Nostra Aetate – Fifty Years On
This year the Catholic Church marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a document of the Second Vatican Council which significantly changed and developed the nature of the Catholic Church’s engagement with other religions and particularly with Judaism. This, in turn has bought about a change in self-understanding on the part of the Church itself, exemplified by the fact that It was quite natural last year for Pope Francis to invite President Shimon Perez and President Mahmood Abbas to pray with him in Rome and for them to accept. It was not always so!
This year we also mark the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz so Nostra Aetate was published just twenty years after that. Addressing the question of relations with the Jews was clearly a matter of urgency for the Council and in this document it made three important affirmations. One was that “God holds the Jews very dear for the sake of their Fathers; he does not repent of his gifts.” It also said of the death of Jesus Christ “His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” It also gave a clear rejection of antisemitism.
These were important statements and they broke new ground in Catholic-Jewish relations as the Church sought to move on from the prejudice and shame of the past. But Nostra Aetate is a short document and it’s affirmations opened up further questions that needed clarification and development.This has not been lacking as, for example in documents published by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (CRRJ) and in the teaching of Pope John Paul II. The document We Remember, published in 1988 directly addressed the question of the holocaust. Earlier, the Notes published by the CRRJ in 1985 were particularly significant in affirming the unique and vital bond between Christianity and Judaism stressing that in Christian teaching “the Jews and Judaism should not occupy an occasional and marginal place in catechesis: their presence there is essential and should be organically integrated.” The document reinforced this directive by quoting Pope John Paul’s crucial and clarifying allocution to the Jewish community in Mainz, Germany in 1980 when he referred to “the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked.”
A fundamental problem, however, is still the “reception” of Nostra Aetate, that is to say the extent to which its teaching has been digested and brought to fruition at all levels in the Church. Indeed for both Christians and Jews the challenges and problems of our times are many and various. Spiritual and theological dialogue between the religions is not seen by everyone as a priority. Be that as it may, it is clear that this anniversary is a time for reviewing the situation and finding a vision for the future.
In March 2013, the American journal Theological Studies published two essays – one by Edward Kessler and one by Mary Boys – which sought to do just that. These articles – one by a Catholic and one by a Jew – showed a significant degree of convergence. They asked about the implications of the Church’s affirmation that God’s covenant with the Jews is still live. Does this mean that the Catholic Church accepts Judaism as a valid religion in its own right and on its own terms ? If so, does that mean that the Church has definitively moved on from seeing the Old Testament solely in terms of its fulfilment in the New Testament and has it therefore moved on decisively from any idea of conversion of the Jews ? Writings in recent years by the Presidents of the CRRJ and some key theologians have opened up perspectives that can take this discussion forward.
What I find most promising is the felt need to now adopt a future and, indeed, an eschatological framework in which to plot a way forward.This perspective has been around for some time. Nostra Aetate itself looked to the day when “all people will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Zeph,3,9)”.The theme is developed in the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s excellent document “The Jewish people and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (2001) which affirms that Christians and Jews look to the future together : “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension to our faith.”
Although the perspective of memory which looks to the past in a spirit of repentance and inquiry will always be vital to Christian-Jewish relations,it may be that claiming the future together is the best way to win hearts and minds and to find a fertile theological perspective for our mutual relations. It was the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,who participated in Vatican II as an observer who said “The prospect of all men embracing one form of religion remains an eschatological hope.” Above all, today – in our time – we need to continue to match the spiritual and theological depth of people like Heschel and, indeed, of the Fathers of Vatican II who forged this prophetic text.
Archbishop Kevin McDonald
Archbishop McDonald is a Consultor to the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and was formerly Archbishop of Southwark