October 28, 2005


Catholic-Jewish relations

The date of this issue, Oct. 28, is the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, known as Nostra Aetate for its first two words (our age). It is known primarily for calling for an end to anti-Semitism and all other religious discrimination, and was the beginning of improved relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism.

Although this declaration concentrated principally on Jews, it spoke to adherents of all religions. It said that the Church “reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, color, condition of life or religion.”

It specifically mentioned Hinduism and Buddhism, saying that the Church “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” It noted that Muslims “strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God,” and pleaded for Christians and Muslims to forget the past and make “a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding.”

Nevertheless, most of the declaration was devoted to relations with the Jews. It said that Christians and Jews have a common heritage because the Church “received the revelation of the Old Testament by way of that people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy established the ancient covenant.”

Although, the declaration said, the Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and even though “Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion.” This was the most important statement in the declaration because that is exactly what many Christians had been preaching.

The declaration was only the beginning of better relations between Jews and Catholics. The late Pope John Paul II did all he could to further those relations, especially during his visit to the Holy Land, where he prayed at the Western Wall and visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Above all, so far as the Jews were concerned, in 1993 he established full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI continues efforts to improve relations. During his visit to Germany for World Youth Day, he visited a synagogue in Cologne, where he told 500 Jews that the Nazi persecution of Jews was “the darkest period of German and European history,” and said that Jews and Christians must respect and love one another.

There was one setback in relations when, in July, the pope was criticized by some Jews when he denounced a series of recent terrorist actions around the world without mentioning similar attacks in Israel. But that controversy blew over fairly quickly through diplomatic explanations.

In September, Pope Benedict met with Israel’s two chief rabbis, Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, at the pope’s summer residence. The rabbis presented a gift to the pope. They took note of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate and urged the pope to designate Oct. 28 as an annual “day against anti-Semitism” to promote Catholic teaching on respect for Jews.

The Vatican has already celebrated the anniversary of the declaration with a conference at Rome’s Gregorian University. It was attended by, among others, Oded Ben-Hur, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, and Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations.

Although Nostra Aetate is now 40 years old, there is evidence that not all Catholics have gotten the message. A new book titled Broken Chain: Catholics Uncover the Holocaust’s Hidden Legacy and Discover Their Jewish Roots tells of the trauma many Polish people have experienced after they learn about a hidden Jewish background. This is a problem because of anti-Semitism that continues to exist in Poland despite all that Pope John Paul II tried to do to eliminate it.

We must add, however, that the better relationship that exists between Catholics and Jews does not mean that we must always agree with what a particular government in Israel does. The Church will continue to speak out against all injustices, including that experienced by Palestinians and many Arab citizens of Israel.

— John F. Fink


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