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Nostra Aetate: Transforming the Catholic-Jewish Relationship RULE A Jewish Perspective

Posted: October 20, 2005

A Catholic Perspective
A Jewish Perspective
Jewish-Catholic Relationship Transformed
Unresolved Issues
Teaching Nostra Aetate
Vatican Implements Nostra Aetate
Selected Church Documents on Jews & Judaism

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, ADL Interfaith Affairs Director Emeritus, is a pioneer in the Jewish Catholic dialogue and author of numerous books and scholarly works on the subject

Nostra Aetate :  A Jewish View  "From Disputation to Dialogue"

By Rabbi Leon Klenicki


"No person outside Israel knows the mystery of Israel. And no person outside of Christianity knows the mystery of Christianity. But in their ignorance they can acknowledge each other in the mystery."1

                                                                                                 Martin Buber



The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions; Nostra Aetate, promulgated on October 28, 1965, by the Sec­ond Vatican Council marked a special moment in the history of the church and its relation to world religions.


For the Jewish observer, Vati­can II was a unique religious event.


The work of the Council – "aggiornamento" as it was called by Pope John XXIII - undertook a rethinking of Judaism and the Jewish people in Catholic theology. Negative Christian attitudes of cen­turies, the teaching of contempt, the denial of Israel's destiny and voca­tion, required a reflection going beyond the theological triumphalism of the church fathers and the ideas of medieval theologians.


Nostra Aetate was prepared and written by Catholic theologians and religious experts and directed to the Catholic community. The original draft, and particularly the fourth section devoted to Judaism, underwent changes after many discussions. The proposal called forth the expression of profound differences among the bishops attending the council. Con­servatively oriented clergy and outside groups tried to obstruct consider­ation of Judaism altogether, using arguments familiar from medieval disputations.


For some groups Nostra Aetate served as a pretext to criti­cize Vatican II and to allow nonreligious organizations, the Arab League, and Arab diplomats, for instance, to attack the interreligious dialogue and the State of Israel. A current of anti-Jewish theology was evident in articles and books - underlining God's rejection of Israel and Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus - distributed openly or clandestinely among the council fathers.


Tense Negotiations


Dr. Joseph L. Lichten, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's Department of Intercultural Affairs, represented the organization in Rome during the days of the council and played a central role.2 Lichten presented a study-survey conducted for the Anti­-Defamation League which pointed out the influence of the deicide charge on American Catholics:


"Perhaps as many as five million American Catholics, out of a total of forty-five million, see the Jews as principally responsible for the death of Jesus, and they are led thereby to a negative assessment of the contemporary Jew. The fact that those who believe and feel this way tend to go to church more frequently, underscores the need for the Catholic Church to intensify its efforts if it hopes to bring all Catholics to the principles of brotherhood which it espouses."3


Catholic leaders were so troubled by this startling revelation of Chris­tian anti-Semitism that the Dutch Documentation Center for the Council volunteered to publish the findings and distributed them to every Council Father. On September 17, the findings were placed in the mailbox of each Council father with a note by the Center Director expressing his hope that the document would serve the council, the church, and the lapse between Jews and Christians.


The final council vote on the Declaration showed the church's spe­cial concern for this document, which was a turning point in Catholic understanding of Judaism and the Christian-Jewish relationship. In the final ballot on the Declaration as a whole, 2221 voted yes, 88 voted no, and 3 votes were void.4


Jewish Response


The initial reactions to Nostra Aetate within the Jewish community were mixed, ranging from total negativism and prudent criticism to reserved acceptance and enthusiasm.  Caution on Nostra Aetate was recommended in the interreligious dialogue by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the most brilliant Jew­ish minds of the 20th Century, in his essay "Confrontation." He proposed discussions on humanitarian and cultural endeavors and man's moral values. His categorical resistance to theological dialogue can be under­stood in historical terms. The medieval disputes and theological confronta­tions commanded by Catholic religious leaders, obligated the rabbis to dis­cuss the concept of messiah, or the idea of trinity and defend the Jewish position, independent of a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. The discussions ended by forced conversion to Catholicism or the expulsion of Jews from the city where those "conversations" took place.


