This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

40 years bring 'profound change'

Catholics have accepted message of Vatican II document on Jews, cardinal says


Cardinal William Henry Keeler of Baltimore, 74, is undoubtedly the American prelate most identified with the outreach and dialogue with Judaism that followed the Second Vatican Council, and especially its document Nostra Aetate, issued on Oct. 28, 1965. Keeler was a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II, as secretary to Bishop George Leech of Harrisburg, Pa., and ever since has had a keen interest in interfaith relations.

Today Keeler is moderator for Jewish-Catholic relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He also serves on the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, with a special interest in the work of the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. As chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs from 1984 to 1987, Keeler helped arrange Pope John Paul II’s meetings with Jewish leaders in Miami in 1987. Whenever there has been a crisis in Jewish-Catholic affairs over the years, from the beatification of Edith Stein in 1987 to the controversy over crosses at Auschwitz to the release of Mel Gibson’s move “The Passion of the Christ,” Keeler has been a primary interlocutor between the American church and the Jewish community.

Keeler, along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, was in Rome for an Oct. 27 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. He sat down with NCR for an Oct. 29 interview at the North American College.

NCR: Where does your passion for Jewish-Catholic relations come from?
Keeler: It started when I was a seminarian here, at the North American College in the mid-1950s. I went on a seven-church walk that ended at the Ardeatine caves, where a massacre of Jews by the Nazis took place in 1944. I learned what the Nazis had done to ordinary people in Rome, including, by the way, the father of Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo [former nuncio of the Holy See in Israel]. I got interested then. When I returned for graduate studies at the Casa Santa Maria del Umiltà, I took a trip to Munich, which included a visit to the tomb of a priest who had been heroic in his opposition to the Nazis. Later, some friends and I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. It was a Sunday and the house was closed, so we stopped outside. As we were standing there, a German couple came by, and the man, who had been a prisoner of war in the United States, happened to speak English. We asked why they were there, and they said, “To pray that such things never happen again.” A little bit later a German priest came by, and gave us the very same explanation. That made me realize how much the lesson of the Shoah had taken deep root in the lives of the German people. We, too, stood outside the house and prayed never again.

At Vatican II, I came with my bishop. It seems like just yesterday when Cardinal [Augustin] Bea stood up to say that John XXIII had asked the council to be sure that never again would Christian scripture or history be twisted to be hurtful to the Jewish people or to support anti-Semitism. That’s when work on the document began, and Cardinal Bea was the primary architect of it.

Were you conscious at the time of how important Nostra Aetate might be?
I was very conscious of it. I had great respect for Cardinal Bea, and I also had some sense of the historical background. It seemed to me like this was a turning point in the life of the church. I heard all the discussion in the aula, the council hall. My job at the time was to take notes, along with four other young American priests, on all of the presentations in each morning’s sessions on the topics we were assigned, and then to go immediately to the headquarters of the U.S. bishops on Via della Conciliazione to type up summaries. They were then duplicated and delivered by suppertime, at first to all the U.S. bishops, but eventually to all the English-speaking bishops.

I followed Nostra Aetate, and I remember it very well. Bea launched the thing in 1963, the discussion continued in 1964, and was completed in 1965 with the eventual passage of the document.

What do you remember about the opposition to Nostra Aetate?
There was certainly opposition, but it seemed to me at the time, and this has been confirmed by historical works I’ve read, that it came mostly from bishops in the Middle East who were concerned that a conciliar statement would be used in favor of the state of Israel against its neighbors. Despite that, the council decided that this was the right thing to do, because this is the truth of the faith. Our faith teaches us that we should not withhold from others what Jesus gave us from the cross, which is forgiveness. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” On the subject of the death of Christ, you simply can’t blame “the Jews.” Most Jews were unaware of the event, and anyway, our theology has always taught, and it was affirmed at the Council of Trent, that Jesus died for the sins of every person. He had a deep love for every person.

In your view, what have been the most important fruits of Nostra Aetate?
I think they’re particularly important now. Today, we’re looking not just to be engaged in dialogue, though that’s happening in the United States, including between Jews and Muslims, but also to find ways to cooperate to advance the interests of justice and peace, especially in the Middle East. We’re better able to do it now. For one thing, Jews and Christians alike, because of the experiences of the last 40 years, are better able to understand that Islam preaches peace. John Paul II himself said so in Jerusalem, that peace is at the heart of the common message of the three religions of Abraham.

