Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Nostra Aetate"

Eugene Fisher on the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions

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ROME, JUNE 27, 2003 ( As part of its ongoing series on the documents of Second Vatican Council, ZENIT turned to Eugene Fisher on «Nostra Aetate,» the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.

Fisher is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. bishops’ conference. He serves as consultant to the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and is a member of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee.

Q: What were some of the main points of «Nostra Aetate«?

Fisher: In the wake of the Holocaust, and with a growing understanding of how the traditional anti-Judaic teaching of the Church had rendered Christians all too vulnerable to the attacks against Jews by modern racial anti-Semitism, «Nostra Aetate» wisely went to the source of the problem in Christian teaching.

The problem was serious misunderstandings of the New Testament that began to infect the writings of the Fathers of the Church as early as the second century.

These misunderstandings revolved around the idea that the Jews as a people and all their descendants bore collective guilt for the death of Jesus. As «proof» the protagonists of this charge of «deicide» against the Jews would take various phrases from different Gospels and put them together to tell a «story» that none of the four evangelists would have recognized in their own versions of the Gospel.

The cry, «his blood be on us and on our children,» for example, is recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew, but there it is the cry of a small «crowd» of people in Pilate’s courtyard and not at all representative of the whole Jewish people.

But if one takes from the Gospel of John the phrase, «hoi ‘Ioudaioi» — «the Judeans» or «the Jews» — which is a generalization used only in John, and attaches it to the Matthean text, as in «the Jews cried, ‘His blood be upon us …,'» one has an implication of collective guilt for Jesus’ death not found in any of the Gospels, but only in the manipulation, conscious or unconscious, of the text.

Around this fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel texts there arose over the centuries what has been called a «teaching of contempt» against Jews and Judaism — for example, the notion that Jews were cursed by God for «their» crime, and suffered the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and perpetual wandering as divine punishment for it.

Interestingly, so pervasive was this negative teaching that no previous council of the Church had ever formally taken it up, though the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent had argued that «our sins made the Lord Christ suffer» and that «our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews,» since what the Jews of Jesus’ time who were actually involved did was done in ignorance. «We [Christians], however, profess to know him, and when we deny him by our deeds, we seem in some way to lay violent hands on him,» says the Roman Catechism 1, 5, 11.

The Second Vatican Council restated this ancient but obscured tenet of our faith in entirely unambiguous fashion, stating that one cannot blame all the Jews of Jesus’ time «nor Jews today» for Jesus’ death, and adding that «the Jews must not be spoken of as rejected by God or accursed,» as if this followed from sacred Scripture. The council then formally rejected any form of anti-Semitism as contrary to the spirit of Christ.

While rejecting definitively the negative teachings against Jews and Judaism of the past, the Second Vatican Council simultaneously laid the doctrinal groundwork for an entirely positive theological appreciation of God’s «irrevocable» covenant with the Jewish people, in our time no less than in biblical times.

It did this especially by recalling the positive implications of the New Testament text, Romans 9-11, that most thoroughly looks at the Mystery of Israel on its own terms after the time of Christ, translating in the present «theirs are the covenants and the promises,» and calling on the Church to change its posture toward the Jews and Judaism from one of judgment into one which seeks a dialogue of «mutual esteem.»

One draft of the declaration, for example, included a biblical citation that could have been read as conversionist. After this was pointed out, a different text, eschatological in orientation, hoping for the day when Jews and Christians will praise God with a single voice, was substituted.

A very early consequence of this conciliar mandate was that the Church’s sole official prayer for the Jewish people, the Good Friday prayer, was completely rewritten. Whereas for centuries before the Council it had prayed for conversion of Jews to Christianity, now it asks God to strengthen Jews in their already faithful response to God’s call to them and to bring them to the «fullness of redemption» at the end of time.

Q: How has the Church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism changed since «Nostra Aetate»? Have the changes influenced Catholic theology?

Fisher: I would say that the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people has changed profoundly in the four decades since the council.

Catholic religious education materials, both in the United States and in Europe, and increasingly elsewhere as well, are virtually free of the heavy-handed theological polemics against Judaism of the past, though at times careless paraphrasing of New Testament texts can still evoke them.

