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DIALOGUE-CHANGE Sep-27-2005 (1,000 words) xxxi

Speakers say interreligious dialogue changes faith communities

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Forty years of official engagement in interreligious dialogue have changed not only the individuals involved in dialogue, but have caused their faith communities to change somewhat as well, said speakers at a conference in Rome.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, opened the Sept. 25-28 conference at Gregorian University saying that dialogue helps individuals and religions clarify their own identities as they explore similarities and differences with others.

The conference marked the 40th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's declaration on interreligious dialogue.

The gathering, which brought together more than 350 people from more than 20 countries, was co-sponsored by Georgetown University in Washington, the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Archbishop Fitzgerald said one obvious change in the Catholic Church is reflected in the fact that the name of his office went from being the Secretariat for Non-Christians to being the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The change is "based on the understanding that one feature of the relationship envisaged is respect for the identity of all engaged in the dialogue. Our partners are not just non-Christians; they have their own identity as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs," Archbishop Fitzgerald said.

"Nostra Aetate," he said, called on Catholics "to consider all that is true and holy in the different religions."

Recognizing the good, noble and beautiful teachings and practices of other faiths increases respect for those faiths, but also calls believers to learn from the other, he said.

For example, Archbishop Fitzgerald said, Christians would agree with Muslims that religion should permeate every aspect of life, "though they may wish religion to permeate life by living according to the spirit rather than through being subject to the law."

While Christians and Jews profess the importance of family life and of passing the faith on to their children, Archbishop Fitzgerald said Catholics probably could learn from their Jewish brothers and sisters how to do so more effectively.

Adele Reinhartz, a professor of New Testament at the University of Ottawa, told the conference Sept. 26 that she was used to answering questions about how a Jewish woman got involved in New Testament studies, but she had given almost no thought before to how her scholarship affected her Jewish faith.

"It has not made me convert to Christianity, accept Christ as my savior or be born again," she said.

Studying the New Testament, she said, has shown her that while there is much beauty in the Christian Scriptures there also are many passages that can and have been used to promote anti-Semitism.

She said her studies and experiences in dialogue with Christians also have led her to see the need within Judaism to develop a theology of religious pluralism and how Judaism must take seriously the biblical call to work for social justice, not simply promote charity.

Edward Kessler, director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge University in England, said his evangelical Christian students have asked him, as a Jew, to comment on the Gospel passage that Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life."

He said he tells them, "It is true; Jesus has brought millions of people to God," and billions have read the Hebrew Scriptures because of their faith in Jesus.

But, he said, he tells them that as a Jew he already is in a covenanted relationship with God, so is conversion really even possible?

Kessler said the Jewish community needs to grapple with the theological question of the impact of Christianity and its effect of bringing so many people into a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Like many speakers, Servite Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union, cited the Catholic-Jewish dialogue's impact on Catholic biblical studies as the most striking area of change.

Catholics, he said, have recovered an awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures as sacred revelation and not simply a collection of prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ and an awareness of the Jewish faith of Jesus and his disciples.

Father Pawlikowski said, "'Nostra Aetate' reversed the course of Catholic-Jewish relations both on a practical and a theological level," particularly forcing them to come to grips with Christian anti-Judaism.

The priest said Catholic religious education texts underwent major revision to reflect the council's teaching that not all Jews of Jesus' time and, even less, all Jews today were responsible for Jesus' death. But, he added, if the DVD version of Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," is used in catechism classes it could reverse the trend.

"The perspective of the Gibson film cannot be substituted for the official teaching of the Catholic Church and of Pope John Paul II," he said.

In discussing Catholic-Jewish relations, many of the speakers emphasized the need for Catholics to show greater understanding of the religious significance the land of Israel has for Jews.

Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations, said one of the most important fruits of "Nostra Aetate" was the Vatican's recognition of Israel's statehood and the 1993 launch of full diplomatic relations.

Philip A. Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, said "Nostra Aetate" encouraged Catholics to learn about the basics of Jewish faith, which must include understanding their tie to the land of Israel.

The future challenges, he said, include finding a Christian framework for understanding how Jews see the state of Israel, especially after the Holocaust, as a sign of God's continuing love for and protection of his people.

Cunningham and other speakers, both Christians and Jews, said 40 years after "Nostra Aetate" the time has come for the Jewish community to acknowledge explicitly the changed Christian attitude toward Judaism and to support attempts within Judaism to develop a coherent theological position on other religions.


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