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Why Haven’t Jews Responded to Vatican II After 50 Years?

The arrival of Pope Francis in America and the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark declaration, Nostra Aetate, have allowed us, as Jews, to marvel at the revolutionary developments in our relations with the Catholic Church in the past half-century. But while the church has taken great strides in re-examining the way it considers and interacts with Judaism and the Jewish people, Jews have done little in response.

When Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1962, it was not simply to bring about an aggiornamento, an updating, of the church’s relations with the world; it was also to come to terms with the Catholic teaching of contempt for the Jewish people, which was in part responsible for the grievous suffering and eventual destruction of European Jewry. The pope wanted to face up to the Holocaust.

Nostra Aetate was indeed a revolution, particularly with reference to Jews and Judaism. First of all, it moved from a theology of a dead, outdated and superseded Judaism to a theology of a living Judaism. Second, it rejected the idea that all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism could, in any way, be founded on Christian or scriptural teaching. And, most important, the church came to understand that in the words of Paul the Apostle, God’s covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable, and that Jews continue to be “the chosen people.”

Referring to Nostra Aetate, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, then head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, stated: “Never, I repeat never, before had a systematic, positive, comprehensive, careful and daring presentation of Jews and Judaism been made in the church by a pope or a council. This should never be lost sight of.”

In 1985, Pope John Paul II, addressing representatives of the Jewish community of Venezuela, stated, “I wish to confirm with utmost conviction that… Nostra Aetate… remains always for us, for the Catholic Church, for the Episcopate… and for the pope, a teaching which must be followed —a teaching which it is necessary to accept not merely as something fitting, but much more as an expression of the faith as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as a word of the Divine Wisdom.”

Pope John Paul II had dramatized these teachings through his 1986 visit to the principal synagogue of Rome, repeating the basic message of Nostra Aetate. There, he said that the Catholic Church was against anti-Semitism created by anyone, in any place, at any time.

Then, in September of 1990, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Commission, made public repentance in Prague on the part of the church for his past sins of anti-Judaism, and requested forgiveness from the Jews for any wrongs perpetrated against them. On that occasion, he stated, “That anti-Judaism has found a place in Christian thought and practice calls for an act of teshuvah [repentance] and of reconciliation on our part.”

And what can we say about Pope Francis? While still a Cardinal, he wrote a book with a rabbi — a book that clearly dealt with the Shoah, claiming that “every Jew who was killed was a slap against the living God in the name of Idols.” He declared, as pope, that no good Catholic could be an anti-Semite. More recently, he has journeyed to Israel, embracing the Jewish state as a valid representation of the Jewish people. Here is a pope who will go as far as he can on the road of interreligious dialogue.

Until now, the Jewish side of the dialogue with the Catholic Church was primarily concerned with two issues: anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. The first issue was addressed repeatedly and confirmed in the 1998 Vatican document, We Remember, and through numerous subsequent papal speeches and documents. The State of Israel was fully recognized with the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See in 1993 and the consequent exchange of ambassadors. And while the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel has been at times testy, the fundamental point of recognition is secure.

But there is a noticeable asymmetry in the relationship to date.

More than 20 years after the signing of the Fundamental Agreement, side agreements related to financial matters and to the return of church property are still being negotiated. Moreover, Israel has not sought the assistance of the Catholic Church in fighting anti-Jewish attitudes in the Orthodox churches, as it has a right to do under the agreement. And most important, Israel has not yet seen fit to present the agreement for a vote in the Knesset.

The Catholics have revised their understanding of the place of Jews in the Catholic worldview. Jewish interlocutors should respond in kind. This is necessary if the interfaith dialogue is to proceed effectively.

There is much to build on here. The ancient Jewish text, the Tosefta, clearly states that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come, and Jewish sources repeatedly proclaim the doctrine mipne darchei shalom, or for the sake of peace, which enjoins Jews to “seek peace and pursue peace” with everyone, including their non-Jewish neighbors. The rabbinic teaching of the Noachide Commandments is relevant, as are other such teachings. All are building blocks by which we can erect an authoritative document responding to the church’s transformation since Vatican II.

The Catholics feel that they have gone far on the path. They are waiting for us to do our part.

Marshall Breger is a professor of Law at the Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America. Rabbi Jack Bemporad is the director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding

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