Cardinal Koch on Jewish-Catholic Relations

Late in October, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president on the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews delivered a comprehensive overview of the state of Jewish-Catholic relations to the Commission’s conference with its consultors and delegates of individual Episcopal Conferences for Catholic-Jewish dialogue held in Rome on October 29. In his talk, which can be found in its entirety here, Koch sought to allay fears within the Jewish community and among Catholics committed to positive relations with the Jewish community regarding what some had perceived as a  retreat from Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council Declaration that has been hailed as the most significant change in Christian teaching about the Jews since the beginning of the Church.

Koch directly addressed the concern within the Jewish community that the recent negotiations between the Vatican and the Society of Pope Pius X (SSPX).  SSPX broke from the Church a number of years ago in reaction to the Second Vatican Council, whose authority it rejected.  Among the aspects of the Council it found objectionable are Nostra Aetate and its rejection of the charge of deicide and anti-Semitism, as well as its suggestion that the Jewish covenant with God remains in effect. When Pope Benedict XVI, who is committed to promoting church unity, lifted the excommunication of certain leaders of the SSPX in order to begin a dialogue with the dissenting group, the inclusion of Bishop Richard Williamson, a notorious Holocaust denier, caused a firestorm of protest, and an extraordinary retraction on the part of the pope himself, admitting that a simple Internet search could have prevented the embarrassment of the Williamson affair.  Very recently, the SSPX, perhaps in damage control mode, expelled Williamson from the Society.  Talks with SSPX have continued, as has the group’s critique of Vatican II.  In his speech, Koch was adamant that the Vatican was fully committed to the Council in general, to Nostra Aetate in particular, and that SSPX will be restored to full communion with the Church only if it accepts the Second Vatican Council in its entirety, including Nostra Aetate and the Church’s “fundamental respect for Judaism.” A further statement by Koch in this regard appeared in L’Osservatore Romano on November 8.

Koch then turned his attention to Pope Benedict XVI’s engagement in Jewish-Catholic relations, referring both to his writings and statements, as well to his visits to synagogues in Rome, Cologne and New York, and to Jerusalem and Yad Vashem.  While stressing that Benedict continues the work of his predecessor, John Paul II, Koch admits that the personal styles of the two men are quite different. “While Pope John Paul II had a refined sense for grand gestures and strong images, Benedict XVI relies above all on the power of the word and humble encounter. In this way Pope Benedict XVI endeavours again and again through the power of his words and his spiritual profundity to highlight the multi–facetted riches of the common spiritual heritage of Judaism and Christianity and to add theological depth to the guidelines set down by the declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’”.

Koch also addressed the official dialogues between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which began in 2002, an outcome of John Paul II’s 2000 visit to Jerusalem, and with IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, organized in the 1970′s as a response to Nostra Aetate.  IJCIC is an umbrella organization including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements and a number of international Jewish organizations, among them the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress, and the Israel Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations. In this regard, Koch referred to several moments of crisis over the years, including the plan to establish a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, the Waldheim affair, Bishop Williamson, the changes to the Good Friday prayer in the Latin tridentine mass, and the beatification of Pope Pius XII.  In regard to the latter, Koch mentioned a shift in the attitude of Jews to Pius XII from gratitude to suspicion with the publication of the play “The Deputy” by Rolf Huchhuth in 1963, in my mind the only sour note in a comprehensive and generally fair assessment.  Koch was careful to state that,  “In general however one can observe with appreciation that in Jewish–Catholic dialogue since the turn of the millennium above all, intensive attempts have been made to deal with any arising differences of opinion and conflicts openly and with a positive goal in mind, so that in this way the mutual relations have only become stronger.”

Koch concisely explained the theological challenge posed by the Church’s belief that salvation is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ and, at the same time, its affirmation, that God’s covenant with Israel has never been revoked. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

Cardinal Koch’s address demonstrates the Vatican’s deep commitment to Jewish-Christian relations in the wake of the Second Vatican council.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church has considered its relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people with a seriousness and a depth that is unmatched in the Christian world.  That he did not shy away from moments of tension and unresolved issues is a sign of a mature and healthy relationship.