Jews and Catholics: A Maturing Relationship


Jews and Catholics have come a long way in 50 years, as could be seen recently when the International Jewish-Catholic Liaison Committee (ILC) held its biennial consultation in Madrid, Spain.  The ILC consists of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) and the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

IJCIC met with Pope Francis in June, which I described in an earlier post.  Delegates came from five continents to participate in the four-day meeting.  Rabbis David Saperstein (Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center), Richard Block (President, CCAR and senior rabbi, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH) and Daniel Polish (CCAR, and rabbi of Congregation Shir Chadash of the Hudson Valley in LaGrange, NY) and I represented our Reform movement.   The theme of the meeting was “Challenges Confronting Religion in the Modern Age.”  Our discussions centered on the rise of the anti-Semitism, the persecution of Christians, and threats to religious freedom around the world.  Zion Evrony, Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, briefed us on relations between Israel and the Vatican and the situation of Christians in Israel.  At the end of the meeting, the ILC issued a joint communiqué calling for Jews and Catholics to join forces to address these pressing issues.

In addition to an intensive schedule of formal presentations and working group discussions, we traveled to the ancient city of Toledo, once a thriving center of Jewish life and home to one of the most impressive cathedrals in Europe. The bishop of Toledo, a delegate to the meeting, welcomed us to his “home.”  We visited the Centro Sefarad Israel, a government-run museum showcasing the Jewish heritage of Spain. At the museum, we enjoyed a concert of Jewish music from the Middle Ages performed using period instruments, and a performance by the Boys Chorus of a local Catholic school, including a rendition of Psalm 23 in Hebrew. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain hosted us at the Jewish Community Center for our final dinner.

The ILC emerged in the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate, which reversed centuries of teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism and ushered in a new era in Jewish-Catholic relations. During the more than forty years that the ILC has been meeting, there has been a notable shift in the nature of our conversations.  In the beginning, we dealt primarily with the past, exploring the common roots of Judaism and Christianity, the history of Jewish-Christian relations, the relationship between Christian anti-Judaism, modern anti-Semitism and the Shoa (Holocaust), and specific aspects of Roman Catholic teaching that reflected “pre-Vatican II” thinking.  It was a period of getting to know one another, of building trust after almost two millennia of hostility and conflict.  Today, our meetings focus much more on the present and the future, and on problems that confront us not only as Jews and Catholics, but as human beings in a complicated world, facing challenges such as environmental degradation and the dual challenges of religious fundamentalism and a secularism that is hostile to religion, poverty, and human trafficking.

Spain was a particularly symbolic location for our meeting.  Before the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, which culminated in the expulsion of the Jewish population in 1492, Spain was a dynamic center of Jewish life and creativity.  Jews began returning to Spain in the 19th century, and the Jewish community there now numbers around 45,000.  Though small, it is thriving, and relations with the Conferencia Episcopal Española (Spanish Bishops Conference) are strong.  A dozen Spanish cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests attended the meeting, and will carry the message of contemporary Jewish-Catholic relations back to their home communities.

The photo features Rabbi David Sandmel (center), Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Center (left), and Cardinal Kurt Koch (right) President of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Rabbi David Sandmel is an associate Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom of Chicago.