Statements of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews — in 1975 and 1985 — and of the Pontifical Biblical Commission — in 2001 — have given clear guidance on how to avoid such pitfalls in the Church’s teaching and preaching.

Likewise, healthy dialogue between Catholics and Jews on theological and social concerns has taken place on all levels, from the local congregational to the international. This dialogue has provided the Church with uncounted spiritual insights and enrichments from Judaism’s ongoing reflection on, and interpretation and current application of our shared sacred texts in the Old Testament.

The work of Catholic biblical scholars, liturgists, historians and systematicians has been profoundly influenced and enriched by what we have all learned from Jewish scholars and spiritual leaders in our dialogue.

We have enjoyed for the past quarter of a century the leadership of a Pontiff who has made dialogue and reconciliation with God’s People, the Jews, one of the central elements of his ministry.

Who could have expected in 1965 that the Bishop of Rome would not only visit the Great Synagogue of Rome for the first time in the two-millennia long history of Jewish-Christian relations, but would pray there with them in praise of the One God of Israel?

Who could have expected the Pope’s spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem and his theologically pregnant gesture of inserting into the Western Wall, like millions of pious, humble Jews before him, a prayer to God, and one which explicitly begged God’s forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews over the centuries?

Q: What are some of the elements of the document that are yet to be realized?

Fisher: Jesus, wise Jewish teacher that he was, warned of the consequences of trying to put new wine into old wineskins. To some extent this is what is happening today, as our Catholic theologians valiantly struggle to pour the new wine of the [Second Vatican] council into the old wineskins of pre-conciliar systematic theology.

Simply put, we need new theological language to contain and communicate the theological breakthroughs of the council, perhaps especially in the area of the Church’s understanding of Jews and Judaism.

It is one thing, for example, to change the Church’s only official prayer for the Jews
away from the direction of conversion of the latter to the direction of dialogue, reconciliation and mutual esteem.

But it seems to some extent that «lex credendi» may not have entirely caught up with «lex orandi,» given the controversies surrounding the statement of the U.S. dialogue group, «Reflections on Covenant and Mission,» and the sense of surprise registered by many at a number of the affirmations made in the recent statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, «The Jews and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible.»

For centuries, Christian theology has used bifocal categories, such as «Christians and non-Christians,» or «faithful and unbelieving.»

But where does one categorize Judaism, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as «unlike other world religions» because it is «already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant,» a revelation neither relativized nor superseded — replaced — by God’s revelation to humanity in Christ? Where do the Jews fit in the Church’s «missio ad gentes,» which, in the context of the Gospels, is best translated as «mission to the gentiles»?

I do not at all claim that the U.S. dialogue’s statement resolves these theological terminological issues, but only that it raises them quite faithfully to what has been said by the magisterium during and since the Second Vatican Council. Clearly, there is much theological work still to be done.

A second major issue that will be with us for this generation, and perhaps the next, is coming to terms with our respective historical memories, not only of the Shoah, but of events in the centuries preceding it.

Numerous controversies, many of them public, surround the Holocaust — how it is to be remembered and how that memory is to be handed on to future generations of Jews and Christians.

Despite the controversies, we need to keep bringing together the best of our Catholic and Jewish historians and theologians to reconcile our historical memories for the sake of the future and of the witness we have together to tell the world, together, of the One God and of the deepest meaning of human existence.

Q: How can the Church improve relations with Islam and with other world religions?

Fisher: I believe that the path of interreligious dialogue, pioneered in the time of Pope Paul VI and strongly fostered and developed during the present pontificate, shows us the way to the future. Again, instead of sitting in a prior judgment of the faults of other religions, the Church seeks in dialogue to discern the human wisdom and, indeed, stirrings of the Holy Spirit in them.

This will again be a long process, given the history of conflict and colonialism of previous centuries, and our own quite justifiable sense of caution about falling into syncretism or indifferentism.

Here, of course, the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, «Dominus Iesus,» provides most helpful guidance, though it should not be used to dampen the deeper spiritual enthusiasm of the dialogues themselves.

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