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

Eugene Fisher is the Associate Director of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the author of numerous books and scholarly articles on the subject.

"A Continuing Challenge"

By Eugene J. Fisher




Nostra Aetate, No. 4, represents one of the first items taken up on the agenda of the Second Vatican Council, yet was one of the last documents to be approved by the Council.


Between 1962 and 1965, the debate on the draft raged furiously both on the floor of the Council and behind the scenes. Anti-Semitic tracts were passed out to the Council Fathers and debunked by defenders of the statement. Intense diplomatic pressure was put forth by Arab governments. Compromises in wording and nuance were made and remade. The document was originally intended to be a lengthier one put out on its own. Then it was thought to attach it to the statement on ecumenism. The final compromise was to include it in a statement on "Non-Christian Religions" in general. Thus it was that the Council Fathers took up the issue of dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and the native traditions, in a real sense, in order to take a positive approach to Judaism.


In many ways, the 15 long Latin sentences that make up the Council's declaration on the Jews and Judaism, the first ever issued by a Council in the history of the Church, constituted a mini-version of all of the debates of the Council as a whole. Scriptural and liturgical studies, ecclesiology and Church history, all were brought to bear on and in turn tested by this remarkable distillation of scholarship and pastoral sensitivity. Nostra Aetate remains to this day a litmus test for the implementation of the Conciliar vision as a whole, so pervasive in Catholic thought are the challenges it raised and still raises for Christian teaching and preaching.


Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) marks the end of one long era in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations and the hopeful beginning of a new age of positive dialogue between our two ancient communities. To understand Nostra Aetate 's profound significance, it would be useful to review briefly the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, divided here into six steps:

1. The first stage is the briefest, encompassing the period from
Jesus' ministry to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the first century of the common era. In this period, Christianity is perhaps best understood as a Jewish movement, although one can see the beginnings of its distinctive liturgical life reflected in the writings of St. Paul. 1

2. The second stage may be called the "the parting of the ways," a phenomenon that took place gradually, reaching maturity and definitiveness by the middle of the 4th century. This was the period that saw the setting down of the bulk of the New Testament, including the four gospels and the later Epistles, such as the Epistle to the Hebrews. During this stage many of the New Testament and Patristic polemics against Jews and Judaism were written (against, for example, the Pharisees and the
Temple cult), reflecting the confrontations between the emerging Church and the developing rabbinic tradition. By contrast, the Mishnah, the earliest and "core" volume of the Talmud, was written at the end of the second century and, for its part, contains remarkably little anti-Christian polemic. 2

3. The third stage begins at the end of the 4th century with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the
Roman Empire. It ends in the 10th century with the massive violence perpetrated against the helpless Jewish communities of Christian Europe by the Crusaders (despite the strong opposition of the Pope and St. Bernard). In consolidating its secular power, Church policy sought on the one hand to suppress the attractiveness of Judaism to potential converts and on the other to protect Jewish existence, as a witness to the validity of the Hebrew Bible upon which the Christian proclamation is based. No such protection was accorded pagans, Muslims, or those deemed by the Church to be heretical. 3

4. The fourth stage, from the 10th through the 16th centuries, marks in a sense the nadir of Jewish-Catholic relations. It begins with massacres of Jews by the Crusaders. During this period, the teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism, initially only theoretical, came to fruition in such sinful acts by Christians against Jews as forced exiles and baptisms, ghettos, Talmud burnings, and blood libels. By the end of this period the Jewish communities of
Western Europe were decimated and severely oppressed. 4

5. The fifth stage lasts from the Enlightenment to the eve of World War II. Though freed from the ghettos and contributing significantly to European society, Jews were still considered "outsiders" by most Europeans. Simultaneously, this period saw the development of pseudo-scientific racism, in great part as a means of rationalizing colonization and the slave trade to the
New World. These "racialist" theories sought to justify what was being done to native peoples on the grounds that they were lower forms of humanity and were soon extended to the most "alien" group within Europe, namely, the Jews. Nazism carried these theories to their most extreme to justify" the Holocaust in which, ultimately, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were coldly and systematically murdered. The Holocaust, therefore, represents a crisis not only for Church teaching but for the Western civilization as a whole. 5