What about changes in intra-Christian attitudes?
Within the Catholic church, I think change happens so gradually that people don’t even realize when it’s taken place. Yet there’s no denying that there has been a profound change. I think the reaction to the movie “The Passion of the Christ” is a wonderful example. There was no reaction anyplace that was anti-Semitic, no outbreaks of violence or harassment, as is said to have followed the staging of passion plays in the Middle Ages. It just didn’t happen. To me, that means our people have accepted the message.

Yet we can’t pretend all is well. Just this week, the president of Iran called for Israel to be wiped off the map. What was your reaction when you heard that?
I thought this is another politician trying to get an easy solution to a very complicated problem. I also thought, this guy obviously doesn’t know what Islam teaches about the relationship to the Jewish people. The Quran esteems Moses as a lawgiver, and there are many passages that draw upon Hebrew scripture, just as our Old Testament is essentially Hebrew scripture. Realizing all that, one knows that the president of Iran was way off base. I’ve been encouraged by the international condemnation of his remarks. It’s good that people see he was speaking out of turn.

Still, he doesn’t speak just for himself. Are you concerned about widespread anti-Jewish prejudice, especially focused on Israel, in the Islamic world?
In all three worlds -- Christian, Jewish and Islamic -- there are fundamentalists who do not know how to cope with the complexities of real life, and sometimes they turn violent. That’s a problem. We have people of the far right in every society and every religious body. I have heard that in some parts of the Muslim world, there are schools that recycle and incite fundamentalist ideas. However, I also know many Christians in the same parts of the world who talk about their positive relations with Muslims. I saw this, for example, at the 2001 Synod of Bishops on the Episcopacy, which was right after 9/11. I was sitting next to the cardinal from Indonesia, Julius Darmaatmadja, who at one stage was concerned that he might have to go home. Yet he told me that by and large, relations with Muslims in Indonesia are excellent, except for East Timor, which is another set of problems. It’s the same with Muslims in the United States. We have a wonderful relationship with them. I had the privilege of introducing John Paul II to the leader of the largest Muslim movement in the United States, Warith Deen Muhammad. He’s a sweet guy. He’s dedicated to peace, to helping people to appreciate and understand the positive contributions of Muslims to the world. So, it’s a mixed bag.

What did you think of Benedict XVI’s visit to the Cologne synagogue?
His talk was a very positive one, building on Nostra Aetate and what John Paul II had done. I think, looking especially at the reaction in the German press, it was an extremely positive event. I gave the text to our Jewish friends in the States, and they were all pleased to see he had done this in the land of the Shoah. I thought he made some points even more strongly that his predecessors had made them.

In that address, Benedict XVI called for “a deeper theological evaluation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.” Inevitably, that means touching the most sensitive question of all: conversion. What do you say when someone asks you if the church still believes that Jews would be better off as Christians?
I take the example of John Paul II, and a story told about him as a young priest, which he later confirmed. In Poland, a 2- or 3-year-old child was brought to him for baptism. He asked where the parents were, and a moment of silence followed. Finally, he persuaded these people to admit that the parents were Jewish. Wojtyla declined to baptize the child. In my view, that’s the big difference between the situation now and 150 years ago, when Pius IX did not hesitate to claim a Jewish child for the church. There are many similar stories in which baptism of Jewish children has been refused by priests and bishops. In Rome, I like the story told by a former rector of the Gregorian University. During the Second World War, somebody walked into the Gregorian and stopped a priest to ask to go to confession. The priest, who was actually a rabbi in hiding, said, “I’m off duty, but I’ll go get someone,” and he brought over a real Jesuit. That’s the kind of relationship we have now.

We’re dealing with a mystery. The Jews are in a covenant with God, one which is still valid, and one which Cardinal Walter Kasper has called “salvific.” We don’t know exactly what that means, but we do know that our attitudes toward the Jews have changed profoundly. We speak to them now as beloved elder brothers and sisters in the faith. Obviously, if an individual Jew should be persuaded that the Catholic Christian faith is where God is calling him or her, our teaching on religious liberty means that choice must be respected, and we will receive that person with great joy.

You use the verb “persuaded,” which begs the question: Should we be attempting to persuade Jews?
The church has no organization directed to the conversion of the Jews at this time. I think that’s the most I can say on that question.

John L Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: