize the two trends as “single covenant” and “double covenant” perspectives.

The first approach is generally termed the “single covenant” understanding. It holds that Jews and Christians basically belong to one covenantal tradition that began at Sinai. In this perspective, the coming of Christ represented the decisive moment when the Gentiles were able to enter fully into the special relationship with God that Jews already enjoyed and in which they continue. Some holding this viewpoint maintain that the decisive features of the Christ Event have universal application, including to the Jews. Other scholars in this con­tinuing discussion are more inclined to argue that the Christian appropriation and reinterpretation of the original covenantal traditions, in and through Jesus, applies primarily to non-Jews. The single covenant approach has definitely been the preferred option at the level of Vatican leadership.

The second approach, usually called the “double covenant” theory, begins at the same point as its single covenant counterpart, namely, with a strong affirmation of the continuing bonds between Christians and Jews. But then it prefers to underline the distinctiveness of the two traditions and communities, particularly in terms of their experiences after the final separation of the Church and synagogue. Catholics associated with this perspective insist on maintaining the view that through the ministry, teachings, and person of Jesus, a vision of God emerged that was distinctively new in terms of its central features. Even though there may well have been important groundwork laid for the emergence of this distinctive new vision during the period of the Second Temple of Middle Judaism and its realization took some time to mature, what came to be understood regarding the divine-human relationship as a result of Jesus’ coming has to be regarded as a quantum leap.

Two other new scholarly insights that have come to the fore in recent years also significantly affect how we look at the interrelationship of the Jewish and Christian covenants. The first is the recognition of the extensive plurality within the Jewish community in the first century, especially regarding the notion of the Messiah, which seriously undercuts simplistic assertions about Christianity’s fulfilling Judaism or Jesus being the expected Jewish messiah. The second is the new recognition that the separation of Judaism and Christianity as faith communities was far more protracted than we once believed, ex­tending over a period of several centuries. Scholars now generally argue that it did not even begin in any substantive way within Jesus’ own lifetime but only after the end of the Jewish war with Rome in 70 c.e. And there is a real question whether Jesus’ ever intended such a separation.

Both the single and double covenant approaches have their drawbacks and neither fully resolves the issues raised by the affirmation of Nostra Aetate about continued Jewish covenantal inclusion. The question still remains: if salvation in and through Christ is to be seen as having universal application, something that even a progressive thinker in this dialogue such as Cardinal Walter Kasper strongly maintains, then how is salvation in Christ to be understood in terms of the Jewish People? In recent years there have been some efforts to move somewhat beyond the options of the single and double covenants and to probe further an authentic Catholic response to this central question. Both the 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission monograph and a few writings of Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his election as Pope are two examples of such further reflection.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, despite some significant limitations in the way it portrays post biblical Judaism, makes an important contribution to the development of a new con­structive Christological understanding in the context of Jewish covenantal inclusion. Two statements in particular are very significant for this discussion.

The first assertion is that Jewish messianic hopes are not in vain. This is coupled with a recognition that Jewish readings of the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of understanding human re­demption represent an authentic interpretation of these biblical texts. Here we have the seeds of what appears to be a recognition of a distinctive salvific path for the Jewish people as a theological principle. In this connection Cardinal Walter Kasper has asserted that “if they (i.e., the Jews) follow their own conscience and believe in God’s promises as they understand them in their religious tradition they are in line with God’s plan.”

Let me add at this point that the above theological re-examination by Christians needs a theological response from the Jewish side if it is to be authentic given the theological connections between the Church and the Jewish People. Several Jewish scholars such as Irving Greenberg, Michael Signer and Michael Kogan have pursued the question of Christianity’s potential meaning for Judaism. The only document of significance from the Jewish side has been Dabru Emet by four leading Jewish scholars: David Novak, Peter Ochs, Michael Signer and the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky and endorsed by over two hundred other Jewish scholars and rabbis. While welcomed in many Christians circles Dabru Emet has some vocal opposition within the Jewish scholarly community.

An important theological statement from the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the United States is the document Reflections on Covenant and Mission along with a parallel statement from the ecumenical Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations titled ‘A Sacred Obligation’. The first document emerged from an ongoing dialogue between the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter­religious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues. It had a companion statement from the Jewish perspective which generally has been put aside as of inferior quality. While only a study document, it was intended in part as a response to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s call for national episcopal conferences to pursue the issue of the Christian-Jewish theological relationship in lieu of any imminent new statement from Rome on the subject.

