Relationships Between Jews and Catholics, a Source of Hope

As Jews and Catholics come to know each other, some generalizations enhance our understanding of these relationships. However, generalizations, by definition, fall short of the precise and particular truth of our experience. So I trust you to draw on the insights that are useful to you and I hope that your thinking will lead us to a clearer and more comprehensive picture. I speak mostly of Jews and Catholics whose roots lie in Europe, such as Catholics of Irish descent and Jews of Polish descent.


Jews and Catholics are often drawn to each other. (I was attracted to both my partner and my best friend without knowing that they were raised Catholic.) We seem to have similar strengths. Both Jews and Catholics care deeply about family and community and are expressive of their love. Both groups have a familiarity with ritual. Each group has a ritual connected to breaking bread-for Catholics, part of Holy Communion, for Jews, part of the Sabbath celebration. Both groups set up schools for their young people that are rooted in their religion. Each group has a long history of survival and a liturgical language that was used for centuries-Hebrew or Ladino for Jews, Latin for Catholics.


Jews and Catholics also have similar difficulties. Both groups find it difficult to fight on their own behalf. Both have difficulty asking for help or saying, "I need you," though the roots of the difficulties are different. Jews fear that if they show their needs they will be viewed as weak and despicable. They often develop a rigid attitude of independence and self-containment: "I can do it myself, thanks."

In trying to ask for help, Catholics may encounter difficulties arising from the concept of "original sin," such as, "I'm not good and I don't deserve help." There was a message that only God or Jesus or prayer can help a person. The sacrament of confession has often meant that telling the truth was more likely to result in punishment or penance than support.

An "us-them" view of the world affects both groups. Catholics feel "different" when they are raised with the message that the only people who may make it to Heaven are baptized Catholics. They are often told not to go into other churches, mosques, or synagogues, and this accentuates the sense of "other." The Jewish experience of being scapegoated and the confusion that often surrounds the notion of "the chosen people" leave Jews feeling isolated and different. Both groups have experienced extreme discrimination in the larger societies in which they have lived, for example, Jews during the Inquisition in Catholic Spain, and Catholics when Protestantism became the dominant religion in Holland.

Both groups need to remember that we are all connected.


If we notice where our difficulties as Catholics and Jews trip us up, leading to a downward spiral in our interactions, then a person from either group can choose to change her behavior or approach and thus move the situation forward.


Having learned to survive by critical awareness, Jews, when scared, tend to criticize, complain, and blame. This may sound like, "This is no good. You're not doing it right." Perhaps even, "You're no good." Catholics may react to that with, "I must have done something wrong," and feel guilty and bad about themselves. To avoid this confusion, the Catholic can recognize that the Jew is merely trying to tell him how scared she is, and that the critical comment or tone bears no reflection on him at all. (It's a great opportunity not to take things personally!) For Jews, the challenge is to recognize their current safety and to distinguish it clearly from old feelings. This gives Jews the option to respond creatively to the present and to see as only feelings the distress they are struggling with.


For Catholics, not doing things "right" may feel equivalent to sinning. The fear of not doing things right may thus lead to timidity and tentativeness in actions and expressing ideas. For Jews, centuries of oppression at the hands of Christians-the Inquisition in Spain, the pogroms in Czarist Russia, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and so on-have left many of them with a diminished sense of ability to trust their allies. With this difficulty trusting allies, Jews may interpret timidity as evidence that they can't trust or rely on their Catholic co-worker or friend.

Here is a graphic representation of how the difficulties feed into each other and spiral downwards:


Catholics, to break the spiral, need to remember that they are fine and that they're listening to someone express fear in an unfamiliar and indirect way. Jews have the opportunity to know they can trust their ally and can cheer her or him on: "Go ahead, you can do it. I trust you to do it." We can all hold on to the notions that it's okay for allies to make mistakes and perfection is not required!

I can do it/I can't do it

Many Jews function well despite their fear. They appear confident, giving the message, "Of course I can do it," and doing it even when they feel scared. For Jews this has been a crucial survival mechanism in life-threatening circumstances, such as wars and concentration camps. Catholics have been taught that there is higher authority than themselves-priests, the Pope, Jesus, and God-to whom they should defer. In the presence of a Jew appearing to know exactly what to do, a Catholics may tend to defer rather than trust her own thinking. The reality is that neither person is thinking well and both are scared. At such times, Catholics need to affirm, "I can do it," and Jews need to remember, "I don't have to do it."


The fear of rejection leads Jews to separate and isolate themselves. Faced with that isolation, Catholics may feel rebuffed, perhaps even punished, if they have tried to be kind and understanding. They may then avoid Jews and isolate themselves. To break that cycle of increasing isolation, both Jews and Catholics need to remember that they are wanted and important in each other's lives.


Our different experiences and varied cultural conditioning leave us believing different messages, both positive and negative, about ourselves, each other, and the world. As Jews and Catholics build relationships with each other, we will notice the distinct advantages arising from holding out our positive messages and strengths for each other. Together we have a more complete picture of our humanity than when we are separated from each other. Following are some examples:

A Sense of Justice and a Sense of Acceptance

Jewish tradition incorporates a strong sense of justice, and Jews are generally raised with the notion that it is acceptable to argue and disagree. Many statements in the Torah (Book of Laws) have different interpretations assigned to them by different rabbis. Considering different viewpoints-"On the one hand . . ., but on the other hand . . ."-is seen as flexibly using one's intelligence. I remember passionate debates and disagreements around the dinner table as I grew up. Where Catholics have been taught not to question authority, Jews can hold out for them that it is worthwhile to speak up, to share one's thinking, and to say that something needs to be changed.

Catholic tradition incorporates a sense of acceptance. From that place of strength, Catholics can hold out for Jews that not everything needs to be fought for or treated as a life-and-death issue. Catholics can also model for Jews that tranquillity is an easier place to operate from than a sense of urgency.

Our Relationship to Our Bodies

Jews can often model acceptance and enjoyment of our bodies, including our sensuality and sexuality. Catholics can model that we are more than our bodies, having souls and spirits.

Our Connections Counter Our Feelings

In the process of building close relationships with each other, Jews and Catholics go against centuries of oppression which served to keep them apart. These relationships also contradict the deep feelings each harbor about not being truly fine.

A Jew wanting to get to know a Catholic lets her know that she is completely worthy of friendship. A Catholic wanting to know a Jew contradicts the feeling that there must be something "wrong" with her if for centuries non-Jews have tried to annihilate her people.


No longer separated geographically, Jews and Catholics in many parts of the world are positioned to visit each other's homes, play with each other's children, learn each other's customs, and work together for a world that is a good, peaceful place for all people.

Shirley Russ
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00