Issue Date: November 11, 2005
40 years bring 'profound change'
Catholics have accepted message of Vatican II document on Jews, cardinal
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
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
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 IIs 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 Gibsons 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.
sat down with NCR for an Oct. 29 interview at the North American College.
NCR: Where does your passion for Jewish-Catholic relations come
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. Thats when
work on the document began, and Cardinal Bea was the primary architect of
Were you conscious at the time of how important Nostra Aetate might
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
mornings 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
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 Ive 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 cant 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 theyre particularly important now. Today, were
looking not just to be engaged in dialogue, though thats 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. Were 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 dont even realize when its taken place. Yet theres 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 didnt happen. To me, that means our people have
accepted the message.
Yet we cant 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 doesnt 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. Ive been
encouraged by the international condemnation of his remarks. Its good
that people see he was speaking out of turn.
Still, he doesnt speak just for himself. Are you concerned
about widespread anti-Jewish prejudice, especially focused on Israel, in the
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. Thats 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. Its 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. Hes a sweet guy.
Hes dedicated to peace, to helping people to appreciate and understand
the positive contributions of Muslims to the world. So, its a mixed
What did you think of Benedict XVIs visit to the Cologne
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, thats 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, Im off duty, but Ill go get
someone, and he brought over a real Jesuit. Thats the kind of
relationship we have now.
Were 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 dont 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 thats 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,