Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations

History of the Institute

Second Vatican Council session

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, a gathering in Saint Peter's Basilica of all the Catholic bishops from around the world, 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. However, the Nazi genocide of six million Jews during the Second World War demanded that Christians begin 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 an honest assessment became possible after the Second Vatican Council in 1965 had 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." [more on Nostra Aetate >>]

Marc Tanenbaum, Terrance Tolland, John Krol

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 oldest university center or institute dedicated to Catholic-Jewish relations that was established in the United States in response to the Second Vatican Council. In collaboration with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Institute was a venue where the first steps toward building a new relationship between Jews and Catholics were taken. [Right: Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum (American Jewish Committee), SJU President Terrence Toland, SJ, and Cardinal John Krol at the Institute's March 1971 program.]

Donald Clifford, SJ

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. 

Institute directors Philip Cunningham and Adam Gregerman

After Fr. Clifford's retirement in 2008, Saint Joseph's University dramatically enhanced the work of the Institute by redefining its directorship as a senior faculty appointment in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and by appointing Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D. as the first professor to serve in this expanded role. In 2013, Adam Gregerman, Ph.D. was appointed as assistant professor of Jewish Studies and as the Institute's assistant director. The Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University is thus among very few institutions with both Jewish and Catholic experts serving full-time to promote understanding between the two faith communities.

Committed to bringing the fruits of the past decades of Jewish-Catholic dialogue to the University and wider community, today the Institute partners nationally and internationally with others dedicated to furthering the process of reform and reconciliation between Christians and Jews. In the words of Pope Francis:

[These initiatives] testify to our mutual desire to know one another better, to listen to each other and to build bonds of true fraternity. This journey of friendship represents one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, and particularly of the Declaration Nostra Aetate, which proved so influential and whose fiftieth anniversary we will celebrate [in 2015]. I am convinced that the progress which has been made in recent decades in the relationship between Jews and Catholics has been a genuine gift of God, one of those great works for which we are called to bless his holy name.