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    The fruits of Nostra Aetate

    Presentation by Rabbi Raymond Apple, AO RFD, at Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney, on Sunday, 26 March, 2006.

    It is becoming a habit for His Eminence and me to share a platform. The last occasion was on 20 October last year at the Great Synagogue. That evening the subject matter was also Nostra Aetate, but with a major difference. Tonight is not a commemoration of the document but a consideration of its significance, not a ceremony but a dialogue, not held in a place laden with symbolism but in an academic setting where there can be open enquiry and frank discussion. My role is to ponder the significance of Nostra Aetate to me as a Jew, and I look forward to hearing whether the Cardinal shares my assessment.

    Few Jews closely followed the steps that led to the Vatican Council chapter on the Jewish people. Indeed most Jews have very little idea of what a Vatican Council is. Nor do they know much about the Catholic or any other Church. They tend to believe Christianity is monolithic and the Pope is the head of all Christians. If the Pope speaks, they feel every Christian must listen and obey. In 1965 a Catholic statement mentioned Jews, and this, they believe, was the whole Christian world speaking, and speaking to Jews.

    If this is a distorted view of Christians as a whole and of the Catholic community in particular, it is paralleled by Christian ignorance of the Jewish people and Judaism, not excluding Israel. For every inaccurate statement which Jews make about Christianity, Christians make countless inaccurate statements about Judaism. Nostra Aetate challenges both faith communities with the need to speak – or, more importantly, to listen – to each much more, and go behind the garbled distortions to hear how the other understands itself in its own terms and framework.

    Part of the process must be for Jews to ask what the Vatican Council was actually saying in Nostra Aetate, and to whom; and for Christians to acknowledge why those Jews who were aware of Nostra Aetate reacted (and continue to react) in the manner that they did.

    What was the Vatican Council actually saying, and to whom? One of the most revealing answers comes from Monsignor Jorge Mejia, former executive secretary to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in a paper published in 1985. Titled “The Catholic Style: A Reflection on the Documents”, it appears in “More Stepping Stones to Jewish-Christian Relations”, edited by Helga Croner and published by Paulist Press.

    The author points out that the Catholic Church has its own style of doing and saying things. The Catholic style is to go slowly. Changes in the Church do not come suddenly like a flash of lightning. They are, despite the mixed metaphor, “the ripe fruit of first hidden currents” (p. 5). External facts may be the catalyst, but the ground must be ready for the change. Further, the change cannot be disconsonant with what has gone before. It must be “an authentic interpretation of tradition”, though it arises out of a fresh examination of that tradition (p. 8). Thirdly, once the Church makes a change it lives with it, even if it takes time to be fully implemented and to penetrate the Catholic world (p. 9).

    From these three points arises a series of facts about Nostra Aetate. It was not a treaty or agreement. It was a unilateral Catholic declaration addressed to its own people. In the Jewish chapter the Jewish people were not the immediate audience, though of course they were listening in (the Jewish chapter was one section of a much longer document, but when I refer tonight to Nostra Aetate I mean the Jewish chapter). The timing and framing of the declaration were linked to the Holocaust, but the ground was prepared beforehand, even if some leading elements in the Church were previously so unready that they exacerbated Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The declaration was not a sudden break with Church tradition; it arose out of better exegesis of Biblical texts and a deeper understanding of historical events. The Church is committed to the new approach, even if some elements are slower than others to implement it.

    But how true is it that the ground for a more positive attitude to Jews had been prepared beforehand when there is so much evidence of highly unfriendly pronouncements made by Catholic bishops at precisely the time when the Church everywhere could have had the moral courage to oppose and denounce Nazi policies? The hostile pronouncements dismissing Jewish suffering as Divine punishment for rejecting Christ surely indicate complicity in the tragedy, with little sign of contrition or rethinking. We are still not entirely certain about the attitude of the wartime Pope, but the fact that there remains, to put it mildly, some serious ambiguity in his words and deeds also does not show much constructive readiness for rapprochement.

    Nonetheless Monsignor Mejia submits that when Dr Jules Isaac came to see Pope John XXIII and earlier Pope Pius XII, “he found a ground already prepared.” He finds it significant that such visits even happened, which would have been unthinkable a hundred years earlier. True, at the turn of the 20th century Theodor Herzl also had a private audience with the Pope despite the sharp verbal rebuff he received; indeed, according to Herzl’s own account, the Vatican Secretary of State was not closed to his ideas, possibly with a degree of tacit awareness by the Pope himself (p. 6).

