Nostra Aetate: a milestone - Pier Francesco Fumagalli
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Pier Francesco Fumagalli

On October 28, 1965 in the Basilica of Saint Peter, transformed for the past four years in the Hall of the Second Vatican Council, among the documents being and promulgated there was a Declaration, very brief but very significant, dedicated to the "non-Christian Religions". The vote on this brief text garnered almost total unanimity with 2221 votes in favor and 88 against. A few weeks later, on December 8, Pope Paul VI solemnly confirmed it, along with all the other documents, on the closing of the Council which revealed itself of an historic and exceptional importance for the mission and the unity of the Church, and for its dialogue with the contemporary world.

In reality, the course of the small document was not really as simple as the final almost unanimous consensus would lead to believe, in its structure it seemed to reflect the original intention of Pope John XXIII, they had originally thought about a declaration which dealt solely with Judaism in relation to the Church. Yet, at the conclusion of the Council, the satisfaction was enormous in seeing that, after two thousand years the Church faced with serenity the question of religious relations with the believers of different faiths, and in particular with Judaism, after so much incomprehension and persecutions of the past. The discussion was put out in the central part (the IV paragraph) of a document characterized by faithful attitudes with regards to the great religions of the world, in particular of Islam. «In our era...» (nostra aetate...), declares the Council, since all the people constitute a sole community, it is opportune that the Church examines «all that men have in common and that it pushes them to live together in their common destiny», and therefore in a particular opening of man towards the mystery of being, expressed in the various religious forms (Nostra Aetate 1). Explicitly mentioned are Hinduism, and Buddhism and it is affirmed that «the Catholic Church does not reject anything that is true and holy» in the other religions, exhorting to dialogue and to collaboration with the other believers (Nostra Aetate 2). Words of fervent esteem and of reconciliation are reserved in particular for the Moslems (Nostra Aetate 3). But the more mature fruit - and the longest attended - of inter-religious dialogue, is expressed in the fourth paragraph, dedicated to Judaism, in which the Church «reminds of the bond with which the people of the New Testament are spiritually tied to the descendants of Abraham» (Nostra Aetate 4). Then meticulously detailed are the spiritual treasures of the faith of Israel, which constitute the «great spiritual patrimony common to Christians and to Jews» and the latter are «the good olive on which the branches of the savage olive - who are the pagan people - were grafted» (cf. Romans 11, 17-24). Even though many Jews do not accept the Gospel, yet they are still loved by God with the grace of a call and of a gift of love which is irrevocable. Therefore the Council recommends the promotion of a fraternal dialogue, of Biblical and theological studies, to favor the mutual understanding and esteem between Jews and Christians. Finally, two points are repudiated which in the past were the roots of persecution: the accusation that the Jewish people were collectively and forever responsible of the death of Christ (the so-called deicide) and anti-Semitism.

The conclusion of the declaration (Nostra Aetate 5) invokes a fraternal love between men, execrating «any kind of discrimination or persecution for reasons of race, color, or social condition or religion».

The principle responsibility for this text goes to the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians, under the knowing guidance of Cardinal Agostino Bea, one of the more active persons in collaborating "the updates" auspicated by Pope John XXIII for the Catholic Church. It was Bea who wanted to illustrate the document with these words: «The bi-millennium problem, as old as Christianity, on the relations of the Church with the Jewish people, was rendered more acute, and has therefore assigned itself to the attention of the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II, above all because of the frightening extermination of millions of Jews on the part of the Nazi regime in Germany» After a long preparation and laborious discussions the Declaration was born «On the attitude of the Church towards the other non-Christian religions», which for the most part was called the milestone in the relations between the Church and the Jewish people. If nothing else, it is in reality, especially because it was the first time that the Ecumenical Council had occupied itself in such an explicit way of the problem; furthermore, because instead of limiting itself to one purely practical decree or a simple condemnation of anti-Semitism, the Council confronted the problem in the most vast sphere of relations of the Church towards the non-Christian religions in general, and together setting out the solution on the deep Biblical foundations. For this last reason, it can be said that the Declaration offers precious indications to all Christians without distinction of confessions. (A. Bea, The Church and the Jewish People, 1968, p.7).

The "laborious" discussions of which Bea mentioned where in reality accompanied on the sidelines of the Council by heated problems, which caused, in June of 1962, the exclusion from the outline "on Jews" from the agenda of the Council. But Pope John XXIII, who on June 13, 1960 met Jules Isaac was profoundly impressed by his observations regarding "the teaching of contempt" on Jews in the Church, with an autographed card of December 13, 1962 pushed Cardinal Bea to preserve the work undertaken. But, the outcome of the document remained uncertain, it seemed that the material on Jews could also fall in other outlines, and in fact there still remain important references even in the two dogmatic constitutions on the Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 14-16) and on the Church (De ecclesia 16). For a certain time it was thought to emulate a Decree on the subject, or to include it in the outline on Ecumenism, until the document in its current form was elaborated.

Why did may people see in Nostra Aetate a "milestone" for the relations between the Church and the Jewish people? The new elements which it contained were taken from real Biblical themes - which are part of the traditional patrimony of the Church - and from the origins of Christianity which had not received particular emphasis. On the contrary, the history of relations between Christians and Jews, and the Christian teaching on Jews, were in general marked by problems, contradictions, missionary competition, incomprehension and persecutions. The Fathers of the Church of the first centuries, as much in the East as in the West, were in agreement on showing the Jewish people as "repudiated" definitively by God, and the Church as the selected people in "substitution" to bring salvation to everyone. In comparison therefore, Nostra Aetate, which teaches to esteem the great spiritual common patrimony between Jews and Christians, undertakes a decisive theological step forward, bypassing the guilt of centuries of problems. If then we consider the canonic legislation of the synods and of the councils, it is the civil legislation which in the ancient world often was influenced by the religious one, we ascertain that the Jews were progressively imposed limitations of various kinds, like the forbidden access to public office, to communicate freely, to own fundamental books like the Talmud, to freely choose their residence. During the crusades, the situation of Jews in Europe worsened, and it the accusation of ritual infanticide was diffused; the use of force to preach to the Jews and to convince them to be baptized, while contested by the popes, was not at all abandoned. Under the historic and theological profile, the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council represents a fundamental novelty with respect to two millennia of contradictions of a view and of a practice decisively negative. It must be remembered that even in the First Vatican Council, a project was formulated for declaration which would have explained the eminent role of the people of Israel in the plan of salvation, and which in 1927 the Congregation of the Holy Office strongly condemned anti-Semitism which had then diffused throughout Europe. Pope Pio XI planned an Encyclical on condemning anti-Semitism, which death did not consent him to write. It was like this then, that after the Holocaust, the Churches examined their consciences and realized that it was urgent and necessary to take a walk of purification: in this the Ecumenical Council of Churches was distinguished (Assembly of Amsterdam, 1948) and the German Churches (Katholikentag, 1948 and Synod of Weissensee, 1950). Another stance that was taken and influenced the changing of the ecclesial consciences was that expressed in ten points at the Conference of Seelisberg, wanted by the International Friends of Judeo-Christianity: convinced supporters of the renewal were the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and the Jewish professor Jules Isaac. It was exaclty the latter who, with the announcement of the Council, took a decisive step, asking for an audience with the Pope and presenting him with a memorial. Five years later the Catholic Church offered the world, amongst the Council documents, the declaration which opened the road to dialogue and to fraternal collaboration with the Jewish people.