6. The sixth stage begins with the liberation of the death camps by the Allied armies, and with the shock of realizing what had happened there. A
high point was reached when a Jewish state was reestablished in the land of Israel, manifesting the Jewish people's renewed ability to hope. This spirit of hope for the future continued as the Church began to embark upon a profound examination of conscience and renewal, resulting in Nostra Aetate and similar statements by other churches. 6


The progress of the churches in addressing and reviewing their own teaching since Vatican II has been remarkable, as has been the intensity of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews. In many respects, American Catholics and Jews have been at the leading edge of the dialogue today. Central to and reflective of this dialogue have been several books worth noting. In 1980, the Stimulus Foundation published a volume honoring the 15th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The book, Biblical Studies: Meeting Ground of Jews and Christians (Paulist), was edited by Lawrence Boadt, Helga Croner, and Leon Klenicki. In 1988, the International Catholic-Jewish dialogue published its paper in a volume entitled Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue (1970-1985) (Libreria Editrice Vaticana/Lateranense, 1988). Still, we in America have much to learn. Recently, for example, the bishops of Italy announced a national day of reflection on Catholic-Jewish relations, to involve all seminaries, Catholic schools, religious education classes, and adult groups. So far as I know, such a measure has no precedent at the national level in this or any other country, though several dioceses in America have launched similar efforts over the years. Today the necessary documents and official statements have come forth from the international, national and local levels. However, this great vision remains to be fully implemented in the lives of our Catholic people.


Here in America, where we are blessed with such active and faithful Jewish and Catholic communities, we can do no less than continue this critical work.




The above historical survey illustrates something of what was at stake in the Conciliar debate on the declaration on the Church's attitude toward the Jewish people. Its implications are pervasive. Here, one can indicate only a few. Others have been taken up by Rabbi Leon Klenicki and me in our articles for PACE over the years.


Most Catholic teachers, whether familiar with the actual text of Nostra Aetate or not, are aware that one must be cautious not to present the New Testament texts in such a way as to impute collective guilt on the Jewish people, then or now, for the death of Jesus, since this charge lay at the heart of the "teaching of contempt" which rationalized so much persecution of the Jewish people with Christendom in the past. For teachers with questions regarding particular depictions of Jesus' passion and death, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has provided an excellent tool, entitled Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (USCC publ. no. 211, Washington, D.C.,1988).


Many teachers, however, may not be aware of the binding force of the biblical hermeneutic introduced by the Council for the first time. It at once clarifies many erstwhile problems in interpretation and challenges age-old misunderstandings of the New Testament text. 7 The Council stated, without equivocation, that "the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Sacred Scriptures." Here, the record of our Catholic textbooks is clear, as is that concerning the repudiation of the collective guilt canard.


The dynamic of "rejection" can insinuate itself into our teaching (and preaching!) in various ways. Quite often, it is through an unremittingly negative portrait of the Pharisees as the foil over against which Jesus proclaims his teaching. In an issue of a major Catholic journal, for example, the author can still speak of "Pharisaical purism" as a foil for contemporary Catholic thought. And charges of "legalism" and "materialism" against the Pharisees are common in our textbooks and from our pulpits. One goes on from such negative and historically false portraits of what the Pharisees (we Christians think) taught, to the "conclusion" that the Pharisees "rejected" the teachings of Jesus. The step from "rejecting" the teachings of Jesus to "rejecting" the person of Jesus is a short one.


The dynamic that follows, usually, is as devastating as it is deceptive. What is said about Pharisaism (the tradition in fact closest to Jesus' own teaching in all of Second Temple Judaism) is easily and unreflectively applied to all of Judaism. What is said about "the Pharisees" in Matthew, for example, is imputed to all of "the Jews" of Jesus' time. And if "the Jews" rejected Jesus, then of course God must, albeit reluctantly, have rejected the Jews.


