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Living dialogically.

How I Became Engaged in Dialogue (1)

After a fairly typical childhood in what was then an enclosed Catholic world, attending Catholic elementary and secondary schools, I entered Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit, Michigan, in the fall of 1961. In the seminary, I learned through courses in philosophy, theology, and literature how to articulate the strong moral system that was my inheritance as a Catholic, as did the rest of my class. With them, I became intensely involved in the civil-rights movement, at one point spending a week living in the apartment that was the home of a black family in Chicago and coming back to organize a similar experience for virtually all of the students in our seminary.

At one point we organized a day-long conference on race relations, inviting Professor Hubert G. Locke to keynote. Locke analyzed the differences in the institution of slavery between North and South America and how those differences could be attributed to theological differences between Catholic and Protestant theological understandings of humanity as created in the image of God. I was to come to know Locke rather well in later years, serving with him on committees for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Because he is a Protestant, I found his analysis of slavery fascinating. It was my first experience in learning from a non-Catholic Christian aspect of Catholic teaching that I would otherwise not have known. The heart of the difference, Locke concluded, lay in the stringency of Catholic teaching on the unity of the human race, descended from one set of parents and destined by God equally for salvation. Hence, slaves needed to be baptized and, once baptized, to understand their faith. So, they were often taught to read and were treated with a modicum of decency, being seen as fellow Catholics. This also, I was to learn later, conformed more closely to the biblical laws regulating slavery than in North America, where slaves were defined as sub-human, and there were laws making it illegal to teach one's slaves how to read.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965, we organized virtually the entire student body and faculty to march through the inner city to downtown Detroit. I was at the rear of our line of about 1,000 white guys passing through the black ghetto. People came off their porches to join with us as we marched.

While I was in college, the Second Vatican Council took place. It could not have come at a better time for me. The council's documents, which we studied as they were promulgated, blew away my childhood impression of what Christianity was all about and replaced it with a more biblically oriented sense of a community chosen by God to improve the lot of all humankind (I would have said "mankind" then). Salvation was not just a spiritual, personal thing. It was a challenge to humanity to overcome its own evil. College is a crucial time in one's life, for one chooses who one will be and the basic values that one will uphold for the rest of one's life. The council thus thoroughly permeated my being. Its statements on ecumenism and interreligious understanding, Nostra aetate, became part of who I am.

Also during college I began to read widely, especially the works of Martin Buber. It was from Buber that I learned the theory of dialogue and came to an understanding of how to experience it in practice. The point of dialogue is to understand the other precisely in his or her otherness, to create an "in between" of shared understanding, which, growing, enables one to grow in self-understanding by understanding the other. It is a paradox, but over the years in numerous dialogues with Jews and with fellow Christians I have seen this happen time and again. We Christians grow more deeply in the awareness of the full meaning of our Christianity to the extent that we allow Jews and Judaism to become part of what can only be described as our self-understanding as a religious movement founded by a Jew and directed initially to Jews.

When I left the seminary in 1967, I wanted to continue to pursue theology, especially biblical studies. I studied for a master's degree in Catholic theology at the University of Detroit. This was also the period when I first started to read the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. One of my teachers was Professor Shlomo Marinof, who was, in point of fact, the university's entire department of ancient languages. I took as many courses with him as I could, often being one of only two or three students in the class. He was the first Jew I ever really came to know, a brilliant and gentle man of letters whom I admired greatly.

Since I wanted to study for a doctorate in theology, I had applied to and been accepted by both the Chicago and Princeton divinity schools. Dr. Marinof suggested I write to David Rudavsky, director of the Institute for Hebrew Studies at New York University (N.Y.U.). I found the idea of studying the Hebrew Bible with the descendants of the people who wrote it quite appealing. The changes and challenges in lifestyle, intellectual environment, and religious perspective that I experienced in New York were dramatic for a young man coming out of the "Catholic ghetto" of a medium-size Midwestern city. This was the period of massive anti-war demonstrations. I had been in the seminary just at the right time to go through Vatican II as it was happening and had been fortunate enough to be actively involved in the civil-rights movement in Detroit during the same period. Now, I was able to meet and work with such Catholic luminaries as the Berrigans and Dorothy Day.

