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Vatican II at 50

Assessing the impact of ‘Nostra Aetate’ on Jewish-Christian relations

David Berger
December 15, 2015
OFF/AFP/Getty Images
View of the procession of the Council Fathers October 11, 1962, in front of Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, at the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II. More than 2,500 Fathers were present at the opening Mass, the greatest gathering at any Council in the history of the Church. OFF/AFP/Getty Images
OFF/AFP/Getty Images
View of the procession of the Council Fathers October 11, 1962, in front of Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, at the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II. More than 2,500 Fathers were present at the opening Mass, the greatest gathering at any Council in the history of the Church. OFF/AFP/Getty Images


On Oct. 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI officially issued a brief “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions” titled “Nostra Aetate,” whose fourth section deals with Judaism. Terms like “historic,” “turning point,” and the like are often overused, but this is one of the rare instances where they are appropriate. The current commemorations celebrating the 50th anniversary of the document mark a genuinely significant moment.

“Nostra Aetate” was adopted by a large majority at the Second Vatican Council after a lengthy, complex, and contentious process that cannot detain us here. What is of great relevance is the historical setting in which it was produced, the specifically Jewish dimension of which was the Holocaust. The moral introspection generated by that catastrophe was further stimulated by the campaign of some Jewish intellectuals, notably Jules Isaac, who urged the Church to undo the “teaching of contempt” that had characterized its approach to Jews through the ages. However, exclusive attention to this dimension obscures the larger forces transforming the moral and intellectual landscape of the 1960s. The egalitarian impulse that produced the civil rights movement in the United States and de-colonization worldwide did not sit well with traditions of religious exclusivism and triumphalism, let alone the condemnation of the other to discrimination and damnation.

What, then, does “Nostra Aetate” #4 say? The most focused, concrete, and revolutionary assertion was that only those 1st-century Jews directly involved bore responsibility for the Crucifixion. Contemporary Jews are entirely without guilt. Beyond this, the document, invoking a classic but historically underemphasized passage in Romans chapters 9-11, asserts that Jews and Judaism are the root of Christianity and that the gifts of God, in this case the divine election of Israel, are not revoked. At the same time, it affirms that the Church awaits the day when “all people will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’ ” It “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” and calls for “fraternal dialogues.”

This month, in connection with the jubilee of “Nostra Aetate,” 25 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement on Christianity.

Jewish reactions were for the most part highly favorable, though various objections were raised that strike me as expressions of hypersensitivity. Thus, the document should have “condemned” anti-Semitism rather than merely “decrying” it; the final version should have retained the term “deicide” in characterizing the offense for which the Jews bear no guilt. Orthodox concerns, as we shall see, were more substantive; at the same time, a substantial number of Orthodox Jews tended to evince a generally dismissive reaction that was also present to a lesser degree in the larger community. The declaration was seen as too little, too late, and the notion that Jews were being exonerated for crucifying Jesus was seen as at least marginally insulting. Thus, some Jews whose long-standing bill of particulars against the Church featured the guilt that it assigned to the Jewish people for the Crucifixion nonetheless dismissed the historic revocation of this theology as an event that should have no consequences for their own resentful stance.

To implement the new relationship, the Church established a Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, which issued its first official document (“Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No.4)”) in 1974. In 1985, it issued “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.” And in 1998, it issued a document on the Holocaust titled “We Remember.” Despite occasional formulations that some Jews, rightly or wrongly, found inadequate or objectionable, these documents fleshed out “Nostra Aetate” in a direction that reflected advances achieved by ongoing dialogues and even dealt with some of the specific concerns that Jews had expressed regarding the original declaration.


Before proceeding to matters of greater substance and complexity, we need to ask how much of an impact these changes have exerted on ordinary Catholics and the Christian populace as a whole. With respect to what I characterized as the most focused and concrete issue addressed by “Nostra Aetate,” we have a fairly extensive survey carried out by the Anti-Defamation League in 2012. Its objective was to measure attitudes toward Jews in 10 European countries (not including the former Soviet Union), and it asked respondents whether they thought a series of affirmations were probably true. The fifth and final of these was: “The Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus.” (Note the present tense verb.) The average of those responding “probably true” was 22 percent, ranging from 14 percent in France and Germany to 46 percent in Poland. The percentage in Spain was only 21 percent. Since we can be certain that these numbers would have been far higher two generations ago, it almost certainly follows that even allowing for the impact of European secularization, at least a significant part of the decline can be attributed to the effect of “Nostra Aetate” and the teachings that it inspired. Nonetheless, the Polish result speaks volumes for the educational work that remains to be done.

I am unaware of any relevant survey results in the United States. One proclamation by a Catholic lay leader during the controversy over Mel Gibson’s film on the Passion points in a strikingly positive direction, though another, more official Catholic response reveals the limitations of formal Church guidelines. In an article about the film in Commentary, I noted that William Donohue, a traditional Catholic who heads the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, described The Passion of the Christ in an open letter to the Jewish community as “magnificent beyond words” and, in an effort to allay Jewish concerns, added that “anyone who subscribes to the notion of collective guilt or who believes that today’s Jews are responsible for the behavior of some Jews 2,000 years ago, is demented.” Whatever reservations one may have about Donohue’s characterization of the film, and whatever his motives for dismissing its potential for engendering anti-Semitism, his effective if unintended assertion that his own immediate ancestors as well as untold generations of Christians were demented is evidence that a deep and welcome change has been effected in the psyche of mainstream American Catholics.

If Donohue were challenged on this point, he might very well assert, as many traditional Catholics do, that the exoneration of the Jews in “Nostra Aetate” is nothing new, that Church doctrine properly understood had always ascribed guilt for the Crucifixion to sinful humanity as a whole. There is no reason for Jews to challenge this in the context of friendly dialogue, although the element of truth that it contains cannot obscure the fact that the primary blame—with all its terrible consequences—was nonetheless widely assigned to the Jews.

The Office of Film and Broadcasting of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, without even a passing reference to an earlier document issued by the USCCB titled “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” issued a largely positive review of Gibson’s film even though it violates virtually every element in that document. Those criteria represented a concerted effort to apply a key affirmation of “Nostra Aetate”; the review demonstrates how ineffective well-meaning guidelines can be when they are thrown into the maelstrom of intense communal passion and controversy.


In “Nostra Aetate” itself, and much more so in subsequent Church documents and papal utterances, the abiding value of Judaism has been affirmed and even emphasized. In theological language, the covenant between God and the original Israel remains in effect. What precisely that covenant is—the Abrahamic and/or the Mosaic—is not quite settled, and some Jews have virtually demanded that Christians declare that the Mosaic covenant remains in full force. I have argued that this demand is unwise. It raises intractable questions about the parameters of the Jewish need to observe that covenant and constitutes a telling example of the inappropriate dictation to others of what their own religion must teach.

This is far from the only instance in which Jews must evaluate the proper parameters of such intervention. Jews active in interfaith affairs have not infrequently denounced the Christian belief that the entire world will recognize Jesus as the divine messiah at the end of days. This, in my view, is none of our business, especially in light of the corresponding Jewish belief strikingly expressed in the High Holiday liturgy and the Aleinu prayer. Many Jews welcome the views of Christian scholars and theologians who maintain that certain anti-Jewish narratives in the Gospels are unhistorical, but we have no right to urge more fundamentalist Christians to reject the accuracy of their scriptures.

Sometimes, however, even a non-interventionist can be given pause. Passion plays clearly endorsing the cries of the mob that “his blood be on us and on our children” are not simply reporting the account in Matthew; they are rendering a theological judgment about the validity of that declaration that is not required even by a fundamentalist reading. Given the dangers that inhere in such scenes, we have the right and duty to object.

The most interesting phenomenon that challenges the convictions of a non-interventionist is Christian missionizing, which brings us back to the covenant. Catholic theologians friendly to the Jews have struggled with the implications of the unbroken Abrahamic/Mosaic covenant. This unbroken covenant sits uneasily with the doctrine of the contemporary Church that although those who consciously reject belief in Jesus can under certain circumstances be saved, the vehicle of salvation—even for Jews—is Jesus acting through the Church. In some sense, we are told, there is an implicit belief at work. Moreover, despite the enduring Jewish covenant, Christians are obligated to “witness” to the Jews even though they should not directly proselytize.

It should not be our concern to help resolve these conundrums in Catholic theology, and I am all the more grateful that leading theologians firmly oppose mission to the Jews even though their rationale for this position leaves them with unresolved “mysteries.” However, in relating to Christian groups who do proselytize, it is, I think, legitimate for Jews to make every effort to persuade them to desist despite the fact that this constitutes interference in their internal theology. In this case, the imperative of self-defense is so direct that it overrides countervailing principles.

It is all the more evident that missionizing intent cannot be tolerated in the context of interfaith dialogue. As recently as 2009, the U.S. National Council of Catholic Bishops issued a statement containing an affirmation that shocked their Jewish dialogue partners: “Though Christian participation in inter-religious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ to which all are implicitly invited.” From its inception in 1998, I have participated in a dialogue between the NCCB and a joint delegation of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (O.U.). In response to this statement, I wrote to the NCCB delegation on behalf of our group. The letter affirmed inter alia that “this assertion that the Christian partner enters the dialogue with Jews with the intention of extending an implicit invitation to join the Church strikes at the very heart of the dialogical enterprise and undermines the most basic understanding that makes that enterprise possible.” (In a private letter to a Jew, I proposed a riddle: “Provide a case where an explicit proclamation that X is X renders it something other than X. Answer: When an implicit invitation is explicitly identified as an implicit invitation, it becomes an explicit invitation.”) I also participated in formulating a letter from several secular and religious Jewish organizations protesting the statement.

This episode illustrates both the limits of non-interventionism and the residual conversionary impulse even in friendly Catholic dialogue partners. But it also illustrates something else. To our pleasant surprise—even astonishment—the NCCB promptly removed the offending sentences from a document that they had just issued. About a year later, a Catholic interfaith activist exceedingly supportive of Jews gave a presentation at a scholarly conference that I attended where she mentioned a similar sentence about the purpose of Jewish-Christian dialogue that appeared in the official high-school catechism. I privately complained to two members of the NCCB delegation, and once again the sentence was removed. All this would have been unimaginable in the pre-“Nostra Aetate” era.

Concern with instructing Christians regarding internal beliefs and actions generally applies to matters of faith, but it ought to play a lesser yet substantial role in other contexts as well. Moves to canonize Pope Pius XII offend many Jews because of his virtual silence as the Holocaust was unfolding, and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), along with other Jewish organizations, has made a vigorous argument that the process should not proceed until the Vatican archives from the relevant period are fully available for public perusal. The pace of the process indeed appears to have been moderated, but, as an RCA delegate to IJCIC, I urged—unsuccessfully—that this issue not be pressed. It is highly improbable that a smoking gun will emerge from the archives, any evidence will be subject to different interpretations, and the benefit to the Jewish community from impeding the canonization is very difficult to discern. I felt even more strongly about vocal Jewish opposition to the canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert who became a nun and was murdered by the Nazi killing machine. Here the Jewish objection was that she died because of her Jewishness, not as a Christian martyr, hardly, in my view, an appropriate casus belli with the Catholic Church. On the other hand, should the Church make any serious moves toward implementing a suggestion that Queen Isabella, who presided over the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, join the ranks of the saints, vehement objections would, I believe, be very much in order.


I indicated earlier that Orthodox Jews had substantive reservations about elements of “Nostra Aetate.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the dominant authority in the Modern Orthodox community, delivered a lecture titled “Confrontation” as the council was deliberating. He set forth the position that interfaith dialogue is appropriate when addressing social and moral issues, but theological interchange must be avoided. He understood very well that the boundary between these categories can be permeable but nonetheless insisted on the overall necessity of maintaining it. The RCA and O.U. have generally adhered to this guideline, and because of their participation in umbrella organizations like IJCIC and the late Synagogue Council of America, their position has served as an imperfect restraint on theological dialogue in those settings.

One of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s concerns was that theological discussion could lead to expectations of reciprocity. Whether explicitly or implicitly, Christians would say, “We have made fundamental changes in our evaluation of Judaism and the Jewish people. It is time for you to do the same with respect to Christianity.” For Rabbi Soloveitchik, religious evaluations of other religions should not be subject to such pressures; we must not “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith.”

Precisely because of the remarkable shift in Christian attitudes, the sense that Jews are obligated to re-assess Christianity has indeed emerged. Let me say immediately that those religious figures who have affirmed such an obligation have made every effort to do so with full fealty to what they see as Jewish law and theology. Nonetheless, the strain is evident, and some of the results are problematic. In September 2000, a document titled Dabru Emet was formulated by four eminent Jewish theologians and ultimately signed by well over 200 rabbis and scholars. It was organized into eight rubrics most of which are in my view unexceptionable, but I regard the strong implication that neither community should insist “that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other” as uncomfortably relativistic and the assertion that Jews and Christians worship the same God as an incomplete truth.

This month, in connection with the jubilee of “Nostra Aetate,” 25 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement on Christianity (To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership Between Jews and Christians). Here again, much of it is unexceptionable, even admirable. I welcome its affirmations, often citing significant authorities that, like Jews, Christians worship the God of Heaven and Earth, that we share crucial moral values, and that Christians (in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) “have a claim to the benefit of all the duties not only of justice but also of active human brotherly love.”

Nonetheless, elements of this declaration are decidedly problematic. Appealing to Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi, it asserts that Christianity “is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.” It goes on to say that “Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name,” though it also asserts that the authors do not minimize the differences between the religions.

The authors know very well that Halevi and even more vigorously Maimonides saw the divine plan in the establishment of Christianity (and Islam) as preparation for universal recognition of the truth of Judaism and the rejection of those religions. There is something disingenuous about citing only half the position. Moreover, whatever we think of Maimonides’ affirmation, Modern Orthodox Jews usually shrink from making confident assertions about God’s plans and intentions (except for the monumental and in their view obvious instance of the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel). All of a sudden, they express confident knowledge of the mind of God.

Moreover, the affirmation that Jews and Christians have a “common covenantal [my emphasis] mission” raises questions for a careful reader. I can account for it only as an endorsement of an innovative theological doctrine proposed by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who was one of the three signatories on this document when it was circulated to obtain additional signatures. To Greenberg, as an extension of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and even Israel, God established a covenant with Christians qua Christians, who in Greenberg’s most ambitious formulation have become a part of Israel. I am strongly inclined to think that most of the rabbis who signed the declaration saw the phrase in question as a mere rhetorical flourish; I myself would probably have missed its significance had I not reviewed Greenberg’s book. Nonetheless, they have, however unintentionally, affirmed the existence of a specific divine covenant with Christians of which Jewish tradition knows nothing and that every authority through the ages to whom Orthodox Jews turn would have rejected out of hand.

Finally, the assertion that “differences between … the religions” remain is a rather anemic way of recognizing that Jewish law requires martyrdom rather than conversion to Christianity. Given the critical importance of those differences to the core of the Jewish religion, this paean of praise to Christianity, much of which is deserved, needs to be leavened by a clearer affirmation of the transcendent significance of the theological chasm that remains. The declaration, despite its many merits, demonstrates the prescience exhibited in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s concerns.


The value of Jewish-Christian interaction in the social and moral sphere is clear and uncontroversial, at least among those who are open to any sort of dialogue. Here, differences about issues like abortion, gay marriage, and church-state issues cut across religious lines, dividing Jews from Jews and Christians from Christians at least as much as they divide adherents of the respective religions from one another. At the same time, there are many manifest areas of commonality and cooperation that do not need to be specified.

Finally, we turn to the critical and contentious issue of Israel. “Nostra Aetate” decisively did away with the key theological impediment to Catholic recognition of the State. No longer could a loyal Catholic assert that Jewish dispossession from the land resulted from the sin of the crucifixion and that unrepentant Jewry must remain in its exile. Nonetheless, the Vatican did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1993. The reasons provided for the delay, which were embarrassingly unpersuasive, need not detain us here. The key point is that normal relations have been established, and they were made theologically possible by “Nostra Aetate”

On the spectrum of Christian attitudes toward Israel, the Vatican stands between the almost fiercely Zionist evangelicals and the hostile Protestant groups that dominate the World Council of Churches. With all the tensions—and they are legion—it is fair to say that the Vatican, at least by the global standards that currently prevail, can be counted among the friends of the Jewish State and serves as a resource to which advocates for Israel can appeal with reasonable hope of support.

I have tried to convey some measure of the intriguing complexities that characterize the contemporary Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Catholic relationship. Nonetheless, the challenging realities that we face should not obscure the overarching and indisputable fact that a brief document issued a half-century ago has revolutionized that relationship to the point where an observer transported from 1964 would be astonished, even disoriented. After recovering, the Jewish observer—though he or she should not actually succumb to the temptation—might well feel the spontaneous urge to recite the blessing at having lived to see this day.


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David Berger is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.

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