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    Nostra Aetate – 40 years & beyond

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple, AO RFD, at an event hosted by the St. Thomas More Society and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, on Thursday, 20 October, 2005.

    Once upon a time there was a light-hearted book about English history called “1066 and All That”. It habitually passed judgment on events by saying, “That was a good thing” or “That was a bad thing”. Tonight I would like to borrow its terminology and to say (not at all light-heartedly but with the utmost seriousness and respect) that in the 20th century record Nostra Aetate was a good thing. Vatican II, of which it was a major element, was one of the seminal achievements of modern history. It moved the Catholic Church away from defiant rejection of modernity to cordial conversation with the world. From then onwards, the Church would never be the same again, nor would the world. Nostra Aetate itself also changed the landscape for ever. Religious diversity became for the Church an issue for engagement, not merely an irritant able only to be overcome by proselytisation. The Jewish chapter of Nostra Aetate, which is my particular concern, began to overturn a two-millennial culture of opposition. In all these respects the Church has continued to be true to its new self, though not without occasional difficult moments.

    Tonight, as we apply a forty-year perspective, we recall that forty years is a significant period in Biblical thinking. A famous verse says, “The land had peace for forty years” (Joshua 3:11). Similarly, the period since 1965 has on the whole been a time of peace in the relationship between religions, and even when we found it necessary to protest about mishaps and complain about misunderstandings we did so as friends. But it would not be done enough if all we did tonight was to limit ourselves to reporting on the chronicle of these forty years. We need to face a further forty-year challenge, suggested by the rabbinic saying, “Forty is the age for understanding” (Avot 5:21); and indeed today’s vantage point is near enough yet far enough away to begin to understand the full significance of 1965.

    That understanding cannot come in static fashion, looking at the event on its own without text or context. The assessment needs to be dynamic, as part of and the cusp of a movement So allow me to address myself to Nostra Aetate dynamically, by considering what was before it, what was around it, and what was after it.

    What was before it?

    There were centuries of Christian antagonism to outsiders, especially to Jews. The diversity of religions had only one value, as a challenge to the Church’s missionary energies. Other faiths could not by definition, be valid or legitimate. Judaism in particular had to be condemned. It was not yet conceivable that a pope could say, as did Pius XI in 1938, “Spiritually we all are Semites”. It was more likely that the voice to be heard would be that of Innocent III, who declared in 1169, “The Jews are paying for their crime by God’s eternal banishment, and through them the truth of our faith is confirmed”.

    The long, unpleasant story resounds through time. The first Church Council, taking place in Jerusalem before the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism, considered whether gentile followers of Jesus needed to keep the commandments. The decision, dispensing with the full spectrum of Jewish ritual law, was a major element in the shift from Judaism. Subsequent Councils, while not limited to Jewish issues, took it for granted that Judaism had lost its value and place in the Divine plan, minimised Christian contact with Jews and imposed restrictions on what a Jew could or could not do.

    The Councils constantly reaffirmed the rejection of religious toleration. Probably none was as far-reaching as the first Vatican Council in 1896, which established papal infallibility and closed off dialogue with modernity, denying legitimacy to evolution, socialism, and political liberalism and warning against religious toleration. Yet within a few decades came Pope John XXIII, described in an obituary tribute as “a man with a flaring intuition of our century”. Within months, John took the decisive step of acknowledging the need for conversation with the modern world, thereby gaining sufficient credibility for the Church to enable the whole of humanity, for all its theological problems with Catholicism, to regard the pope as the world’s moral leader. During the long incumbency of John Paul II, in particular, a papal response to events or moral dilemmas evoked grumbles, but the world knew that religion had spoken.

    Why Vatican II was necessary needs to be explained by the historians. John XXIII himself could hardly believe what he had initiated. He thought of it as “a little holy madness”. Others possibly thought that papal infallibility had made Councils redundant In the event, Vatican II turned out to have unique symbolic meaning, demonstrating the Church’s new engagement with modernity. Not that everything old had been rejected; indeed in some respects the Council stimulated a restatement of historic positions. But what was definitely new was the new attitude to other religions and especially Judaism.

    In relation to Judaism there were critical questions to be dealt with. Was the Jewish chapter in the Vatican declaration to be phrased negatively, providing a fong needed repudiation of antisemitism? Was anything positive to be said about the continuing value of Judaism and the enduring nature of God’s covenant with the Jewish people?

    Catholics and Jews both lobbied those responsible for the wording, leaving Cardinal Bea and others to weave their way through difficult paths. Much has been written about the process that eventually led to a document which some believed went too far and others criticised as not going far enough. The result has its drawbacks, but one thing is beyond question. The pope would not be satisfied unless the document removed what has been called the “mentality of opposition between Jew and Christian”.

