December 17, 2015
Nostra Aetate: Accomplishment And The Next Fifty Years Ecosoc Chamber, United Nation Headquarters
Address by Bishop William Murphy at the Ecosoc Chamber, United Nation Headquarters

It is a privilege and honor to accept the kind invitation of Archbishop Bernardito Auza to speak to all of us gathered here to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, fruit of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965. At the time the hope was expressed in the Council that this Declaration would be the basis of a totally new relationship between Catholics and Jews. Recently, speaking about this truly historic declaration by the Pope and all the bishops of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said, “we are truly grateful to God that a true and appropriate relationship between Christians and Jews has come about in these past fifty years”. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”[1]

Yet, my friends, I can assure you that no document of the Council elicited more passion, more comment, more misunderstanding and opposition from the beginning to the very end of the Council than did this Declaration that embraces not just Jews but all the great religions of the world. As a seminarian in Rome from 1961 to 1965, one involved in both ecumenical relations and Catholic -Jewish conversations then and now, I know the history well and it was stormy.

Pope St. John XXIII was eager to have a statement of the Council on Jews. His own experience in Turkey and Bulgaria as a Papal diplomat during the Second World War had given him a keen insight and a warm commitment regarding the plight of the Jews and the horrible realities of the Shoah. On September 18, 1960, he asked Cardinal Bea, President of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, to prepare a draft declaration on the inner relations between the Church and the People of Israel. [2] Cardinal Bea reported back of the interest by many Jews. For reasons he never expressed but which placed the question in the hands of just the right man, the Pope decided to ask the Cardinal’s Office to handle the matter. From that day till the end of the fourth and final session of the Council in 1965, there was much controversy and several drawing of lines, religiously, theologically and politically.

I will not give you an extensive history of the discussions except to note that, from the outset, prominent Jewish thinkers such as Jules Isaac and Jewish groups such as B’nai B’rith were active in supporting the idea of a declaration De Judaeis. Pope John himself had already taken certain actions including revising Good Friday prayers that were demeaning of Jews. Catholic academic institutions also expressed their support. The famed Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome weighed in with suggestions written by Fr. S. Lyonnet, SJ and the Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University where the well known Msgr. John Oesterreicher taught also offered their collaboration.

The first proposal had three parts: Dogmatic Principles, Moral and Liturgical Considerations and Concrete Proposals. There were many interventions, discussions and revisions. Work was carried on between the Fall sessions of the Council Fathers and the original text became less and less recognizable as various points of view came to the fore. There were three drafts. The first led the World Jewish Congress to announce they wished to send a representative to the Council to express their views. This elicited a storm of protests from leaders of Arab countries. A that point the draft was withdrawn and some thought it would be the end of the whole project. A second draft placed the statement of the Church’s relation to Jews and Judaism as chapter four in the draft decree on Ecumenism.

Finally we come to that Great Debate in the Third Session of the Council in 1964. There were strong defenders, especially German and American, for the Decree on Judaism but many critics raised so many objections that, as Oesterreicher points out , “It was remarkable how the critics saw only the inadequacies of the draft and not its merits...perhaps a symptom of the way in which many of us have lost all sense of theology.” [3] At this point outside forces, especially opposition from both political and religious leaders in Arab countries and commentators in the western world, seemed to be controlling the discussions within the Aula of the Council. The result was a widespread sense of fear and uncertainty about having any text at all, a position that Rabbi Abraham Heschel expressed publicly.

In December of that year, 1964, Blessed Paul VI made his famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land which helped calm the discussion and give new impetus to a wider vision that in turn helped prepare a new declaration that placed the statement on Jews within the broader context of a Declaration on Non Christian Religions. No longer, as in the third draft, would the Jews be an appendix to the proposed Decree on Ecumenism. Now it would be the center piece placed within a context of the Church’s recognition of the value of all religions but with special emphasis on the Jews with whom Christianity always has a deeper, even filial and fraternal, relationship.

Throughout all of this struggle and controversy, the person of the Holy Father, Pope Paul, took on a more and more central role. He did not interfere with the Council deliberations. He did, however speak about the importance of dialogue as the way for the Church (Ecclesia suam). He announced a trip to India and began to write about the Church’s great respect for other religions. All humankind forms one community with a common origin and a common destiny. The human search for meaning in life, faced with the challenge of suffering and death, underpins all those questions that accompany our journey to God.