Two books recommended to me by a Jewish colleague riveted my attention on the Holocaust--Elie Wiesel's Night, (2) and Andre Schwartz-Bart's The Last of the Just. (3) These commanded a personal response, as did a trip to Europe with my wife, Cathie, in the early 1970's. After some very pleasant days in Rome and Florence, we went to Munich. I became uneasy that night when I realized that the beer hall where we were having so much fun was the Munich beer hall. The next day we went to Dachau, a short train ride to a near-in suburb, as it was then. You cannot tell me that people in that town did not know that trains were pulling in full of tens of thousands of people and leaving empty. I had known it was real, intellectually, but confrontation with the reality was spiritually devastating. Although the Nazis never used the state-of-the-art gas chambers they built there, they shot so many people so regularly that they had to dig a system of trenches to drain off the blood from the killing field.

I have since visited a number of other death camps and Holocaust sites, including Auschwitz. The sense of bereavement and bewilderment does not diminish, nor can it be numbed. Each time, some new detail or perspective opens the wound again. All I can do--all anyone can do--is what Pope John Paul II promised in 1987 to the remnant community of the Jews of Warsaw: to remember never to forget. He repeated that promise at Castel Gandolfo a short time later at a meeting with world Jewish leaders at which I was present. Later, I put that same promise into the speech I wrote for the pope's meeting with Jewish leaders in Miami, Florida--to join our voices, as Church, to that of the Jewish people in permanent witness to what happened, so that it might never happen again.

Besides learning Judaism and Jewish history Jewishly, the New York University experience gave me insights into what Jews know about Christianity--and what they do not know. While there is nothing parallel to the ancient patristic teaching of contempt in Jewish understandings of Christianity, I learned that there is a certain lack of accurate knowledge about Christianity in the Jewish community. My first publication in the field of Christian-Jewish relations began as a paper for a class on the medieval Jewish thinker Bahya ibn Pakuda. (Actually, it was not then a "field" as it is now. Back then, and for some years afterward, I could say that I had read pretty much every significant book on it, which I no longer can say, despite almost forty years of study.)

Pakuda wrote a short work, Hovoth haLevavoth ("Duties of the Heart"). It was what we today would call spiritual reading, guiding Jews along the path to a deeper intimacy with God and each other. The book was written in the style and with the philosophical categories of medieval scholasticism, which was prevalent at the time, and which in fact created a chain of understanding among Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that is unparalleled to the present. There was a lot of "borrowing" of ideas back then. Aquinas often quoted "the Rabbi," Maimonides, for example, and the great fifteenth-century Spanish Jewish thinker, Isaac Abravanel, was deeply influenced in his commentary on the Pentateuch by an earlier Catholic theologian, Alfonso Tostado.

I had just come from a Catholic seminary and was quite familiar with the spiritual path Pakuda worked out for his readers (since it was very similar to that in any number of Catholic spiritual texts I had pored over in my time in the seminary). The class, however, tended to presume that it was quite different from anything Christian spirituality could possibly have had. For them, to a real extent, for it to be "Jewish" meant that it had to be something other than Christian. To them, to a real extent, medieval Christianity was composed entirely of people flagellating themselves, wearing hairshirts, and otherwise committing what Christianity actually teaches is the sin of self-mutilation. In other words, Christianity was described by its own extremes, as if the extremes were the whole. Christianity, defined by its worst, was set over against the best in Judaism to the detriment of the former.

In the a paper I wrote for the class, I pointed out that Jewish intellectual tradition tended to accept as true about Christianity as a whole just about everything that Catholic apologetics once accused Protestantism of believing (mostly erroneously) and, vice versa, just about everything that Protestant apologetics accused Catholicism of believing (again, mostly erroneously). The result is a caricature that neither Protestants nor Catholics would recognize as being "Christianity." It is a comforting vision for Jews, but it is wrong. Christians do not worship Mary, nor do we believe that you can sin all you want and be saved by "faith alone." This is often expressed in the false comparison that Christians think that mere belief is enough, while Judaism understands that one must live out one's faith ("creed vs. deed"). As a classic example of such erroneous thinking, I pointed to Martin Buber's Two Types of Faith (4) (pistis vs. emunahi), in which the master of dialogue, the mentor of all who are involved in dialogue today, allowed an unchallenged set of false premises to reduce his book to a polemic.

