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‘Nostra Aetate’ Put Church On New Ecumenical Course

By Beth Griffin

“Nostra Aetate” uprooted previous Church teachings and charted a new course for the relationship between Jews and Catholics in a bold, unequivocal, radical way, Rabbi Daniel F. Polish said.

The manner and vigor in which the principles of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on relations with non-Christian religions have been carried out in the years since it was promulgated are breathtaking, he said in an address Jan. 12 at Jesuit-run Fordham University.

“The unique bond between these two communities of faith which may have been implicit in the document of 1965 has become explicit over the past five decades and occupies a special place in the realities of the two traditions beyond anything that could have been imagined in 1965,” Rabbi Polish said.

The rabbi, who is spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a longtime participant in interfaith dialogue. He spoke on “‘Nostra Aetate’: A Lever That Moved the World.”

Delivering America magazine’s annual John Courtney Murray lecture, Rabbi Polish pointed to himself as living proof of the transformation he described. “The idea of a rabbi being invited to speak at a Catholic gathering about a document of the Catholic Church – such a thing would have been unimaginable 52 years ago,” he said.

“Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”) is part of a continuum that includes the Shoah and the creation of Israel as historical realities in the Jewish perspective, he said. The Christian “pre-history” of the document includes Pope John XXIII as a nuncio who saved Jewish lives in the Second World War and was part of a growing movement toward reconciliation.

“Nostra Aetate” addresses the Church’s relations with all non-Christian religions, but devotes most attention to the Jews. It says that the death of Christ cannot be charged “against all the Jews” and Jews should not be represented as rejected by God. It also speaks against anti-Semitism and encourages mutual understanding and esteem.

The Vatican II document was the subject of intense opposition and was almost withdrawn, but was eventually adopted by a vote of 2,221 to 88. Rabbi Polish said “Nostra Aetate” was “manifestly imperfect” and the result of compromise, but nonetheless “represents a tectonic shift,” and underscores the special relationship between the two communities of faith.

Rabbi Polish said “Nostra Aetate” changed Catholics and Jews. “In the 2,000 years of recrimination, threat and death, we ourselves adopted attitudes not only of fear, but of reciprocated contempt and suspicion. ‘Nostra Aetate’ lifted from our shoulders our burden of suspicion, resentment, contempt and hatred which corrode the soul and distort the spirit.”

He said each pope since Vatican II made welcome and significant overtures to the Jews. Most recently, “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” a Dec. 10 document released by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, “is a profound expression of what ‘Nostra Aetate’ has become.”

Rabbi Polish said the December document is “the fullest explication to date of what may have been implicit or avoided in the document of 1965.”

On the Jewish side, the rabbi said there have been several attempts to formulate positions on Christianity in response to “Nostra Aetate.”

One that “comes closest to having some kind of official imprimatur” lays out common ground and areas of mutual interest, such as “Jews and Christians together accept the moral principles of the Torah (Pentateuch),” “Nazism is not a Christian phenomenon” and “Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.” A 2015 theological statement from an international group of Orthodox rabbis says, “Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.”

Rabbi Polish said “Nostra Aetate” embraces the idea “that people of faith share perspectives and values across doctrinal lines that differ from those of nonreligious outlooks or ideologies.”

In addition, the document is an embodiment of human hope, because “if these two communities separated by 2,000 years of the most intense estrangement can reconcile, can come to call one another brother, then what human problem could possibly be insurmountable?” he asked.

Rabbi Polish said “Nostra Aetate” represents “the conversation that must still be had with Islam.”

“Jews and Christians must see ourselves as having a similar relationship with Islam. After all, it is our child. It is the other monotheistic faith, the other faith that references the same book. Ultimately, we will find it inescapable to include Islam in this embrace of fraternity,” he said.

According to Rabbi Polish, “Nostra Aetate” is a “theology of humility, of relinquishing the claim to exclusive truth embodied if not in the text, then certainly in the process.”

Looking ahead, he said the church must extend the lessons of “Nostra Aetate” to the growing church in the global South, where Catholics have limited “actual human contact with Jews, which would serve as a counterbalance to the traditional teachings.” He also said the church “still has a ways to go to fully appreciate the religious role of the state of Israel for Jews.”

Rabbi Polish said Jews have not done a good job of spreading the word that “Nostra Aetate” exists. As a result, “Jews are stuck in a pre-Vatican II way of teaching about Christianity. Freed from the burden of recrimination and fear, we need to teach Jewish children and adults more objectively about the religion of their neighbors.”

He said Jews and Christians have not yet created a theology that deals with the religiousness of other human beings in general. “Why did God create different groups of folks with different understandings of God?”

Rabbi Polish said relations between Jews and Catholics are strong on “just about every level,” and are more solid than the relationships between Jews and various other Christian groups.

The lecture was co-sponsored by AJC Global Advocacy and the Anti-Defamation League.