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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.


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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Ben is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. Ben writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition, and specializes in research on Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, philosophical theology, and Christian mysticism.

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