Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from a chapter in the "Twenty Years of Jewish-Catholic Relations," published in 1986 by Paulist Press and edited by Eugene J. Fisher, A. James Rudin and Marc H. Tanenbaum. The co-authors also have written "A Journey of Discovery, A Resource Manual for Jewish-Catholic Dialogue," soon to be published by Tabor Publishing Co., Valencia.
There has been a rich and extensive history of contacts between the Catholic and Jewish communities.
As early as the 1920s friendships developed between Archbishop John J. Cantwell and Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin and they established contacts between their flocks to the extent then possible. The involvement of Jewish leaders in such Roman Catholic social welfare institutions as St. Anne's Maternity Hospital and Holy Family Adoption Service gave early promise of things to come.
In the '50s and '60s, Loyola University--now Loyola-Marymount--became an effective point of contact. Its president, (Father) Charles Casassa, introduced a course on Judaism taught by a rabbi and, together with Neil Sandberg of the American Jewish Committee, developed a rich program on intercultural education. These efforts prepared a number of key persons for leadership in the post-Vatican II era.
While, during this period, Catholic-Jewish relations were largely limited to especially motivated individuals, the (Second Vatican Council's 1965) proclamation of Nostra Aetate (urging cordial relations with non-Christian religions) opened the door to official institutional contacts. With the accession of Cardinal Timothy Manning as Los Angeles archbishop, the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs established a working relationship with the Interreligious Activities Committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.
The great expectations stimulated by Vatican II were not fulfilled by these cordial but still superficial encounters. Difficulties of which we had been unaware now needed to be addressed.
A Call to Dialogue
The first tentative steps in the early seventies included the inception of the Interreligious Council of Southern California as a tri-faith body incorporating the archdiocese, the board of rabbis and two area-wide church councils representing the mainline Protestant judicatories. This umbrella organization was later to expand, embracing most of the major world religions. In the same time frame, a priest-rabbi dialogue was initiated by Archbishop Manning.
Planning the tenth anniversary observance of Nostra Aetate , an interreligious leadership group from the American Jewish Committee, the archdiocese and the board of rabbis evaluated what had taken place and what would be needed to sustain the exchange. Two clear requirements were structure--an organization able to assume responsibility--and continuity--not "one-night-stands" for the exchange of shallow pleasantries.
The remaining question was the group's agenda. Four agenda items (were proposed): Israel, Church-State Relations, Anti-Semitism, and Respect for Life.
While each prompted lively discussion, Respect for Life provoked the most intense response. We hesitated. Concentrating on this controversial and emotion-charged issue might endanger our entire relationship. We came to realize, however, that little would be gained by tackling topics of easy consensus. Wrestling with gut issues, confronting our differences and hammering out our difficulties would help us to grow.
Thus, the three organizations jointly announced the formation of a Los Angeles Catholic-Jewish Respect Life Committee. No specific directives or limits were given to the committee, other than to venture and create, respecting the basic principles of interreligious dialogue and the dignity of human life.
We intended our committee to be as representative as possible and therefore attempted to balance its membership between Catholics and Jews--the latter to include Conservative, Orthodox and Reform--between clergy and lay people, men and women. We looked for members of relevant professions, such as medicine and law. We wanted people who were recognized in the community for their dedication to life values. Subsequent experience showed that our care in selecting committee members was well worth the effort.
Now we had to select one of the many topics under the umbrella, "Respect Life," such as care for the young, the aged, the single parent, the incurably ill, and the dying. In the climate of 1976, abortion was clearly the life issue of most intent concern. We took the risk of starting with it.
Inasmuch as there was a clear divergence (on abortion) between the two faith traditions, we knew that there was no possibility for our committee to reach a consensus statement. We could agree, however, that our conclusions should reflect both pluralism and harmony.