These appear in the Final Decree on Non Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate. And they express the broad truths that embrace all of the great religions of the world. Religions are expressions of the search for an Absolute that lies deep in the human heart. People look to their religious tradition for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence. All religions seek to offer an answer to that search by offering a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites.

And as NA 5, says, we cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a fraternal way any man, created as he is in the Image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men as brothers are so linked together that Scripture says ‘He who does not love does not know God’. No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man, or people and people, so far as their human dignity and their human rights flowing from it are concerned.

My friend, Cardinal Tauran adds, “one cannot love God or one’s neighbor without knowing them, and one cannot know them without entering into communion with them”. This constitutes a common basis for our dialogues and our relationships.

In terms of the Catholic Church and our relations with Jews, NA puts an end to a tragic history of mutual recrimination and anti-Semitism that has scarred us in the past. It reminds us that we all must continue to be one in condemning all anti-Semitism and in opposing all unjust discrimination based on false ideologies and misuse of the Name of God. NA teaches us Christians about the Christian roots of our faith which are Jewish, nourished as we Christians are by Torah and the Prophets and the Writings. NA teaches us that God’s Covenant with His Chosen People is unbroken and remains with all those who belong to that people who are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. As St Paul says of the Jews, They are children of Israel; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh is the Christ. We Christians claim the apostles who are of Jewish descent, as the pillars on which the Church stands.

The fifty years that followed that Declaration are the unfolding of the meaning and the profound call the Council has made to us all as we continue in mutual respect and fraternal dialogue to become first neighbors, then friends and now brothers and sisters before the Almighty.

All this has been expressed with great clarity last Thursday when the Commission for Religious Relations of Jews, to which I am a Consultant, published a reflection commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Entitled, The Gifts and the Calling of God are irrevocable, it is subtitled, A Reflection on theological questions pertaining to Catholic-Jewish relations on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. This twelve page reflection offers two very important elements that underscore the remarkable growth in mutual respect, understanding, friendship and, yes, love, that marks our relationships on so many levels. First it offers a brief overview of the documents of the past fifty years from the Catholic Church through which the Church has sought to advance the dialogue and solidify the relationships. Second it gives us a status report on the progress made in theological understanding and in the many fields of mutual collaboration that have so flourished these past fifty years. As one who has lived these years on a local, national and world wide level, I commend this to you as the best summary I know of in which everyone can grasp just how far we Catholics and Jews have traveled together, just how much we have grown and matured in our openness and our mutual commitment that is now solid and irrevocable. We invite you join us in thanking the Almighty for the Magnalia Dei represented in this fifty year commemoration of mutual discovery. This has had and will have its moments of pain and struggle. All of us who participated in these know that well. But it is a triumph of human endeavor inspired by the Almighty that has reversed centuries of mutual recriminations, rejections and even hatred.

Permit me to close by looking back to a moment in which I was intimately involved as one of the major organizers: The World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, October 27, 1986. Two days ago, Pope Francis cited that event as having special significance for us all. He pointed to a meeting Pope John Paul had in Casablanca with Muslin youth in 1985 where he called on them and us, believers in God, to support every effort to foster friendship and unity among persons and peoples. As we prepared the path that led to Assisi, we encountered many challenges but it was St. John Paul II who gave us the slogan and the key to its success. He reminded us that we did not gather to pray together as if we had no identities of our own as believers. Instead, he called us then and now TO BE TOGETHER TO PRAY.

After that day, the Holy Father shared a thought with us. It was a time of many street protests in Europe funded by the Soviet regime. The Pope said to us that we, believers, have offered an alternative to violent protests. May I close with that invitation? We, believers and men and women of good will, come together with all the richness of our faith traditions and spirituality. We must walk together, talk together, deepen our bonds of friendship and mutual respect and fraternal support. But within it all and enriching it all is above all: PRAYER. What men and women of belief offer to the world and to this august Body of the United Nations is that prayer is an alternative to violence and hatred. Prayer is what we offer for peace in the world because, as women and men of faith, we believe that ultimately Peace is a gift from God.

+William Murphy

Bishop of Rockville Centre

December 14, 2015

[1]L’ OR October 14, 2015

[2] Cf. Vorgrimler, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. Vol. 3. P. 3

[3] Cf. Vorgrimler, p. 67.

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