Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue looks at Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relations of the Roman Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, in this piece which was published in the Catholic Herald.
Nostra Aetate – the document that radically revised the Chuch’s relationship with Judaism – is rather like the United Nations. A wonderful ideal and which has led to enormous achievements, yet which still has not reached its full potential.
The document owes its origins to the groundbreaking gathering – Vatican II – called by Pope John XXIII in 1962. Amid the many questions that the Church was facing, one of the most troubling was its relations with the Jewish people. It was the result of a puzzle, a dilemma and a sense of guilt.
The puzzle was that for centuries, the Church had maintained that the Jews were stiff-necked and obdurate for rejecting Jesus as their Saviour; yet despite all attempts to convert them, Jews still persisted in their own faith. Why was their faith still so vibrant? Moreover, the symbol of God’s supposed punishment of the Jews – the exile of Israel in 70 AD – had now ended with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. What did that say about God’s will?
The dilemma was that the Church increasingly recognised that it owed much to Judaism: Jesus was a Jew, as were the twelve disciples, and many of the sayings of Jesus derived directly from the Hebrew Bible. So how could the Church be so at odds with the people whose teachings lay at its foundation?
The sense of guilt was the Holocaust. It was certainly not conducted in Christ’s name, yet there was equally no doubt that Nazi anti-semitism could only have flourished so easily because the ground had been well-prepared by Christian anti-semitism: There can be no worse accusation than that of killing the son of God,and ever since then the Church had taught that Jews were evil and deserved to suffer. Burning their books, herding them into ghettos, forcing them to wear a Jew badge, torturing and killing them had all been normative Christian practices, and the Nazis merely added state machinery and conducted it on a mass scale.
If this makes uncomfortable reading for Christians today, that was precisely what motivated Pope John XXIII, and it is to his eternal credit that, rather than ignore the issue or seek justifications, he brought it into the open and demanded new answers.
He also led the way personally, meeting with Jewish leaders and greeting them with the words from Genesis that echoed his own baptismal name: ‘I am Joseph, your brother’. That simple sentence contained a world of change: no longer your rival or your enemy, but your brother.
Among Nostra Aetate’s key declarations were that the Jews as a whole were absolved of the guilt of deicide that they had borne ever since the Church had decreed that all Jews in all ages were as guilty of the death of Jesus as those in 1st century Jerusalem.
The document also acknowledged the continuing validity of Judaism,declaring that God holds the Jews most dear. For many Catholics, this was nothing more than a long overdue recognition of religious realities. Others found themselves confused by the volte-face. For some, it meant completely redefining themselves, as did the Sisters of Zion who changed from being an order dedicated to converting Jews to one spear-heading mutual understanding. It also swung Catholic support behind the Council of Christians and Jews, founded in 1942, which had been regarded somewhat diffidently by them until then.
Within Jewish circles, Nostra Aetate was widely praised. Some regretted the lack of any mention of either the Holocaust or the State of Israel, but the vast majority of Jewish commentators recognised what a positive statement it was andwhat a milestone in Jewish-Christian relations it signified. As a result, interfaith dialogue is now taken for granted and has become a new creed as much as concern for environmental sustainability. It influenced not only Catholic thinking, but all other Christian denominations, while Jewish-Christian dialogue has become the template for relations with other world faiths.
Moreover, the nature of that dialogue has changed over the years. At first, it was the simple act of meeting, acknowledging differences but concentrating on what the two faiths had in common. Then it became a chance to also look at the difficult areas and where the faiths diverged. An even more major shift was from accepting that each faith was valid for those who followed it, to recognising that divine teachings were revealed in each faith and that they each had sanctity in God’s eyes too.
It is not surprising that, amid all the progress, such a dramatic religious earthquake should lead to some after-shocks. There was alarm, for instance, over the declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’ in 2000, which seemed to be a return to the bad old days of religious one-up-manship. Within Jewish circles, there are still those who are suspicious of dialogue and fear it is a cover for missionary activity.
There is no doubt, however, that the world of faith would be greatly diminished without Nostra Aetate and the new climate it introduced. Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a long-standing supporter of dialogue, has suggested that the Vatican allocate a special day within the calendar to commemorate it each year. Such a move would be recognition of the power of a remarkable document that has done much to transform religious hostility to inter-faith harmony.