Georgetown expert will discuss Catholic-Jewish relations at talks on Eastern Shore


For The Dialog

A Catholic lay leader in interreligious relations believes a spiritual journey between Islam and the Catholic Church started half a century ago shows how members of the two faiths can live together and cooperate.

“In the everyday lived experience, Muslims and Catholics can get along … can respect each other” given their shared reliance on prayer and working for justice, said John Borelli.

Borelli will speak on the 50 years since “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”), a document on interreligious relations approved by the Second Vatican Council, on two occasions on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in coming weeks. His talks will primarily focus on Jewish-Catholic relations in light of Nostra Aetate.

The Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture at Washington College in Chestertown will host Borelli at 6:30 p.m. April 25 in Hodson Hall.

Saint John XXIII expanded the Second Vatican Council to include what became “Nostra Aetate,” approved Oct. 25, 1965. (CNS)
Saint John XXIII expanded the Second Vatican Council to include what became “Nostra Aetate,” approved Oct. 25, 1965. (CNS)

He will speak at Temple B’nai Israel in Easton marking Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust memorial day. A service will precede his talk at 7:30 p.m. May 1.

Borelli has been involved in ecumenical affairs (relations with other Christian religions) and interreligious relations since the 1970s, including 16 years as associate director for the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He left the USCCB in 2003 to become special assistant for interreligious initiatives to the president of Georgetown University in Washington.

“Nostra Aetate” originally was slated to be a declaration on relations between Judaism and Catholicism, Borelli said, but as part of the council’s process the focus was expanded to all non-Christian religions. Still, “it is a charter that has allowed Jewish-Catholic dialogue to grow.”

Yet the document, the shortest of the 16 approved by Vatican II, said nothing about the Holocaust. “It was too soon” after World War II, Borelli said. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, put Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann on trial in 1961 “not only to tell the world about the horrible dimensions of the Holocaust but also to give the Jews the opportunity to talk about it.”

That, combined with Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac’s audience with St. (Pope) John XXIII in 1960, led the pope to expand the council to include what became “Nostra Aetate,” approved Oct. 25, 1965.

Its authors realized it had to be a religious document, and in no way be seen as sanctioning the state of Israel which bishops from the Middle East could not have approved. But the council wanted to publicly avow religious freedom as a human right, which it did two months later in “Dignitatis Humanae.”

Borelli noted that ecumenical dialogue helps people to understand there are different types of Christian denominations beyond Catholicism and mainline groups such as Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist. They include evangelicals and Baptists.

“The same is true for Muslims and Jews,” he said. “You can find some unifying elements but no one speaks for all of Judaism,” or for Islam.

While “Nostra Aetate” was developed at the world level, during a council of Catholic bishops and cardinals from around the globe, Borelli believes “the best dialogues are on the most localized situation.”

He learned that through a form of trial and error while with the USCCB organizing Catholic-Muslim dialogues. After working on national dialogues, his secretariat decided to try regional dialogues. Before 9/11 three regional dialogues across the country had met at least twice, “so we could begin taking on the ramifications.”