Jewish-Catholic bonds were unimaginable 100 years ago

Shortly after the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, AJC honored Archbishop Robert J. Carlson (third from left) with the organization’s John D. Levy Human Relations Award. Pictured with Carlson are (from left) Javier Orozco of the Archdiocese, Rabbi Noam Marans of AJC, Regional Director of AJC Nancy Lisker and AJC lay leaders Mont Levy and Henry Dubinsky. Photo: Bryan Schraier

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As the landmark papal encyclical Nostra Aetate turns 50, Jewish and Catholic religious leaders continue to praise the Second Vatican Council’s work as an unparalleled force that allowed the two faiths to bond in ways barely imagined in the early 20th century.

Still, that praise is tempered by some who believe that the document promulgated by Pope Paul VI has yet to be adopted in some parts of the Catholic world and that more remains to be done.

“It was transformative,” said Nancy Lisker, head of the St. Louis branch of the AJC (formerly American Jewish Committee). “It was transformative in the sense that it was the first time after centuries that the Catholic church recognized the otherness not only in Jews but in other non-Christian religions.”

The “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” as it was formally known and promulgated by Pope Paul VI, called on Catholics to recognize the worth of other religions, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. A major part of the document, issues Oct. 25, 1965, dealt with Judaism.

Karen Aroesty, head of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said the document cut through longtime perceptions of Jews as murderers of the central figure in Christianity. It also changed Catholic education in ways that allowed for new understanding for priests and congregants alike and was strengthened under Pope John Paul II, who assumed the papacy in 1978, she said.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

“The learning of Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) was really something that [Pope John Paul II]presentedso strongly and, as an ally to the Jewish community, made so plain that it became special, and I think that’s continuing even now,” Aroesty said. 

In St. Louis, ADL has long enjoyed a strong partnership with the local archdiocese, Aroesty said. Her organization runs a Bearing Witness program that assists Catholic educators in how to teach the Holocaust.

Every year, Aroesty said, ADL takes a young leadership group on a tour of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The tour is followed by dinner with a Catholic group, all of it made possible by Nostra Aetate’s legacy.

“There is nothing like learning together and sharing a meal,” she said.

In St. Louis, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the AJC have held events commemorating the anniversary of Nostra Aetate. JCRC partnered with the Aquinas Institute of Theology and Eden Theological Seminary for a conference in late October, and last week the AJC honored St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson with the organization’s John D. Levy Human Relations Award

Mont S. Levy has been heavily involved in interfaith relations and has made numerous trips to the Vatican over the years, attending several meetings with various popes to discuss Catholic-Jewish issues. Vice chairman of the national AJC’s inter-religious and intergroup affairs committee, Levy noted the encyclical’s call for tolerance regarding non-Christian religions.

“But the most important was the description of (the Roman Catholic Church’s) relationship to Judaism,” he said. “Its impact was that it declared Jews were not responsible for the charge of deicide.”

However, despite its enormous success in bringing the two faiths together, Levy said that a half-century makes it relatively new on the theological timeline. 

“For 2,000 years, the charge of deicide was at the heart of and the basis for Christian, and particularly Catholic, anti-Semitism, looking at Jews as God-killers responsible for the death of Christ,” he said. “The divisions between the Jewish people and the Catholic church were strained, at best, and historically the basis of the worst treatment that Jewish people have experienced over centuries.”

Levy said the document had its greatest impact in the United States. Acceptance in Europe has lagged, which is one possible factor in recent instances of  anti-Semitism.

“In Latin America and in Africa, there has been very little teaching of Nostra Aetate, in part because there are no Jews there for anybody to know, so there have not been relationships,” he said. “One of the major exceptions, of course, was in Buenos Aires, where Pope Francis came from. He had a very close relationship with Jewish people in that community.”

Even in the United States, where, Levy says, Catholic-Jewish relations are at a high-water mark, progress is yet to be made in some communities.

“The fact is that the teaching of Nostra Aetate has been very narrow,” he said. “Even in this country, if you look at the largest growing segment of Catholic population, the Latino Catholic community, there is an enormous amount of work to be done in educating that population about Nostra Aetate.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at AJC, said the encyclical spawned numerous institutes to study Catholic-Jewish relations, particularly at academic institutions such as Catholic colleges and universities. 

