responds Eugene Fisher instantly when asked to rate the current state
of Catholic-Jewish relations in the United States. At the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in Washington, D.C., he heads
the office for these relations. St. Anthony Messenger interviewed
him at the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Fisher ranks Catholic-Jewish
relations worldwide as, “Five or six, depending on the country—a little
higher in a country like Italy or England. We’re still working at
it in some other places.”
More than 25 years of
work on formal (institutional) and informal dialogues have given him
a unique perspective on this topic. Some of his 20-plus books, as
well as over 250 articles for Christian and Jewish journals, have
been translated into other languages. His most well-known book is
Faith Without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes Toward
Judaism (revised edition, 1993). To some extent Fisher’s professional
and personal concerns merge since he and his wife, Cathie, want their
10-year-old daughter, Sarah, to grow up in a world characterized by
faith without prejudice.
Started in the Field
fascination with Scripture led him to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
“I was in the seminary for a while,” he explains. “I left and got
a master’s degree in theology from the University of Detroit. The
opportunity came up to go to New York University’s Institute of Hebrew
Studies. Before that I had some very good courses in Scripture and
it seemed to me perfectly appropriate to study the Bible with the
people who wrote it.
“The program was really
Jewish studies so I took courses, for example, in Jewish history,
medieval Jewish prayers and philosophy. Every time I turned around
there was something new. Somehow in all my years of Catholic education,
I had missed a lot of material directly relevant to the development
of Western religious civilization. You can’t understand that story
without telling the history of Judaism and its thought.”
Fisher earned a doctorate
in Hebrew Culture and Education from New York University in 1976.
His dissertation evaluated the treatment of Jews and Judaism in 16
Roman Catholic textbook series. He found the treatment had improved
since a 1958 dissertation investigating the same topic. While serving
as director of catechist formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit,
Fisher taught at the University of Detroit and at St. John’s Seminary
in Plymouth, Michigan.
In 1966, Father Edward
Flannery began the NCCB office for Catholic-Jewish relations. Fisher
has directed it since 1977 and has helped write many national and
international statements on Catholic-Jewish
In 1967 the U.S. bishops
approved, he says, “the first set of guidelines for Catholic-Jewish
relations in the whole 2,000-year-long history of the Church.” These
guidelines implemented Vatican II’s Declaration on Relations With
Non-Christian Religions, which taught about the Catholic Church’s
relationship with Judaism and officially rejected any idea that the
Jewish people bear collective guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion.
dialogue has been extremely important in the United States, home to
5.7 million Jewish people, more than Israel’s 4.7 million or the rest
of the world’s 2.6 million Jews (1997 statistics). About 60 percent
of American Jews are religiously affiliated in some way. Approximately
90 percent of these are either Reform or Conservative; the other 10
percent are Orthodox. Fisher points out that the worldwide Jewish
population is currently about five million less than it was
when World War II began.
Years of dialogue since
1966 have brought results. “We cleared up a huge problem about what’s
in Catholic teaching, especially in the textbooks. Frankly, the situation
is spottier in the pulpits because priests are always dealing with
the New Testament. Not all priests are well trained in handling those
problematic passages. Sometimes they do a good job and sometimes they
don’t. Nothing personal, just my perspective as someone sitting in
the pews,” Fisher says with an easy, yet no-nonsense smile.
His office is working
with the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy on a missalette text about
Good Friday. The statement will paraphrase Vatican II’s teaching about
responsibility for Jesus’ death.
“The Gospel is proclaimed
in the context of a rather long and tragic history,” explains Fisher.
“Preachers need to take that into account, not pretending that all
those terrible things never happened. For example, in Rome for centuries
the popes closed off the ghetto and put guards around it to protect
the Jews from mobs coming out of churches after Good Friday services.
Catholic leaders should have said, ‘Maybe we’re doing something wrong
in the churches if our people on Good Friday come out wanting to beat
up Jewish people. This isn’t right.’ It took the Second Vatican Council
to address that issue.”
Fisher has also been
active in the wider Christian-Jewish dialogue around the United States,
serving as national chairman for the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish
Relations (1983-present) and participating in all subsequent national
workshops. Since 1983 he has edited the ecumenical events section
of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and has been a consultant
for several movies and TV productions.
knows the international situation well. Since 1981 he has been a consultor
for the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Beginning in 1985, he has been one of the Holy See’s representatives
on the International Vatican-Jewish Liaison Committee, which meets
every two or three years around the world. In 1995 he joined the international
advisory committee of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.
