Three views of Christian -- Jewish relations 25 years after 'Nostra Aetate'

Eugenr Fisher

November 28, 1990|By Eugene Fisher

This year, the Roman Catholic Church marks the 25th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," a document issued by the Second Vatican Council that represented a sharp departure in the church's official attitude toward Judaism. The document renounced centuries of Christian teaching that blamed Jews for the death of Jesus and opened the way for Catholic -- Jewish dialogue that has had far -- reaching effects. Meanwhile, Protestants are also re-examining their relationship to Judaism. As the following reflections show, these efforts at interfaith dialogues have profound implications for Christians and Jews alike.

ON OCT. 28, 1965, almost two millenia after an obscure Jewish visionary was crucified as a troublemaker by imperial Rome, 2,221 Catholic bishops meeting in Rome voted placet ("it pleases") on the final draft of one of the Second Vatican Council's shortest and most controversial documents. Entitled Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"), the document reversed the course of the oldest religious antagonism in human history.

Nostra Aetate was a Catholic document addressed to and binding upon the consciences of all of the nearly 900 million Roman Catholics, the majority of the world's Christians. Its fourth section, comprising a total of 15 sentences in Latin, spoke of renewing Catholic-Jewish relations. What did it do that was so significant? Given the millions of words issued by the Christian -- churches every year, why are we still celebrating these few a quarter of a century later?

Briefly, this deceptively simple statement was the inter-religious equivalent of a combination of the breakup of the British Empire and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. It represents the definitive end of one age and the beginning of another. And like these events, its full effects may not be known for generations.

What it did was two-fold. On the one hand it rejected centuries of Christian polemics blaming the Jews as a people for the death of Jesus. At the same time, it established a stringent rule for biblical interpretation: "The Jews should not be presented as rejected by God or accursed as if this followed from sacred scripture."

On the other hand, Nostra Aetate laid the foundations for a theologically positive understanding of the continuing role of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion in God's plan of salvation.

Given the history that preceded it, such a radical statement raised more questions than it answered. But the council also provided the proper means for approaching those questions by commending "fraternal dialogues" as the church's official approach to the Jewish people. Instead of judging Judaism, the council bishops decided it was time to listen, in the words of the Holy See's 1974 guidelines for Jewish-Catholic relations, "to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious tradition."

The dialogues the council called for have taken place on all levels of the church's life, from the extraordinary personal

involvement of the present pope (e.g. his historic 1986 visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome), to official international and national meetings all over the world, to local diocesan and parish-synagogue levels.

These encounters have profoundly changed the way Catholic textbooks are written and, increasingly, how sermons are preached. But while the presentation of Jews and Judaism in the classroom and from the pulpit is far more positive than in any previous generation of the church's history, there remains much work to be done.

The treatment of Pharisees, for example, is still generally stereotypical and inaccurate, as the 1985 Vatican "Notes" on the subject stressed. But there exists today a wide range of resources for use by Catholic preachers and teachers. A recent text of mine co-edited with Rabbi Leon Klenicki and entitled "In Our Time" includes the basic documents, commentary and annotated bibliography.

How is one to assess the dramatic controversies,such as the Auchswitz Convent situation, that have erupted in the last few years between Catholics and Jews? Most of them revolve in some way around the Holocaust, a clashing of profoundly sensitive memories and religious symbolism.

This connection is not coincidental. In these controversies I believe we are experiencing not the pain of a new separation but the natural pain that attends the process of healing.

The structures developed in the past two decades, which may appear thin and frail when juxtaposed against centuries of abuse, have not only survived these controversies but have been strengthened by being tested. Part of the healing can be seen in the increased appreciation of Catholics on all levels for the importance of the state of Israel in contemporary Jewish life.

Thus, for example, Archbishop Edward Cassidy, representing the Holy See at an international meeting this September in Prague, opened the meeting with a statement that reflected the feelings of all of the Catholic participants, among whom were Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore and myself:

"That anti-Semitism has found a place in Christian thought and practice calls for an act of teshuvah (repentance) and reconciliation on our part as we gather here in this city, which is a testimony to our failure to be authentic witnesses to our faith at times in the past."

To acknowledge the problem, as the church has forthrightly done in recent years, is to begin the process of reconciliation.

This generation of Jews and Christians has the unique opportunity to alter for the better a tragic history, establishing the framework for a future of hope unprecedented in the past.

Eugene Fisher is director for Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

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