In such a way, by bits and pieces and despite warnings against it in the textbook manuals themselves, a picture is developed, ostensibly based upon the New Testament, of a mutual "rejection" between "the Jews" and their God. And we are back, functionally, to a starting point not very distant from that rejected by the Council. One must watch all collective nouns, not only "the Jews" (most of whom, living outside Israel in Jesus' time, would never have heard of Jesus, must less "rejected" him) but also "the Pharisees." Jesus' condemnation of religious hypocrisy, Matthew 23 notwithstanding, is essentially Pharisaic in tone and substance. It is not something with which most Pharisees would have disagreed, since they preached the same virtues in this regard as did he.


So the first thing Catholic educators can do is to dispense with collective terminology and with the word "rejection" and its cognates altogether. It is not really accurate or adequate to say, as we often hear, that "the Jews" (or even "the majority of Jews") rejected Jesus or even the Church's post-resurrection proclamation about Jesus. True, the majority of the Jewish people did not take the path of Paul and the apostles but rather followed that developed by the successors of the Pharisees, the rabbis and Talmudic/Rabbinic Judaism.


But is this choice properly understood as a "rejection" as we Christians tend to put it? Is it not more accurate to call it an acceptance on the part of the Jewish people of the obligations of God's covenant with them as interpreted by the rabbis? The Jewish people, to be accurate, continued to accept God's covenant even after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 (A.D. in our Catholic terminology, C.E. for "Common Era" in theologically neutral terminology). This faith-filled acceptance, held to despite the sufferings and persecutions (shamefully often at Christian hands), of God's choice of and for them is hardly adequately sloughed aside as we generally tend to do by calling it a "rejection." Is it not more accurately called a heroic witness of faith, the longest and most tenacious in all of human history?


Ought not we Christians, who after all do acknowledge the validity of the revelation of Sinai and hold that God is faithful and does not renege on the divine promises, celebrate this faithful witness for what it is?


There used to be a feast in our liturgical calendar honoring "the Holy Maccabees, Martyrs." Truly they were, and just as truly have been those Jews who refused to bow to the Crusader's sword and accept forced conversion. These, too, we should honor in our liturgy if we are to be consistent with what the Council has said.


All of the above is stated eloquently in two passages from the 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching and Teaching issued by the Holy See to mark the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The first states: "The history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. It continued, especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry the whole world a witness — often heroic — of its fidelity to the one God and 'to exalt Him in the presence of all the living' (Tobit 13:4), while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the heart of their hope (e.g., Passover Seder)."


While the above passage invites Catholics to meditate upon the history of Israel after the close of the biblical age as before, i.e., precisely as the story of God's Chosen People in history, with all that entails, the second passage, with which I shall close this meditation, invites us to look toward the future, i.e., toward that divinely ordained end of history which, we believe, defines the meaning of the present age of history: "In underlining (as Catholic teachers and Preachers) the eschatological dimension of Christianity we shall reach a greater awareness that the people of God of the Old and the New Testament are tending towards a like end in the future: the coming or return of the Messiah — even if we start from two different points of view. . . . Attentive to the same God who has spoken, hanging on the same word, we have to

witness one same memory and one common hope in Him who is the master of history. We must also accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice, respect for the rights of persons and nations, and for social and international reconciliation. To this we are driven, Jews and Christians, by the command to love our neighbor, by a common hope for the Kingdom of God and by the great heritage of the Prophets. Transmitted early enough by catechesis, such a conception should teach young Christians in a practical way to cooperate with Jews, going beyond simple dialogue."8

In 1998, the Holy See issued the statement, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.  Because of the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of
Auschwitz in 1995, the bishops conferences of Hungary, Germany, Poland, the U.S., Holland, Switzerland, France and Italy had earlier released trenchant statements of their own reflecting on the Holocaust and its implications for Catholic-Jewish relations in their countries.  The U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs published all of these documents, together with a commentary by Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in the short volume, Catholics Remember the Holocaust (USCCB, 1998).  This collection was followed up in 2001 with a more formal set of reflections by the Bishops' Committee "intended to help Catholic schools on all levels, including seminaries and universities, to implement the mandate of the Holy See's 1998 statement."   The resulting booklet, Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing the Holy See's "We Remember,"  provides Catholic teachers with the necessary background and framing of issues to approach this most sensitive yet vital event in an educationally fruitful way, pointing out, for example, the necessary distinctions between guilt and responsibility, and between anti-Semitism and theological, Christian anti-Judaism.