According to Fisher,
the state of Catholic-Jewish relations worldwide may be the best it
has been since the time of Jesus, certainly in the last thousand years.
“When you start off the last millennium with the crusaders in 1096
slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews in the Rhineland area and then
go to the concentration camps during World War II, it wasn’t a very
One problem has been
Catholic understanding of the New Testament. “Chapters nine through
eleven of Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Fisher points out, “are the
only place where the New Testament takes a consistent look at the
relation of the Church and the Jewish people in light of the history
of salvation. Let’s build it up from there. Unfortunately, some Catholics
have understood that relationship on a past-tense basis. The 1970
edition of the New American Bible erroneously translated a
passage referring to the Jews as ‘theirs were the adoption,
the glory, the covenants...’ but it has been corrected to read ‘theirs
are the adoption, the glory, the covenants....’ (9:4). That’s
how bad we had gotten: mistranslating the New Testament to continue
a polemic that is not in the New Testament!
“Since the Emperor Constantine
in the fourth century, there has never been an age when Jews and Christians
could face each other, eyeball to eyeball, in the context of perfect
freedom, working for dialogue and mutual respect. From the fourth
century on, Christians have had too much power.”
Make a Difference
Catholic and Jewish
leaders are vital for improving this dialogue, says Fisher, singling
out Pope John Paul II, Cardinals Bernard Law, Anthony Bevilacqua,
Roger Mahony and William Keeler, as well as the late Cardinals Joseph
Bernardin and John O’Connor. Liturgy Training Publications (Chicago)
has published a collection of Bernardin’s writings on Catholic-Jewish
“O’Connor sent a wonderful
message to Jewish leaders before the High Holy Days last year,” says
Fisher. “Elie Wiesel and others got his permission to print it as
an ad in The New York Times. That impressed many Jewish people
and others. Last Yom Kippur, Cardinal Mahony went to a synagogue and
spoke very well. Cardinals Bevilacqua, Law and Keeler have normally
issued very good statements to the Jewish community, statements which
are picked up in the Jewish press but not in the secular press.
“The pope got attention
when he went to the Great Synagogue of Rome,” Fisher points out. “The
ability of personalities to capture the attention of society’s means
of communication is very important. People need these symbolic moments.
The Holy Father is very good at that. He speaks for the Church,
as well as to the Church.
“Without such moments,
many people don’t understand how things have changed. Most Jews don’t
realize how much Catholic textbooks have improved since 1965. Catholics
going through a religious education program or a Catholic school today
are certainly presented with a more positive understanding of Jews
and Judaism than most Catholic students received before Vatican II.”
Fisher identifies the
most prominent Jewish dialogue leaders in the United States as Rabbis
James Rudin (American Jewish Committee) and Leon Klenicki (Anti-Defamation
League). Other major leaders in this dialogue include Rabbis Mordecai
Waxman, Joel Zaiman and Michael Signer (National Council of Synagogues
representatives for the dialogue with Catholics), as well as Walter
Wurzburger and Fabian Schonfeld (of the Catholic dialogue with Orthodox
Judaism). Fisher says that Rabbis Joseph Erenkrantz (Institute for
Jewish-Christian Understanding, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield,
Connecticut) and Irving Greenberg (chairman of the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum Committee) have made major contributions to this dialogue.
Rabbi Zaiman co-led
with Cardinal Keeler a national pilgrimage of U.S. bishops and rabbis
to Israel and Rome in 1998. There have been three such trips organized
on the national level and still more locally.
“One of the most important
phenomena in the last 10 or 15 years,” Fisher explains, “is the development
of numerous institutes, many but not all of them attached to Catholic
institutions of higher learning.” There are Jewish-Christian institutes
in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Manchester, New Hampshire, as well
as in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Spertus College of Judaica (Chicago)
named an institute after Cardinal Bernardin. Nineteen such U.S. institutes
can be found on the Internet at www.jcrelations.com.
“Each time the Catholic
Church makes an official statement about Judaism, the Jewish community
responds. It identifies further things that could be said or things
that could be said better. This is helpful and important. After 2,000
years it would be ridiculous to assume we would get it right within
a mere 30 years, especially as regards the Holocaust.” Fisher explains
that the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
is working on a document about Holocaust education.
