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Vatican II: 40 years later

Jump-starting the conversation between Jews and Catholics


When the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) began, I had just completed a two-year tour of duty as a United States Air Force chaplain in Japan and Korea, and was starting my civilian rabbinic career at Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Mo.

My military chaplaincy experience in Asia followed by living in America’s heartland provided me unique vantage points to observe the historic three-year gathering of the world’s Catholic bishops in Rome as they vigorously debated, among other things, the church’s future relationship with Jews and Judaism.

As the only rabbi assigned to the U.S. bases in southern Japan, I worked closely on a daily basis with both Catholic and Protestant clergy. We shared the same chapel space for our offices, various religious services and classes. We also cooperated on a host of official military duties including being present at aircraft and auto accidents involving Americans, as well as counseling troubled military personnel and their families.

It was my first taste of authentic interreligious cooperation, and despite the passage of 40 years, I vividly remember the positive attitudes many of my Christian colleagues, especially the Catholic chaplains, expressed toward Jews and Judaism. Those attitudes were the direct result of chaplains serving together in America’s multi-religious, multiracial and multiethnic armed forces.

Preserving the spiritual lives of our military men and women in harm’s way required an active form of religious pluralism and clergy collaboration that was frequently absent in American civilian life during the early 1960s. Passive tolerance of one another was not sufficient in the armed forces; mutual esteem and respect were absolutely necessary.

My positive chaplaincy experiences with Catholics predated the extraordinary achievements of the Second Vatican Council that were to come in later years, and they represented a preview of what was possible in interreligious relations.

Once I was out of uniform, America’s Midwest also presented me something quite surprising. For even as the bishops were deliberating at the Vatican, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Bishop Charles Helmsing publicly reached out in warm friendship to the Kansas City Jewish community. Joining him in this pioneering effort were the leaders of Rockhurst College, now Rockhurst University, a local Catholic school.

I also remember the skepticism expressed by both Jews and Catholics in Kansas City as the bishops at the Second Vatican Council grappled with their church’s long record of negative relations with the synagogue and its people. The skeptics were certain nothing important would emerge from the council in the area of interreligious relations since there was so much to confront and overcome.

The Nazi Holocaust (1933-1945), the murder of 6 million Jews, took place in the heart of “Christian Europe,” and the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East in 1948 were unspoken, perhaps unwanted, guests at the Second Vatican Council and influenced the discussions. Both events, one horrific and one heroic, demanded a radical recasting of long-held Catholic theological, cultural, liturgical and pedagogical beliefs about Jews and Judaism. Could it happen? Past history seemed to say no.

The baleful deeply embedded record of Christian anti-Jewish writings and teachings is well documented, and the apt phrase, “the teaching of contempt,” succinctly describes much of the past 2,000 years. Tragically, there were more shadows than light in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Three examples, each from a different period of history, reflect that Christian animus. The fourth century saint, John Chrysostom, called Jews “assassins of Christ,” and he considered the synagogue “worse than a brothel.” In 1543 Martin Luther taught that all Jews in Germany should be “put under one roof” and if they still proved too dangerous for society, the “poisonous bitter worms” should be driven out of Germany “for all time.” In 1871, Pope Pius IX, who was recently canonized, called members of the 2,200-year-old Jewish community of Rome “dogs barking in all the streets.”

Despite, or perhaps, because of that wretched past, the council’s tersely worded declaration Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) was overwhelmingly adopted in Rome by more than 2,200 bishops in October 1965. I didn’t know it back then, but Nostra Aetate became the key document that set in motion the extraordinary revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations. The declaration “decries hatred, persecution, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by any one,” and calls for “mutual respect and knowledge” between Catholics and Jews. It also repudiated the infamous deicide charge that Jews then and now are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, a cosmic “crime” deserving of both divine and human punishment. For some Christians, the deicide charge became a justification for committing violent acts against Jews.

Happily, Nostra Aetate broke the dam of suspicion, distrust and lack of knowledge that had existed for nearly 2,000 years. Because of Nostra Aetate, there have been more positive Catholic-Jewish encounters during the past four decades than there were in the first two millennia of the church.

But in 1965 the declaration drew sharp criticism. For many Jews, it was a clear case of much too little and far too late. Jewish critics charged that Catholics, indeed all Christians, were incapable of reversing centuries of “Jew hatred.” They argued that past history and deep-seated anti-Jewish theological beliefs could not be overcome.

Catholic critics of Nostra Aetate were also skeptical. They argued that Jews had failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah and as a result of their “spiritual blindness,” they represented a vapid, empty religion. Because of this refusal, there was no reason to build “mutual respect and knowledge” between the one true faith and a spiritually exhausted one.

But, of course, the critics in both communities were wrong.

Spurred by Nostra Aetate, the last four decades have been momentous ones as Jews and Catholics, both clergy and laity, attempted to reverse 20 centuries of contempt and hostility and replace them instead with “mutual respect and knowledge.”

The Second Vatican Council surely changed my life. The passage of Nostra Aetate and the vision it offered of Catholic-Jewish relations inspired me to join the interreligious department of the American Jewish Committee in 1968. For the next 32 years the council’s work was the keystone not only of Catholic-Jewish relations, but of all Christian-Jewish encounters.

Since the conclusion of the council, there has been a series of significant Catholic guidelines, notes and teachings amplifying and strengthening Nostra Aetate. Pope John Paul II has publicly denounced anti-Semitism on many occasions, knelt in prayer at the Auschwitz death camp in memory of the Jews killed there, spoken of Jews as “elder brothers in faith” during a visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue, established full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, and journeyed to Israel where he left a poignant personal prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s ultimate sacred space. But it all began with Nostra Aetate.

Although my wife, Marcia, strongly supported my efforts to build the “mutual respect and understanding” described in Nostra Aetate, others in my family, clearly reflecting long centuries of painful Jewish history, did not understand or fully believe in the efficacy of what I was doing. My family’s probing questioning about the depth and permanence of positive Catholic-Jewish relations was a healthy corrective to my unfettered optimism about the future. With 40 years of hindsight and personal experience, it is clear the Second Vatican Council represented a kind of Brayshit, the first Hebrew word of the book of Genesis. The council marked the beginning, albeit an impressive one, of a long effort to eradicate every vestige of anti-Semitism within the Catholic church.

What is urgently required now is the full implementation of Nostra Aetate and all that has followed from it. Or to put it in even clearer terms, the Second Vatican Council was a “wholesale” operation. Now comes the “retail” part where anti-Jewish elements are removed from all church nursery schools, catechetics, colleges, universities and seminaries, and where the music, biblical readings, liturgy and sermons of every parish are free of the old “teaching of contempt.” Do I hear the skeptics once saying it can’t be done? Come on, it’s not 1962 anymore.

Like children on a long journey, we keep asking one another, “Are we there yet?” The answer, of course, is not yet, but because of the Second Vatican Council’s achievements, we can now say with confidence that Jews and Catholics are at long last traveling as faithful pilgrims on a righteous journey, and traveling together.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion and Judaica at St. Leo University, St. Leo, Fla., and a past chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. He is the co-editor of Jewish-Catholic Relations (Paulist Press) and the author of Israel for Christians: Understanding Modern Israel. (Fortress Press).

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002