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Panel Looks at Future of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue
Beth Griffin
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, November 12, 2009
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NEW YORK (CNS)—The most productive dialogue between Catholics and Jews occurs when the participants are faithful to their religious beliefs and candid about their areas of disagreement, said speakers at a program examining "The Future of Catholic-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue."

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, addressed a crowd of 175 people at Fordham University law school Nov. 5.

The program was the 17th annual offering in a series inspired by "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. The eclectic audience included Catholics and Jews, undergraduates and senior citizens, people conversant with "Nostra Aetate" and neighbors of Fordham University's campus on the west side of Manhattan.

The speakers said both faiths struggle to make their timeless truths relevant to people who hunger for spirituality but may resist belonging to an established religion.

Archbishop Dolan likened relations between the Catholic Church and Jewish people to a "house built on solid ground" which can endure buffeting winds of whatever storm might tear down a weaker structure because its builders were master architects, such as Pope John XXIII and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was involved in discussions with the Vatican about Catholic-Jewish relations at the time of the council.

Although Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. bishops are demonstrably committed to maintaining good relations with the Jewish people, "there have been occasions of tension, resulting, I would submit, mostly from misunderstanding," said the archbishop, who has been named moderator of Jewish affairs for the U.S. bishops, effective Nov.11.

He cited instances where statements and actions by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops were interpreted as efforts to proselytize the Jews and retreat from the understandings developed by "Nostra Aetate."

He quoted an Oct. 6 statement from Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops, who assured Jews that interfaith dialogue was not a disguised invitation to baptism. The cardinal confirmed the expectation that Jewish and Catholic participants are firmly committed to their own faiths.

Archbishop Dolan said dialogue participants cannot afford crises "of this nature" to divert attention from issues the two groups can face together. He said Catholic theology can be enriched when Catholics and Jews together explore common themes in their faith.

"Among the fruits of the post-'Nostra Aetate' dialogue is an emerging awareness that by attending to the ways in which Jews continue to find themselves as people of faith, we Catholics discover a valuable resource for deepening our own self-understanding as believers," he said.

Archbishop Dolan suggested future dialogue could "examine the ways in which the two communities are seeking to strengthen the spiritual identities of their members in a cultural context of religious individualism."

He said Catholics and Jews considered their faith "inherent, it's part of our DNA. ... Belonging to a people or a church is essential for us," but said it was hard to explain that identity "to a culture where personal individual choice trumps ontological realities."

He said this is a time when people want to "believe but not belong," and they do not value their "inherited religions" in the same way their grandparents did. He said contemporary observant Jews and Christians are more likely to see themselves as spiritual seekers than dwellers and it is incumbent on Catholic and Jewish religious leaders to teach and restore "the ennobling enriching wisdom of the ages."

Eisen welcomed Archbishop Dolan's candor and quoted the late New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor's insistence on frankness: "If it's not honest dialogue, it's cocktail chatter."

"I need my partners in dialogue to witness to their faith. None of us has a monopoly on truth. I don't need Catholics to tell me what I know," Eisen said.

Religion is seen by some, "not undeservedly, as an agent of intolerance rather than a cure," he said. In a time where people see "evil performed in God's name," those who stand for faith have an obligation to work together to be stewards of life and a blessing to one another, he said.

Eisen said dialogue participants need to move from talk to action to maintain credibility. "Our joint problem is we need to give people experiences of religious community in which they are moved profoundly and recognize that human beings, and especially young people, have an urgent need to do good in the world."

He said, "We need to make our tradition compelling and relevant."

Archbishop Dolan said both Catholic and Jews need to "recover joy" to attract adherents. Neither group is served, he said, if people come across as crabs or show religion as a chore. "If you show joy, you'll attract a lot of people and when people see our joy, they'll ask" about its source, he said.

The speakers said a visible, collaborative project in New York would model credibility to a society that often looks with a jaundiced eye on interfaith efforts. Archbishop Dolan suggested the two groups might work together on a new archdiocesan initiative to allow older people to "age gracefully in their homes."

The archbishop said New York is home to the world's largest Jewish population and he is "committed to deepening the friendship that providentially already exists between our two communities and extending dialogue in new areas of common study to witness human values that are crucially important to the renewal of our society."

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