The memory of these past events is still present in Jewish life. But even the consideration of social questions, recommended by Rabbi Soloveitchik as the only form of interfaith discussion, entails background knowledge of the respective religious traditions and theological heritage. Otherwise the discussion is a sociological deliberation rather than a religious spiri­tual understanding.


Vatican Creates Commission for Jews


In October, 1974, Pope Paul VI instituted a Vatican "Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews," which in 1975 issued the Guide­lines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (n. 4). The document suggested changes in the approach to liturgy, teaching and education, and joint social action.5  The document was an advance over Nostra Aetate, but not in relation to previously published guidelines of episcopal conferences in the United States and Europe.6  A third document was issued in 1985: Notes on the Correct Way To Present The Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Cath­olic Church.


Nostra Aetate is open to interpretation and committed reading, and that process deepens the dialogue. This was done by Catholics all over the world. The statements of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bish­ops in 1975, of the French Bishops Committee for Relations with Jews in 1973, of the National Commission for Relations between Christians and Jews in Belgium of 1973, of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands of 1970, the Synod of Vienna in 1969, and the Brazilian Bishops in the 1980s are attempts to deepen the meaning of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue through encounter and theological reflection.7


A Jewish reading of the Vatican Statement requires a respectful consideration of the Catholic faith commitment. This must be done in the perspective of Jewish religious thought and the covenantal relation­ship, but mindful of the Christian vocation. Certain temptations must be avoided; for instance, total negativism regarding the possibilities and future of the dialogue, based on past experiences. Another is self-pity for past persecutions and pains; those were very real events, unfortunate parts of Christian history. But self-righteousness is not an answer to the challenge of dialogue, one of the most difficult challenges to a religious person. The right Jewish attitude in this situation requires self-searching and a spirit of reconciliation. It entails recognition of the dialogue partner as a subject of faith, a child of God. It also calls for a perception of Christianity's role in bringing God's covenant to humanity following the obligation placed upon Noah, the biblical symbol for humankind. Through dialogue, Christianity must overcome the triumphalism of power, Judaism the triumphalism of pain.8


Nostra Aetate (No. 4) begins with an explanation of the relationship of the church to Judaism, referred to in the document as "Abraham's stock." The church acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of Christian faith and election "are found already among the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets." All who believe in Christ "are included in the same patriarch's call, and likewise that the salvation of the church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people's exodus from the land of bondage." The church cannot forget that "she draws suste­nance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which has been grafted the wild shoot, the Gentiles. Indeed, the church believes that by his cross Christ, our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in himself."


This terminology is open to misunderstandings, recalling the typo­logical theology which was the basis for much of the teaching of contempt that denied Judaism a place in God's plan for redemption. Christian typology stressed the concept that the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is merely a preparation for Jesus' coming and mission, and that Israel lost its purpose and meaning in the divine plan.


Catholic Education and Judaism 


Underlying Nostra Aetate is the requirement to present the history of Jews and Judaism in a way that reflects the gospel teaching:


Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be

presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God, they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.


These recommendations have been followed in the United States by the Department of Education of the United States Catholic Conference. Together with the Anti-Defamation League, special courses on Jews and Judaism for Catholic teachers were developed. The Nostra Aetate educational recommendation was expanded in the Vatican II 1985 document Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church. The Notes stress that "Jesus was and always remained a Jew", urging Catholic teachers and preachers to take special care in their reading of the New Testament:


Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favorable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts with the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies re­flect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for the Christians of today. All this should be taken into account when preparing catechesis and homilies for the last week of Lent and Holy Week.


 The Notes remind the catechists that "the Pharisees are not men­tioned in the accounts of the Passion" and echo Nostra Aetate and the Guidelines in the condemna­tion of anti-Semitism.


The Notes state that "catechesis should help in understanding the meaning for the Jews of the extermination during the years 1939-1945, and its consequences." The Holocaust, however, should be understood by humanity, especially all who profess faith in a living God. The Holo­caust occurred in Christian Europe, in the midst of Western Christian civilization, in an almost complete silence from Christians and Christian religious organizations.


