Cardinal Kurt Koch Receives Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award

Cardinal Kurt Koch of the Vatican received the Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award at BGU on Monday afternoon. Cardinal Koch was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, working towards ecumenism. In this capacity, he is also the President of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews. The commission (established in 1974) is tasked with maintaining positive theological ties with Jews and Judaism.

Above: Cardinal Kurt Koch with BGU Rector Prof. Zvi HaCohen 



The question of how Christian-Jewish relations have changed in the wake of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and especially after the declarations of Vatican II lay at the heart of the thoughts offered during the ceremony.


Prof. Harvey (Chaim) Hames, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and head of the Israeli Center of Research Excellence for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters, “During Vatican II or the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, held between October 1962 and December 1965, there was much discussion on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, particularly in light of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. A result of these discussions was Nostra aetate, a document which dealt with the relationship of the Catholic Church with the world's religions in general, but at its centre, was article 4, which was revolutionary in its attitude towards the Jews and Judaism.


Nostra aetate marked a new trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations and over the past 50 years, these have included papal visits to synagogues and to Israel, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, permanent committees and frequent meetings for dialogue and biblical study, and in general, a strong commitment to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears," he noted.


Referring to a document Cardinal Koch was instrumental in drafting in 2015 regarding the relationship between Christians and Jews, "The Gifts and the calling of God are Irrevocable (Romans 11:29)": A reflection on theological questions pertaining to Catholic-Jewish relations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of "Nostra aetate" (no. 4), Hames opined, “This is a major revision and reversal of Catholic theology in that it reinterprets and negates the idea of supersessionism and allows that, from a Christian point-of-view, Jews can be saved as Jews, though how this can happen remains a divine mystery. Because there can only be one truth, one path to salvation through Christ, how this happens is unclear. But the document is explicit in its seeing this idea as theologically valid and true."


Hames highlighted a second point, “This important document stresses that the Church no longer has an official mission to achieve the conversion of the Jews. It is not that Christians should not bear witness to their faith, but they are no longer obliged to try and convert the Jews to that faith." 


Cardinal Koch acknowledged the lack of vigorous Christian resistance to Nazism and the Holocaust, which he called “a godless, anti–Christian and neo–pagan ideology", “Yet we Christians cannot dismiss our complicity in the horrific developments, and above all to confess that Christian resistance to the boundless inhuman brutality of the ideologically and racially based National Socialism did not display that vigour and clarity which one should by rights have expected. Resistance by Christians may well have also been so inadequate because a theological Christian anti–Judaism had been in effect for centuries, fostering a widespread anti–Semitic apathy against the Jews. Thus an ancient anti–Jewish legacy was embedded in the furrows of the souls of not a few Christians. We Christians must therefore sincerely regret that only the unparalleled crime of the Shoah was able to bring about a genuine re–thinking in our relationship with Judaism." 


Cardinal Koch stressed the importance of the Second Vatican Council's Nostra aetate declaration, “In this regard the fourth chapter of the Second Vatican Council declaration “Nostra aetate" … enabled a fundamental new beginning in the relationship between Jews and Christians. With this declaration the Second Vatican Council not only repudiated and condemned all outbreaks of hatred, persecutions, slanders and manifestations of force directed against the Jews on the part of so–called Christians. In a positive sense the Council also affirmed the shared patrimony of Jews and Christians, and pointed to the Jewish roots of Christianity. Finally, the Council expressed the ardent desire that the reciprocal understanding and the resulting mutual respect of Jews and Christians be fostered. This demands above all that the unique and distinctive individual relationship between Christianity and Judaism be recalled into Christian consciousness and remain present there, as it was expressed by Pope John Paul II in the vivid and impressive words: “The Jewish religion is not something 'extrinsic' to us but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion. With Judaism we therefore have a relationship we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it could be said, our elder brothers." 


Cardinal Koch reaffirmed the Catholic Church's role as an ally against anti-Semitism, especially in light of the reframing of Christian theology regarding Jews as the roots of Christianity rather than a religion that needed to be superseded.


