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Some Reflections on “Nostra aetate”



Let me begin not with a personal confession: When I was asked to say some words about the anniversary of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate my first instinct was anger. I asked: What can anyone say that is new, what has not yet been already said over and over, and that everybody already knows? But then I had to repent. Everybody knows? Forty years ago the Second Vatican Council began. In Word and Church history this is only a short time, but today half an eternity. Not only due to the fact that a long memory in our hasty world is not very well developed, but also that all people under 40 years were not even born when Pope John XXIII opened the Council, and all under 50 years cannot have any personal memory on these stirring years full of debates, full of hopes and disillusions as well, but full also of breakthroughs – not the least on Jewish-Christian relations. 

In the meantime a new generation has grown up, for which all this, which for us – sorry for this – for us older people was a joyful experience is past and often enough forgotten. So we face a new situation where the teaching of Nostra aetate has to be transmitted and explained. Moreover there are alarming signs of new anti-Semitism we had thought had been overcome. Not the least the tragic conflict in the Middle East does not make things any easier, and new efforts are needed in order for us not to lose sight of each other but to remain together.  

I, therefore, repeat the words of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in the Declaration Nostra Aetate of 1965, which for us is still the basis and the compass for our relations: 

“The Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism levelled at any time or from any source against the Jews”.

This Declaration was and is an historical breakthrough after a long and sad history of indifference, misunderstanding, discrimination, denunciation, oppression and persecution. It was not formulated out of political consideration. Our motive is not political, it is theological, and it is ethical. It is informed by reasons of justice and by reasons of revealed truth. By justice, because all forms of discrimination and defamation are opposed to respect for human dignity. One of the most tragic forms of discrimination is the denial to ethnic groups and national minorities of the fundamental right to exist as such. 

The respect for human dignity and human rights is fundamental for all human relations and for peace throughout the world. However, in terms of relations between Jews and Christians, there is a further argument that should be analysed in order to oppose and reject discrimination and defamation. The Council’s condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism is inspired by God’s revelation and witnessed in the Bible itself. According to Biblical witness, Abraham is our common father in faith. Jews and Christians, we both are children of Abraham. So Christianity cannot be detached from its Jewish roots; one cannot define Christian identity without making reference to Judaism. The Jews are, as Pope John Paul II emphasised, our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham. .

So the Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate declared: 

“[The Church cannot] forget that she draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild branches of the Gentiles have been grafted.” 

An interdenominational group of more than 300 rabbis and outstanding Jewish scholars only some months ago published a remarkable common statement Dabru emet stating:  

“Jews and Christians worship the same God. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were the only worshippers of the God of Israel. But Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth. While Christian faith is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.” 

Such affirmations from both sides lay the foundation of the spiritual and ethical commitment in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Dialogue since the Second Vatican Council became a key term, but unfortunately often also a cheap and easy slogan. Thus we have to ask: what is dialogue at all? Surely more than kind and friendly small talk, albeit better than hateful polemics end denunciation. Dialogue is also more than respectful information, which nonetheless is also often lacking, and therefore necessary because ignorance is the best ground for xenophobia and so for anti-Semitism too. 

But dialogue goes beyond information.Dialogue means encounter and communication in the original meaning of this term: making a common good of one’s own good, exchange and sharing so that we enrich each other. And in these last decades we all perceived the joyful experience that we can learn from each other. Dialogue finally is not only an academic and intellectual exercise, dialogue becomes practical in collaboration towards common ideals and values, for freedom and justice, for peace and reconciliation, for family values, preservation of creation and above all for the sanctity of life. Finally dialogue is not an aim in itself but a means. The aim is friendship.

Such a dialogue is quite different from syncretism and relativism. Dialogue lives from mutual respect for the otherness of the other. Dialogue takes differences seriously and withstands their difficulties. This is important particularly for the Jewish-Christian dialogue. For Jews and Christians are not the same. They have their distinctive identities. Thus the Jewish-Christian dialogue, when it is serious and honest, cannot be always harmonious and easy. There always may arise misunderstandings and tensions. We experienced these over the last decades and we will encounter them in the future too. To bear with them is not a setback to the Second Vatican Council or a betrayal of the dialogue; they are – when confronted with mutual respect – the reality of dialogue. Only when we take seriously the other in his/her otherness can we learn from each other and can we be what we should be: a blessing for each other. 

Let us hope, let us pray and let us work, that Nostra aetate will bear such fruits in the newly begun century.  

Thank you for your attention.