JCRC focuses on Catholic-Jewish relations since Nostra Aetate

Rev. Michael Witt shakes hands with JCRC President Gerry Greiman at a council meeting at Shaare Zedek. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As Reverend Michael Witt first began to study the details of Nostra Aetate, the watershed 1965 Papal declaration that clarified the Catholic Church’s relationship with other faiths, particularly the Jews, it had a familiar ring to it. In a sense, he’d grown up with it.

“Olivette at that time was a living example of what Nostra Aetate was supposed to be about,” Witt recalled of his hometown. “The Catholic and Jewish communities got along very well. When I saw the blueprint of what it was supposed to be, I realized that in my youth I had already had the opportunity to see it.”

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Witt, now interim president-rector at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, shared that recollection along with some of his reflections on the meaning of the document with dozens of attendees at last Tuesday’s Jewish Community Relations Council meeting.

Witt, who has been at Kenrick-Glennon since 1996, said that the key achievement of Nostra Aetate, Latin for “In Our Time,” was to tie Christianity and the church to its roots in Judaism. Issued in 1965, the landmark document compares the Jewish people to a “well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.” Witt said this was a vital point that brought the church back to its ancient moorings.

“Thus Nostra Aetate reminds the church once again of the relationship of the Christian community to the Jewish people is a relationship of the branch to the vine, the root being the Covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants,” he said.

The declaration, which came out of the Second Vatican Council, often known as Vatican II, also acknowledges past errors, condemns anti-Semitism by name and states that Jews should not be seen as an accursed or rejected people.

The importance of these admissions can be found in Witt’s own experiences. He remembers the nuns at his Catholic school taught a doctrine of supercessionism, a concept which holds that God’s relationship and covenant with the Gentiles replaced or modified that made with the Jews. This idea, which Witt said is a clear misunderstanding of the Catholic Church’s true theology, left the youngster and some of his classmates confused and upset. They simply could not imagine Protestant and Jewish neighbors and friends being doomed to perdition merely for having different spiritual traditions.

“I would like to think that as a little boy I would have had the courage to go back to the dear sister and say ‘how could this be?’ but I know the answer would be ‘How dare you question God?'” he said. “If I had had the courage I then would have taken it a step further and said, ‘I’m not questioning God, Sister, I’m questioning you.'”

Nostra Aetate also cleared the way for future documents such as last year’s Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which explicity highlights coercion, manipulation and proselytism as unacceptable practices.

“Faith in him as the divine Son of God is first and foremost a gift of God, and the free human response to that gift can never be coerced,” said the document.

Changes in the manner in which Catholic theology is taught are among what Witt calls the “continued fruits of Nostra Aetate.” Today’s students learn that the New Testament is not a replacement of Jewish religious beliefs but rather that Catholicism is rooted in its older parent faith, Judaism.

“This is one of the things that comes out of Nostra Aetate,” he said. “The Catholic Church can now speak with a clear voice in its own tradition of the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities.”

But that’s something Witt doesn’t have to look to Rome for.

“I know that that’s true because I grew up in Olivette,” he said.

Interviewed afterward, Les Sterman, a JCRC board member-at-large said he felt Witt’s presentation was a rewarding one. However, he said a lively series of queries by audience members clearly indicated that real theological questions remain and showed the need for further interreligious conversation.

“I think we are in a better place than we were a number of years ago and hopefully dialogue like this will be good for everybody ultimately,” he said.

In other action, the JCRC reiterated its opposition to Proposition A, the upcoming statewide ballot measure which would largely ban earnings taxes across Missouri. There is a grandfather clause for preexisting earnings taxes in St. Louis and Kansas City but the levies would be put to a periodic vote. If failed at any time, they would be prohibited.

Nancy Cross, vice-president of S.E.I.U. Local #1 Missouri Division, spoke to the assembled group telling them that despite what they might have heard, Prop A was beatable in November.

“Initially, people are in favor by a couple of points but after they’ve been educated it comes out that more people are likely to vote against this than for it,” she said. “The issue for us is our ability to get the message out.”

Cross said it was far better to try and defeat the measure now than let it pass and then try and preserve the St. Louis earnings tax on the April ballot.

Interviewed afterward, Gerry Greiman, president of the JCRC said it was vital for the organization to be active on the issue.

“You should not do away with the earnings tax unless and until you replace it with something,” he said. “This is just a piecemeal, not well-thought-out approach which would have a devastating impact on this community.”