“These instructions contained in “Nostra aetate" (no.4) have been reaffirmed and reinforced on a number of occasions by the popes in the period since the Council, not least through the visits to the Great Synagogue in Rome by Pope John Paul II on 13 April 1986, by Pope Benedict XVI on 17 January 2010 and by Pope Francis on 17 January 2016. This declaration remains the crucial compass of all endeavours towards Jewish–Catholic dialogue, and after more than fifty years we can claim with gratitude that this theological re–definition of the relationship with Judaism has directly brought forth rich fruits throughout its reception history. … On the Jewish side, it has been particularly positively emphasized that the Conciliar Declaration took up an unambiguous position against every form of anti–Semitism," he declared.


He explained the theological groundwork that propels Christian-Jewish relations in the 21st Century.


“…Israel and the Church are related to and interdependent on one another, precisely because they exist in a state, not only of unity, but also of difference. Israel and the Church thus remain to that extent bound up with one another, and indeed both unmixed yet undivided. …A promising future for Jewish–Christian dialogue must take into account the fact that God concluded with Abraham a covenant which is of fundamental significance for Jewish–Christian dialogue. For Abraham is not only the father of Israel but also the father of the faith of Christians. In this covenant community it must be evident for Christians that the covenant that God concluded with Israel has never been revoked but remains valid on the basis of God's unfailing faithfulness to his people, and consequently the New Covenant which Christians believe in can only be understood as the surpassing affirmation and fulfilment of the Old, and never as a replacement," he concluded.


Hames explained why Cardinal Koch was so suitable a recipient of the Award, “Cardinal Koch promotes ecumenical values through his life's work, which has been devoted to the principles of connecting and unifying Christians across Christian denominations and in his most recent role, maintaining and strengthening ties with Jews and Judaism."


Turning to the cardinal, Hames said, “Cardinal Koch, in light of your life's work and mission we are so proud to recognize all that you have contributed to society within the Catholic religion and across faiths."


Koch replied, “Many thanks for your words of greeting and your warm welcome at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I am here for the first time in my life, but having been a professor in Switzerland I feel very comfortable in academic circles. I wish to extend my gratitude for your kind invitation and, of course, especially for bestowing upon me the Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award. I am deeply honoured and delighted to have been chosen as somebody who is committed to ecumenical and Jewish-Catholic dialogue.


“We as Christians are also convinced that through the new covenant, the Abrahamic covenant has obtained that universality for all peoples which was originally intended. Israel and the Church remain bound up with one another according to the covenant and interdependent on one another, by accepting one another in a profound internal reconciliation drawn from the depths of their respective faiths, thus becoming a sign and instrument of reconciliation to the world. 


Cardinal Koch also participated in a workshop at BGU on “The Other in Christianity and Judaism."


Above: BGU Rector Prof. Zvi HaCohen (right) presents Cardinal Kurt Koch (center) with the Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award. BGU Prof. (Emeritus) Moshe Dariel stands to the Cardinal's left. Prof. Ladislaus Laszt was Prof. Dariel's late wife's uncle. 


Previous winners of the prize include The Dalai Lama, Archimandrite Emil Shoufani (Israeli Christian Arab theologian and peace activist), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (the former Chief Rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth) and others. The award was created by Prof. Ladislaus and Nelly Laszt of Switzerland. It is bestowed by Ben-Gurion University on a religious personality of international repute, or on a person or organisation that has made an outstanding contribution to society. Awarded for the first time in 1985, the prize "acknowledges and rewards people whose deeds reflect tolerance, hope and vision – those aspects so essential to the survival of the human race."


Cardinal Kurt Koch's Bio

Born in Switzerland in 1950, he is the bishop emeritus of Basel. Cardinal Koch was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, working towards ecumenism. In this capacity, he is also the President of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews. The commission (established in 1974) is tasked with maintaining positive theological ties with Jews and Judaism.


Koch is also a member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches; a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; a Member of the Congregation for Catholic Education and a member of the Congregation for Bishops.


He was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis.