Nostra Aetate: 40 Years of Catholic-Jewish Ties

by: Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor | November 01, 2005


In 1965, a committee of clerics composed a statement that triggered a revolutionary change in the bitter, blood-stained 2,000-year relationship between two peoples: Nostra Aetate, Latin for "In Our Time." Despite its brevity, the document has forever transformed the relationship between Roman Catholics and Jews. In several bold paragraphs, Nostra Aetate repudiates the ancient Christian charge against Jews as "Christ-killers" and reaffirms God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people.

Nostra Aetate was conceived during the Second Vatican Council, a historic gathering of Roman Catholic Bishops and Cardinals called by Pope John XXIII to re-examine church policies in the face of modernity. Nostra Aetate exhibits the idea that the Church could look at its teachings and behaviors towards Jews and Judaism, question them, challenge them and change them.

From the early Church Fathers, the teaching of contempt for the "perfidious" Jews --a provocative description used in Christian liturgy -- led to persecution and pogroms. The church taught that the Jews had caused Jesus to be led to his trial and crucifixion.

Jews were hated because of their rejection of Jesus, who himself never rejected his Jewish faith. Jews became targets of scorn, physical attacks, forced conversions, expulsions, and murder. Theological justification was used to excuse and rationalize the violation of long-held religious teachings against hatred and murder -- to rid the community, or the world, of those responsible for "deicide."

The anti-Judaism that begins in the New Testament was transformed through the admixture of political, economic and sociological prejudice into the anti-Semitism of modernity. This reached its ugly and inhuman nadir during World War II with Hitler's Final Solution for the Jewish people. The Nazis' attempt to annihilate European Jewry would have been impossible without a society already desensitized to the plight of the Jews in a world in which anti-Semitism was an under girding and accepted principle.

In the face of horrors of the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews, the Church could no longer disconnect the realities of this Holocaust from their own teachings. Brave, courageous Catholics, like Sister Rose Thering, looked at the teachings of the Church and knew that the time had come to confront the ugly truth: though hatred and prejudice can come from many corners, the hatred and prejudice propagated by the Church must be challenged and changed.

That the Church did make a reckoning of its soul is a credit to those leaders, including Cardinal Bea, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, who would take on a Church that had become ossified in its attitudes towards the Jews and Judaism. What came of this soul-searching was a statement of profound magnitude.

Section 4 of Nostra Aetate, known as the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, makes several additional ground-breaking statements. There is a strong recognition of Christianity's roots in Judaism and the Jewish people, and that the covenant established between God and Abraham remains unbroken. Also, "the Church repudiates all persecutions against any man. … she deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."

And so we stand 40 years from this signal event and try to assess the impact of these changes. Several things are immediately discernable: the Jewish community, as a whole, has never before had such a partnership with the Christian world as we have enjoyed these last 40 years. Despite difficult bumps in the road, we have been able to weather the storms of difference because we no longer look upon the other with indifference because we share a deep and profound connection.

It would be easy to produce a "laundry list" of challenges and problems that have existed, but the reality is simple: we are still talking, we are still learning and we still care about resolving the challenges that lie between us.

Still, 40 years is a short amount of time to overturn centuries of contempt and vestiges remain. After Nostra Aetate was adopted, it took quite some time before it was widely disseminated. Even today, many are ignorant of the changes brought about by Nostra Aetate and there is much work to be done to assure that many of the next generation of Catholic faithful are raised without ancient prejudices.

The past 40 years must be understood as our introduction to each other's community. But the greatest challenge, is taking up the issues that divide us. We must learn to revel in our commonalities, but celebrate our differences.

We must understand what the other means when words like "covenant", "mission", "redemption", "commandment", "land" are employed – because they must be defined differently by each community. We must admit that though we lay claim to a common Scripture (the Hebrew Bible, or the Mikrah, as Pope John Paul II referred to it) we use different lenses, techniques and historical understandings to read and interpret that text – rendering the text almost unrecognizable to the other.

These past 40 years, sometimes stormy and contentious, other times calm and peaceful, have demonstrated that our relationship can endure. Nostra Aetate is the underpinning as Catholics and Jews move forward together.