When I go to meetings in the Vatican, as I pass the Swiss guards and walk across the beautiful marble floors, I sometimes think about the long path we Christians and Jews have traveled in the past 2000 years and especially the last 50 years: from rejection and denial to recognition, dialogue and friendship.
This change took place as a result of a confluence of theological and political changes, most importantly the adoption of the document “Nostra Aetate” (“In our time”) on October 28, 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council.
This document revolutionized the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the Jewish people, and is considered the “Magna Carta” of Jewish Catholic dialogue. The Jewish people were exonerated from the collective blame for the death of Jesus, an accusation that was one of the main sources of religious anti-Semitism throughout history.
The widespread perception by Catholics of the Jews, until 1965, as condemned by God to suffer exile and degradation and of the Church as the “New Israel,” in an exclusive sense, was replaced by the words of Pope John Paul II: “You are our dearly beloved brothers…our elder brothers,” and Pope Francis: “A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic because of our common roots.”
How did this change happen? After the Second World War and the Holocaust many Christians began to look inward and examine whether the Catholic discourse had in effect contributed to the hatred toward Jews that made the Holocaust possible.
This process of Christian introspection gained momentum with the Pontificate of Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli). When he was apostolic delegate in Turkey during the Second World War, he helped save Jews from Hungary and Bulgaria. After the war, while Nuncio in Paris, he started a dialogue with the Jewish historian and philosopher Jules Isaac that continued after he was elected Pope in 1958. This dialogue helped shape Roncalli’s views and his decision to change the Church’s position towards the Jewish People.
The “Nostra Aetate” document outlines new Church principles towards Judaism, and among them the most important is the exoneration from the accusation of deicide and the affirmation that God still holds the Jews most dear and did not revoke His Covenant with them. The document also decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time by anyone.
Following the adoption of “Nostra Aetate,” the Catholic Church published a number of other documents with guidelines for its implementation and the correct way to present Jews and Judaism in teaching and prayers.
The Jewish response to this fundamental theological change within Catholicism was positive. For example, two hundred and twenty rabbis, leaders and intellectuals from all branches of Judaism adopted the document “Dabru Emet” (Speak the Truth) that suggested eight themes of common ground between Judaism and Christianity, while recognizing the theological differences between them.
“Nostra Aetate” paved the way for a number of developments: it made possible a direct dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people and between the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Moreover, the recognition of the State of Israel, the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, the establishment of Diplomatic relations between them in 1994, and official visits of three popes in Israel could not have been possible without the adoption of this document.
Fifty years after “Nostra Aetate” Jewish Catholic Dialogue has improved significantly. It is now open, honest, and warm. However, it is time to move forward, beyond the themes of the present dialogue to a higher level in a number of ways: the main challenge is to spread the message of “Nostra Aetate” in Christian communities everywhere, but especially in Africa and Asia where Catholicism is growing fast, and among the younger generation.
In this regard it is important to explain to Catholics the special bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. At the same time it is also important to educate Jewish communities about the meaning of the document. The strong position of Pope Francis against anti-Semitism could serve as a basis for a universal practical program of education supported by Catholic and Jewish communities everywhere and the network of Israeli and Holy See Embassies.
I believe that the Jewish-Catholic dialogue can now focus on an attempt to create a common universal humanist agenda based on respect for other faiths, protection of religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities and, most importantly, rejection of religious extremism and the use of violence in the name of God.
Expanding this dialogue to include other Christian denominations and other religions could be an important step forward towards a truly universal interreligious dialogue and understanding.