Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of relations with Jews, told a conference of prelates and rabbis that after 2,000 years of antagonism, Catholics and Jews may still disagree - but that they do so as brothers. "Maybe on some issues they will let us down or we will let them down. But fraternity is precisely this contact, where one listens to the heart of the other as if it were his own heart," Kasper said.
The conference commemorated the 37th anniversary of the document "Nostra Aetate," Latin for "In Our Time," which was drafted during the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meeting that modernized the Church. In it, the Vatican deplored anti-Semitism in every form and repudiated the "deicide" charge that blamed Jews as a people for Christ's crucifixion. The document also affirmed that Jesus, the apostles and most of his early followers were Jews, and that God has not revoked his covenant with Jews.
The anniversary was celebrated amid fresh debate over the Vatican's attitude toward Jews that was sparked by a recent, unofficial document saying it was no longer theologically acceptable for the Church to target Jews for conversion.
The document was drafted by a group of American Catholic and Jewish scholars and published on the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had appointed the group along with the National Council of Synagogues.
In "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," the scholars cited "Nostra Aetate" in arguing that dialogue with Jews - not conversion - should be the goal of the Church. "In view of our conviction that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, we renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews," the scholars wrote.
The document, which made headlines when it was released Aug. 12, prompted a recent rebuttal by Cardinal Avery Dulles, a top American theologian who argued Catholics had a God-given right and duty to convert Jews as well as anyone else.
"Once we grant that there are some persons for whom it is not important to acknowledge Christ, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, we raise questions about our own religious life," Dulles wrote in the Oct. 21 issue of America, the Jesuit magazine.
"Our Jewish brothers and sisters could question our sincerity if we were to tell them that the blessings of the New Covenant need not concern them," he added.
Kasper didn't refer to the debate in his comments to the conference Monday, which was organized by the Dionysia Center, a Rome-based cultural center that promotes dialogue among religions and peoples.
But a top Jewish scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, noted that prejudices remain and the Catholic Church was in an "almost impossible" position when it came to dealing with the Jews. "It's very hard to be somebody's heir when he's still alive," Steinsaltz told the audience of academics, students and Catholic and Jewish representatives.
While saying he was hopeful for more progress in improving relations, the rabbi - a noted scholar and founder of several Talmudic institutions in Israel and Russia - said there was a reason for the strain between Catholics and Jews. "Basically, monotheistic religions cannot be tolerant," he said. "When you speak about truth ... Can you speak about two truths?"