    A change of official policy might have eventuated some time in the future, but the aftermath of the Holocaust speeded up the slow-grinding mills of Vatican thinking for at least three reasons. The first is that many of the bishops recognised that the “teaching of contempt” (Jules Isaac’s phrase) had inexorably contributed to the catastrophe. Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis told the Ecumenical Council, “To us who are gathered… the unique opportunity is given to… redress injustices”. Cardinal Gushing of Boston said, “I wonder … whether we ought not humbly confess before the world that, with regard to their Jewish brothers, Christians have all too often not proved themselves as true Christians”. The second reason is that intellectual currents fostering a more objective reading of texts, teachings and history were preparing Catholics for a greater awareness of the modern world and a more positive appreciation of the Jewish people. The third reason is that some Catholic circles had not been fully aware of the Holocaust or conscious of how Church teaching had helped to make it possible, though this argument does not excuse the inaction or open hostility of European prelates who had no excuse for ignorance.

    Despite the changes and compromises that emerged in the debates, there was broad support for the principle of the declaration. Let me quote another important paper, Dr Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich’s “What Vatican II Means to Us Jews”, in “Brothers in Hope”, edited by Monsignor John M Oesterreicher, published in 1970. Dr Ehrlich, an official of B’nai B’rith International, says the wish of the Council was for all its documents “to be accepted with as near unanimity as possible” (p, 37). He adds, “The numerous votes produced an essentially homogeneous picture. Before compromises in the final editing, there was always an impressive majority for the ‘progressive’ schemata. The greater number of these texts were acceptable to far more than two thirds of the Council fathers… (though) the powerful Roman Curia was frequently on the side of the minority that voted ‘No'” (p. 38).

    This observation applies to the Council declarations in general as well as to the Jewish chapter. Despite all its defects, this chapter explicitly opposes antisemitism three times. It does not use the technical term “condemn” as there had been an in-principle decision to eliminate that word from all Council texts (with one exception, the condemnation of atomic warfare). What the Jewish chapter told its Catholic audience with the assent of a good majority of the Council fathers was that the Jews remain chosen and dear to God for the sake of their fathers; Jews and Christians have a common spiritual heritage and the Church must engage with Jews in mutual respect and knowledge; the death of Christ must not be blamed on all Jews then living, much less on the Jews of today; the Jews must not be represented as rejected or cursed; and the Church repudiates all persecutions and deplores antisemitism. All this would have been lauded by Pope John XXIII, had he lived; for, when opening the Council, he said, “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations”.

    It is true that some conventional slogans were included which do not sit well with the main thrust of the declaration (Ehrlich calls this “the old ambivalence of Christian theology”), and there was not yet an express repudiation of the deicide allegation nor a positive appreciation of Judaism, any acknowledgment of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life and thought, or an expression of guilt for the Christian strand in the making of the Holocaust. All these were yet to come, but the ground for the later statements and refinements was already being prepared within a few months of the 1964 declaration.

    How Catholics received the declaration can be judged in two ways – in terms of official statements and the editorialising in Church publications, and the hindsight perspective that looks at the climate that has developed in the years since then. Both approaches are important. Church responses varied. Monsignor Oesterreicher was disappointed that church bells did not ring everywhere (“The Declaration: One Year Later”, “Brothers in Hope”, op. cit., p. 265), though there were highly positive views such as those of Professor Hans Kiing, who was certain the Church had proclaimed “her indissoluble unity with Israel”; he dismissed the omission of certain phrases from the final wording as “not decisive for the future” (Oesterreicher, op. cit., p. 265).

    Jewish responses were also mixed. The Christians did not ring the church bells; the Jews did not sound the shofar. The London Jewish Chronicle regretted omissions from and compromises in the document but said that the Council had “increased the stature of the Roman Catholic Church” (editorial, 22 October, 1965, cited by Oesterreicher, op. cit., p. 266). However, Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had been consulted at various stages and successfully urged the omission of phrases calling for the eventual conversion of the Jews and spoke of Pope John as “a magnificence…, a living promise and a hope”, attacked the deletion of a specific renunciation of deicide claims as “condoning Auschwitz, defiance of the God of Abraham and… homage to Satan” (cited by Oesterreicher, op. cit., p. 267).

    Yet the Church did not resile from the new policy. Once begun it was a work in progress. To its credit the Church took heed of and pondered the criticisms emanating from Jewish sources and continued to refine the declaration in a series of later documents, illustrating Mejia’s statement that the Church “clings to (its decisions) in a way which can well be qualified as tenacious” (op. cit., p. 9), Though there have been ups and downs along the way, some of which I enumerated in my address on 20 October, and even though Pope John Paul II, who championed the new policy, was not always consistent, the new approach has often been called irrevocable. The new Pope is pledged to its continuance, in spite of misgivings felt by some on the Jewish side at the time of his election.

    Over the years some of the highest-ranking figures in the Church have been appointed to guide and develop the movement and have dedicated themselves to it with heart, soul and might, not without occasional criticism from their own colleagues. If I mention the late Cardinal Bea it is only just. But he was not the only great and noble soul who was part of the work. Among the living, tribute must be paid to that great Australian and great churchman Cardinal Cassidy, whose retirement from office has not dimmed his enthusiasm one iota. The Australian Catholic bishops have shown themselves loyal supporters of the cause, as was evident in their landmark guidelines issued in 1992 and in their cordiality when year by year they meet in conference with leaders of the Australian Jewish community and at times allow themselves to criticise apparent Roman ineptness.

