Bridging the Catholic-Jewish gap

By  Stephen Morris, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2007

Jews and Catholics Together: Celebrating the Legacy of Nostra Aetate, edited by Michael Attridge (Novalis, softcover, 180 pages, $19.95).

{mosimage}It’s hard to imagine just how abysmal Jewish-Catholic relations were before the Second Vatican Council, but abysmal they were. Merely 40 years ago, Jews were often viewed as “Christ-killers,” condemned to wander the Earth because of their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah. There was also a longstanding and largely unresolved debate within Christianity over “supersessionism,” the view that the Jewish covenant with God was nullified by the covenant in Christ, thus making Judaism a false religion. Consequently, Jews were targeted by missionaries for conversion. And then there is the question, still being grappled with today, of how centuries of Christian anti-Semitism provided fertile soil for the Holocaust.


This is the context in which the Second Vatican Council released Nostra Aetate, which was a turning point in this unfortunate history. In it, the council declared Christians are in spiritual union with the descendants of Abraham (including Muslims), as the origin of Christianity is the Old Testament. It emphasized Jesus’ Jewish roots and the fact the first evangelization was undertaken by Jewish Christians. While acknowledging that Jewish leadership had a role to play in the death of Jesus, it exonerates the Jewish people as a whole. And finally, Nostra Aetate condemns all forms of anti-Semitism, calling for peace and reconciliation amongst the great religions.

These monumental declarations have set the tone for the dramatic improvements in Jewish-Catholic relations that we have witnessed over the past 40 years. Jews and Catholics Together is a celebration of, and reflection on, this remarkable turn. Originating at a symposium at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, its distinguished contributors include George Tavard, David Novak, Ovey Mohammad, Gregory Baum, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, James Puglisi and Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome. This is quite an all-star cast, with some of the contributors actually involved in the original draft of Nostra Aetate. This book is simply an invaluable resource.

{sa 2895078408}Tavard offers a fascinating look into the genesis of the document, from both historical and theological perspectives. Readers are also given a rare translation of a proposed draft, Quaestiones de Judaeis (“Questions Concerning the Jews”), which was rejected as too progressive for the council as it envisioned a reunification of church and synagogue. Mohammad adds to our historical and theological understanding by offering an insightful reflection on the five official documents concerning Jews released by the Catholic Church over the past 40 years, giving a particularly helpful analysis of the controversial Dominus Iesus.

Puglisi, a Franciscan and member of the Centro Pro Unione, which focusses on dialogue across religions, offers a profound reflection on the spirituality of peacemaking, reconciliation and creating a space for the other. Both Puglisi and Cassidy reflect on the challenges and opportunities for Catholics and Jews in future relations.

As for the Jewish contributors, Novak sees Pope John Paul II’s diplomatic recognition of Israel as an emphatic end to supersessionism; no longer can the church be viewed as the “New Israel” when the state of Israel is recognized as a reality in itself. But at the same time, Novak concedes that the church cannot give up its truth claims. It cannot say Jews have an equal or better grasp of the truth. However, writes Novak, “Jews can hardly be offended by this kind of ‘supersessionism,’ since we claim that Judaism has a better grasp of that same truth than does Christianity. Here the difference is between good and better, rather than between good and bad, let alone between true and false.”

While the overall tone of Jews and Catholics Together is largely optimistic, Di Segni is far less so. Di Segni acknowledges that while respect between the two religions has grown, trust has not. His objection centres on beatification of Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and later perished at Auschwitz. Stein declared her death an offering for the sins of her Jewish brothers and sisters for failing to recognize the divinity of Jesus. The implication being, according to Di Segni, “a monstrous interpretation of the meaning of the Holocaust, and is a further source of aggravation in a process where the message is that the saintly Jew is one who converts to Christianity.”

As for the future of Jewish-Catholic relations, this collection offers some interesting suggestions. Mohammed highlights that the Vatican’s Notes (1985) takes the reconciliatory perspective that the figure of the Messiah need not be a point of division, but of convergence: Jews and Catholics have a joint responsibility to prepare the world for His coming. Novak sees this in terms of our “common moral agenda,” such as the pro-life movement, rooted in the conviction from the Hebrew Bible that all people are created in the divine image.

It would also seem that the question of Islam must be a part of any future discussions, as Baum notes that none of the contributors mention the Israel-Palestine conflict. Today’s breed of anti-Semitism appears to have less to do with the New Testament than with the current polymorphous catastrophe engulfing the Middle East. If the church is well in the process of making her peace with the Jews, let her hasten to the great task set forth in Nostra Aetate of reconciling all of Abraham’s children.

I wonder, however, how this book will be received. What was such a radical breakthrough 40 years ago may not be as interesting to readers today. There is today’s climate of religious relativism and questions around Jewish-Christian relations of late have been narrowly concerned with the more sensational topic of the Holocaust.

Regardless of public response, Jews and Catholics Together is an incomparably rich examination of our evolving history.

(Morris is a Toronto freelance writer.)

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