What a difference a half century makes. Prior to 1965, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Jews were viewed at best as a fossil but more often as cursed and condemned to wander and suffer. Yet, in the course of the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) and the adoption of Nostra Aetate (October 1965), wherein Jews were officially deemed by the Church to be beloved by God and very much part of the Divine plan for humankind, Jewish-Christian relations were forever changed.
The past 50 years have seen human beings’ understandings of one another undergo tectonic shifts. This is true in regard to ethnicity, race, gender and the right to self-determination, but in the realm of inter-religious understanding, no greater seismic change has taken place than that between Christians and Jews.
Indeed, according to Roman Catholic scholar Father Edward Flannery, Nostra Aetate, Latin for “in our time,” “terminated in a [single] stroke a millennial teaching of contempt of Jews and Judaism and unequivocally asserted the Church’s debt to its Jewish heritage.”
And though the document omits any mention of the Holocaust or the existence of the State of Israel, significantly — especially given the events of recent days in Europe and the Middle East — Nostra Aetate was forceful in its recognition of the unity of humanity, that there are truths in all faith traditions, its rejection of the long-standing charge of deicide against the Jews, and its full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism in all forms. Most importantly of all, it ushered a new era of fresh attitudes and a new language of open theological discourse not previously heard in the Catholic Church concerning Jews. The ideal of true dialogue now entered the relationship.
Another consequence of this ground-breaking document was a reawakening among Catholics to the Jewish origins of Christianity. Catholics were reminded that Jesus was a faithful Jew and that from the Jewish people were drawn the apostles, the foundation stones and pillars of the Church.
So it is that a year before the adoption of Nostra Aetate, Pope John XXIII, responsible for convening the Second Vatican Council, publicly greeted Jewish visitors with words echoing those offered by Jacob’s son to his brothers when all were reunited, “I am Joseph your brother.” And when in 1986, beloved Pope John Paul II made the first-ever visit by a pope to a Jewish synagogue, he reformulated the essential message of Nostra Aetate by addressing the more than 2,000-year-old Jewish community of Rome as “beloved elder brothers of the Church.”
In the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry, the impact of Nostra Aetate has been nothing less than “an astonishing transformation” that has had a truly revolutionary, positive impact on interfaith understanding and relationships.
This is true not just as reflected in the Church’s attitudes and teachings toward the Jews; indeed, Nostra Aetate has had a profound impact on the Church in terms of its own theology. The efforts of Catholics toward respect of Judaism project attitudes that would have been unthinkable a half century ago. And yet, as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has said, the Church has not yet fully discovered all the profound implications of Nostra Aetate. We will never be able to sit back and say, “The work is done. The agenda is completed.” After all, though we are now 50 years into our new relationship, as we continue to learn much about one another, we are learning even more about ourselves.
This process of discovery, of delving into the nature and meaning of our shared relationship is the inspiring fruit of Nostra Aetate’s historic transformation that calls on us to work together for the betterment of our world at large.
Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno is the senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, which will host a Feb. 11 panel discussion co-convened by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee on “Christians and Jews: The Unfinished Agenda.”