On December 15, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders and thinkers celebrated and commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with non-Christian Religions, entitled Nostra Aetate, which is Latin for “in our time.” The text, by far the shortest of all 16 major documents of the Council contains only five paragraphs and 1200 Latin words, but has been described as a major turning point in relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism.
The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations hosted the event, together with the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations (IJCIC), for 45 years the main dialogue partner between the Vatican and the Jews, in the Economic and Social Chamber of the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, moderated the panel, and noted the progress Nostra Aetate catalyzed in the relationship between Catholics and Jews is a model not just for religion harmony but for peace-making.
Catholics’ and Jews’ “Living and working together in common witness to the love of God in the world,” he said, “is one of the great fruits of these first fifty years and that progress, after centuries of difficulties, is an inspiring and urgently-needed paradigm for dialogue, cooperation and the pursuit of peace, not just among religions, but among peoples. This is one of the reasons why holding an event commemorating Nostra Aetate here at the United Nations is so appropriate".
According to Martin Budd, the Chairman of IJCIC who spoke after Archbishop Auza, the Declaration helped to reconcile many centuries of conflict between Catholics and Jews and is an “example that mankind can reverse hundreds and thousands of years of conflict, of disagreement, of fighting, and turn 180 degrees to peace.”
Author and professor Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 25 years, in a video intervention called the Declaration “one of the most remarkable moments in the religious history of the West,” and offered a descriptive history of the document as well as the impact the document had on Catholic Jewish relations today.
The 1965 document, set into motion by Pope John XXIII, was influenced by his friendship with Jewish Holocaust survivor and historian Jules Isaac, Rabbi Sacks described.
“It was the meeting between Jules Isaac and a really remarkable religious leader, Pope John XXIII that created this shift, this world significant shift, in the relationships between the two faiths,” he said.
The document transformed the relations between Jews and Catholics, which featured a thousand years of suspicion and animosity into a situation in which members of both faiths can meet as cherished and respected friends, he said.
Rabbi Sacks noted that there is still progress to be made in the realm of inter-religious relations worldwide, specifically referring to the rapid decline of Christians in the Middle East from twenty percent to four percent in the recent past. He also called attention to the atrocities that Muslims, along with Jews and Christians, suffer at the hands of Islamist extremists.
“If the courage of Pope John XXIII can inspire us to greatness now, we should take that moment as a call to all of us today to work together whatever our faith to honor the image of God that is the human person, the sanctity of human life, and the ultimate blessing of God himself, which is peace.” Rabbi Sacks said.
French Jewish philosopher and author Bernard Henri Levy also commended Nostra Aetate for bringing about peace between Jews and Catholics, and called for deeper solidarity with those of the Islamic faith. “When we speak about Jihadism, we must never forget that [Muslims] are the first victims and they are at the front line of the barbarism of Jihadism,” he said.
Bishop William Murphy, of Rockville Center, N.Y., was a seminarian in Rome in the years leading up to the Declaration, and has been intimately involved in Catholic Church’s relations with Jews both for Vatican Pontifical Councils and for the US bishops. Describing what led up to the publication of the Declaration, he said, “I know the history well and it was stormy,” he said.
Pope St. John XXIII was eager to have a statement on Jews, influenced by his own experience as a Papal diplomat during WWII, which gave him insight regarding the plight of the Jews and horrible realities of the Holocaust, he said.
Religious and political leaders throughout the world, however, had contentious views on the document, which resulted in “widespread sense of fear and uncertainty about having any text at all,” he added. On October 28, 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted the Declaration and Nostra Aetate set into motion a paradigm shift.
Rabbi Jonathan Stanton, 29, of New Jersey offered the perspective of young Jew native to a post-Nostra Aetate America. “I grew up during an era in which the very idea of friction between Jews and Catholics in the United States was confined to my grandparents’ stories,” he said.
Although Jewish-Catholic conflict is foreign to his own life experience, he said there is more work to be done among members of each faith community to unite to live out the common fruit of their faiths, which is love of neighbor and service.
“What can we do to reach across lines of faith to clothe the naked and feed the hungry?,” he asked, referencing both the Old Testament words of Isaiah and New Testament Gospel of Matthew.
Brian Corbin, Executive Vice President of Catholic Charities USA shared many examples of the ways Catholic and Jewish organizations have combined efforts to service the community at large, from international and domestic disaster relief to providing kosher meals to immobile elderly Jews, in partnership with Meals on Wheels.
“I have seen first-hand the powerful collaborations and deepening sense of understanding that emerges when Jewish and Catholic communities work together,” he said, a feat that may not have been possible without influence of Nostra Aetate.