The Cincinnati Commencement Address

Friday, June 1, 2001

May 30, 2001

ON THE THRESHOLD: RELIGION'S ROLE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM

 

(Rev.) John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M., Ph.D.
Catholic Theological Union
Chicago, IL

Acting President Cohen, members of the faculty, Dr. Goodman, my cherished friend of many years Maynard Wishner, and most importantly the graduating class of 2001. I am greatly honored by your conferral upon me and my colleagues of the Doctor of Humane Letters. The College has been in the forefront of interreligious scholarship before dialogue became a household word. Samuel Sandmel, Jacob Petukowski, Ellis Rivkin, Eugene Borowitz, Michael Cook, Lawrence Hoffmann - these colleagues have enriched me personally and interreligious relations as a whole these many years. In a particular way I would like to remember today an alumnus of your New York campus at the rabbinic level and an alumnus of this Cincinnati campus in terms of the doctorate the late Hayim Goren Perelmuter who died this past January. He and I worked together for over thirty years in forging one of the most comprehensive programs in Christian-Jewish studies in any theological school in the world. We greatly miss his presence at Catholic Theological Union, a presence marked by scholarship, a genuine commitment to student learning and a gentle wit. While he is physically gone from our midst his spiritual legacy will remain integral to our school, something that our new Crown-Ryan chair in Jewish Studies will greatly facilitate.

My friends, you are entering the world of religious scholarship and pastoral service at a critical juncture in human history. R. Buckminister Fuller remarked some years ago that global society stands today on the threshold between utopia and oblivion. We have acquired the technological capacity to reshape human life and all of creation in ways that our mutually enhancing and enriching for all. But we also know the tremendous dark side of this new capacity. We have witnessed its destructive face in the dark night of Nazism, in the serious erosion of ecological sustainability, in the continued discrimination and even slaughter of thousands by reason of their religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, in the virtual enslavement of millions of children in our global economic system and as youthful soldiers, some 250 million according to a recent report from the European Union. Their pain must become our pain if religion is to have integrity in this new millennium.

In my judgment religion today stands at a decisive turning point. It can withdraw into an isolated spirituality which cares little about what goes on beyond its self-defined parameters. It can continue to be, as it has so often in the past, a source of social tension rather than a force for social healing. But if it follows such paths religion will squander its most precious gift - the power to transform hatred into love, the power to turn indifference into concern that is at the heart of Torah and Talmud, the Christian gospel and the teachings of the other great world religions as well. What will energize our enhanced technological capacity in directions that lead to utopia rather than oblivion? Religion I remain convinced is very central to the answer to that question. It has the potential to penetrate hardened hearts in ways that secular ideology and mere technical competence cannot. It can combine commitment with knowledge in ways that will overpower the forces of exploitation and destruction. We have seen outstanding examples of that power in the lives of Dr, Martin Luther King, Pope John XXIII, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

But religion will not contribute in its fullness to global society unless it draws from the depths of its A spiritual tradition, a tradition that is continually reenergized and refined in light of developing human understanding. Engagement with the world about us cannot become a substitute for a spirituality rooted in tradition. Rather such engagement must always be the fruit of our spiritual tradition and, above all, it must be concretely embodied in the people of that tradition. Tradition does not reside first and foremost in texts and sacred books, as important as these remain. Rather we, you and I, my brothers and sisters are the carriers of our respective tradition. We learn it in the classroom and in the library. It becomes the very fiber of our being in prayer and worship. We express it in our active concern and commitment to human dignity. None of these three elements of authentic religion can ever be separated from the rest without religion suffering a loss of its very soul. So to the graduates of the class of 2001 I say, leave this ceremony proud of your religious heritage and deeply committed to learning, to prayer and to social response. Be convinced that until the tradition is embodied in you it remains text rather than a force for human transformation.

In the last four decades we have seen a remarkable turnabout in one of the most contentious interreligious relationships in human history. I speak, of course, of the painful history of Christians and Jews. Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have called me and my Catholic brothers and sisters to "teshuva," to repentance and reconciliation. In collaboration with our Jewish colleagues, including such outstanding lay leaders as Maynard and Elaine Wishner who have been so important to dialogue efforts in Chicago and nationally, we Christians are beginning to walk on a path of human solidarity with the Jewish community, forsaking the centuries-long road of blood libels, pogroms and collaboration with the annihilation of six million during the Nazi era. The new path remains laden with rocks and even some bolders. But those of us who have been touched by the angel of dialogue know that it is the only way and we are determined to continue come what may. The resolution of the Auschwitz Convent controversy several years ago proved to me, as it did to others, that we can come through the deepest crisis because of our new solidarity. The recent meeting of the Vatican and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation in New York at the beginning of this month demonstrated that at this level our relationship is pretty much back on course after several years of considerable tension even though the ugly words of President Assad of Syria which cry out for repudiation has added further controversy to our encounter. Particularly encouraging for me is the emergence of more than fifteen new centers of Christian-Jewish learning at universities and theological schools in the country, which will facilitate conversation and study away from the intensity of the media spotlight, which so often results in false controversies. Let me also applaud the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie. His remarkable address on Christian-Jewish relations and his sensitive and sober approach to the current round of conflict in Israel and Palestine give substance to the Christian-Jewish dialogue that mere press releases cannot.