    Cardinal Bea did his work well. The Church consigned to history the doctrine that Christians had superseded Jews as the people of God (though it allowed itself to perpetuate historical errors such as “The Jewish authorities… pressed for the death of Christ”). It recognised that Christian love had become hatred where Jews were concerned, in spite of the fact that Jesus was a Jew. It understood why Jews had no esteem for Christians, though leading Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides and Menachem Me’iri remained respectful of Christianity and Islam even when they ruled that these faiths were in error.

    By modern times Catholics were not the only ones to call themselves Christians, nor the only Christians to follow what Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt”. But it was Catholics who most needed to exorcise their anti-Jewish ghosts, and through Nostra Aetate they proved that they had the moral courage to do so. If this was what was before it, we next ask –

    What was around it?

    What I mean by this question is what feeling we sense when we read the document. What does it say between the lines? As one of my teachers used to insist, we need to know not only what was said but what was intended. (My teacher’s advice came in the context of our lessons on Biblical commentary. He used to remark, “We need to ask not only what Rashi says but what he means to say”).

    What we read between the lines of Nostra Aetate is that the Hebrew Bible does after all provide a striking and enduring resource and perspective. The document adopts the position of the early chapters of Genesis, which see all humanity as made in the image of God. It echoes the Tower of Babel story that sees human diversity as part of the Divine design. It reflects the Hebrew prophets who envisaged all the nations making their way (may we say, their separate ways) to worship God on His holy mountain. We also find a distinction being drawn between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and the non-monotheistic faiths on the other. While admitting the spirituality and ethical sensitivity of all religions, and respecting all that is “true and holy in these religions”, the document cannot ascribe Divine revelation to the other faiths, but sees Judaism and its daughter Christianity as God-given and forever linked. It accepts its own Jewish origins whilst not abandoning its conviction that it has the true light, but it no longer argues that Judaism has lost its lasting value. It makes it heretical to be an antisemite and/or to demonise the Jewish people, either of ancient times or of today, for alleged deicide. It does not yet face up to the practical problem of how to handle New Testament texts that give the Jews a bad press, but it says and means to say that the culture of opposition is no longer acceptable.

    There are Jewish and Christian scholars who object that the document seems to be forgiving the Jewish people for a crime that history proves they did not commit. They see a major difficulty in the references to Jewish leaders having pressed for Jesus’ death and in passages such as this, “Jerusalem did not recognise the time of her visitation”. I recall hearing someone sarcastically say at the time, “Huh! The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away”, as if to imply that the vaunted goodwill of the document was merely a facade.

    The disappointment was real and genuine, and indeed more judicious phrases could have been adopted. The final version was a compromise which in some respects fell short of the bold and courageous intention of John XXIII – not only in relation to the apparent inability to be completely consistent in its wording but also when it came to the repudiation of antisemitism. The policy was clear: antisemitism was not to have a home in the Catholic community. But instead of condemning antisemitic attitudes, the document “decried” them, though later documents did strengthen the language used and it has been explained that John XXIII had not wished the Vatican Council to issue condemnations of anything. The document cannot, however, be faulted in its iteration that the human community is one. It rejects all forms of prejudice and requires believers to seek to live in and at peace with all others, though of course a Jewish reader would much prefer a positive statement about human nature that does not need to rely on the old Original Sin doctrine that all men are (equally) sinners.

    What was after it?

    Nostra Aetate, for all its defects, heralded a new age. So – have these forty years implemented the hope? Have they improved the document and made it workable? in the first few minutes of this presentation I anticipated my conclusions, when I suggested that despite the difficult moments it has been a good period and Nostra Aetate has not only worn well but turned out to be, in the terms of “1066 and All That”, a good thing.

    An early assessment came from Rev Dr Cornelius Rijk in a lecture for the Sisters of Sion in London. Less than three years after Nostra Aetate, Dr Rijk could say: “A slow, but sound and effective change has been taking place in the Church. Obviously, the painful misunderstandings of centuries cannot be removed in a single year, but there is no doubt that the Church, during the Vatican Council, sincerely sought a new and better understanding of itself… One of the points most discussed was the relation between the Church and the Jewish people… The final result was neither very good, nor very bad: it was a compromise addressed to Catholics; a pastoral document in a positive spirit, and as such a revolutionary declaration compared with the statements of former Councils. The Vatican Document is an important step, but it is only a first official step. It is a theoretical statement, the result of a painfully-won insight on the part of leaders of the Catholic Church. All will depend on whether – and how -this document is put into practice.”

