An Interview with Father John Pawlikowski, OSM

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: Why did you decide to be a Servite? Father John: My vocation developed rather quickly during my senior year at the high school on Chicago's Westside (St. Philip Benizi). I needed to make a decision about my post-graduation life. I decided then to join the Servite college seminary which at the time was near Milwaukee. My vocation was aided through my involvement with Servite priests in the classroom at St. Philip High School . But it was further enhanced by cooperation with a Servite brother who worked in the adjacent Servite Provincial Office on the production of the school newspaper and annual yearbook. I served as student editor of both. Ongoing contact with him solidified my decision to join the Servite Order.


Gordon: What initially interested you in Catholic/Jewish relations and challenges?


Father John: I was raised in a neighborhood in Chicago that had a substantial Jewish community (mostly Orthodox in his composition). There was a good relationship between my home parish St. Sylvester and local Jewish organizations. During my time at the Servite theological seminary in Lake Bluff, Illinois, one of my teachers was the then Servite biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan He had a strong interest in what was happening at Vatican II on the Jewish question and he shared that concern with me.

I was also invited at this time to write a regular reflection on the Sunday epistle readings for the Servite publication NOVENA NOTES which had the largest circulation of any Catholic periodical at that time. I often commented on the Sunday epistle readings in light of the positive understanding of the Catholic-Jewish relationship emerging at Vatican II. After my ordination in 1967 I was invited to New York City to meet with Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a pioneering leader in Christian- Jewish relations who asked me to do a book on the findings of the Catholic study undertaken at St. Louis University on Catholicism's portrayal of Jews and other racial/religious groups in its major textbooks. That volume appeared from Paulist Press as CATECHETICS AND PREJUDICE. My career in this area was launched!


Gordon: Please share with our readers the challenges of having helped develop the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.


Father John: My major challenge as a board member and for a time a member of the board's Executive Committee was the actual physical construction of the Museum which faced many challenges and restrictions because of its location on the most "sacred" land in our nation adjacent to the Washington Monument.


I also had a major role in the creation of the Museum's permanent exhibition. During my tenure on the Museum's board I took a special interest in the Museum's presentation of the stories of the Polish, Roma/Sinti ("Gypsy") disabled and gay victims of the Nazis. I also chaired the Church Relations Committee at the Museum.


Gordon: What were some of the accomplishments of your work for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?


Father John: I became involved in special projects. The projects included the development of a book in connection with the release of the Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Economic Justice This book collected major statements from the Popes and the Vatican on economic justice as well as commentaries which I wrote. The purpose the volume was partly to demonstrate that the American bishops were not entering a totally new area in their letter on the economy, but rather picking up on a century-old tradition in Catholicism.


The second project had 5t do with energy. It pre-dated the rise of wider ecological awareness in Catholicism. This 1991 Bishops' Statement on Energy is still cited as a foundational document for our greater emphasis on climate change in our day. I followed this involvement with a minor role in the subsequent Catholic Bishops document on ecological responsibility. Recently I have been part of an eight member working team that has produced a handbook the papal encyclical LAUDATO SI from Pope Frances which makes ecological conversion a central part of faith expression in our day. This handbook is co-sponsored by the Bishops' Conference.


I served for many years on the Catholic-Jewish Advisory Board at he Bishops’ Conference and also participated for some four years in the official bilateral dialogue between the U.S. Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformed Tradition (Presbyterian Church USA,Reformed Church, Christian Reformed Church and the United Church of Christ).


Gordon: You were one of the founding members of the Catholic Theological Union. Please provide an overview of why and how CTU was founded.


Father John: Catholic Theological Union owes its origins from two interconnected realities For several years prior to Vatican II, a group of seminary professors from the various Christian theological seminaries as well as the Divinity School of the University of Chicago met in regular ecumenical exchanges. During the Council the late Cardinal Joseph Suenens of Belgium, one of the leading figures at Vatican II, came to the University of Chicago to speak about seminary education in light of the spirit of the Council. In his presentation he argued that today's seminaries should have an ecumenical orientation, be located proximate to major universities and provide opportunities for seminarian interchange with educated laity.


As a result the Franciscans, Servites and Passionists decide to combine their faculty and libraries into a single school that joined the growing cluster of theological schools at the University of Chicago. Several other religious communities subsequently joined the founding communities at Catholic theological Union. CTU opened its doors to students in September 1968 amidst the civil unrest in American society during that year.


