Isaiah Interreligious Award of the
American Jewish Committee
CARDINAL WALTER KASPER
To receive the Isaiah Award from the American Jewish Committee is for me an honour and a very emotional event. I am deeply moved by this high distinction and I cannot but express my deep gratitude to the American Jewish Committee for the honour conferred upon me as a German, as a Catholic theologian and as President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
I am German and I know what Germany implies for you and what it implies for me when speaking with Jews. I was 12 years old when the Second World War ended and Germany and the whole of mankind was confronted with and ashamed by the unprecedented and unimaginable crime of the Holocaust; we stood not only physically but also morally in ruins. So I was more than hesitant when Pope John Paul II entrusted me with the responsibility for Jewish–Catholic relations. But very soon I was surprised, for instead of finding suspicious partners I discovered friends, and this friendship not only helped me to do what I had to do but made what I had to do not merely a duty, but rather a personally engaging and fulfilling task. In reflecting on more than ten years of service, I am deeply grateful that I have been able to contribute to making a difference in relations between our two communities and to a healing process of the deep wounds inherited from the past.
As a Catholic theologian I am well aware of the long history that Christians and Jews share. It is in the first place a history which bestows to Jews and to Christians a rich common heritage, the heritage of Abraham and the Fathers, of Moses, the Patriarchs and not the least the Psalms, a heritage which was also the living legacy of Jesus and his mother Mary and the apostles. So the Biblical tradition of Judaism is not an external reality for me but something which is internal to my own religiosity. Judaism and Christianity stand in a relationship which is unique in all in the history of religions. Jews and Christians are together the one people of God. With an old dogmatic formula of ours one could say: at the same time undivided and yet unmixed. We belong together in our respective otherness.
Nevertheless our history ever since the first century has been difficult and complex, overshadowed by dark clouds of anti–Judaism, which paradoxically helped the spread of that primitive racial ideology which is Nazist anti–Semitism. I said ‘paradoxically’ because anti–Semitism is also against the fundamental Christian principle of the equal dignity of all human beings. So as a theologian I was happy to work for the reception process of the groundbreaking change made by the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra aetate, which – as Pope Benedict affirmed anew during his recent visit to the Synagogue of Rome – is irreversible. What belongs together grows once again together, and this bears good fruits for Jews and Christians as well. I mention in this context only one but important example: the recent Jesus research has fundamentally changed through the close cooperation of Jewish and Christian scholars.
As President of the Pontifical Commission dealing with religious relations with Judaism, I have tried to do my best to ensure that Nostra aetate did not remain dead letter, but that it became flesh, blood and bones not only in many interfaith conferences, dialogues, symposiums and workshops, but – more importantly – in personal relations and networks of friendship and in the last few years also in concrete forms of cooperation aimed at promoting common values of justice, freedom and charity, peace and health care, education and the preparation of new youth leadership. Together we have embarked on a vision of a world without anti–Semitism and anti–Catholicism. We have started to undertake practical initiatives seeking to build up a world without defamation, a world of tolerance and mutual respect, a world where human dignity is respected everywhere and for everybody regardless of ethnic, cultural and religious differences, a world where terrorism is banned as an offence against both God and human dignity, a world in which justice and solidarity will reign. We strive together to make a difference in the world, working for the good of our children and the children of our children so that atrocities such as the Holocaust can never happen again.
As everybody knows these ten years have not been without conflicts on questions such as the Good Friday prayer, mission and so–called proselytism among Jews, the attitude of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War, the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust denier. I was not in the position to prevent or to solve all these problems, and to date some of them are not yet totally solved. Some of them will continue to accompany my successor and new challenges will also arise. As we live in a world which is no longer or not yet a paradise, we must be realistic, we will never be without problems. But I hope it is also realistic to say that our relations in the meantime have matured to such a degree that problems are bearable, and do not destroy our relations. Our experience tells us that we are able to solve or at least to shoulder our problems together.
One thing we have not been able to achieve, and this concerns me the most, is a stronger contribution to the peace process in the Middle East. It is true that this was not and is not our direct task. But every time I pass the wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I am saddened and distressed. For how can one be a friend of the Jewish people without being saddened by the continuing tension between Israelis and Palestinians and by the more recent tensions with Iran. How can one be a friend of the Jewish people without a willingness to work as much as possible for shalom in the Holy Land and for just, reconciled and peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians. This would be in the interest and for the good of peace in the whole world.
So I can assure you that the Catholic Church will not take any step backwards with regard to Nostra aetate and what that document affirms against anti–Semitism and about our common heritage, which cannot remain only ours but which we are called to make fruitful for the common good of all humanity to be handed down to the younger generations. The Catholic Church wants to continue to foster mutual Jewish–Christian respect, wants friendship and cooperation with the Jewish people; the Catholic Church wants this reconciliation and friendship for the good of all humanity and for peace in the world. The new profile of Jewish–Christian relations can be a sign that even after a difficult and painful history, such as Jewish–Christian history has been, reconciliation, hope and a new beginning are possible
Thus I understand this award as an obligation to work also in the future in the time the Almighty has reserved for me for the improvement of our relations. I thank you again for this award, I thank you for your trust and for your friendship! May the Almighty bless our further relations for the peace and the good of all humanity. Shalom!