He also noted the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel in the 1990s. Popes have since traveled to the Jewish State, making visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall.

“When it was issued, it was a brief statement with great promise,” Marans said. “Today, we can look back at all that has been achieved and continues to develop.”

But despite “overwhelming success,” Marans said,  roadblocks to understanding weren’t completely removed. Like Levy, he said that a lack of Jewish population in many parts of the world has led to less impetus for understanding or implementing the teachings. Instead, much of the success has been in building spiritual infrastructure for cooperation and interfaith partnerships.

“Perhaps the greatest achievement in Catholic-Jewish relations has been at the leadership level, and that is because both the Catholic church and Jewish leadership, specifically Jewish organizational leadership, has been receptive to the change,” he said.

Education was affected as well with modifications to Catholic Passion Plays, which had served as a vehicle for reinforcing views of Jews as “Christ-killers” since medieval times.

“There was a dramatic re-evaluation in how the story of Jesus’s life was told, how the Passion, the last days and hours of his life, is shared so that that classic anti-Jewish tropes are not perpetuated in Catholic education,” Marans said.

Mark Shook, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel, said the work of Vatican II laid the foundation for a new model of Catholic relations with many faiths.

“Out of that framework has come some amazing documents related to the teachings of the church, but at the same time it has opened a pathway for interfaith groups to deal directly with the Vatican,” he said.

Shook said the teachings are still part of a process that is working to “reach down to the furthest pew in the furthest church.” 

“While these ideas have been around since 1965 in the document, there are some pockets of the church community that have not latched onto it and have not made it their own,” he said. “For the most part, it has been an amazing success. It is just that we outside of the church think that everything happens in the church instantaneously, and that’s never the case.”

Still, progress has been striking. Shook said traditional teaching did not even allow Catholics to enter a synagogue.

“We are so used to living in a world of Nostra Aetate that we have taken for granted the world that we live in, and we don’t realize what it was like before, where there was no opportunity for Catholics to enter the religious house of worship of another faith,” said Shook, a former chairman of the Interfaith Partnership cabinet. 

“The changed environment is such that now you get whole classes of students from Aquinas or other institutions coming into our congregations to actually experience Jewish worship.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, outgoing executive director of the JCRC, said the world is vastly different since Vatican II and Nostra Aetate.

“We live in a reality that has been shaped by Nostra Aetate and by the following 50 years,” she said. “That reality provides the environment for a rich and productive relationship between the Jewish and Catholic communities.”

Pope Francis appears committed to the principles of the document, Abramson-Goldstein said, and the future could involve expanded alliances based around issues like ecology, which was recently the subject of papal commentary.

“Environmental issues are a shared concern, and I see great potential for collaboration in that area,” she said.

Rori Picker Neiss, who will be assuming Abramson-Goldstein’s post at JCRC this month, agrees. She said that while religions will always have differences, the future may indeed be centered on areas where Catholics and Jews can coalesce.

“How do we work together to alleviate poverty? How do we work together to alleviate homelessness? How do we work together for racial equity?” asked Neiss, who recently shook the Pope’s hand during a Vatican event celebrating Nostra Aetate’s anniversary. 

“It is really not just what does it mean to talk together and respect each other, but what does it mean when we are all charged with making the world a better place and we have the capacity to exponentially increase our impact by working together in that?”

Still there is a note of caution.

“I think that for the church itself and all the other communities, the work is still somewhat in its infancy,” Neiss said. “There were a lot more years of strife between communities than of dialogue between communities, so 50 years is not at all seen as the end of this movement but really just as the beginning.”

Javier Orozco, executive director of intercultural and inter-religious affairs for St. Louis Archdiocese, said he feels the doctrine is still advancing among the hundreds of millions of widely varied congregants the church serves.

“We need to take more ownership of the vision that Nostra Aetate presented, making sure that that vision and that call to reach out to one another really permeates all levels of our communities, because our communities are diverse,” he said. “I think the vision and the call for Nostra Aetate is so rich that sometimes it has remained at the level of experts.”

Still, progress is undeniable. Nostra Aetate is “lived reality” for many and continues to grow as a part of daily life in more and more Catholic communities.

“It is the exciting part of the future,” Orozco said.