For more than a year now, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra aetate, on Catholic relations with other faiths, has been celebrated. Though lamentably still unknown by most people irrespective of their religion, Nostra aetate is indeed of great importance in a positive sense. Catholic bishops’ formal post-Holocaust adoption, not without internal struggle, of an essentially constructive approach to Jews marked a pivoting away from the contempt and estrangement that had characterized much of nearly two millennia of relations between the church and the Jewish people. Even more substantial, though, has been the remarkably rapid and continual deepening of Catholic-Jewish friendship in the few decades that followed 1965.
At the same time—ironically, since Nostra aetate is probably more often commemorated by Jewish institutions than by Catholic communities worldwide—the document is not quite, from a Jewish vantage-point, a “perfect” one. The text, which makes clear the special status afforded by the church to Judaism in light of Christianity’s Jewish roots, is nonetheless a decidedly Christological one, written by Christians for Christians. Even as it continues to be abhorred by a tiny fringe of Catholic ultraconservatives, its content fell somewhat short of what Jewish communal professionals at the time (and some theologically progressive Catholics) had hoped for. The declaration established, vitally, that “the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures,” and that a charge of responsibility for the death of Jesus cannot be applied to “all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” It does say, though, that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,” and that most Jews did not adopt Christianity, adding, “indeed not a few opposed its spreading.” Finally, Nostra aetate affirms belief that while God “does not repent of the gifts He makes,” including to the “chosen people,” “the Church is the new people of God.” Its all-but-explicit eschatological vision is one in which all people ultimately find salvation through acceptance of the truth represented by the church. Accordingly, the text’s assertion that achieving “mutual understanding and respect… is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies,” and not only of “fraternal dialogues” and cooperative coexistence, deserves more attention by Jewish readers.
The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
Arguably, Jews should also be better attuned more broadly to the theological framework within which, and the lexicon using which, modern Catholic overtures to Jews have been conducted at the official level. Again, this outreach has been momentous and laudable; the global Jewish community, no less than the Catholic community, can do more to make the genuine progress in relations known to its members; and even any “deficiencies” in the church’s conciliation have been situated primarily in the realm of theoretical belief rather than that of practical engagement. However, while the Vatican has been largely consistent, and uniquely artful, in crafting careful messaging to and about Jews, the nuances of its positions are often lost on Jewish observers keen to take the overtures only at face value.
“Constructive ambiguity” that might be overlooked by master diplomats characterized even some of the celebrated relevant pronouncements of Pope John Paul II, who had an undeniable personal kinship with Jews. For example, his written prayer at the Western Wall in 2000, which spoke of being “deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer… the people of the Covenant,” did not quite spell out the perpetrators and victims to whom he was referring. (Likewise, even Pope Francis’s statement in 2013 that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” can be interpreted in different ways. Did he mean to absolve all Christians, including senior churchmen across time, of anti-Semitism, or simply that anti-Semitic hatred is incompatible with a faith whose call is to love and whose focal point was a Jew?)
More substantively, was John Paul’s 1987 reference to Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” not merely a moving expression of esteem but an attempt to equate and link the “old” and “new” covenants, or, even more problematically, in keeping with the biblical propensity for younger brothers to have spiritual superiority over their elder ones, a subtle nod to the theology of Christian supersession of Judaism? (Pope Benedict XVI—who himself in 2008 reauthorized a Good Friday liturgy that includes a revised prayer for Jews’ hearts to be “illuminate[d]” so that they “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men”—wrote in a later book that he chooses to call Jews “fathers in the faith” rather than “elder brothers” in order to allay such concerns.)
In a gesture at the dawn of Catholic-Jewish rapprochement that could similarly be understood in different ways, Pope John XXIII received an American Jewish delegation in 1960 with the stirring words, “I am Joseph, your brother!” The pope—a champion of the reconciliation with Jews who had personally worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whose given middle name was the Italian for Joseph—was invoking the story in Genesis in which the youngest of the patriarch Jacob’s first eleven sons is reunited with his long-estranged siblings, but in which Joseph also effectively reveals to them the fulfillment of the prophecy of his privileged station after they had rejected and persecuted him on account of it.
More than a half-century since John XXIII signaled a promising but complex trajectory in Catholic-Jewish ties, the two communities (or one, if you’re a Catholic seeing Judaism as “intrinsic” to the church—a view reflected in the inclusion of its office for relations with Jews within the Vatican’s intra-Christian, not interreligious, affairs wing) continue along this path. By now, interspersed with disputes such as those over papal ties to Kurt Waldheim or Yasser Arafat, sainthood for Edith Stein or the war-era pope Pius XII, a convent at Auschwitz or the taxation status of Catholic assets in the Holy Land, the church has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism (and, less prominently, anti-Zionism) as a sin. The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
And, in late 2015, following several prior publications on Catholic-Jewish engagement since the adoption of Nostra aetate, the Vatican’s commission on the relationship released a new document, “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29): A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations.” The text validates some of the hallmarks of the process of relationship-building between the Catholic and Jewish communities, while also attempting to keep in check what Catholic traditionalists can perceive as theological oversteps emanating from the “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council. The result is that the document confirms, most importantly, that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” and also disputes the suggestion that “Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” At the same time, the document states that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” albeit “in a humble and sensitive manner,” and that because “God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation.” It strongly rejects any “theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ,” saying that this “would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith.”
It is clear, then, that the theological strains that complicate this exceptional interfaith relationship have not vanished. Neither is the relationship free of political tripwire: the Holy See’s recent agreement prematurely recognizing a “State of Palestine” (and one, it is implied, with oversight in Jerusalem), Arab Christian clerics’ mimicking of one-sided Palestinian narratives concerning Israel and Pope Francis’s surprise 2014 photo-op at an imposing section of Israel’s security barrier near Bethlehem are only a few examples. (Francis could perhaps be counted among those world leaders, with longtime Jewish friends, who have maintained friendships with Jews as well as Israel, but who may be less sentimental than some predecessors about that relationship and most personally invested in other “liberal” concerns that now also resonate more with younger constituents.) This said, in how “normal” and well-established the Catholic-Jewish engagement has become, featuring as it does commonalities and differences alike, this relationship may be optimally positioned to model for other communities the possibility of overcoming even the most longstanding of divides, and even those hardened by a religious orientation. At a time when the challenge of “holy war” overshadows international affairs—nearly 15 years following the 9/11 attacks—any cause for hope in the potential for such peacemaking could not be more welcome.
Moreover, as the Jewish community looks this summer to yet another round of proposals in mainline Protestant churches for harming Israel practically—and Israel alone—through economic pressure campaigns, the larger Catholic Church certainly manifests a friendlier interfaith partner.
To be sure, the Catholic orbit, too, is not immune to a skewed, astoundingly simplistic post-1967 view of who in the Arab-Israeli conflict represents “David” and who “Goliath.” As disturbingly, some anti-Israel activists in the Christian world are quick to invoke Jesus’ challenge to “the Pharisees” in their treatment of complex contemporary geopolitics. But Roman Catholicism, characterized by more centralized and cautious decision-making than certain ecumenical counterparts, has solidified ties with the Jewish community on a rather firm footing—undergirded by warm personal relationships and by ongoing channels of communication.
In this sense, the ostensibly modest 1965 document Nostra aetate demonstrates that a start may be only a start, but it can have a profound and lastingly positive impact on what is to follow.
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