Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl reckons it was the first kosher meal ever served in the 190-year history of Ottawa’s Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, though it’s hard to say for sure. But the first meeting of the national Canadian Catholic-Jewish Dialogue certainly marked a new chapter in Christian-Jewish relations in Canada.
With a three-year pause still in effect on the Canadian Christian- Jewish Consultation, the new bilateral discussion between Catholics and Jews kicks new life into interfaith conversation in Canada.
The official dialogue between the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, has already begun discussions on issues of religious freedom, physician-assisted suicide, anti-Semitism, the importance of Israel to Canadian Jews, the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, the threat to Christian populations in the Middle East and social justice in general.
CIJA spokesman Steve McDonald calls the new program “more than a dialogue.”
“We actually launched a declaration committing the two organizations to work together in educating our own communities about the change made in the relationship post-Nostra Aetate,” he said, referring to the Vatican II declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. “And also to speak as one voice on issues of common cause, whether it’s religious freedom in Canada or social justice.”
In the past, the CCCB has resisted moves toward a bilateral dialogue with Jews, preferring to work with the Canadian Council of Churches on the broader national consultation that included Anglicans, Lutherans and the United Church on the Christian side. That dialogue began 35 years ago with the Canadian Jewish Congress, predecessor of CIJA.
The consultation ran into a major snag in 2012 when the general council of the United Church of Canada recommended its congregations boycott products produced in the occupied territories of the West Bank but claiming to be from Israel.
The rabbis withdrew from the dialogue with the churches, claiming the boycott unfairly targeted Israel and created an atmosphere in which political disagreement with Israel quickly escalates into contempt for Zionism and for Jews.
Though the United Church said it was willing to withdraw from the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation rather than see it cease, the other churches involved in the consultation did not want to go forward without Canada’s largest Protestant church. On the Jewish side, CIJA is anxious to see the consultation continue but won’t sit down with the United Church.
Toronto Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau, who co-chairs the Catholic-Jewish Dialogue and officially sits on the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation, is hopeful the broader consultation will continue.
“The death knell hasn’t been rung on that one,” he said.
In the meantime, there could be no more appropriate way of marking the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate than launching a new Catholic-Jewish Dialogue in Canada, Boissonneau said.
“It gives it a more specific focus,” he said.
The dialogue will meet twice a year, with the next sitting scheduled for the spring. Each side designates six delegates. They are to be as broadly representative as possible stretching from coast to coast, operating in both official languages and including men and women. On the Catholic side the dialogue partners include Boissonneau, Gatineau Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, Congregation of St. Joseph scholar and administrator Sr. Anne Anderson, Oblate Father Martin Moser, Ursuline scholar of the Qumran texts Sr. Eileen Schuller and Dominican theologian Fr. Hervé Tremblay. The Jewish co-chair is Toronto’s Frydman-Kohl, accompanied by Robert Daum, Dr. Victor Goldbloom, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz and historian of the Second Vatican Council Norman Tobias.
For Boissonneau the new dialogue is an opportunity for Catholics to learn more about themselves and their relationship with the people Pope John Paul II called “our elder brothers in faith.”
“I hope Catholics hear that the fruit of Vatican II is continuing to be received in the Church, that conversation continues with religions outside of Christianity,” he said. “That’s an encouragement because there are a lot of local, Jewish-Christian dialogues going on across Canada. It’s an encouragement to continue that conversation.”