The Truth Between Us #4 – Friday, October 28, marks the 51st anniversary of the document that sparked the ongoing transformation of relations between the Catholic Church and Jews – Nostra Aetate (meaning In Our Time). At The Truth blog series, Dr. Murray Watson and I strive to give our readers insights into issues and events that lie at the intersection of Jews and Christians. Nostra Aetate is one of the seminal intersections.
Murray, a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, reflects on the meaning of the document, and the future of the relationship it continues to shape, below.
It’s not, as I once had to remind a colleague, the Italian name for the Mafia (no, that’s “La Cosa Nostra,” something very different). It is, in fact, the relatively brief document issued on October 28, 1965 by more than 1700 Catholic bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council [Vatican II]—a document which is at the heart of the transformation that has taken place in the Catholic world, in terms of its relationship to Judaism and the other great religions of humanity.
Nostra Aetate was one of the most hotly-debated documents to emerge from Vatican II. Inspired by a 1960 conversation between the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac and Pope John XXIII, it was originally intended only as a document dealing with Judaism. But, at the urging of bishops from around the world, it was eventually broadened to include other religions, and principles for interreligious dialogue generally. Nevertheless, its section on Judaism, #4, remains the single largest, and most developed, part of the final document (in English; in Hebrew).
Looking back from 51 years later, Nostra Aetate’s statements don’t seem nearly as revolutionary, and can sound almost banal to our ears. But that is a tribute to how far interfaith relations (and especially Jewish-Christian relations) have come over the last two generations.
In the 1960s, many Catholics still thought of Jews as “Christ-killers” (“deicides,” in Catholic-talk), and centuries of inherited anti-Jewish teaching and preaching had produced a wide range of stereotypes, clichés and legends (such as “the Wandering Jew”) that were largely taken for granted by the average Christian. Today, as a result of Nostra Aetate, and the many documents it has inspired, Catholics think and speak very differently about Jews and Judaism, and interactions between our two faith-traditions are (overall) more frequent, more positive and healthier than at any time in the last 2000 years.Today, a papal visit to Israel, or even to a synagogue, is largely a non-event for the news media, and educational materials have been dramatically re-written, to reflect a very different theology.
We still have a long way to go before the fruits of this transformation reach all Christians at the level of local churches and schools, but we have already come a great distance, and Nostra Aetate was the catalyst for so much of that change. As Pope Francis said last year, Nostra Aetate “represents a definitive ‘yes’ to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable ‘no’ to anti-Semitism.”
For those who know something of the history of Christianity, those are huge steps indeed, even if they only marked the beginning (and not the end) of this dialogue. As an educator, it is a privilege to be a part of that process, and to watch the changes taking place before my eyes, year after year.
The fifty-first anniversary of Nostra Aetate should be a cause for celebration and gratitude for all of us, but should also challenge all of us, in terms of how we view the religious “Other” in 2016. Seeing what is good and true and holy in faiths beyond our own should not weaken our commitment to our faith, or denigrate its beauty. But it can remind us of what binds us to those of other faiths—and even those who profess no specific faith at all—and of the breadth and depth of the Mystery of the God we serve. Documents like Nostra Aetate are one important part—but only one part—in the jigsaw puzzle of respect, peace and love.
As religious individuals, it is those values we claim to aspire to, and it is by the concrete practice of them that many of our contemporaries will judge the genuineness of our religious commitments. In 1965, Nostra Aetate inaugurated a journey that has already yielded tremendous fruit, and pointed us in a new direction. If religion has been part of the problem, Nostra Aetate forcefully reminds us that it can—and must—be part of the solution also.
In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.