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Nostra Aetate

A brief commentary

In the aftermath of the war that had just ravaged Europe, as the world discovered with horror the disaster of the death of six million Jews in unspeakable circumstances, a small group of Jews and Christians of various denominations decided to organize an international Ecumenical Conference in Seelisberg, Switzerland in order to establish dialogue and reconciliation. The conference, which took place in July and August 1947, was led by French historian Jules Isaac (1877-1963), who had lost his wife and daughter in the camp of Auschwitz.

Following the Conference, a list of ten crucial points was published, underlining the centrality of dialogue and awareness. It made clear that Christianity is rooted in Judaism. Jules Isaac met Pope John XXIII in 1960, and told him that he hoped to see the Church recognizing her responsibility in the spreading of derogative teachings about Judaism as well as her specific relationship with the people of the First Covenant.

This meeting led to the declaration called Nostra Aetate, (our times) which was published on the 28th of October 1965, during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The publication of the document was entrusted to Cardinal Bea, who initially wrote it as a seven-page document. The proposition was immediately opposed, even in the highest ranks of the Catholic hierarchy. Some asked how it was possible to deal with the many anti-Jewish interpretations of some of the Gospel passages in the writings of the Church Fathers. Others imagined the occult presence of the Free-Masons at work to destroy the Church. In the Oriental churches, some feared the political consequences of such a commitment in favor of the Jews, regarding the difficult context of Middle East at the time. The final agreement was reached only after a toilsome work of negotiations, rewritings, and delicate debates in the Assembly of the Fathers of the Council.

Despite being quite short, this text constitutes a very important basis for future dialogue between Jews and Christians. The introduction is remarkable, and may serve for the analysis of the rest of the document:

As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.

The Church represented by the Holy council recognizes that Abraham’s descendants are at the heart of her mystery, and form part of her deepest identity. This vital relation is said to be “spiritual”, expressing the will of the Holy Spirit. This point was highlighted by Pope Francis during his visit in Israel a few years ago:

“We need to do more than simply establish reciprocal and respectful relations on a human level: we are also called, as Christians and Jews, to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of the bond existing between us. It is a bond whose origins are from on high, one which transcends our own plans and projects, and one which remains intact despite all the difficulties, which, sadly, have marked our relationship in the past.”

Pope Francis, “Address to the Chief Rabbis of Israel.” May 26, 2014.

Thus, the anti-Jewish pervasive theological claim that God has repudiated his chosen people, and replaced it by the elected Church chosen to bring salvation to everyone, is challenged. It is no longer possible to state, and even less to teach that the Jewish people are reproved, or that their covenant is revoked: on the contrary, according to the letter to the Romans, they are still “very dear to God, and their calling is irrevocable” (Rom 11:28-29).

Though it is noticeable that the declaration quotes only some passages of the New Testament, they are nevertheless continuous with the Catholic tradition. Even if it does not follow the centuries of prior anti-Jewish teachings, the teaching is in continuity with the core tradition that always seeks to correct errors and abuses, and promote repentance.

These points will be developed in the following Declarations of the Magisterium. One can quote, for example, the recent Evangelium Gaudium:

The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which the Jewish people have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.(§ 248)

Nostra Aetate remains a fundamental text that still demands to be explored and studied in order to strengthen the vital link between the Church and the people of the First Covenant.