Gordon: What were some of your accomplishments which you deeply appreciate?


Father John: Presidential appointments to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for four terms and service as President of the International Council of Christians & Jews based at the former home of the Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber in Heppenheim, Germany.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of your work at the International Council of Christians and Jews.


Father John: My role as President of the International Council of Christians and Jews (which also includes a tri-faith Abrahamic Forum that includes Muslims) was to oversee the operations of an international coalition of regional Christian-Jewish organizations in Europe, Israel, various parts of Europe, Canada, Australia and Latin America, as well as the United States.

The international office was responsible for programming that included publications, global statements on issues related to the Christian Jewish relationship, and an annual international conference held in various cities during my tenure I organized such conferences in Vienna, Sydney and Chicago.


Gordon: You served four terms on the board of directors of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. How are the directors appointed?


Father John: The board members of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are proposed by the Museum to the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. That Office recommends appointments to the President of the United States who makes the official appointments. The Museum is a federal institution within the Department of the Interior.


Gordon: What are some of the factors that contribute to Antisemitism?


Father John: Antisemitism has always been a complex reality with many different roots. It sometimes arises in places where virtually no Jews reside. A major source for antisemitism in many countries is theological. Important Church Fathers such as St. Augustine promoted what is known as the "Against the Jews" theological vision. This theology argued that Jews, in their failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah, were doomed to perpetual wandering upon this earth, living on the margins of Christian societies in a miserable state. The name of the plant "the wandering Jew" originated in this theology and became incorporated into Christian culture. This theology brought about the death of some one million Jews in the course of history according to the late Fr. Edward Flannery, author of the groundbreaking book THE ANGUISH OF THE JEWS

The theology forged by Augustine and other Church Fathers was not intended to murder Jews unlike Nazi ideology But unfortunately many Christians carried it to extremes during Holy Week and at the time of the Crusades. This theological view was combined in many countries such as Spain with the false accusation that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood for making matzah.


The second cause of antisemitism was the emergence of a view that combined a philosophy of progress and human physical development with pseudo-scientific research on the human body. This view saw Jews and others as biologically inferior,, an inferiority that left in place would hinder human progress and human development. Nazi ideology drew from both of these sources of antisemitism. Nazi doctors argued that they were fulfilling their medical oath by removing Jews who were seen as a cancer on the body politic.


Gordon: When President Obama visited Hiroshima on May 27, 2016, the visit was highly covered by the Catholic Media In advance of the visit. Bishop O Oscar Cantú, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on International Justice and Peace. said  " "Since Saint Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris in 1963, the Catholic Church has called for a world free of nuclear weapons. Faith and reason, religion and science  agree on this issue, Nuclear weapons pose a moral challenge and represent an existential threat that requires action now."


In Gaudium et Spes, we are also taught "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities  or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and  unhesitating condemnation"


However, there appear to be many  Catholic who may not concur with these teachings, especially as there appear to be  increased risks of the potential of other nations using them against the US. Could you comment on how we should address these concerns in our development of nuclear weapons


Father John: Catholic leadership, both at the level of the Vatican and here in the United States, has taken a firm stand against any use of nuclear weaponry.  This includes the use of such weapons as a deterrent.  This position actually emerges from the classical just war tradition which has dominated Catholic ethical thinking on war and peace issues for centuries.  The argument here is that nuclear weapons would produce such intense and widespread destruction, including the loss of human lives, that would make it impossible to met a key criterion of that just war tradition, i.e., proportionality.  The damage inflicted by the weapons would far surpass whatever good might theoretically result from "winning the war" through the use of such weapons.  And if such weapons are judged as immoral in terms of actual use then we really cannot employ them in a deterrent capacity if in fact we would never be justified in using them.


Let me make it clear, however, that this moral injunction applies only to the use of nuclear weapons, not at the moment to war as such in terms of security and survival.  There have been strong voices for totally eliminating war as a legitimate moral option within parts of the Catholic community, including at the highest levels.  Pope Paul VI's dramatic call for an end to warfare is but one example. Pope John Paul II clearly was moving against the notion of warfare, especially during the Gulf War.  And more recently a meeting at the Vatican on the issue of war and peace co-sponsored by the Vatican's  Justice & Peace Committee and unofficial Catholic peace groups such as Pax Christi  generated a statement against the continued use of any form of war as an instrument of peacemaking. 