My professor urged me to have my paper published. It came out under the title "Typical Jewish Misunderstandings of Christianity" in the Winter, 1973, issue of Judaism. Is it still applicable today? Yes. When I was asked by the Holy See to present a paper on the topic for the 1998 meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, I ran off my 1973 paper and presented it with only a bit of updating. My latest version, greatly expanded, was published in the journal, Shofar, and can be found in an excellent collection of essays, mainly by Jewish scholars, in a book edited by Zev Garber. (5)

1971 to 1977: The Detroit Years

I returned to Detroit in 1971, now married to my wife, Catherine Ambrosiano, who had been a student of mine at the University of Detroit, where I taught theology, biblical studies, and a course on Buber during the summers while at N.Y.U. I became Director of Catechist Formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit and was asked to put together a teacher-training program centered on scripture. I was able to put into the training program a number of correctives on the traditionally negative portrait of Jews and Judaism, especially with regard to the Second Testament and its portrayal of the Pharisees, perhaps the first such diocesan-wide program to have tackled the subject seriously.

From 1971 to 1977 was a good time to work at the diocesan level in Detroit. Cardinal John Dearden had come back from the council determined to make its vision a reality in the local church. We on staff participated in and took quite seriously the archdiocesan-wide consultation and, after it, the famous "Call to Action" program. I served as a volunteer for Catholic-Jewish relations on the Archdiocesan Ecumenical Commission, taking part in the founding of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers. Detroit and Chicago in that period were innovative centers that were looked on nationally by those wishing to implement the work of the council.

During this period I worked on my Ph.D. dissertation for N. Y.U. It consisted of a textbook analysis of Catholic educational material, on the primary and secondary levels, with regard to their treatment of Jews and Judaism. It showed that in the areas where Nostra aetate was specific, progress in the textbooks was strong. But, where the council had not explicitly made a clarifying point to correct ancient misunderstandings, usually in the form of misinterpretations of the Second Testament, invariably to the disadvantage of Jews and Judaism, ambiguities still remained in Catholic teaching materials. (6) A follow-up study to mine, done by Dr. Philip Cunningham, then at Boston College, revealed further improvement.

In 1973, I attended the first National Workshop on Catholic-Jewish Relations (which subsequently became the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations when Protestant churches joined in its sponsorship). After this I wrote Archdiocesan guidelines for Catholic-Jewish relations based on the pioneering 1967 Guidelines issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had been the first official guidelines for relations between the Church and the Jewish People issued in the history of Christianity. The Vatican was to issue its own Guidelines only in 1975. The Holy See came out with a book of papers from its official dialogues with the world Jewish community in 1987, titled Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, while the U.S. dialogue published a similar volume in 1986 titled Twenty Years of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, co-edited by myself and two rabbis of the American Jewish Committee. (7)

Catholic-Jewish relations is thus an area where as much "bubbles up" from the grassroots as "trickles down" from on high. In that sense it is also one of the purer reflections of the council's great vision of how the Church, the People of God, should work, with local, national, and international levels listening to and in turn fructifying each other. At the time I started in the dialogue, it was still a very small pond that had no history. (8) We called it a movement, which may have been an overstatement. We had one small section of Nostra aetate, comprising fifteen sentences in the original Latin, of a larger statement of the Church's desire for better relations with world religions. Many, many issues of great urgency were on the table for the postconciliar Church, as they should have been.

1977-2007: The U.S.C.C.B. and Catholic-Jewish Relations

In the summer of 1977, I became the first layperson to become director of a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops secretariat, starting my job about one month before Dr. Dolores Leckey began as director of the Secretariat for the Laity. One of the first things I did was to launch a series of ongoing consultations with the Synagogue Council of America, which then represented Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism in America. While this council has since dissolved, it has reformed itself into two groups, one representing Orthodox Jews, and the other the rest of religious Jewry. These ongoing dialogues continue to this day, meeting twice yearly.

