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Remembering Vatican II: The Religious Significance of the Catholic Church’s Relationship with the Jewish People

This speech was delivered by Archbishop Francis Cardinal George at the 114th Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

 The following speech was delivered by Archbishop Francis Cardinal George at the 114th Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. You can watch this speech here.

Thank you, Lester, for your very kind introduction and for your friendship over the years.  I am grateful to be here.  In a sense, I don’t have to give much thought to what I’m going to say, because David Brown gave my talk!  He said “relationship, relationship, relationship” and that’s all I’m basically going to say for, I hope, 15 minutes or so while I get the chance to talk to you.  I want to truly thank from the deepest part of my heart, Steven Nasatir and the Board of the Jewish United Fund and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, for the invitation to address you here today.

It is very impressive to come together in such a large gathering, one dedicated to remembrance.  It brings to my mind the first time that I talked with a rather large number of Jewish leaders here in Chicago 17 years ago.  I was invited to a cocktail party in the home of a Jewish businessman, and there were perhaps 60 or 70 people there.  At a certain moment, everyone sat down and they started to ask me questions.  I was glad to be part of that dialogue.  The questions were obviously designed to tell them who I was, and I was interested as well in what they were interested in because it told me who they were; but behind all the questions about who I was, I knew there was a deeper question that wasn’t spoken directly:  “Can we trust you?”  And, “How far can we trust you?”  I thought of that after I left.  It stayed in my heart and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a fair question.  Can they trust me?”  What does that mean and who am I, really, as part of a community that lives with so many good people who were interrogating me for their own purposes but for mine as well.  Whoever I am, it has to be in relationship to them and that has, I hope, developed in my own thinking and also in my experience here.  I am very grateful for all those encounters and especially grateful for the chance to encounter you again today in this marvelous setting.

The Catholic Church is in the process of remembering a great event that redefined us, that helped us know who we are by refocusing us.  The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, as it’s called, took place between 1962 and 1965.  It shaped the direction of the Church at the end of the twentieth century and into the Third Millennium of Christianity.  But it didn’t speak just about a particular time.  It’s important for me to say that, because I’m going to make reference to a document that some of you have heard of and, perhaps, some have not.  In Latin, its official title is Nostra Aetate.  Sometimes people outside the Church don’t understand what is stable and what is policies.  A document from an ecumenical council is not just a statement of policies, it’s not even midrash.  It is perhaps closer to Torah. It is something that we have to make reference to not only when it is published but for generations to come. It is a constant part now of a rather small book that contains the decrees of ecumenical councils from the fourth century up to the present time.  Those aren’t reformable - they can be interpreted - but they are always there as a constant point of reference.  So it’s not a question of examining a policy statement that can be reversed.  Nostra Aetate can’t change as a point of reference.  I say that because sometimes people remain uneasy:  “We’re fine right now.  What happens in the future?  Will the Catholic Church change back to its being a carrier of anti-Semitism as it has been in some places over many years?”  Should that happen, then it will happen in some group that is no longer living within the terms of Catholic identity as it has been defined for us by Vatican II.  While much of the work of the Council was aimed, therefore, at the renewal of the inner life of the Church: “Who are we?” - other aspects, equally important, involved turning the Church toward an engagement with the world in both mission and service.  Who are we vis.-a-vis. others?  We don’t know who we are as Catholics unless, in some fashion, we talk to everybody else. This intentional focus brought a new reflection on relationships.  One of the most significant reflections had to do with our relationship with the Jewish people.  That reflection eventually led to the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate. 

Before I speak about that document, Nostra Aetate, which simply means, “in our times,” I want to share with you the vision of the world which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were using in their deliberations.  Pope Paul VI, who guided the council to its conclusion after the death of Pope John XXIII, in his first encyclical letter described the human community in terms of relationships.  He spoke of circles of dialogue between the Church and the whole of humankind.  The first and largest circle was, in fact, all humanity.  The Holy Father’s point was that there is no one outside of the widest circle of relationship whom we can simply count off or not pay some attention to.  Recall, however, this was the 1960s - the Cold War was at its height, and the common thinking presupposed an ineradicable opposition between East and West.  Most of the bishops of Vatican II had lived through the horrors of the twentieth century, which were caused, in part, by demonizing whole peoples and groups and declaring them outside of the circle of relationships, outside of humanity itself.  So, at the outset, Paul VI excludes this possibility.  The first circle includes everyone.  He then turns to the second circle, those who believe in God.  Belief, again in the days of state-sponsored atheism, moved a person closer to us and established a bond of commonality which allowed for a closer relationship.  The third circle contained those who believe in Jesus Christ, our fellow Christians of the various churches and ecclesial communities.  Finally, the fourth circle was the Catholic Church, in all her global diversity. 