Both Reflections on Covenant and Mission and A Sacred Obligation (which was intended in part as a response to Dabru Emet ) affirm the continuing validity of the Jewish covenant and argue that issues related to Christology and to the evangelization of Jews need considerable rethinking in light of the scholarship that has come forth as a result of the now more than forty years of dialogue. Some very negative reactions ensued to Reflections on Covenant and Mission, in particular from Cardinal Avery Dulles and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the document has also received considerable praise from Cardinal Edward ldris Cassidy in his volume reflecting on his work as President of the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity and its affiliated unit the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. While not embracing Reflections on Covenant and Mission in every aspect, Cardinal Cassidy terms the statement “an encouraging response that marks a significant step forward in the dialogue, especially in the United States.”

Nothing remotely parallel to the above developments in the theology of the Christian-Jewish relationship can be found in the Catholic-Muslim conversation thus far. Nor has there been any document from the Muslim side in the vein of Dabru Emet. This is still a future agenda in this conversation. The closest we have is some theological conversation on how each faith community understands central questions in religious understanding such as revelation One example of such an effort is a document outlining respective Catholic and Muslim perspectives on revelation prepared by the Midwest Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And Pope Benedict XVI, particularly in speeches while on his Turkey trip and thereafter in an effort to overcome the negative reactions to his much discussed remarks on Islam at Regensburg University in Germany, has stressed Catholicism’s recognition of truth in Islam and the shared origins of Christianity and Islam. While this Pope’s primary emphasis in these statements has been on the important common search for social values, such remarks do lend themselves to further theological reflection on the Catholic-Muslim relationship.

The issues surrounding the question of theological links between the Church and Judaism and the Church and Islam are still in their infancy and very much in flux. While we have seen far more development on the Catholic-Jewish front, even here we are far from a consensus on how to state the relationship theologically. The “distinctive but not distinct” formulation in terms of the Catholic-Jewish relation­ship offers some possibilities for further discussion and may even have some potential application to the Catholic-Muslim theological discussion. But we are far from a total replacement of the more traditional ways of understanding either relationship within Catholicism as a whole. This definitely remains a work in progress.

The critical question of “conversion” has hardly been raised, for example, within the Catholic community as a whole. And this is also a question that Islam must confront from its side if the dialogue is to acquire greater substance.

With the succinct survey of developments in Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim relations since Nostra Aetate we need to ask where we go from here in this post 9/11 era. In my view religion retains a necessary and realistic potential for overcoming the association of religion and violence we witnessed in 9/11. But for that potential to become real Judaism, Christianity and Islam each need to confront and root out any seeds of violence in their faith expressions. On this point I can only address the challenge for Christians. Before the Church can be­come a force for authentic justice and reconciliation in our contemporary globalized society it must honestly acknowledge the times throughout history when it significantly contributed to social violence.

Pope John Paul II did begin such a process of genuine self-analysis in his liturgical ceremony on the first Sunday of Lent, 2000, when he expressed contrition for Catholicism’s participation in anti-Semitism, colonial exploitation, etc. But I am not at all sure Pope Benedict XVI is willing to follow on the same path. Certain of his recent state­ments in the context of Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim relations leave considerable doubt that he fully understands or supports such contrition. His controversial address at the University of Regensberg legitimately raised the issue of violence within Islam. But he did it in such a one-sided manner without any recognition of violence within the Catholic tradition that it rightly received strong criticism. And several of his speeches dealing with the Holocaust, in particular the remarks at the Cologne synagogue and subsequently at the Birkenau death camp, attribute the Holocaust to pagan forces hostile to all religions.

While no scholar of the Holocaust would deny that there was a profound anti-religious dimension to Nazi ideology, this ideology could not have succeeded to the extent it did without the active collaboration and support of many baptized Catholics. Both in Cologne and in Birkenau the present Pope failed to acknowledge any major insti­tutional responsibility on the part of the Catholic Church for what occurred during the Holocaust. His speech was criticized by the editors of Commonweal magazine, a critique I subsequently supported in a published letter in the magazine.

