When The Catholic Church Embraced ‘Abraham’s Stock’


Fifty years ago, for the Catholic faithful from New York to New Zealand, Jews, according to Church teaching, were seen as Christ killers. Back in the 1960s, Judaism was a religion that had been overtaken, supplanted. A half-century ago, for the Church hierarchy in the Vatican, the scrappy little nation in the Middle East, not yet 20 years old, that sat on land holy to the three major religions, was not even worthy of diplomatic relations.

And then, in the fall of 1965, came these shocking words:

“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. Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. … Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself.”

The words, which are found in a lyrically written 1,600-word document called “Nostra Aetate” (Latin for “In These Times”) would come to revolutionize Catholic-Jewish relations, according to interfaith leaders. Judaism was now a religion officially redeemed by the Catholic Church, a spiritual equal to Christianity and, after 20 centuries, part of “God’s saving design.”

“It would be hard to overstate the dramatic revolution that Nostra Aetate represented,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee. He called Nostra Aetate “a game changer” that has come to be accepted by the Catholic community, from each Pope since 1965 and the Vatican’s Roman Curia who administer the Church, to worshippers in the pews. “It did not remain a discarded document on the shelf.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of that document, the part of the organized Jewish community that coordinates official relations with other faiths is this year looking back, at the Vatican pronouncement that redefined the Church’s relations with non-Christians — and looking ahead, at the future of Jewish-Catholic relations and some of the contentious issues between the two faiths that remain unresolved.

A number of Jewish organizations are taking part in a yearlong commemoration of the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, which was officially adopted by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) under the leadership of Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965.

Before Nostra Aetate, the issues that separated the Jewish and Catholic communities were deep-seated and profound.

Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, ticked them off in a list: “Catholicism’s legacy of anti-Semitism, its refusal to politically recognize the State of Israel [that occurred in 1993] and its teachings that condemned followers of the Jewish religion.” All of these, Rabbi Sandmel said, “stemmed from contempt.”

After Nostra Aetate, with the “contempt” now in the past, the rabbi and other participants in dialogue activities said, the list is less consequential, though still filled with trouble spots. It includes such issues as the opening of the Vatican’s wartime archives, which would reveal the activities of Pope Pius XII, who is on track to be sainted, during the Holocaust; the Good Friday Mass that some Jews see as a return to supersessionist theology; the influence in some venues of so-called Liberation Theology that typically considers Israel an “oppressor” of Palestinians; an inadequate teaching of Nostra Aetate principles in seminaries outside of the United States and in many diocese schools where students have little day-to-day contact with Jews. A new issue cropped up earlier this year when the Vatican recognized the “State of Palestine,” a step, the Vatican said, that was taken to improve relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Jewish community’s ongoing request for unrestricted access to Vatican archives would erase suspicion about the behavior of Pius XII, Rabbi Marans said. “It is rare” that Jewish representatives do not raise this issue during official meetings with Church officials, he said.

“As long as they are closed,” said Rabbi Sandmel, “there is an aura of secrecy, of trying to protect something.”

Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, stressed the importance of Nostra Aetate being taught on a more regular basis outside of the United States. “The USA is not the whole world. There are still parts of the world where millions of Catholics do not meet Jews, and even in places where they do, the actual texts and teachings of the Vatican regarding Jews and Judaism are not well-known enough.”

These issues, while not minor to people who protect Jewish interests, are not of the scope or severity of the issues that characterized Catholic-Jewish relations before Vatican II, and they do not threaten to harm the warm tenor of ties that have prevailed for the last half-century, the interfaith leaders said.

Nostra Aetate grew out of a warming relationship with Jewry that had begun during World War II, when John XXIII, who was at the time Archbishop Angelo Roncalli and serving as a nuncio, or papal ambassador, had helped save tens of thousands of Hungarian and Slovak Jews by arranging their transportation to Palestine. He also played a role in saving more than 50,000 Jews in Romania.