This way of seeing the world through these circles of dialogue provided a basis for the Fathers when they went on to express the religious significance of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people. You have to understand that, from the beginning of the time of modernity and even a little before that, the stance of the Church vis.-a-vis. others was much more defensive.  It wasn’t dialogical.  It was a stance generated by fears from the French Revolution and other movements that were obviously anti-Catholic and had resulted in persecution.  This defensive reaction to the development of atheistic modernity had to be broken down.  It was broken down and broken through with the documents of Vatican II. The movement from defensiveness to dialogue was the purpose of the Council.  Of particular importance was dialogue with the Jewish people, because that is a unique relationship.  It always will be unique even though we ourselves haven’t totally determined it because we haven’t talked enough, even, perhaps, to one another.

One of the elements of Nostra Aetate is its intentional focus on remembering.  When applied to the Jewish people, Catholics are called upon to remember the anti-Judaism which was often customary among Christians throughout history, to remember anti-Semitism as a racist philosophy, and, of course, most profoundly, to return to the Shoah itself, which must never be forgotten.   This sensitivity grew out of the conversations that John XXIII had with the rabbis from France when they began to teach him the consequences of the teaching of contempt over many, many centuries; often, there was not outright persecution of Jews, but there was an attitude of deep-seated contempt.  The rabbis showed Pope John XXIII what follows from that teaching, what horrors were prepared by that kind of attitude over the centuries.  John XXIII became very sensitive to that attitude also because of his own work with Jewish and other refugees as a papal diplomat in Istanbul and in Sophia, Bulgaria, during the war, when he attempted, often successfully, to save people from the Nazi atrocities.  But these conversations had still to be made explicit in his own mind, as they finally were.

Nostra Aetate also extends the notion of remembering in another direction, calling on Catholics to remember the spiritual bonds which unite Jews and Christians.   That remains the basis of our ongoing conversation, ensuring that neither party co-opts the other.  You can be yourselves without us; we can’t be ourselves without you.  But who are you, and is our understanding of you your own understanding of yourselves?  If it’s not, and in some areas of our lives and beliefs there cannot be a shared understanding, nonetheless, how can we respect that difference and even rejoice in it?

Three phases followed the Council in terms of relations with the Jewish people.  The first phase was devoted to what Fr. John Pawlikowski here in Chicago said has been a cleansing phase.  Father John has been an important participant in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue here and elsewhere, as you know.  This cleansing phase involved re-writing texts, taking care to re-craft the language used in homilies and catechetical materials in a sustained effort to eradicate evidence of the sin of anti-Semitism from Christian texts.  A second phase involved rethinking the relationship of Jews and Christians in the light of renewed biblical studies.  Perhaps a little detail here will illustrate how significant that shift has been even though it isn’t often appreciated outside the circles of theologians and other scholars.

Biblical scholarship has helped us to understand more clearly that the first century of the Common Era was more complex than either Jewish or Christian writers of that age usually admit.  Rather than the simplistic framework which saw Christianity replacing Judaism, the historical fact was that Rabbinic Judaism was already evolving, so that when the destruction of the Temple occurred in 70 C.E., Rabbinic Judaism  became the form of Judaism for the new millennia and the form that we live with now and what we understand as Judaism.  Christianity also developed its identity at that time as distinct from either biblical Judaism (meaning the Temple) or Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity during this period was developing more closely to Rabbinic Judaism and even to Temple Judaism, than Catholics themselves perhaps understand.  In this historical sense, both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are off-springs of biblical religion.  We might now employ the metaphor of Judaism as Christianity’s elder sibling.  And we do use it, provided that everybody accepts it as a reality.  It raises historical questions:  What does it mean, since the elder sibling can be someone who welcomes a younger brother or sister or who doesn’t, and what are the reasons for that?  The meaning of being joint heirs to biblical religion is obviously important in the contemporary period as well. 

