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Jewish-Christian Relations and Providence College
The historical relationship between Jews and Christians has been fraught with tensions, distrust, and violence since antiquity. Ancient Christian theologians often held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus Christ and claimed they were thus abandoned by God, replaced by the Church. These ideas carried over into some expressions of early twentieth-century Catholic theology which were mixed with developing theories of racial superiority. For example, in the 1930s the Jesuit Georg Bichlmair, though an opponent of the Nazis, nevertheless taught that not even baptism could repair genetic “moral defects” that characterized the Jewish people (Connelly, 2012). At the same time, however, other European Catholic philosophers and theologians, such as Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Johannes Oesterreicher urged the Church to rethink its relationship with the Jewish people in light of the experience of the Third Reich.
It was in this context that the Dominican presidents of Providence College made pioneering strides in interreligious efforts. Most notably, Father Lorenzo McCarthy, O.P., president of Providence College from 1927 to 1936, served on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Seminar on Human Relationships. This groundbreaking initiative resulted from the efforts of the local Jewish community, including Rabbi Samuel Gup of Temple Beth-El in Providence, and philanthropist Max Grant, in collaboration with the recently formed National Conference of Christians and Jews.
A two-day conference was held at Brown University and Providence College, May 3-4, 1932, with over 1,000 people reported to be in attendance, listening to local and national speakers and participating in round-table discussions on topics such as stereotypes, religious intolerance, university quotas, and intermarriage. At the opening of the Providence College session, one of the speakers, Rabbi Isaac Landman of Brooklyn remarked, “It is a new thing in the religious life of the world. Protestants, Catholics and Jews under a Dominican roof seek to understand each other’s religions in order to lay open the causes of inter-religious prejudices so that by understanding we may dissolve them and create bridges of mutuality.”(The Providence Visitor, 5/6/1932) Participants also visited local churches and synagogues, which was extraordinary for the time. In December of the same year, Fr. McCarthy was honored by The American Hebrew and Jewish Tribune for his “promotion of better understanding between Jews and non-Jews.”
Later presidents of Providence College continued to be active in fostering Jewish-Christian relations:
Very Rev. John Dillon, O.P. (1936-1944)
- Served on the executive committee of the Seminar on Human Relationships
- Delivered a radio lecture as part of Brotherhood Week of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1937
- Collaborated with local Jewish philanthropist Max Grant on interreligious efforts
- Delivered keynote address for Brotherhood Week at a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1948
- Convened the Conference on Catholic Jewish Understanding, November 17, 1963
- Instrumental in organizing a second conference on Catholic Jewish Understanding in 1965, the same year that Nostra Aetate was promulgated
- Presided over the Conference on Catholic Jewish Understanding, Nov 11, 1965
- Hired Rabbi William Braude as a part-time faculty member in the Theology Department
- Received Humanitarian Award from the American Jewish Committee, 1969
- Received the Bronze Brotherhood Award from the Southern New England chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1970
More than thirty years before Vatican II, Providence College was engaged in the work of nurturing positive interreligious relations both on campus and in the Providence community. These efforts continued into the 1980s. In 2009 the Theology Department inaugurated the lecture series Theological Exchange Between Catholics and Jews, a program that brings local religious leaders and nationally known scholars to campus to discuss issues related to Jewish-Catholic relations.