The dialogue with the Synagogue Council went extremely well, producing two volumes of essays on social policy in the Catholic and Jewish traditions and how we derive policy from biblical principles. (9) The early meetings were hosted by the University of Notre Dame. I held a lengthy discussion with the manager of the Morris Inn on campus. He simply could not believe a representative of the bishops would be asking him to remove the crucifixes from the rooms where the rabbis would be staying. "It is a symbol of universal love and self-sacrifice," he quite understandably argued. "Not to Jews," I explained. "To them its meaning was defined by the Crusaders who turned it into a sword and slaughtered thousands of Jews in its name." That re-definition of the cross was to rear up and ensnarl the international dialogue again in 1986 during the Auschwitz Convent controversy, a classic example of interreligious miscommunication. For the record, the Morris Inn did accommodate my unusual request, though the shadowy outlines of the crosses were visible on the walls above the beds, a fitting symbol, I thought then, of how the past defines the present in the ancient and ongoing dialogue between God's People Israel and God's People the church, even if we are only dimly aware of the history that defines our present.

While the official dialogues of the U.S. bishops are with the religious Jewish organizations, work with the "secular" Jewish agencies, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, over the years has produced many solid programs and materials for use in local communities in their efforts to meet together as Jews and Christians, to work on our long, too often tragic history; to forge a better relationship for the future; and to bring about a better world for all people in our society. Two excellent books that I use for my course in Catholic-Jewish Studies for Saint Leo (FL) University are Mary Boys' Has God Only One Blessing? and Jim Rudin's Christians and Jews--Faith to Faith. (10)

International Dialogues

I attended my first meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC) as a guest of the Holy See in 1978 in Madrid; in 1980 I became a member of the ILC, representing the Vatican, and also a Consulter to the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. The term "religious" is in the Commission's title to separate its work from that of the Secretariat of State, which handles official relations with the State of Israel. The topic of the State of Israel, however, was often then and is now on the agenda of Jewish-Christian meetings, both nationally and internationally. Israel is understood by Jews to be the one place in the world where they can be welcomed and survive. This profound sensitivity reflects the experience of the Shoah when the nations of the world, including the United States, refused entry to the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, consigning the majority of them to death.

The 1978 Madrid meeting was the seventh, the first having been held in Paris in 1971. I have not missed one since, giving me the minor distinction of having participated in more of the international dialogues than anyone else now living. The seventeenth, which I organized on behalf of the Holy See, was held in New York in 2001. I cannot here narrate them all, so a few vignettes from over the years will have to suffice.

My first reflection is that there is a distinct advantage in being a married layperson in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations. Most of the Jewish participants are rabbis, and most of the Catholics are priests. At any given meeting a number of the rabbis would bring their spouses, as did I. Given the way people socialize on such occasions, this provided numerous situations where my wife and I would go out for a meal or shopping with another couple (invariably Jewish), or my wife would go out with Jewish spouses. This enabled us, as a couple, to establish an informal set of relations with Jewish leaders that was not possible in the more formal setting of the official sessions themselves.

Often, I was a Catholic drafter of the joint communiques that each of the ILC meetings produced. Carefully read, these communiques provide a picture, agreed upon by both sides, of how the dialogue has developed, as well as its concerns, triumphs, and stumbling blocks. One paragraph that I wrote ended up being analyzed closely not only in the Jewish community but also in an "On Language" column devoted to it by William Safire. This came out of the 1985 meeting in Rome and attempted to explain why the Vatican was still hesitating to exchange ambassadors with Israel. At the drafting session I suggested that, if the Jewish side felt that the Vatican was withholding "recognition" out of ancient theological prejudice, why not just say that there are no theological barriers to an exchange of ambassadors. For Cardinal Willebrands to sign his name to a joint communique would be to commit the Church to what was said. The phrase "no theological barriers" went in, was quite acceptable to the Holy See, and accurately reflected their views, though it seemed to have taken the Jewish community by surprise that it would be stated that flatly. They had felt (understandably, given almost two millennia of mistreatment at Christian hands) that the Vatican was still secretly holding on to the discredited tradition that God had punished the Jews for "killing Jesus." God's punishment consisted of exile for them, an exile from which they could return to Israel only if they all converted to Christianity. Until October 28, 1965, that indeed had been the understanding of virtually all Catholics, but Nostra aetate ended it. The reasons for the Vatican's hesitation were political, not theological, as the communique stated. In fact, as soon as it became known that negotiations for peace were underway between Israel and the Palestinians, the Vatican came out in favor of them, even as European governments were vacillating in their responses. At the same time, behind the scenes, the Vatican began to engage the government of Israel in discussions that would lead to a historic "Fundamental Agreement" in 1993 and an exchange of ambassadors in 1994. Safire, by the way, interpreted what the document said quite correctly.