A third phase, according to Fr. Pawlikowski, involves imagining a new narrative about the relationship.  This more nuanced notion about the relationship of Jews and Christians in the first centuries has allowed the Catholic Church to move beyond supersessionism, that is, replacement theory.  Part of the genius of Nostra Aetate is that it allows the Church to affirm, that,

“. . . the Jewish history of salvation, the basis for the religion of Israel as we find it in what we call the Old Testament, is the historical foundation of the Christian history of salvation and revelation.”

That has always been the case, but our new understanding of it opens up intellectual possibilities for dialogue and opens us up personally to a different understanding of who are we, after all, as Catholics, not so much inheritors of your history as partners building on the same history up to the present day.  This connection remains intact, although according to our faith something completely new, the new covenant centered on Jesus of Nazareth, has come to be.  That rock of our belief always remains the difference that is a genuine difference, and yet it can remain also a point of dialogue that proposes and never imposes, rather than a point for defensiveness.   In other words, to some extent, we have found a way to honor each other without any compromise to the identity and integrity of our dialogue partnership.

Father John Crossin, whom many of you heard in his fine talk earlier this year at the Bernardin Lecture, summarized some of the things I have said over the years here and used them to frame the next direction for the new narrative as together we engage another dialogue partner, secularism, the inheritor, unfortunately, of modernity in its most extreme form.  I have suggested that a “trialogue” between the two pre-modern biblical religions, you and us, and secularism, could be a fruitful conversation.  It would force secularists to recognize that they are espousing a philosophy of life that has religious overtones; it is not something that is neutral. Fr. Crossin summarized how this new narrative might develop, if together Jews and Catholics would first of all:

  • Reflect together on what we have each learned from the Enlightenment.Enlightenment was born with modernity. But we have different attitudes toward the Enlightenment.  It was liberating for Jewish communities in many parts of Europe, even as it was destructive of the Church in her then formal and governmental relationship to the world.
  • Look together at consumer culture and how it influences us and our relationships to one another. We heard those marvelous testimonies of philanthropy a few minutes ago.It is important that we succeed, but success doesn’t mean accumulating a lot of money.  It means most of all using money to help other people.  We go beyond consumer culture if we touch the best bases of our different faiths.


  • Thirdly, then, focus together on human interdependence, on the universalism that we just heard spoken about.We deal more explicitly then with “ecumenism” in the broad sense and how that might impact further the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.  Then we can move on to work together towards a common and honest history that we can both acknowledge: “Yes, that’s how it is,” even though we feel it and think about it differently.

Father Crossin summarized finally by saying “What I am suggesting is that a new and coherent way of Catholic/Jewish self-understanding and acting is emerging in the post-modern period . . . the presupposition and foundation for this suggestion is that we will continue to walk and talk together as colleagues and as friends.”

That too is something I have often said, that we have come a great distance and it is good to celebrate that, but our very progress has now brought into relief ways in which we could go farther, particularly in our spiritual relationships, if in fact we understood the narrative adequately.

Here in Chicago, I believe that we are well along the way with this journey and conversation.  It was well established before I came.  I only had to build on what you were doing, what the Archdiocese of Chicago was doing when I came here.  I want to thank the Jewish United Fund and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for all that you have done to foster this closer relationship.  I also want to mention the other Jewish partners of the Archdiocese of Chicago: the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, Spertus Institute, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Hillel and the Holocaust Museum for the various programs and partnerships that we have been privileged to share.  I’d like to name several examples of what our dialogue efforts have produced. 

As has been mentioned, the Fassouta Project brought together diverse concerns in a mutual project.  Fassouta is a small village – it is populated by Greek Catholics, that is, its people are not Latin but Byzantine in their liturgical expression.  It is Greek but Catholic, in communion with the Bishop of Rome.  The village lies about four kilometers south of the Lebanon border.  The Fassouta Project, in 2003, was a joint effort to raise awareness of the effects of emigration on the Christian community in Israel.  The project established a computer literacy center in the Christian village of Fassouta so that the young people would find employment at home.  We provided $100,000 over three years to outfit and staff a computer lab and offer classes to the local community.  Both the State of Israel and their Christian citizens could then profit from the skills which would make it possible for young Christian men and women to find the work that would enable them to stay in Israel.

