Forty years, an evocative biblical number, have passed, and recently a prestigious group of religious leaders met for three days here at Catholic University, to explore the impact of Nostra Aetate upon two ancient faith-communities, Jews and Catholics. Among the meeting’s sponsors were the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Jewish Committee.
Two questions dominated the proceedings.
After four decades, were Catholics and Jews still wandering in the wilderness not unlike the ancient Israelites following the Exodus from Egyptian slavery? That is, despite the revolutionary statement, how much has really changed between Catholics and Jews in overcoming 2,000 years of suspicion, stereotypes and bigotry? Has the Second Vatican Council directly impacted the beliefs, behavior and lives of Catholics and Jews?
Or, after 40 years, are the two communities poised to enter the Promised Land to achieve the mutual respect, knowledge and understanding the bishops urged in 1965?
The answers emerging from this conference were mixed, tilting more to the Promised Land perception of Catholic-Jewish relations than to the pessimistic view.
Keynote speakers reflected on these questions when they addressed a large audience that included clergy and lay people from both communities. Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who directs the Vatican’s office on Catholic-Jewish relations, called Pope John XXIII the “father of Nostra Aetate.” Kasper noted that the succeeding popes, Paul VI and John Paul II, strengthened and enhanced the Vatican Council’s work. Kasper called Nostra Aetate the “most revolutionary document of the Vatican Council … an astonishing and gratifying” event in the Church’s long history.
However, Kasper said the past 40 years of improving Catholic-Jewish relations, especially in confronting the Holocaust and affirming the creation of the State of Israel, were only “the beginning of the beginning.” He cautioned it takes patience, time and increased efforts to reverse 2,000 years of a troubled history.
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a faculty member of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and a leading Jewish theologian, recounted he was a member of the pioneering Jewish delegation that met with Catholic counterparts at St. Vincent’s Arch Abbey in Latrobe, Pa., in January 1965. That historic meeting, nine months before the adoption of Nostra Aetate, broke new ground and helped set the stage for four decades of positive Catholic-Jewish encounters.
Borowitz said because the United States with its “unique experiment in religious pluralism” is the ideal arena to deepen Catholic-Jewish relations, such efforts will have important influence in other parts of the world.
During the conference, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major Catholic theologian, participated in an intensive session with a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars. Dulles affirmed the traditional belief that Christians “ … will want all men and women, Jewish and Gentile … to benefit from Christ’s teaching and … enjoy the fullness of sacramental life (conversion to Christianity) … But Christians must learn to be patient … (while) they gladly acknowledge Jews as their elder brothers in the faith … ”
Dulles rejects the two-covenant concept — a valid covenant for Jews made at Mount Sinai (the life of Torah) and a valid one for Christians made at Calvary (the resurrection of Jesus).
The cardinal’s views elicited sharp negative responses from both Catholics and Jews. The Catholic critics charged that Dulles’ view does not properly reflect the church’s advances articulated in Nostra Aetate and other authoritative Vatican documents vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. They further said that Dulles offered a “disjointed paper” that minimized the dynamic quality of Jewish religious life during the past 2,000 years.
Jewish critics said Dulles presented a reaffirmation of positions that in the past provided theological justification for anti-Jewish actions by “impatient” Christians who attempted to coerce Jews into conversion. In response, Dulles rejected any coercive or manipulative efforts to bring Jews to Christianity. Nonetheless, the Jewish participants were strongly “disappointed” in Dulles’ presentation.
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore and the AJC’s Interreligious Affairs Director Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem closed the conference by pointing out the achievements of the past 40 years. But Rosen expressed concern that Nostra Aetate was unknown in many parts of the Catholic world.
Both leaders urged Catholics and Jews to do more to fulfill its call for “mutual respect and knowledge.”
A. JAMES RUDIN is a Jewish rabbi, and the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser. He is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.
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