David Gibson, a former reporter for Vatican Radio and author of The Rule of Benedict in an article released through Religious News Service at the time of the controversy over papal remarks on Islam and violence at Regensberg rightly describes Pope Benedict as seemingly considering any criticism of the Church as a potential threat to its ability to speak the truth to contemporary society. That there was some bad appleism as it were, in Catholicism Pope Benedict is willing to grant. But the Church as such has always been, in the words of Gibson, “an immutable exemplar of the religious ideal” in the papal perspective. Gibson unfavorably contrasts this current papal perspective with that of John Paul II who is­sued more than one hundred formal apologies during his tenure. Gibson notes that Cardinal Ratzinger was known as a behind-the-scenes critic of such apologies and once publicly described such efforts as “masochistic” and “perverse.”

The second challenge facing our three religious traditions is the extension of our universe of moral concern to embrace those outside the context of our respective faith community. If our religious traditions are to constructively en­gage contemporary society we must make human dignity, not right belief, the foundation of our faith perspective. This is not to say that our creedal beliefs are unimportant. Quite the contrary. But ultimately we must make human dignity the basis of our moral concern not whether a person accepts the same creedal system as we do. Such a transposition will not come easy to any of the three religious traditions though Judaism may have the easiest time of it because of its notion of the Noachide commandments. But come it must.

A few closing comments. In my judgment the better road at the moment is to emphasize the bilateral conversations—Christian/Jewish, Christian/Muslim, Jewish/Muslim. But within this emphasis on the bilaterals we must also try to find opportunities for trilateral discussions. Such discussions have indeed proven a difficult challenge in recent years, in part because of political tensions in the Middle East. But they are indispensable despite my prioritization of the bilaterals. In any trilateral discussions it is important that we include any important changes resulting from the bilateral conversations. This is certainly the case, for example, in any presentation of Christianity within the Catholic­-Muslim dialogue where the changes in Christian self-understanding generated within the Catholic-Jewish dialogue must be fully presented.

Secondly, each religious tradition must be careful in not highlighting the views of people in the other faith communities who have little status among their fellow believers. This has become an increasing challenge of late for three of our religious communities. To be sure, there is a fine line here. We do not want to engage only official institutional types. Certainly people who are willing to critique responsibly their own religious tradition with respect to its views of other faiths must be included. But it is destructive of genuine conversation if one community promotes the views of a person in another faith com­munity who is not merely a responsible critic but really stands on the very fringe of that tradition. Obviously no hard and fast guidelines can be put forward in this regard. What are required; however, are sensitivity and a willingness to consult with key people in the other tradition.

We have come a long way in Catholicism in our understanding of Jews and Muslims in the more than forty years since Vatican II. But we have only begun the process of Abrahamic reconciliation which I regard as critical for well-being of today’s global society. There will be many ups and downs in the continuing process. There are certainly voices, some of them growing stronger, who want this process to come to a halt. We must resist that at all cost. Faith and hope require us to carry on with deliberate speed.

Catholic attitudes towards Jews and Muslims were overwhelmingly negative both theologically and practically prior to the II Vatican Council. Catholic-Jewish relations were marked by persistent anti-Semitism on the level of social interaction and dominated by so-called ” adversus Judaios” tradition created by the Church Fathers. The view of Islam and its adherents was equally pejorative though there was not as formal a theological perspective on Muslims as there was for Jews. While we do find some respite from the overwhelming negativity in a few places such as Poland and Spain at certain moments these are definitely exceptions that often were due to a more enlightened outlook on the part of lay Catholics who sometimes were criticized for their openness by church leaders.

The negative views of Judaism and Islam persisted well into the twentieth century . . . I do not intend to dwell on the past though Catholics are obliged to remember and acknowledge it as Pope John Paul II did in 2000 as part of Catholicism’s millennial observance. Rather I want to focus on the profound transformation of Catholic attitudes towards Jews and Muslims that has occurred in the now several decades after the II Vatican Council and its decree on interreligious relations titled Nostra Aetate approved in the closing session of the Council in October 1965.

