In his first formal address to the Jewish community since he became Archbishop of Philadelphia almost two years ago, Charles Chaput spoke candidly last week about his desire for strong Jewish-Catholic relations, while also highlighting the issues that sometimes impede understanding between the two religions.
Leaders of Jewish organizations and congregations said they appreciated Chaput’s forthrightness on Catholic-Jewish relations and his expressed support for Israel, even as he acknowledged that many Catholic clergy return from time in the Holy Land with “anti-Israeli” views.
The event, held at the Jewish Community Services Building on July 11, was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League.
Chaput, who came to Philadelphia from Denver where he spent 14 years as archbishop, said it’s important for the Catholic Church to repent for its past anti-Semitism, including in World War II. But during his speech and in his responses to questions afterwards, Chaput insisted that both sides, Jewish and Catholic, have to work toward developing “real friendships.”
“Reconciliation requires both the sinner and the person who was sinned against to want some sort of common future and to work towards it honestly, and frankly, there is no easy blueprint to make that happen,” he said.
The speech came a few months after the Catholic Church elected its new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian cardinal who was known to have warm relations with Jews in South America.
Chaput said he thinks of Jews as elder brothers and sisters to Catholics. He questioned, however, whether Orthodox Jews view people of his religion as heretics and if that precludes them from feeling a similar kinship to Catholics.
Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University, said the question of how all Jews — not just the Orthodox — should see their relationship to Catholics remains tough to answer because it is only in the last half century, since the Second Vatican Council issued the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965, that the church has formally reached out in a positive manner.
“When Jews seriously engage Christian self-understanding, they are confronted by Christianity’s claim to be covenanting with the God of Israel,” Cunningham said. “How should Jews respond? All Jewish precedents were formed in response to a Christianity that oppressed and demeaned Jews.”
Rabbi David Straus, who introduced Chaput and is a co-convener of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, said Chaput’s comments regarding heresy are related to the inherently asymmetrical theological relationship between Jews and Christians. In today’s world, Catholics accept that Jews have a covenant with God and must understand Judaism in order to understand their own religion, he said, but that same idea is not required for Jews.
“As a liberal, it is inconceivable to me that God is only in covenant with the Jewish people,” said Straus, of Main Line Reform Temple. But for Jewish theologians, “that’s a very challenging proposition to affirm.”
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia who was one of the few if not the only Orthodox individual to attend the talk, said the emphasis should be on what beliefs the religions have in common. He said God expects non-Jews to be godly and “Catholicism provides a wonderful spiritual structure for non-Jews.”
“There may be some errors in doctrine that we can argue about, but one day the messiah will come and those who are Jewish will say, ‘He’s finally come,’ and they’ll say, ‘He’s returned,’ and then we’ll find out who’s right. But these doctrinal differences are less relevant than what we hold in common,” said Alpert.
Chaput attributed some parts of the Jewish community’s distrust of Catholicism to the Holocaust, when Pope Pius XII remained largely silent while Jews were killed, and to apprehension over the institutional power of the church. In responding to that idea, Chaput said, “For believing Catholics, the institutional side of the church is probably the least important side of their faith.”
He said institutions are necessary, but to Catholics, prayer, worship and service to others are more important.
“I’m not sure Jews always see that or even try to see that in their understanding of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Conversely, he said, “Catholics often find it hard to understand what holds the Jewish community together.” He said it’s often through interfaith dialogue that Catholics discover that some people connect to Judaism on a cultural rather than a religious level.
He said keys to future successful Jewish-Catholic relations are patience, as the Catholic Church focuses on its internal problems, and “an admission that we’ll disagree, sometimes strongly, on many things, from theology to public policy.”
“But I think the pattern of Catholic-Jewish relations has been permanently altered,” he said. “And I think the reasons for it are simple: the generosity and openness of the Jewish community” and its positive relations with the last several popes.
Since coming to Philadelphia, Chaput said his time has been dominated by the church’s legal issues and the associated financial woes and poor morale among parishoners (though he didn’t specifically mention the sexual abuse cases still roiling the church).
Officials from several Jewish organizations at the meeting expressed concern about the closing of the Catholic Office for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs, which had served as a link to the Jewish community and other faiths.
“I get irritated on this question a little bit, so please forgive my irritation. How many Protestant communities have people they hire to dialogue with the Catholics? How many Jewish communities have people they hire to dialogue with the Catholics? I find it generally not, but we’re expected to hire people to dialogue with other Christians and the Jews, and we don’t have any money. I’d love to hire somebody,” he said.
Chaput described himself as a strong supporter of Israel but said that almost all of the Catholic priests who spend time working there come back to the United States with “anti-Israeli” views because of the way they perceive the country to be treating the Palestinians.
“What I always say in response is that if my life were in danger every day and my country could be destroyed by the hatred of my neighbors, it would be quite a different way of looking at things,” he said.
Alpert said it’s important to ask what attitudes the Catholic priests carried with them to Israel in considering Chaput’s comments.
“If they go to Israel to work with the Palestinian Arab community and also already have a bias towards the Palestinians, then certainly they will find that bias reinforced,” Alpert said.
Cunningham attributed some of the priests’ disenchantment with Israel to their “growing impatience” over the lack of progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Straus said the priests’ view of Israel could be shaped by the ideas of liberation theology, seeing Israel as the occupier and
the Palestinians as the powerless. He said that sort of theology is not a suitable fit for the Middle East, where Israel could also be viewed as living under the oppression of other Arab states.
Rather than viewing Israel under the auspices of liberation theology, he said, “there needs to be a much more nuanced set of lenses through which you look.”