    As we have seen, Jewish leaders were already involved to a limited degree in the process that led up to Nostra Aetate. The idea for the document probably derived from Jules Isaac, though some say it was Abraham Joshua Heschel. Jewish leaders could not do much more than make suggestions, though Heschel was outspoken in the views he expressed to Cardinal Bea and the Pope. The Jews who were consulted knew that the agenda, despite its wider ramifications, was fundamentally an internal Catholic document in which Catholics would speak to Catholics in the Catholic style, yet there was much more they had hoped would be included and nuances which would have enhanced the flavour of the declaration. They welcomed the threefold denunciation of antisemitism and all the other points which I have enumerated. At the same time they strongly advocated a clear repudiation of the deicide doctrine, a stronger and more positive tone towards Judaism as a valid on-going faith, an explicit renunciation of proselytism targeting Jews (though the omission of any reference to converting the Jews already spoke volumes), and appropriate references to the seminal events of modern Jewish history – the agony of the Sho’ah and the ecstasy of Israel. In time, and in the eyes of some far too long afterwards, these various points were incorporated in Church documents.

    Taken as a whole, forty years of Church thinking, teaching and writing on Jews and Judaism have radically changed the landscape. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the Christian mea culpa accepting at least a measure of blame for the Sho’ah – both Cardinal Cassidy and I took part with Professor Colin Tatz some years ago in a symposium at the Wesley Centre in which the Jewish participants insisted that there was still too much whitewashing going on. Nor is tonight the occasion to assess the Church’s acknowledgment of the place of Israel as a religious construct in Judaism, not merely a political entity: Catholic circles are aware of our Jewish concerns and our suspicion that a resurgent Israel may be a lingering theological scandal for Christianity.

    The documents that have followed Nostra Aetate have all been important, and it appears that increasing notice has been taken of Jewish suggestions, often arising out of dialogue movements in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, even Australia. What probably matters even more are the facts on the ground. Here the record is generally impressive, positive and encouraging. In many countries the Church has established commissions and secretariats charged with developing relationships with Jews. Institutes and institutions for dialogue involve Jews and Catholics all over the world. Judaism is taught at Catholic universities and seminaries. Rabbis, priests and bishops are on terms of more than perfunctory friendship and by now often regard each other as members of the family. There are diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. The present Pope and his predecessor have paid visits to synagogues. There are still times of tension, but on the whole we now know who to speak with, and how, when we have concerns to express. Whatever non-Catholic Christians do and say in relation to Jews and Judaism is measured against what the Catholic community does and says. There is definitely a new era.

    What remains for Jews to do is to acknowledge the goodwill and sincerity of the Catholic community, to know when to speak and when to remain silent, and to engage in whatever dialogues are comfortable for us. Those Jewish leaders – I include myself – who have been heartened and even exhilarated by the dialogue thus far need to work patiently and hopefully on and with our fellow Jews to convey our conviction that our confreres are genuine and sincere. For Catholics the agenda is more extensive. The Church has to bring the message to bear everywhere in the Catholic world, not least in the universities and seminaries where priests and teachers are trained. It has to refine its machinery and eradicate the occasional ineptness in handling moments of tension. It has to understand Jewish reservations and sensibilities after so many harsh and horrific centuries in which Jews were humiliated, degraded and destroyed because of careless and unhistorical Church teaching. It has to continue to face the theological difficulties that arise out of Church triumphalism. If regard for Jewish conscience and authenticity, and respect for human conscience and other people’s right to believe or not to believe, means looking for theological elasticity or ambiguity, the price cannot be allowed to be too expensive. We have to keep living in the same universe and there has to be room for us all.

    We are talking tonight of historic movements. In nature there can be, to use Monsignor Mejia’s phrase, flashes of lightning. In human life it is not so easy. The dawn comes gradually. The baggage of centuries cannot be lifted overnight. The sages say, kol hat’chalot kashot, “All beginnings are difficult”. Is it the Chinese tradition, or it is sheer human experience, that says, “The first step is the hardest”? Whatever the case, there has been a beginning. It took too many centuries, too many catastrophes, too many destroyed bodies and souls. But it has happened. The new dispensation is here.

    Heschel says, “This is the agony of history: bigotry, the failure to respect each other’s faith. In this aeon, religious diversity may be the providence of God” (“The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence”, 1966, p. 181). The Catholic Church has made its start. Kol HaKavod. We cannot fail to acknowledge its contribution to the new reality. At the same time there are new bigots abroad who will kill because of a cartoon, who will choose hatred because it is easier than love, who will clamour for destruction because it is simpler to pull down than to build, Jews and Catholics, friends now, need to join forces against the mischief. Hopefully we will be supported by other Christians and all men and women of good will. We shall overcome, but only if we fight together and not one another.

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