The Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University came into being as a result of a major transformation that occurred in the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Prior to that historic conclave, centuries of Christian teaching had claimed either that Jews were no longer God's covenanted people or that their distinctive way of covenanting with God had become obsolete with the coming of Christ.
After the Nazi genocide of six million Jews during the Second World War, many Christian communities, including the Roman Catholic Church, began a self-examination of the tragic history of their relations with the Jewish people. The 1998 Vatican document, We Remember a Reflection on the Shoah [Holocaust] concluded that the "history of relations between Jews and Christians is a tormented one. ... In effect, the balance of these relations over two thousand years has been quite negative."
The reasons for this frequently harsh relationship are complex and they varied by time and location. In many places the Jewish minority prospered for centuries in Christian lands, developing a rich and vital culture that contributed much to European civilization. Nonetheless, as We Remember notes:
Despite the Christian preaching of love for all, even for one's enemies, the prevailing mentality down the centuries penalized minorities and those who were in any way "different." Sentiments of anti-Judaism in some Christian quarters, and the gap which existed between the Church and the Jewish people, led to a generalized discrimination, which ended at times in expulsions or attempts at forced conversions. ... In times of crisis such as famine, war, pestilence or social tensions, the Jewish minority was sometimes taken as a scapegoat and became the victim of violence, looting, even massacres.
Such a critical self-assessment became possible in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in 1965 issued a document that began to reverse centuries of negative teaching about Jews and Judaism. Nostra Aetate ["In Our Time"], a declaration on the relationship of the church to Non-Christian religions, called, among other things, for Catholics and Jews to collaborate in "biblical and theology enquiry ... and friendly discussions."
Just two years later in 1967, the Jewish-Catholic Institute was founded at Saint Joseph's College in cooperation with the Philadelphia office of the American Jewish Committee. It is thus the second-oldest center or institute dedicated to Catholic-Jewish relations in the United States. For over four decades, guided by the Rev. Donald Clifford, S.J, the Institute pursued the mission of increasing knowledge and deepening understanding between the Jewish and Catholic communities. The Institute hosted conferences, exhibits, dramatic performances and trips to address religious and ethical issues that affect relations between the two communities. For many years the institute has also sponsored two major programs annually aimed at raising awareness and encouraging dialogue among different religious groups in the Delaware Valley region.
In 2008, Saint Joseph's University dramatically expanded the work of the Institute by redefining its directorship as a tenure track faculty appointment in the Department of Theology. The Institute's vision statement was enlarged and its name changed to the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations to indicate its wider scope. Committed to bringing the fruits of the past decades of Jewish-Catholic dialogue to the University and wider community, the Institute also partners nationally and internationally with others dedicated to furthering the process of reform and reconciliation between Christians and Jews.