Two paragraphs refer to Israel, the land and the state. To our knowl­edge, it is the first time that the Vatican referred to the State of Israel in an official document.


The Notes resonate from a Jewish understanding with both positive and negative dimensions. They also resonate with apparent contradic­tions. It is well that the Notes accord to Jews and Judaism - historically and currently - a fuller recognition of Israel's being and mission. In ad­dition, the Notes go further than any prior Catholic document in pointing to Jesus' Jewishness and his close relationship to Pharisaism. Yet, on the other hand, the Notes echo several elements of the teaching of contempt: positing merely preparatory roles for Jews and Judaism in God's plan; continuing advice to read the Hebrew Bible through typological-Christian lenses; denial of Judaism as a way of salva­tion; and repeating the spurious charge of guilt in Jesus' death against unnamed and unknowable "Jewish authorities."


Nostra Aetate and Anti-Semitism


The Vatican Council's concern with the historical reality of anti­-Semitism became evident in the general discussions and the preparation of Nostra Aetate. The first draft had a line "condemning" anti-Semitism.9  Some council fathers considered that the word "condemn" should only be employed by a Vatican Council in problems relating to dogma. Cardi­nal Bea, however, reminded the council of the March 25, 1928, declara­tion by the Vatican Congregation of the Holy Office that specifically used "condemnation" in relation to the Catholic Church's position on anti-Semitism. Nostra Aetate points out:


Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of her patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, de­cries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.



Zionism and Anti-Zionism


There is one aspect that both Nostra Aetate and the Vatican Guide­lines do not consider in their striving "to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience." One central trait is Zionism, an essential part of the Jewish vocation since biblical days (Gen 12 and other texts). The exile and the return experi­ence of Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as the liturgical hope expressed in daily prayer and sustained in the High Holy Days and Passover celebra­tions, symbolize the Jewish people's relationship to the Promised Land.


The documents of the American and French bishops, however, pay special attention to the centrality of the State of Israel in the existence of the Jewish people.


The Ever-Present Scourge of Anti-Semitism


Deeply concerned with the dangers and iniquities of racism and anti-Semitism, the Holy See's Pontifical Commission, "Justice and Peace," on February 10, 1989, issued a document The Church and Rac­ism: Towards a More Fraternal Society. In an honest way, the document denounces racism and at the same time confesses religious involvement in past racist attitudes:


Of course, Christians themselves must humbly admit that members of the Church, on all levels, have not always lived out this teaching [the Christian teaching denouncing racism] coherently throughout history. Nonetheless, she must continue to proclaim what is right while seeking to do "the truth."


The Church and Racism deals with many problems of the past: racism in Antiquity; Greek and Roman attitudes toward other people; the attitude of the Church vis-a-vis the Indians in America; medieval anti-Judaism. The document describes past mistakes with a sincerity that touches the heart of the reader and invites Catholics, as well as other faith communities, to ponder the meaning of racism in history.


The Church and Racism complements the thinking of previous Vati­can documents on anti-Semitism. It points out the roots of Nazi anti-­Semitism, stating that 18th-century racism, using "science" to justify prejudice, "had considerable resonance in Germany" and influenced the Nazi decisions that produced one of the greatest "genocides in history":


This murderous folly struck first and foremost the Jewish people in unheard-of proportions, as well as other people, such as Gypsies and the Tziganes and also categories of persons such as the handicapped and the mentally ill. It was only a step from racism to eugenics, and it was quickly taken.


It is true that the Nazis included in their racist program the destruc­tion of Poles and Russians, Gypsies and handicapped people, but the Jewish case was unique. Jews were sentenced to death by reason of birth; the Nuremberg laws were part of a state ideology of immolation. This is recognized by the document when it refers specifically to the Shoah as the "Jewish Holocaust."


The Vatican document devotes Section 15 to denounce anti-Semi­tism and anti-Zionism:


Among the manifestations of systematic racial distress, specific men­tion must once again be made of anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitism has been the most tragic form that racist ideology has assumed in our century, with the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, it has unfortunately not yet entirely disappeared. As if some had nothing to learn from the crimes of the past, certain organizations with branches in many coun­tries keep alive an anti-Semite racist myth, with the support of net­works of publications.


