"It is a breakthrough," said Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and co-chair of the recently formed Rabbinic Committee for Interreligious Understanding, which is sponsoring the dialogue on the Jewish side.
"The breakthrough is possible largely because of the significant steps forward that the Catholic Church has made in the last 35 years," he added.
He told Catholic News Service that the committee, which he and Rabbi Jack Bemporad founded earlier this year, has 26 members, though he expects it to grow. Bemporad is director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Englewood, N.J.
The committee's immediate Catholic partners are the Vatican and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but Bemporad said the committee includes members in England, France, and Israel and intends to widen the dialogue to other Catholic groups as well.
"This morning and last night we experienced something we have hoped for for a long time," said Dominican Father Remi Hoeckman, secretary of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, at a press conference Tuesday. Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, president of the commission, had also intended to participate in the Washington meeting but was unable to attend.
Participants stressed the theological character of the dialogue, something that has not been part of other Catholic-Jewish dialogues.
Until now "it is largely secular Jews who have engaged in dialogue with the Vatican," said Rabbi Elliott Dorff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He said the dialogue started at Catholic University was one that would address ethical issues and "strictly theological" questions such as salvation, sacrifice, covenant, redemption, and forgiveness.
"We want to understand one another," Rabbi Bemporad said, "and the only way that we can understand one another is by speaking to one another in a way, one, that has no limitations; two, that is honest; three, that involves mutual trust; and four, that involves mutual good will."
More than two dozen Catholic and Jewish scholars participated in the first dialogue. It included discussion of papers on repentance in Jewish thought by Ehrenkranz and repentance in Catholic thought by Father James Loughran, ecumenical officer of the New York Archdiocese.
Bemporad spoke on the nature of religious dialogue at the final session of the meeting.
Dialogue demands an "openness to the depths of ourselves and the other," he said.
One of the basic questions those entering dialogue have to ask, he said, is "How can I be true to my own faith without being false to yours?"
At the press conference, he said, "We believe that the Catholic Church has done a tremendous amount of work and taken a truly revolutionary step forward in changing Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. On the Jewish side, we want to respond. We want to be able to say: Thank you for this, we want to continue this, we want to tell you how much we appreciate it, and we would like now to discuss the real questions that face us as two faith communities."
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops' episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations, said the theological dialogue "is making alive something from the Second Vatican Council's statement" on religious relations with Jews and Judaism.
"It's a dream we've had since 1965, but we are just reaching that stage where we can actually get into it," he told reporters.
He took the occasion to announce that the Holy See is working to raise the status of the Sisters of Sion's Ratisbonne Center in Jerusalem, turning it from a French-language study center into an international institution "where Catholics from around the world would have an opportunity to learn about Judaism--its history and its religious expression--and the Hebrew language in Jerusalem, by working closely with Hebrew University."
Bemporad said the rabbinic committee plans to form an executive committee and establish guidelines for Catholic-Jewish meetings at the international, national, and local levels.
"We expect to have regional representation all over the United States and possibly other countries," he said. "We want to make this as large as possible, and we want to make it clear that we are primarily concerned with religious understanding of our two faiths, finding ways of learning about one another."
Ehrenkranz said Jews--particularly Orthodox Jews--traditionally refused to enter into theological dialogue with Christians because "the agenda of the other was to convert us. It is so clear that the Catholic Church does not have that as its agenda."
He said the next international meeting of the dialogue will probably be in Rome next spring.