In terms of the Jews, Nostra Aetate made three basic points. First of all, and this was the foundation for the other two assertions, Vatican II repudiated any claim that Jews were collectively responsible then or now for the death of Jesus. While it refrained in the end from explicitly rejecting the classical term “deicide,” something that was in the preliminary versions of Nostra Aetate, it did unequivocally reject any idea that Jews were Jesus’ primary executioners. It did not absolve Jews for Jesus’ death as some newspaper headlines proclaimed in 1965; it asserted there was no basis for such a charge in the first place.

Secondly, and following upon the first assertion, Vatican II insisted that Jews remained in the ongoing covenant with God given that the basis for the classical view of their displacement was rooted in the now repudiated deicide charge. Nostra Aetate argued this claim out of chapters nine to eleven of Paul’s Letter to the Romans where Paul presents the Jews as continuing in a covenantal partnership after the coming of Jesus. Regrettably it ignored the counter arguments in the Letter to the Hebrews where the Jewish covenant is depicted as abrogated after Christ.

In not confronting the competing New Testament perspectives in a direct way the Council left open the possibility for further controversy on the issue of Jewish covenantal inclusion. In recent years Cardinal Avery Dulles raised the question of Hebrews in challenging the claim that Nostra Aetate definitely settled the matter of the Jewish People’s covenantal role from a Christian theological perspective. While other Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Walter Kasper have insisted that Dulles’ view is a personal one and does not represent the prevailing post-Vatican II position of Catholicism in favor of continued Jewish covenantal in­clusion there is no question that Dulles’ counter claim has muddied the waters theologically.

The final point of emphasis in chapter four of Nostra Aetate is on the deep rootedness of Jesus’ preaching, in the Judaism of his time. This stands in stark contrast to pre-Vatican outlooks which tended to distance Jesus from the Judaism of the day and left the impres­sion that he harbored a certain disdain for Jewish religious practices. While Jesus may well have criticized certain extant Jewish approaches, as did other Jews, he clearly iden­tified in a very positive way with others. The 1985 Vatican NOTES on Catholic-Jewish relations issued to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate presented Jesus as closest to the Pharisaic movement in Judaism without explicitly identifying him as an actual member of that movement.

This third affirmation of Nostra Aetate has gained increasing ascendancy in biblical scholarship and in religious teaching materials even though its incorporation into systematic theology and official church declaration has been slow and uneven: The new under­standing of the integral connection between Jesus/early Christianity and important streams of first century Judaism is beginning to transform traditional thinking about the separation between Judaism and Christianity and posing new theological challenges in Christology and ecclesiology. No one has expressed better this about-face in Christian circles on Jesus’ links with the Jewish community than the retired Archbishop of Milan and outstanding biblical scholar Cardinal Carlo Martini. Martini has written: “Without a sincere feeling for the Jewish world, and a direct experience of it, one cannot fully understand Christianity. Jesus is fully Jewish, the apostles are Jewish, and one cannot doubt their attachment to the traditions of their forefathers.”

Turning to the issue of Nostra Aetate and the Islamic community I would repeat what I already indicated, namely, that the treatment of religious traditions beyond Judaism was primarily intended to provide “cover,” as it were, for chapter four on the Church and Judaism. So what is said about Islam and other religious groups in the documents was not as well developed. Having said that, however, there were important building blocks laid down in Nostra Aetate for the emergence of a constructive Catholic-Muslim dialogue. Nostra Aetate speaks of the Catholic Church’s high regard for Muslims. It acknowledges their worship of an almighty and merciful God and praises Islam’s emphasis on submission to the divine will. Clearly Vatican II in Nostra Aetate acknowledged Islam as an authentic religious tradition from which Christians could gain religious insights that would enhance their own faith expression. This claim was ultimately founded on the document’s overall assertion this claim was about the truths evident in all religions.

While, with Islam, Catholicism did not have to overcome explicit theological rejection as was the case with Judaism, it nonetheless had to shed its negative outlook on all non-Christian religions that permeated its educational programs and overcome a significant history of Catholic-Muslim controversy. Nostra Aetate directly addressed the history of con­troversy, urging that the many quarrels and the dissensions of the past centuries be laid to rest and replaced by a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding.