    Dr Rijk continued by surveying what had already begun to happen. Bishops in various countries had been active in implementing the declaration. It was not just a question of changing the text books or of finding “another social attitude -a more open, human and biblical attitude – towards Jews.” Before proceeding with this summary of Dr Rijk’s paper, let me illustrate his remarks about “another social attitude” by a personal recollection. When I left Melbourne as a student early in 1958 a Catholic staff member of the United Jewish Education Board was unsure whether she should attend my farewell in the community hall of a Melbourne synagogue. Fifteen years later my induction at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, was attended in an official capacity by the Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Freeman. There had certainly been a change in social attitudes. The real change that was needed, however, as Dr Rijk stated, was a change in a deeply rooted, traditional mentality, which, as a religious conviction, has consciously, or even more – unconsciously – an impact on all aspects of human behaviour”.

    The process was working slowly and on the whole positively, and then came the Six Day War. Jews were in agony and were bitter at the silence of the Catholic Church as of other sections of Christianity. It was clear that neither side was possessed of in-depth understanding of each other’s mind, heart and identity.

    Christians in particular had a selective understanding of Judaism; as Dr Rijk puts it, “they had placed Judaism in their own categories of thinking” and the dialogues between Jews and Christians had “not yet touched the real problems”.

    Grass-roots parishioners and pupils may still be hazy in their understanding of Jews (their knowledge of their own faith is possibly also rather vague), but the leaders of Catholic opinion (with the unfortunate exception of some prelates who are not yet entirely up with the new thinking) are now far more aware of how Jews and Judaism really function. I pay especial tribute to my eminent co-speaker, His Eminence Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, who knows the Jewish world so well. The Australian Catholic bishops also deserve considerable praise for their sensitivity to Jewish concerns and, may I say, their disquiet when critical issues are not handled well in Rome. There have been a number of such issues over the years, often involving Israel and the Holocaust. Chaim Potok said that “the Jew sees all his contemporary history through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust”. One might add, “and through the joy that is Israel, and the agony of Middle East terrorism”. True, the Church has followed up Nostra Aetate by a series of documents which clarify its attitude to both the seminal events of modern Jewish history, and Pope John Paul II constantly – and dramatically – demonstrated his sensitivity. But somewhere in the Church things were allowed to disturb the peace on a number of occasions such as the Auschwitz convent episode, the proposed beatification of individuals with inappropriate attitudes to Jews, the withholding of certain archival material, the perceived whitewashing of the wartime pope, the lack of protest when the president of Syria exploited the pope’s visit to make outrageous statements about Jews, and the apparent silence when terrorism attacked Israel and Israelis. There is of course also the peculiar reception of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, which is a sheer travesty of history, and possibly also a willingness for reconciliation with groups of Catholics who have never come to terms with Vatican II and certainly not with Nostra Aetate with its respect and toleration of other religions. Some Jews explain the times of tension between Catholicism and the Jewish world on the basis that there is a residual feeling that Jews deserve what they get and that the survival of Judaism and the resurgence of Israel still constitute a theological scandal for certain quarters within the Church. Leading Australian Catholics assure me that this is not the explanation and that it is not a lack of goodwill which is to be blamed but a culture of ineptitude which affects internal Catholic affairs as much as or more than the Church’s engagement with ecumenism and inter-religious harmony. Which leads me to remind myself, and you, that neither Nostra Aetate nor any of the other documents to which I have referred are directly addressed to an audience beyond the Church itself, in some cases the framers of the comments have been gracious and sensitive enough to heed and/or invite Jewish comments on the proposed wording, and I publicly acknowledge the invitations extended to me personally from time to time to suggest emendations that were perhaps better nuanced. Nonetheless these are statements issued by Catholics for Catholics, and if and when there are defects in the documents or mistakes in their implementation, it is Catholics who need to make the necessary comments. Fortunately there are Catholics who have the will and the courage to shoulder this responsibility.

    It is all a work in progress. Vatican II turned the Catholic community into a great modern movement. Nostra Aetate changed the Church from what I have heard described (bluntly and none too delicately) as a predatory bully, to a world faith ready to discourse with other world faiths. The Jewish chapter moved the Church from a mentality of hostility to a sibling convinced that Catholics and Jews are both partners in the mystery of God’s plan. All this must be seen as a great achievement. There is still a way to go. But we are embarked upon the path. And if I needed personal evidence 1 would have to say that the Catholic lady from the Jewish Education Board office who feared official retribution for attending my farewell in Melbourne in 1958 would be amazed and awed to learn that another farewell to me, when I retired from the Great Synagogue earlier this year, was not only attended by friends from many faiths but by not less than three Cardinals.

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