“Christians need to
remember that from the time of Constantine on, Jews lived as the only
tolerated non-Christian community in Christendom,” says Fisher. “That
worked fairly creakily up until 1096 when the First Crusade was beginning;
then things got rather nasty. By the 12th century, England had expelled
the Jews, followed by Germany, France and Spain. All those expulsions
were really contrary to Church law, but the rulers didn’t care. There
were forced conversions in Spain, leading to the Inquisition because
Catholic political and religious leaders thought the conversions weren’t
sincere. Papal law protected the Jews in Italy.
“The Enlightenment meant
that ghetto walls were broken down. One hundred and fifty years later,
the Holocaust occurred. Jewish trust of the Christian-dominated societies
in which they live declined. During the Holocaust, two out of every
three Jews alive in Europe in 1939 were murdered. That was one out
of three in the whole world!
“On the international
level, Jewish trust of the Vatican can be fragile. It’s different
on the neighbor-to-neighbor level. There’s not a lack of trust there.
Most Jews look at Vatican documents very seriously. Msgr. George Higgins,
a U.S. veteran of this dialogue, says that if an elephant is in bed
with a mouse, the mouse is going to have an extremely nervous night.
It will never get a good night’s sleep! There are a billion Roman
Catholics and only 13 million Jews in the world. We’re still somewhat
of an elephant. History has taught the Jews not to be excessively
trustful of Christian promises.”
of Israel's Role
“The State of Israel
has been very important for this dialogue internationally,” says Fisher.
“After the Holocaust it has given Jews a necessary sense of security;
they’ve got someplace to go. They had no place to go during World
War II. Nobody would let them in, including the United States of America.
To some extent Israel’s existence is a psychological refuge for all
Jews. That’s important because Israel’s survival gives Jews a different
image of themselves instead of perpetual victims. That is healthy.
“Lack of diplomatic
recognition between Israel and the Holy See once negatively influenced
Catholic-Jewish relations. That obstacle disappeared with the 1993
decision to establish diplomatic relations. In a sense, issues around
the Holocaust have replaced the earlier problem: action or inaction
of Pope Pius XII, canonizing Edith Stein, problems of the Auschwitz
convent. All these Holocaust-related controversies have to be talked
about and worked through.
“We Christians need
to acknowledge our history, including the negatives which the Jews
remember. I think that eventually Jews will be able to see that their
own history includes some things they learned from Christianity over
the centuries. That may be the next step down the road. For that we
will need to develop greater trust. More times than we would care
to admit, Christians have abused their political power over Jews.
Not as often or as consistently as Jews remember because they tend
to remember the negatives better than the positives. That’s understandable.”
Today's Most Sensitive Issue
Nothing is more crucial
for Catholic-Jewish dialogue today than finding the truth about the
Holy See’s actions toward Jews before and during World War II. In
November 1999, a Catholic-Jewish team was appointed by the Vatican
and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations
to examine the Vatican archives relating to World War II. The Holy
See has asked Fisher to serve as Catholic coordinator for the group,
which had very productive meetings last December and in May.
The Catholic members
all work in the United States (Dr. Eva Fleischner, Father Gerald Fogarty,
S.J., and Father John Morley). The Jewish members work in Canada,
Belgium and Israel (Doctors Michael Marrus, Bernard Suchecky and Robert
“I would hope that this
group will work as long as it takes them,” explains Fisher. “We’ve
got six top-notch people, all of whom have lives,” he says with a
laugh. “There’s no hurry. This is about doing it right.”
The team has begun by
examining a 12-volume series published between 1965 and 1981. Each
member wrote a report on two volumes before the May meeting. This
12-volume series about the Holy See and World War II may lead the
team to request additional material, perhaps at the Vatican, perhaps
“With few exceptions,
most of the people complaining about opening up the Vatican archives
on this subject haven’t looked at the thousands of documents the Holy
See has already published,” says Fisher.
for the Future
Eugene Fisher has come
a long way since the days when he was frequently the only Christian
in a class of Jewish teachers and students. Because many of his classmates
at New York University had mistaken presumptions about Christianity,
in 1973 he wrote “Typical Jewish Misunderstandings of Christianity,”
his first article in a field soon to become his life’s work.
“This dialogue has certainly
made me a better Catholic,” Fisher says, “both in knowing my roots
and in learning how to witness with Jews to the Name of the One God.”
U.S. and International Events in Catholic-Jewish Relations
Pilgrimage That Changed Everything
Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.,
is associate editor of St. Anthony Messenger. His most recent book
By Day With Followers of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger