Nostra Aetate: Celebrating 50 years



Father Joseph D. Wallace stands with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Father Joseph D. Wallace stands with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

As I continue with my series on the May conference, “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims,” I would like to focus on Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and also of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Cardinal Koch spoke of the intrinsic link between Catholicism and Judaism that was elucidated in the Second Vatican document, “Nostra Aetate,” promulgated Oct. 28, 1965. Nostra Aetate, which was promulgated by Blessed Paul VI, was described by Cardinal Koch as “the compass of reconciliation between Jews and Christians today and into the future.”

In his address, Cardinal Koch stressed that the Catholic Church “has a unique and distinctive relationship with Judaism that it has with no other religion, and it cannot understand itself without reference to Judaism.” He said St. John Paul II expressed this idea clearly in his 1986 visit to a Roman synagogue where he said, “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us but in a certain way is intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

That shared relationship is the “essential heart” of Nostra Aetate, he added.

Cardinal Koch also said that the relationship between Jews and Catholics had deteriorated over the centuries and the sense of “belonging to the same family was gradually lost.” He said the Holocaust was a point when hostility toward Jews “reached its lowest possible nadir” and must be judged “as the most horrific expression of that primitive racist anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology.” The cardinal added that the Nazi views were “fundamentally alien to Christianity” and were “repeatedly condemned” by Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII. He said that even though the Holocaust was “led and undertaken by a godless, anti-Christian and neo-pagan ideology,” it still should have stirred among Christians “much more empathetic compassion with the Jews than in fact did come into effect.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a respected author and scholar, gave the response to Cardinal Koch’s presentation. He agreed with the cardinal on the important historical impact that Nostra Aetate has had on Jewish-Catholic relations these past 50 years. He praised the Vatican document for its courageousness, saying its authors had to “override Church Fathers.” Reacting to Cardinal Koch’s belief that a shared relationship is at the “essential heart” of Nostra Aetate, Rabbi Greenberg spoke of the common threads in Judaism and Catholicism, pointing out that the two faiths believe humanity was created by God who sustains and loves the world and its inhabitants.

These faith views diverge with the “ongoing conflict of the role and nature of Jesus,” Greenberg said, noting that Christianity teaches that God sent Jesus to the world to repair it and Judaism believes the Torah can fulfill that task. This fundamental difference, he said, led to the conclusion by members of both faiths that “nothing good could be learned” from each other. That reaction he said, “took a terrible spiritual toll” and both religions paid “a huge price.” He concluded that this ongoing misunderstanding reached its peak in the Shoah (Holocaust).

Cardinal Koch also spoke on the topic of Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations. He said that while the church has ongoing bilateral talks with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, it may be too early to engage in a “trialogue” among the three monotheistic faiths.

“We don’t have a trialogue and for us it is too early to make this because sometimes we speak about an Abrahamitic ecumenism — this very clear — it is a good issue. But on the other hand, we have a very, very different interpretation of Abraham and we cannot deny this issue. And in the interreligious discussion, it is very important to treat also this difference that we have in the interpretation of Abraham.”

Asked if Muslim and Jewish religious leaders would be open to such a dialogue and if it could pave the way to improved relations among the three faiths, Cardinal Koch said, “We hope that we can go in this direction in the future but we have in every religion opposition. We have open leaders, we have open Muslim leaders, we have open Christian leaders, but we have opposition in all the three religions. We have also opposition in the Catholic Church against Nostra Aetate. The same groups, they are against ecumenism, against interreligious dialogue, against the religious freedom declaration. And I think that they are minorities. We must go on the basis of the Second Vatican Council with the high authority of the Catholic Church and we cannot deny this very important influence.”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.