Nostra Aetate thus established a new foundation for Catholicism’s relationship with Jews and Muslims, albeit in different ways. Till today the Catholic Church has maintained a significant distinction between these two relationships even though they both come under Vatican II’s insistence that truth can be found in non-Christian religious traditions. Pope John Paul II in many of his addresses and writings on the Christian-Jewish relationship unequivocally argued for an altogether special bonding between Jews and Christians that has no parallel in the Catholic-Muslim encounter, as important as that encounter was for the late Pope. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a strong proponent of Catholic-Islamic dialogue when he served as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Relations, confirmed this papal stance on a number of occasions. His position was that the Catholic-Jewish relationship was sui generis with the Catholic-Islamic relationship having priority in the Church’s other encounters with non-Christians. The argument for the sui generis status of the Catholic-Jewish relationship ultimately has its roots in the recognition of authentic revelation in Judaism (i.e., the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures). Cardinal Walter Kasper has underlined this perspective in a number of his writings. From the Catholic theological perspective one cannot speak of inherent theological bonding with Muslims in the same way that, as the Pope affirmed on numerous occasions, one is obliged to speak in terms of Judaism.

Recently some voices in the Catholic Church, including people such as Dr. John Borelli who served as Director of Catholic-Islamic relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for a number of years and now works in this area at Georgetown University have urged a more theological approach to Catholic- Muslim Dialogue that would include consideration of some theological connection between our respective faith traditions. I myself proposed a movement in this direction in a plenary address in September 2005 at the Gregorian University in Rome at a conference celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate co-sponsored by the Gregorian University, Boston College, Catholic Theological Union and Georgetown University. In part my argument was based on the fact that Muslims generally acknowledge a validity to both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, though the Islamic use of the biblical books differs considerably from the way in which the Old Testament­-New Testament relationship has been perceived by Christians. Therefore Muslims would also seem to have some direct connection to what Christians regard as authentic revelation.

In the ensuing years further developments have taken place in terms of the initial about-face on Catholic-Jewish relations and Catholic-Muslim relations at Vatican II. The development has been far more extensive on the Catholic-Jewish front though advancements have also occurred with re­gard to the latter dialogue as well. Four major documents have emerged in the last forty years further refining and enhancing the Church’s understanding of its links with the Jewish People. The Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released important statements in 1974 (tenth anniversary of Nostra Aetate), 1985 (the twentieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate), and 1998 (We Remember on the Holocaust). In 2001 the Pontifical Biblical Commission, part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), produced a two hundred page monograph on the Jews and their Scriptures in the New Testament. In addition, as has already been noted, Pope John Paul II delivered many addresses on Catholic-Jewish relations during his long pontificate which have been collected into two published volumes. National Bishops’ Conferences in many parts of the world, particularly in North America and Europe, have added to this library of constructive materials. As for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, it should be noted that the Pontifical Biblical Commission monograph came out on his watch at the CDF along with a personal affirmation of its perspectives in the Introduction he wrote for it. As Pope he has given a few speeches on Catholic-Jewish relations which mostly reaffirm the vision of Pope John Paul II rather than contribute any further advancement in Catholic thinking on the matter.

There is no parallel development with respect to Catholic-Muslim relations though some advancements in rethinking Church attitudes towards Islam have emerged in intermittent dialogues between the two faith communities both under the direct aegis of the Vatican and at the national level through the initiatives of Islamic organizations and the respective Bishops’ Conference. The United States has seen the most organized effort at a national level, a story to which I will return later in this essay. The unevenness of the developments relative to the two dialogues clearly show that Nostra Aetate originally was intended to be a document whose major thrust was Catholic-Jewish relations.

John Pawlikowski

John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D., retired Professor of Social Ethics and Director of Catholic-Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, is a priest of the Servite order. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Challenge of the Holocaust for Christian Theology, Christ in the Light of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue, Jesus and the Theology of Israel, and Reinterpreting Revelation and Tradition: Jews and Christians in Conversation. He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Explorations, and Shofar: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Fr. Pawlikowski was appointed by President Carter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980, and reappointed by subsequent Presidents. He is also a board member of the National Polish American-Jewish American Council, a member of the Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, chairs the Advisory Council of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill College, and serves on the board of directors of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, and the Annual Scholars’ Conference on Holocaust, Genocide and the Church Struggle. In 2000, he served as a delegate to the Millennium Summit of the World’s Religious and Spiritual Leaders convened at the United Nations by Secretary General Kofi Annan.