That document called for an end to Catholic reliance on the just war tradition as the principal framework for moral decision making.  Instead the Catholic Church should reorient itself towards the promotion of peace in every situation.  Pope Francis himself has shown some sympathy for this perspective.  However, this statement has also received some pushback.  So at this point non-nuclear warfare remains an available moral option from the Catholic perspective especially at the governmental level.  In a recent editorial; The National Catholic Reporter has called upon Pope Francis to make the question of war and peace the focal point of the next episcopal synod.


Gordon: You teach a course at Catholic Theological Union that addresses the moral challenges of nuclear warfare. Could you summarizes  these challenges and comment on what we can do to address these challenges?


Father John: In my course on Catholic perspectives on war and peace issues I provide the participants with a history of the discussion from the very beginning of the church. Certainly the pacifist position was present in the first centuries when Christians were a marginal minority in Roman controlled society.  The motivation for such pacifism is not always clear ("Jesus' "do not kill" injunction, the need for soldiers to engage in emperor worship in the Roman army, etc.).  But even those church leaders who espoused pacifism assured the emperor that they were praying for the success of his wars.  The situation changed dramatically for Christians when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and church suddenly moved to a dominant role in political decisions. 


Christianity now had to face the often tough question of protection of the nation against enemies.  That question remains with us today as do other questions such has the use of military force to buttress at failed or failing state, use of military force in the face of famine, the increased reliance on technological warfare, especially the killing with drones, ecological damage from warfare, revolutionary warfare in states under the control of despots and groups such as ISIS.  My personal bottom line in the current situation we face globally is that why in the spirit of Jesus the church needs to express a proclivity for peace over war, there remain occasions when non-nuclear military action remains justified as an instrument of peacemaking.  But our first option as Christians ought always to be a search for a non-military way of achieving peace.


Gordon: In the July/August of Profiles in Catholicism, we featured a videos on Nuclear Proliferation, Deterrence and Disarmament:  Evolving Catholic Approaches which is also featured below for our new subscribers. In addition to the issues discussed in this meeting, what  are these some specific moral challenges on which we need that we need to focus?


Father John: I believe we need to build coalitions in terms of peacemaking.  No nation can go it alone in  terms of global security and peace.  This is not an easy task and requires some diplomatic sophistication and some compromise.  Authentic peacemaking is hard work.  It is far more than slogans and occasional gestures.  It requires a deep-seated ongoing commitment.  We need to explore what some are now calling "just policing" as a replacement for the use of military force,  Because nuclear weapons still pose a significant challenge disarmament must remain a high priority for the church in terms of its public political stance.


Gordon: Our current nuclear bombs are being developed with smaller nuclear warheads are more accurate and deadly and destroy smaller acreage than the original bombs. Since may not destroy entire cities, are there moral  challenges raised by the amount of damage and the number of lives that these bombs could destroy?


Father John: As I cannot morally justify the use of nuclear weapons there is no response to the question of their improved targeting capacity except, But on non-nuclear weaponry certainly more precise control of such weapons in terms of targeting enhances the morality of their use.  But it worries me that we have seen them fail in their supposed accuracy on more than one occasion. I also remain concerned about the divorce between those who detonate these more highly controlled weapons and the experience of the toll they exact.  Many are now launched from insulated controlled rooms where  those pushing the launch buttons have no personal contact with the damage the weapons actually cause.  Such a situation can remove any moral ambiguity for those who launch the weapons and makes it difficult to apply the traditional criteria associated with the just war framework.


Gordon: Do you have any thoughts on the importance of religious leaders to protest when they disagree on nuclear policies?


Father John: I believe bishops need to make known the American Catholic Church's opposition to the use of   nuclear weaponry.  The U.S. Bishops Peace Pastoral of several decades ago together with  its anniversary update argued that there is no way such weaponry can meet the criterion of Proportionality I believe bishops need to make known the American Catholic Church's proportionality test because of  the massive human and ecological damage their use would entail.  And if it is immoral to ever  use them it follows that they cannot serve as an effective deterrent.  The bishops need to  make this Catholic position quite evident in the public  sphere via,op-eds, social media posts and public rallies.


Gordon: Thank you for helping us better understand these moral challenges and hopefully work with our legislators to also reflect on them.


Nuclear Proliferation, Deterrence and Disarmament: Evolving Catholic Approaches