Terrorist acts which have Jewish persons or symbols as their tar­gets have multiplied in recent years and showed the radicalism of such groups. Anti-Zionism - which is not of the same order, since it ques­tions the State of Israel and its policies - serves at times as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it Furthermore, some countries impose undue harassment and restrictions on the free emi­gration of Jews.


The Vatican document The Church and Racism rebukes the U.N. 1975 resolution calling Zionism a form of racism. The U.N. statement was described by the American bishops as "unjust." The President of the U.S. Bishops Conference stated that "its substantial inadequacy both retards the necessary struggle against racism in the world and opens the door to harrassment, discrimination and denial of basic rights to members of the Jewish community throughout the world." The Vatican criticism reinforces this condemnation.


A Final Reflection


The Christian-Jewish relationship has undergone a particular trans­formation. It has gone from argument to dialogue, from conflict to a situation of meeting, from ignorance and alienation to encounter, a con­versation between equals. The road has not been smooth, and problems and misunderstandings still abound. But mainly there is a desire to listen and to respond, to see the other as a person and not an object of contempt.


The dialogue requires a reckoning and a reflection. It is important for Jews to come to terms with two thousand years of memories, memories from the times of the New Testament experience, medieval disputations, the Inquisition, and present-day Christian ideological criticisms of Zionism and Israel. Jews need to overcome the castrating effects of images transmitted by genera­tions, and the concrete experiences of Christian triumphalism associated with political regimes past and present. Christian self-searching as evi­denced in Vatican II and other Christian efforts are the means that will open new roads to spiritual understanding.


Dialogue is both a process of inner cleansing and a search for truth. The inner cleansing is an attempt to see the other faith commitment as part of God's special design for mankind. A respectful relationship, that at this point we call dialogue until a more precise word can describe this unique, special meeting, is never a confrontation but a common en­deavor, mindful of the different vocations. Real dialogue calls persons into their own being while also acknowledging the others as persons with a way and a commitment. Interfaith dialogue is a recognition of the other as person, and God as the common ground of being.


The search into the meaning of God's special call is a search for the meaning of our faith encounter beyond syncretism and sporadic sympa­thies. Ours is a search for the mystery of a new dimension: the possibility to witness God together, not unified, but standing together at a time of general unbelief and ideological triumphalisim. Ours is a search in humil­ity for God's presence and call.


The promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the publication of the Vatican Guidelines, the Notes, the Church and Racism, and the Episcopal documents on Christian-Jewish relations are good signs, signs of peace, signs marking the beginning of a prophetic time and a prophetic relationship. Jews and Christians together have embarked on a new time, a time of hope, of mutual encounter and reconciliation.





1.               Martin Buber, Die Stunde und die Erkenntis (Berlin: Schocken, 1936), p. 155

2.               Joseph L. Lichten, "The Council's Statement on the Jews, in Christian Friends' Bulletin (December 1965)

3.               Quoted in Vincent A. Yzermans, American Participation in the Second Vatican Council (New York:Sheed &Ward, 1967) pp. 573-574.

4.               Arthur Gilbert, The Vatican Council and the Jews (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing company, 1968), p. 147

5.               Cf. Thomas F. Stransky, "The Guidelines, A Catholic Point of View," and Leon Klenicki, "The guidelines, A Jewish Point of View," in Face to Face: An Interreligious Bulletin I (Summer 1975) 7-13

6.               All quotations from Nostra Aetate, the Vatican Guidelines, and the various bishops' conference statements are from Helga Croner, comp., Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations, (London-New York, Stimulus Books, 1977). 

7.               Helga Croner, comp., More Stepping Stones to Jewish-Christian Relations. An unabridged collection of Christian documents 1975-1983 (New York: Paulist, A Stimulus Book 1985).

8.               Cf. Walter Jacob, Christianity Through Jewish Eyes (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1974).

9.               Cf. Augustin Cardinal Bea, The Church and the Jewish People (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).



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