Vatican II Catholicism: Nostra Aetate §4 and the Jewish Faith
“Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures … Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
—Nostra Aetate (1965)
Nostra aetate translates as, “In our time.” This is the opening phrase of an important declaration on world religions put forward by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). In this article, I will specifically discuss Nostra Aetate (NA) section four (§4), which encourages Christians and Jews to strengthen their bonds of mutual respect, love, and solidarity. I encourage you all to read the entire document—which runs only 1,500 words—as it is a beautiful and Biblical reflection on the way Christians must treat our fellow human beings. Each section of this decades-old document possesses a fresh and timely tenor, but §4 is especially important because it marks a significant departure from language and attitudes often used to characterize Jews in the past.
A Brief History Lesson
It goes without saying that Christendom was not always kind to the Jewish people (see footnote for clarification).1 Jews could not be called full members of the community and were viewed negatively by the general populace. Here’s one brief example: In the Carolingian Period, Jews were invited into Northern Europe with “promises of economic benefits and legal protections, in return for their financial expertise and commercial contacts.”2 Local populations quickly grew to resent these Ashkenazic Jews, creating an atmosphere of hostility and segregation in many cities. In spite of their skills and education, Jews were expelled—at various times and places and with varying degrees of force—from nearly every area in Europe. Yet in spite of economic and political tension, many Jews were able to flourish, sometimes under the protection of the Church.
It is to the Church that we must now turn. Although the Church has attempted to preserve the autonomy of Jews and has worked to ensure fair treatment, theory has not always aligned with practice. The reality of popular and institutionalized contempt paints a stark picture. Many are familiar with the brutal violence visited upon Jews during the crusades. In more recent times, the Papal encyclical A quo primum (1751) commands “that neither your property nor your privileges [be] hired to Jews; furthermore [that] you do no business with them and neither lend them money nor borrow from them. Thus, you will be free from and unaffected by all dealings with them” (§8). It calls the Jewish people “cruel taskmasters” who execute “tyrannical orders” (§2), and refers to mass killings of Jews in the twelfth century as the simple result of one monk’s “excess of zeal” (§4). According to this papal document, the primary positive function of Jews is to remind Christians of our Lord’s death, serving as “witnesses to Our redemption while they pay the just penalties for so great a crime” (§4).
Fast forward two hundred years, and we hear a very different message issuing from Rome through NA. How are we to make sense of this disparity, this radical change in tone when speaking about the Jews? I recently attended a lecture by distinguished academic Massimo Faggioli on this very topic.3 The following paragraphs recount the general gist of his argument, and ponder the significance of NA §4 in light of Papal leadership since the document’s composition.
What Makes Nostra Aetate Special?
NA was written in a time when three important shifts were happening within the Church: 1) The rise of a new historical consciousness about Jesus as a Jewish person;4 2) The urgent need to preserve the memory and contributions of the Jewish community in light of the holocaust; 3) The realization that Christians have often been responsible for spreading and facilitating anti-Semitism. Despite the theological and political strife that accompanied these momentous changes, the text stands today as a tribute to the Holy Spirit’s hand upon the Council Fathers of Vatican II.
Nonetheless, according to the historical record, NA was drafted and passed only with great difficulty.5 Every year there were attempts to remove the text from the agenda. The fact that we have it today is a debt owed largely to the charism of Pope Saint John XXIII (1958–63) and Cardinal Bea. Rather than being the fruit of a large theological movement in the Church, NA announces a new direction. It’s a document that opens up uncharted territory and reinvigorates (at least) four areas of theological significance:
1) Israel-Church Relationship: “The beginnings of [the Church’s] faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets” (§4).
2) Church-Covenant Relationship: “The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant” (§4).
3) Rejection of Anti-Semitism: “Moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (§4).