Another project worthy of note is the Social Studies Curriculum in our Catholic schools.  Together with JCRC we developed the “Modern Israel: Holy Land and Jewish State” program.  In addition to a curriculum, over 35 teachers in theology, history, English, art and science have travelled to Israel to be formed in this curriculum.  Twenty different Catholic high schools now have participated.  In a special way therefore, I want to acknowledge the work of Sister Mary Ellen Coombe, who has led our efforts to engage Catholic and Jewish schools for many years and contributes to the new narrative being developed.  Sister Mary Ellen’s religious order, the Sisters of Sion, have as their charism Catholic/Jewish dialogue.  She has brought that charism to life here and for over two decades has placed it at the service of the Archdiocese and of the Jewish community, and she continues to do so.  I want to take this opportunity to thank the Sisters of Sion for their contribution to Catholic/Jewish relations in Chicago and particularly to express my gratitude for their work and their presence here through Sister Mary Ellen.

There is much more I could say to the way the Jewish community sends volunteers to work with Catholic Charities during the holidays, to the Catholic/Jewish Scholars’ Dialogue, to the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture, to the work of Hillel with Catholic campus ministries and, of course the work of the Holoucast Museum.  It’s interesting when I talk to Catholic campus ministers and ask, “Whom are you working most closely with?”  I used to expect them to say, “Lutherans, Episcopalians” – and they say, “The Jews – Hillel.  And we are doing very well.” 

In one way or another, all of these developments are fruits of Nostra Aetate.  Standing here, nearly fifty years after the Second Vatican  Council, I lift up a prayer of gratitude to God for all that has been accomplished and for all that still might be.  I know the office of the papacy has often been a mixed blessing or even a curse for the Jewish community.  What I would like to point out is that no matter how individual popes have helped or hurt our dialogue over the centuries, in the last 50 years, starting with John XXIII who took to heart the consequences of the teaching of contempt when French rabbis pointed it out to him, and who, with the help of Cardinal Bea, a German Jesuit who, with the help of his scholarly background in Scripture, was able to bring to the Pope what we had to do if we were to be a genuinely biblical people, a new moment did arise.  Pope Paul VI succeeded John XXIII and, while his actions too were sometimes problematic during his visit to Israel, nevertheless, the formal recognition of the State of Israel began with the work of Pope Paul VI.

Pope John Paul II, of course, was who he was, a truly monumental figure, one who brought history into a genuine alignment with the demands of dialogue by acknowledging and confessing publicly the sins of the Church but not stopping with that. He brought hope – hope for everyone.  In that, he deserves to be remembered as a good friend of the Jewish people as well as a great pontiff of the Catholic Church.

In the years of Pope Benedict XVI there were some decisions that people interpreted badly.  I think he saw himself as someone immersed in God’s Word, who knew and lived Scripture and who was convinced that we could also advance the dialogue through an emphasis on culture, for religions form cultures, as John Paul never tired of saying.  A faith that does not become culture, that is, if the faith in your heart is not expressed in customs that are common and not just individual, if it does not shape an entire way of life, it is not truly faith.  It hasn’t really permeated all the aspects of one’s existence.  That conviction was taken a step farther in Pope Benedict’s request that we not talk to one another only as religions; rather, we should talk to others as cultures, because then we touch the whole dimension of our lives, and there can appear openings that perhaps we hadn’t noticed before. 

And now we have Pope Francis.  Based upon his own friendship and personal relationships with the rabbis of Buenos Aires, he is able to bring his own particular personality to the present dialogue and, I hope, to a more profound relationship in the years to come.   

As I conclude, let me say that what I have personally learned from Vatican II and especially from my seventeen years as Archbishop of Chicago is that the new narrative of Catholic/Jewish relations will be written if we write it together.  This will only happen if we deepen our relationships.  For too much of our common history we spoke of each other without any relationship, or even as enemies, imagined or real.  I have said many times, (the priests are tired of hearing me say it,) that if you get the relationships right, everything else will follow.  After the death of Pope Saint John Paul II, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, here with us today, shared what he was looking for in the new pope.  He said simply, “Someone who knows us.”  Relationships come first, don’t they?

I hope that the real legacy of Nostra Aetate and the Second Vatican Council will be that, at its one hundredth anniversary, our two communities will look back and say that, because of that Council and its very important and normative document on interfaith dialogue, we do know each other through the eyes and hearts that each of us has as members of our own faith community.  For this afternoon and for your abiding together with me for so many years, from the bottom of my heart I again want to say thank you, Mazeltov. 

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