The high point of my involvement with the ILC came in 2000. I was asked by the Holy See to coordinate the Catholic side of the dialogue for its 2001 meeting in New York, since the Pontifical Commission's secretary had had to take early retirement due to serious illness and had not yet been replaced. All of a sudden, it seemed, I was directing Catholic-Jewish relations not just for the U.S. Bishops but for the Church Universal! There were a number of heavy issues at hand, such as the implications of Dominus lesus for the dialogue and the ongoing debate over scholarly access to the Vatican archives for materials related to the Shoah.

The planning meetings, one in Washington and one in Rome, went well. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the newly appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, agreed to interpret Dominus Iesus. As Co-Coordinator of the ILC's International Catholic-Jewish Historical Team (see below), I arranged for its two most eminent scholars, Prof. Michael Marrus, dean of the Graduate School of the University of Toronto, and Prof. Fr. Gerald P. Fogarty, SJ, of the University of Virginia, to present the team's conclusions on the portions of the Vatican archives that they had meticulously analyzed to date.

The meeting, though dealing with several of the most volatile and radioactive issues in the dialogue, exceeded expectations on all levels and produced two significant joint statements, one on international social policy and one on how to present "the other" in our respective seminaries and schools of education.11 My relief at its successful conclusion was, and remains, profound.


The dialogue between Catholics and Jews is, as Kasper used to say when he was in charge of the relationship for the Holy See, only in the beginning of its beginning, so it is hardly timely to offer a conclusion. I will say that the dialogue has continued, and I believe it will and must, since it is of the very essence of the church as the People of God to understand its ongoing relationship with the Jews as the People of God. We Christians cannot understand what the message of Jesus' teaching, life, and death was and is without dialogue with the Jewish people. We cannot understand what it means to be God's People except as an extension of God's People Israel.

(1) Some of the material in this section is adapted from my autobiographical essay in William E. Richardson, ed., Wandering between Two Worlds: The Sacred Heart Seminary Class of 1965 (Royal Oak, MI: Vanantwerp and Beale, Publishers, 2009), pp. 207-254.

(2) Elie Wiesel, Night, tr. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960).

(3) Andre Schwartz-Bart, The Last of the Just (New York: Athenaeum Publishers, 1960).

(4) Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, tr. Norman P. Goldhawk (London Routledge & Paul, 1951).

(5) Eugene J. Fisher, "Typical Jewish Misunderstandings of Christ, Christianity, and Jewish-Christian Relations over the Centuries," in Zev Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation. Reflection. Reclamation (West Lafayette, IN: 2011), pp. 228-250.

(6) The results of my analysis are summarized in my first book, which also contains materials for Christian teachers on the proper presentation of Jews and Judaism in religious education: Eugene J. Fisher, Faith without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes toward Judaism (New York: Paulist Press, 1977; rev. and exp. ed.: New York: Crossroad Publishing C'o., and American Interfaith Institute, 1993).

(7) Eugene J. Fisher, A. James Rudin, and Mare H. T anenbaum, eds., Twenty Years of Jewish-Catholic Relations (blew York: Paulist Press, 1986).

(8) An excellent history of the development of Catholic thought, which resulted in the short statement in Nostra aetate, no. 4, can be found in John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews. 1933-1965 (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

(9) Eugene J. Fisher and Daniel F. Polish, eds., The Formation of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980); and Daniel F. Polish and Eugene J. Fisher, eds., Liturgical Foundations of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

(10) Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self Understanding (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000); and James Rudin, Christians and Jews--Faith to Faith: Tragic History. Promising Present. Fragile Future (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011).

(11) These communiques and all joint official Vatican-Jewish statements can be found on the Vatican website, In addition to J.E.S., one can find helpful articles on the dialogue in the online journal Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations', available at Other helpful websites include:,, http//, and
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Author:Fisher, Eugene J.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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