Forty years ago, the Catholic Church revolutionized attitudes within the Christian world toward Jews and Judaism with the declaration known as Nostra Aetate, a document that emerged from the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
Prior to this document, the perception that had prevailed within the Christian world over the centuries was that Jews had been rejected by God not only for their failure to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the true messiah, but also for complicity in his execution. As a result, the Jewish people’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and Jews were expelled from their land and condemned to wander the world as a despised and rejected people.
The Jews were the old Israel, it was taught, and had been replaced by the Church. This attitude led to the demonization of Jews and prepared the terrain for violence against them, culminating in the Holocaust. That is not to say that the Holocaust was a Christian initiative — on the contrary, Nazi ideology was an attack on Christianity. Nevertheless, if Christian Europe had not been indoctrinated for centuries with this teaching of contempt toward Jews, it is very unlikely that the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews could have succeeded to the degree that it did.
The view of the Jew as being divinely punished with permanent exile explains why there was originally such hostility within the Catholic Church to the very idea of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Nostra Aetate repudiated the very basis for this teaching of contempt.
It declared that any attempt to present Jews as rejected or accursed by God was wrong, and rejected the idea of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. It affirmed with the words of Paul that the divine covenant with the Jewish people has not been broken and is eternal. It condemned antisemitism and affirmed that the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews” should lead to “mutual understanding and respect.”
Much has been written about the complex processes and conflicting interests that the document faced on its journey before seeing the light of day. Remarkably, there was encouragement from the highest levels in the Vatican to engage the Jewish community in this process. The American Jewish Committee was privileged to play a principal role in this regard through its department of interreligious affairs, headed by Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, and through facilitating key encounters between the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Cardinal Bea, the Vatican official responsible for the passage of the document by the Council of Vatican II.
Nostra Aetate ushered in a veritable revolution in the work of Catholic scholars and theologians. No longer could any negative attitudes toward Jews or Judaism, much less antisemitism in any form, be justified.
Moreover, the implications of Nostra Aetate can only be properly understood in the light of subsequent Vatican documents and papal statements. For example, Pope John Paul II has clarified categorically that the idea that the Church has replaced the Jewish people is invalid, raising profound implications for the whole question of proselytizing.
Indeed, Pope John Paul II took the message of Nostra Aetate to new heights not only in his personal writing and statements, but also by demonstrating its message, enabling people to become familiar with the profound change in Catholic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. His 1968 visit to the synagogue in Rome and to Israel in 2000, following the establishment of full relations between the Holy See and Israel, were the most powerful testimony of the radical transformation in Catholic teaching toward the reestablishment of the sovereignty of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.
His visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem allowed Jews and others less familiar with his own personal history and activities to become acquainted with his remarkable contribution to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. Similarly, his visit to the Western Wall, part of the remains of the ancient Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans, had profound impact on Jewish communities around the world. As a result, his frequent condemnations of antisemitism as “a sin against God and man” became well known to far greater numbers.
Indeed, under Pope John Paul II’s leadership, the Catholic Church has made a substantial reckoning of the soul concerning its role in facilitating hostility toward Jewry, even if there remain unresolved differences relating to the role of the Vatican and its leadership during and around World War II.
There is arguably no transformation in human history quite comparable. A particular people, once viewed as rejected and condemned, is now seen in the words of the pope as “the dearly beloved elder brother of the Church.”
Even if the effect of this transformation has not yet fully reached Catholic rank and file around the whole world, its ramifications cannot be overestimated and there is much to give thanks for on this anniversary.
Rabbi David Rosen, a former chief rabbi of Ireland, is director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs and of the committee’s Robert and Harriet Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding.