The Catholic Church has just marked the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the landmark Vatican II declaration that urged Catholics to understand and accept the Jewish roots of their Christian faith and improve Catholic-Jewish relations over the intervening decades. This document has found an enthusiastic advocate in Pope Francis.
On Oct. 28 the Holy Father met with Jewish leaders in Rome to celebrate that anniversary. During a public audience in St. Peter’s Square he said, “Yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity. No to anti-Semitism.” The pope later said, “Since Nostra Aetate, indifference and opposition have turned into cooperation and goodwill. Enemies and strangers became friends and brothers.”
Statements like these can do much to salve the wounds of a frequently abrasive relationship between Catholics and Jews over the past 2,000 years, during which some Catholics dismissed all Jews as guilty of deicide, being the killers of Christ. It has been a relationship during which some Jews have viewed the Catholic Church as morally indifferent to, if not actually complicit in, the evils of the Holocaust.
The issue of deicide is clearly dealt with in the fourth section of Nostra Aetate (the document’s title means “In Our Time” and is also known as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). Holding that Christ underwent his passion and death freely, Nostra Aetate includes the following: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, themselves, nor against the Jews of today. 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.”
Ironically, it was the horror of the Holocaust that gave rise to Nostra Aetate. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was Papal Nuncio in France, Bulgaria and Greece during those strife-torn years and acted to save Jewish lives. More than a decade later those memories spurred Roncalli, as Pope John XXIII, to work to change the direction of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Now, in Pope Francis, the Church has a leader well known for his close personal relationships with the Jewish leaders of his native Argentina. Foremost among these relationships is his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, with whom he co-authored the 2010 book “On Heaven and Earth” dealing with their interreligious dialogue.
In a 2013 interview with the National Catholic Register, Rabbi Skorka said of Francis, “He does what he says and he speaks what’s on his mind and what he feels in a very direct and clear way. He’s a lovely person, very simple and highly spiritual.”
At a meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews this past summer, Francis spoke of the “rich fruits” in Catholic-Jewish dialogue brought about by Nostra Aetate. “Our fragmented humanity, mistrust and pride have been overcome thanks to the spirit of Almighty God, in such a way that trust and fraternity between us have continued to grow.”
Father Al Baca, Episcopal Vicar of Ecumenism and Interreligion for the Diocese of Orange, has a front row seat to the changes wrought by the Nostra Aetate. “Especially regarding Judaism, it is a positive assessment and a reminder that Christianity has a unique relationship with Judaism that does not exist with any other religion,” he says. “It encourages friendship and fellowship. The Jewish community sees this as a huge step forward in relations and the basis for a directional change in Catholic thinking. By the way, this document has also helped move all the other Christian denominations to a similar road of reconciliation with Jews. It has had a huge impact.”
Praise for Nostra Aetate also flows from Jewish leaders around the world with, in one instance, a hopeful eye to where this example could lead. The Federation of Jewish Committees of Spain released a statement on Oct. 28 that read, “During these 50 years there have been many different gestures made by popes, mainly by John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis for the Jewish world, but the road is long and we must all continue to work on education of mutual respect and appreciation. This auspicious anniversary should inspire us to address the next challenge among the Abrahamic religions—to find the path to narrow the chasm and divide between Judaism and Islam.”