Meeting with the Jewish Community Relations Council, American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League,
July 11, 2013


It’s a pleasure to be here today, and I’m grateful to Adam Kessler and everyone involved in arranging this event for inviting me.  I had the privilege of a very good friendship with the Jewish community in Colorado during my years as archbishop of Denver.  That included a great working relationship with the American Jewish Committee, and on-going contacts with the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council and the Anti-Defamation League.

In 2005 I served on the official U.S. delegation to the Cordoba conference on combating anti-Semitism in Europe.  This was sponsored by the OSCE – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  During the conference, I worked with the ADL to offer a session on American Catholic efforts to teach our young people about the Holocaust.  I’ve also been part of an annual dialogue between European Catholic bishops and American Orthodox Jewish leaders through Yeshiva University in New York.  So my experience with the Jewish community over many years has been a blessing.

Unfortunately, Catholic life here in Philadelphia is much more complicated than it was in Denver – legally, financially and especially in the morale of our people.  Our problems as a Church are very serious.  They’ve dominated my work as a bishop since arriving here 22 months ago, and rightly so.  And there’s no quick or easy way to fix them.  But I do hope in the years ahead that we can begin to develop real friendships among those of us here today.  Whatever our challenges, we do need to build on the legacy of good Jewish-Catholic relations that already exists here in Philadelphia, because – in the long run — our relationship is important, not just for Catholics and Jews, but for the whole community.

I want to offer just a few thoughts today about Catholic-Jewish relations over the past half century.  Then we can get into questions, which are always more interesting.

Most people involved in inter-religious dialogue would trace the conversion of Catholic attitudes toward Judaism to two things: emotionally, to the shock of the Holocaust; and intellectually, to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.  Vatican II was what Catholics call an “ecumenical council” — a gathering of all Catholic bishops from around the world, under the guidance of the Pope, the bishop of Rome.

Vatican II wanted to renew the way the Church interacted with the modern world.  So a key part of the council’s work was reexamining the way religious truth should relate to freedom of conscience.  And that led to a formal statement on the relationship of the Church and non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate.  The Latin name means “in this age of ours.”  Nostra Aetate repudiated anti-Semitism and sins against the Jewish people; and it called for a new kind of relationship with Jews based on a common spiritual heritage.

For Catholics, Nostra Aetate was revolutionary.  It opened the possibility of a dialogue of equals; a dialogue of mutual respect.  One of the vital things Vatican II did for Jewish-Catholic affairs was to point Catholics back to their own origins.  It’s impossible to pray over the Word of God in Scripture and ignore the Jewish roots of the Catholic faith.  The more deeply a Catholic encounters Scripture, the more contradictory anti-Judaism becomes.

Nostra Aetate bore good fruit.  When John Paul II traveled to Yad Vashem 13 years ago and expressed his sorrow for “the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place,” he did it for two reasons.

First, it’s the truth, and justice requires that the truth be spoken.  Only in speaking the truth, can the sinner become free.  Second, by his witness, Pope John Paul gave an example to the entire Church about how to live the Christian vocation, not just in relationship to the Jewish people, but to the whole world.

My point here is that the Church since Vatican II genuinely desires to renew the spiritual life of her people — and that can’t be done without real repentance and conversion.  So I believe we really are living a new and unique moment in Catholic-Jewish relations.  And Catholics will never be able to go back to the kind of systemic prejudice that marked the past.

That’s the good news.  The more complicated news is that repentance, as hard as it can be, is the easy part.  Repentance requires a sinner to acknowledge his sins, turn to God, and change his actions.  But reconciliation requires both the sinner and the person sinned against to want some sort of common future, and to work toward it honestly.  And frankly there’s no easy blueprint to make that happen.

As unaware as many Catholics are about the Jewish roots of their faith, I suspect that at least some Jews would be happy just to have the Catholic Church go away and leave them alone.  And that flows both from painful historical memories, and from Jewish apprehensions about the Church as a kind of religious corporation with institutional power.

For believing Catholics, the institutional side of the Church is probably the least important part of their faith.  The institutions are necessary in the way a skeleton is necessary to support the muscle and organs of the body.  But that’s not where the soul resides.

The Catholic soul resides in prayer and worship, in service to others, and in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I’m not sure Jews always see that, or even try to see that, in their understanding of the Church.

In like manner, Catholics often find it hard to understand what holds the Jewish community together.  Catholics — and by “Catholics” I mean those who actually believe and practice their faith, because they’re the ones who keep the Church alive from one generation to the next — tend to approach things from a religious perspective.  But in our dialogue with the Jewish community Catholics soon discover that being Jewish — depending on the Jewish dialogue partner — can have a religious definition, or a cultural or ethnic definition, or some combination of all of three.  And being genuinely Jewish may or may not include a belief in God.

Being Catholic is a different kind of experience.  What holds the Church together is mainly what we believe and how we worship.  So unity on central matters of faith is not a technicality.  It becomes very important.  Real Catholic faith is not rooted in cultural or ethnic identity or a good system of ethics.

You can’t deny the Resurrection and honestly call yourself Catholic, even if you’re a very good person.  Of course, some people do — but when they do, they separate themselves from the Catholic community, as it has always defined itself from Scripture and tradition.  So – for example — when the Church corrects a theologian for teaching what she regards as an error, she’s not doing it out of some arbitrary misuse of power.  She’s doing it to help ensure unity in what Catholics profess, because that unity of creed is our lifeblood.

So where does that leave our discussion?

Aside from the obvious fact of rejecting anti-Semitism, Vatican II has two legacies crucial for our time together today.  The first is the Catholic recognition that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is unique, permanent and fruitful in its own right.  It can’t be rendered null by any other religious claim or revelation.  The second is that all people have a right to freedom of conscience as persons created by God — and that freedom implies the right to be free from being forced into accepting what they don’t believe to be true.

The Church’s understanding of her missionary mandate has changed to acknowledge that any kind of coercion in the name of truth ends up subverting the truth and undermining the sanctity of the human person.  To put it another way:  If the Gospel is a message of salvation and freedom, then how can it be imposed and still be believed?  Having learned this lesson the hard way, the Church can never really “unlearn” it.

Cooperation between Catholics and Jews, whatever shape that takes in the future after so many centuries of friction, is finally something that will be the work of God.  And God will do it in his own time using us as his instruments — not in dramatic gestures, but in the little things we can do together that accumulate to make a difference.

That will take patience.  It will also take modesty in our expectations, as the Church in Philadelphia deals with so many of her material challenges.  And it will also take a realistic admission that we’ll disagree, sometimes strongly, on many things — from theology to public policy.

But I think the pattern of Catholic-Jewish relations has been permanently altered in our lifetimes.  And the reasons for it are simple: the generosity and openness of the Jewish community; and the witness of men like John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis, who enjoyed a close and very fruitful working friendship with the Jewish community in Argentina.  That same kind of friendship needs to be our goal here.  And I look forward to creating it together.