John XXIII’s sympathy for the Jewish community and antipathy for anti-Semitism was further influenced by a conversation he had in 1960 with Jules Isaac, a French historian and intellectual whose family had perished during the Shoah. After the war Isaac wrote “Jesus and Israel,” a massive book that traced the Church’s history of anti-Jewish teachings.

The Pope delegated a major part of the writing of Nostra Aetate to Msgr. John Oesterreicher, a Jewish-born member of the Catholic clergy, who was born in Czechoslovakia, and whose parents also died in the Holocaust. Once a firm believer in the conversion of Jews to Christianity, the Pope had had a change of heart, and came to acknowledge the spiritual legitimacy of Judaism and rejected the idea of the Church’s widespread “mission to the Jews.”

His new perspective was reflected in Nostra Aetate, which has guided the Vatican’s attitude towards Jews and Judaism for the subsequent half-century.

“Current Jewish-Catholic relations are very good, while there are a few small areas of concern,” said Rabbi Burton Visotzky, director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

“It is difficult to imagine,” said Rabbi Rosen, that relations “could be any better. The transformation in the Church’s approach towards the Jewish people ushered in by Nostra Aetate is without parallel in human history precisely because this relationship was so uniquely chronic and is now so blessed.”

Rabbi Rosen will be a participant in the Vatican’s official commemoration of Nostra Aetate, and will take part in a Jewish audience with Pope Francis, at the end of October.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the New York Diocese, in a recent speech about Nostra Aetate, praised the “candor with which we have confronted the testy controversies which have arisen” between the Jewish and Catholic communities.

“Raised voices over such issues as the Good Friday prayer, the cross and convent at Auschwitz, the visit of Kurt Waldheim to Pope John Paul II, the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust- denying priest … the role of the Holy See during World War II, the reputation of Pius XII, necessary revision in the Oberammergau Passion Play, diplomatic exchanges between Israel and the Vatican … have caused spats and arguments,” the cardinal said. “That we have not dodged them and have actually persevered through them is a test of our mettle.”

Are the advances of Nostra Aetate set in stone, or are some Jews nervous that a future Pope with less concern about Jewish-Catholic relations may reverse some of the changes or pay less attention to interfaith ties?

“Jews are constitutionally nervous,” Rabbi Marans said, adding that Nostra Aetate “is embedded in the Catholic Church today. The outliers [Church leaders who oppose the spirit of Vatican II] are not allowed to get away with it.”

As a sign of this sea change in relations, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the 92nd Street Y, and Jewish institutions across the country are sponsoring anniversary programs this month, many with the participation of local Catholic leaders.

The Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations was to take part in a program this week at the 92nd Street Y, and the AJC will present its Isaiah Award for Interreligious Leadership to Cardinal Dolan at a Nostra Aetate celebration on Nov. 2.

Nostra Aetate, which was instigated by John XXIII, Paul VI’s predecessor, was “not a foregone conclusion,” Rabbi Marans said (in fact, 88 out of roughly 2,300 bishops voted against it); it was subject to substantive and symbolic acts in subsequent years by John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who is the first pope to have been ordained as a priest after the groundbreaking document.

In a recent speech at an event co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic University of America, Rabbi Marans called Nostra Aetate “the gold standard by which all other Christian denominational documents on Judaism would be measured.”

From Polish-born John Paul II, who diplomatically recognized Israel and made a symbolic 1987 visit to Rome’s main synagogue, to German-born Benedict XVI, who followed in John Paul II’s footsteps by visiting synagogues in Rome and Cologne and New York City, to Francis, who has maintained the close ties with the Jewish community he began while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, a relationship of Jews and Catholics as spiritual equals has become standard Vatican policy, Rabbi Marans said.

Nostra Aetate (“The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) included statements on Muslims and Buddhists, but it devoted nearly 600 words, more than a third of the total document, to the Jewish people, described as “Abraham’s stock.”

About the long-held Church belief that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the document said, “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, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

And about the ongoing relationship between Christians and Jews, “Nostra Aetate” looked to move the interfaith dialogue forward, setting in motion a process that continues a half-century later: “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is … so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues,” the text states. “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God. The Church … decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”