Finally, this 40th anniversary year of Nostra Aetate has seen a most moving papal transition.  The outpouring of Jewish prayers of condolence for Catholics and of thanksgiving to God for the healing vision of and outreach to them by Pope John Paul II has been virtually without precedent in the long history of relations between Jews and Catholics.9  He was the first pope to join with Jews in prayer in a synagogue since the time of St. Peter, the first to pray for the victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz and at the Yad vaShem Memorial in Jerusalem, the first to place in the Western Wall of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, and countless pious Jews have done over the ages, a prayer of repentance and petition to God.  The words of the Pope's prayer sum up perfectly our attitude of repentance and hope as Catholics today:


God of our fathers,

You chose Abraham and his descendants

To bring your Name to the Nations.

We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those

Who in the course of history have caused

These children of yours to suffer,

And asking your forgiveness

We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood

With the people of the Covenant.


(Jerusalem, March 26, 2000)    





1 Cf. E. Fisher, ed., The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1990.


Philip Cunningham, Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT, 1987. An overview of the history as perceived by Jewish and Christian scholars in dialogue to be found in E. Fisher, ed., Interwoven Destinies: Jews and Christians Through the Ages (Paulist Press, Stimulus 1993).


2 Cf. E. Fisher and L. Klenicki, eds., Root and Branches: Biblical Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, St. Mary's Press, Winona, MN, 1987, and David P Efroymson, E. Fisher and L. Klenicki, eds., Within Context: Essays on Jews and Judaism the New Testament (Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 1993).


3 Cf. Edward A. Synan, The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages, Macmillan, New York, 1965; J. Edwards, The Jews in Christian Europe 1400-1700, London: Routledge,1988; and M. Saperstein, Moments of Crisis in Jewish-Christian Relations, SCM, Trinity Press, 1988.


4 Cf. Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, Paulist Press, New York, revised and expanded edition, 1999.

5 Cf. Heiko Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984. Also, E. Fisher, "The Church and Racism: Educational Implications" in Professional Approaches for Christian Educators, (PACE), 1990. Also, The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Vatican City, 1989, and Anti-Semitism Is a Sin (ADL, 1994).


6 Cf. Helga Croner, Compiler, Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations, and More Stepping Stones to Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Christian Documents, 1975-1983, Paulist Press — A Stimulus Book, New York, 1977 and 1985. Also, International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue 1970-1985, Rome: Libreria Editrice Lateranense, 1988; E. Fisher and L. Klenicki, In Our Time: The Flowering of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (Paulist, Stimulus, 1990); and E. Fisher, Visions of the Other: Jewish And Christian Theologians Assess the Dialogue (Paulist, Stimulus, 1994). The collection of popular-level essays by Catholic and Jewish scholars edited by Mary C. Boys, Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity's Sacred Obligation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) surveys twelve key issues facing Christian re-thinking today, including my own "Catholic Teaching on Jews and Judaism: An Evolution in Process."  Each section has a short list of further readings.


7 Because of the persistence among Christians of what Pope John Paul II during the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000 in Rome called "misunderstandings" of  biblical texts dating back to the Second Century, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops re-issued Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, it included as well key passages from statements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on "The Interpretation of the Bible (1993) and "The Jews and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002), as well as key sections from statements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1974, 1985, 1998) and the U.S. Bishops' Committee for the Liturgy (1988), in the collection of Church documents, The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus (USCCB Publications, 2003, no. 5-618).


8 The Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews is publishing in 2005 for the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate a collection of all of its own statements along with key statements of the Pope entitled, Dear Brothers and Sisters.  The English edition of this very helpful collection is being published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


9 See Eugene Fisher and Leon Klenicki, editors, Spiritual Pilgrimage: Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism, 1979-1995 ( New York, Crossroad: 1995). Contains texts and commentary.


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