4) Collaboration between Jews and Christians: “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus 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” (§4).6
Using the Magisterium or “teaching authority” of the Church, NA moved Catholic theology closer to Scripture’s own depiction of the Jewish People.7
Papal Leadership and the Legacy of Nostra Aetate
What happened after the publication of NA? How did proceeding Popes react to its possible discontinuities with Tradition? Paul VI (1963–78) was cautious about the text, especially its fourth section. In fact, under his leadership it took more than ten years for the Vatican to issue guidelines and suggestions for NA’s implementation. The turning point for NA’s reception was the papacy of Saint John Paul II (1978–2005). His magisterial attention to the spirit of the document is one of his most important contributions to Catholic Tradition. For instance, in April of 1986, he visited the Synagogue of Rome—the first time in history a Pope walked down the road (literally, for the Synagogue lies on the banks of the Tiber) to show good will toward our Jewish brothers and sisters. While at that Synagogue the Pope stated:
“Yes, once again, through myself, the Church, in the words of the well-known Declaration Nostra Aetate, ‘deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone’; I repeat: ‘by anyone.’”8
This repetition is important, for it signals that the Church is not only looking outwards in its critique of how Jews have been treated.9 Later on, at the turn of the millennium, Saint John Paul II launched the Great Jubilee, which included an extensive pilgrimage to the Holy Land and a special prayer for sins committed against the People of the Covenant. Saint John Paul II recognized that words are one thing and actions are another. His example of loving interaction with the Jewish community has inspired many Christians to follow suite. For example, at the lecture I attended on NA the President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis was in attendance. We need to continue listening to Rabbis like Joshua Heschel, who wrote in his famous 1962 memorandum On Improving Catholic-Jewish Relations:
Ignorance breeds suspicion, just as false knowledge generates distortion. In our age, few Catholic priests and laymen possess adequate information about Jewish life and the spiritual and moral dimension of Jewish existence in the last two thousand years … It would be important to assert in a conciliar statement the need on the part of Catholics to seek mutual understanding of Jews and their tradition.
NA was just such a statement. Today, NA continues to take on deeper meaning under the leadership of Pope Francis. Pope Francis is fundamentally different from his predecessors, such as Pope John Paul II, because Francis cannot frame his testimony about Vatican II from personal experience (he was ordained as a priest in 1969). Thus, our Pope accepts Vatican II using the sensus fidei or “sense of the faithful,” instead of relying on his own memory and experience. He trusts the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and her Tradition as time passes on.
In conclusion, the composition of NA was a historical milestone for the Catholic Church. One of the great services Pope Saint John Paul II lent to us was his ability to recognize the necessity for change. In world history, God is the ultimate rupture. If you believe everything is always the same, you domesticate God and the Holy Spirit in history. Or, you segment off history and say that God was working then but isn’t working now. Divine history is not so simple. Doctrine develops. The Church changes. A rejection of these facts would be a rejection of Nostra Aetate.10
This article is part of a series on how Roman Catholicism is shaped by the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962—65). Of this group of writings, two carry the title of “Dogmatic Constitution”: Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations,” about the Church) and Dei Verbum (“Word of God,” about God’s revelation to humanity). If you would like to learn what the Catholic Church believes, there is no better place to start than these texts.
1) This segment is written from a Western and European standpoint, especially with Christian political institutions in mind. In addition, the picture is never as simple as a mere paragraph of exposition will allow. There are always exceptional individuals, and examples of Jewish communities that flourished in spite of hardship.
2) Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2015), 469.
3) Faggioli is an expert on the Second Vatican Council and its place in the larger whole of Church Tradition, and has tackled this monumental interpretive task brilliantly in this book.
4) Acknowledging that Jesus was Jewish is one of the biggest theological paradigms shifts for the Roman Church. It’s not something Catholics formerly believed. They saw Jesus as a former Jew who left Judaism. This shift has consequences on everything.
5) Vatican II follows, chronologically, after the re-creation of the state of Israel in 1948. This played a huge role in crafting the document, behind the scenes. For example, NA was problematic for Catholic bishops of Arab countries at Vatican II: they were opposed to the introduction of the very word “Israel” because its appearance seemed to justify Israel as a political entity. This would bring hard consequences for Christian communities living in Arab countries. So the document avoided on purpose the issue of a state.
6) In a sense, #4 is the most important, since the first three redefinitions rest on the assumption that a relationship must be lived in order to be understood theologically.
7) It was materially impossible to find a previous council that affirmed the principles and general message of NA. In a sense, NA is the most “protestant” of the documents from Vatican II, since all but one of its quotations are from Scripture.
8) Catholic Church, “The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment,” (1986), http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01111997_p-42x_en.html.
9) There have been other official notes of resistance to the full application of NA. For instance, the 1998 Vatican document “We Remember” referred to the “anyone” of NA §4 in the sense not of the church, but of the “sons and daughters” of the church. This was perhaps an attempt to divvy out responsibility between “The Church” and its members. Today, such a strategy is even more fraught in light of the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandals.
10) NA does have its limitations. Many of its fruits are invisible and immeasurable. One set of issues is theological. The document is a short declaration. Its scope was both limited and fundamental. The former because it was unable to prove everything. The latter because it represents a key moment in history (see four areas of redefinition, above).