Let me say a word or two at this point about DABRU EMET, the remarkable document prepared by Professors Frymer-Kensky, Michael Signer, David Novak, and Peter Ochs and signed by more than 200 leading Jewish scholars and rabbis, including Rabbi Yoffie. From the Christian perspective in the dialogue it represents a genuine advance in our relationship with Jews. While I have always insisted that it is incumbent upon the churches to cleanse their teachings of anti-Semitism for their own moral integrity when any Jew noticed or not, clearly the dialogue will be stymied if Christians affirm a theological bonding with Jews, as Pope John Paul II for one has asserted on many occasions, without an acknowledgement of such bonding from the Jewish side. Certainly DABRU EMET and its accompanying volume CHRISTIANITY IN JEWISH TERMS remain incomplete and open to critical commentary. I myself have some disagree with the way it handles the Shoah and Christian responsibility. But my hope would be that you think it important enough to give it serious reflection in the days ahead.

Many of us were taken back by the document DOMINUS IESUS issued some months ago by the Vatican's doctrinal commission headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Thanks to the efforts of Cardinals Edward Cassidy and now his successor as President of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews Walter Kasper the impact of that document on Catholic-Jewish relations has been mitigated. Cardinal Ratzinger himself clarified the situation somewhat in a December statement. While, as Cardinal Kasper stressed in his remarks to the recent Vatican-IJCIC, some important questions related to the Christian-Jewish relationship remain unresolved in the light of DOMINUS IESUS, this document is not the controlling framework for Catholic-Jewish Relations. It in no way supplants Vatican IIs Declaration on the Church and the Jewish People, the subsequent interpretive documents issued by the Vatican in 1974 and 1985, the statement WE REMEMBER on the Shoah, and the many, many statements of Pope John Paul II which now compose two published volumes. Combined with DABRU EMET these reaffirmations by Cardinals Cassidy and Kasper create the basis for a solid theological discussion between Catholics and Jews. I would hope that the various campuses of the College would be become an important locus for such discussion in the coming years.

Though I consider the development of the Christian-Jewish dialogue absolutely critical--I have given more three decades to its development--I would be remiss not to mention my growing conviction that we must expand the conversation to include, in the first instance, our Muslim co-members in the Abrahamic family and then our friends in the Asian religions. The religious face of America is changing rapidly. Will Herberg's paradigm of America, as Protestant-Catholic-Jew no longer obtains. We need to recognize this for sake of spiritual enrichment and social harmony. In some ways what has occurred over thirty years in the Christian-Jewish dialogue may become a model for the wider dialogue of people of all faiths. The remarkable turnabout in the Christian-Jewish relationship shows that it is possible to rid society of deep-seated enmities. If we can do it between Christians and Jews then I believe there is a basis for believing we can do it more extensively. The process of globalization will be impoverished if we fail this challenge.

Since 1980 I have had the privilege of serving by Presidential appointment on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. During this time I have come more and more to appreciate how the Shoah raises some of the most critical question still facing us in contemporary society. It brings us face-to-face with the God-question today and how we are to understand the relationship between divine and human responsibility for the future of creation. As Hans Jonas has put it, in light of the Holocaust, we become the first generation to ask whether there shall be future generations. In the past, that was primarily a question for God and the forces of nature to decide. That decision is now very much more in our hands. The Shoah also raises profound moral questions about human rights and structural injustice. In light of the Holocaust I have become convinced that no religious community, be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim, can define its basic identity in a way that does not put human rights at the core of that self-definition. And from the brilliant work of Professor Peter Hayes of Northwestern University on the escalation of involvement by German business executives in the Nazi program of human annihilation we learn how easily social structures can become integral to the process of human destruction. Study of Nazi public ritual opens the door to a new understanding of the role of symbols and symbolic actions in forging social values. All these questions remain burning questions in today's global society. Hence I am pleased to learn that my longtime colleague Dr. Racelle Weiman has begun a new program in Holocaust education here at the College. I agree with David Hartman that Jewish identity must be built primarily on the covenant and not the Holocaust. But he has done us a great disservice by ignoring the vital questions that the Holocaust continues to present for human meaning and social construction. I hope the new Holocaust center will come to play a central role in the educational mission of the College.

In closing, let me again thank you for the great honor you have given me this afternoon. It is a moment I shall always cherish. Let me leave you with the question asked by a powerful film I saw last summer at the Slovak pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. QUO VADIS HUMANITY? Studying the details of the Holocaust and continuing to memorialize its victims remains a sacred task. But we shall ultimately fail the victims of the Nazis if we do not choose life over death, as Deuteronomy instructs us, by wresting with the ultimate ideological implications of Nazism for time.

May God bless all of you in your continued work.


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