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Of all the documents of Vatican II, few have been more discussed and written about than Nostra Aetate.

The official text, the shortest of the council’s documents, is only five paragraphs long, containing forty-one sentences. The fourth paragraph, on the Church’s relationship with the Jewish community, is the longest—at seventeen sentences. Yet within those five paragraphs, the Fathers of Vatican II aimed to rebuild the Church’s entire relationship with the non-Christian world—and succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Nostra Aetate was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965 and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It has often been described as an inter-faith “miracle.” Considering what it had to overcome, one can understand why.

For centuries, many Catholic leaders had not only feuded with Protestants, but warred with Islam, and exhibited a particular animus toward Jews. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the Council of Trent’s repudiation of the idea that “the Jews killed Christ,” but that official teaching never really took hold, and the general trend among many Catholics and other Christians was to ostracize and persecute Jews.

As the Christian community grew, and became a worldwide force, these poisonous attitudes were bound to have the gravest consequences, and when the Third Reich arose, they did.

Although Nazi racism and anti-Semitism were thoroughly pagan—and profoundly anti-Christian—theological and cultural anti-Judaism had compromised too many Christians, who failed to immediately recognize the immense danger Hitler posed. There were pockets of resistance, and extraordinarily courageous Catholics and Protestant individuals who did fight Hitler, but a unified, bold Christian witness against Nazism never materialized. The Jewish community was left to suffer the catastrophic consequences, losing six million lives during the Holocaust.

It was precisely at that moment, however, the darkest in European history, when certain Catholics finally began to undergo a change in their attitudes.

As early as 1934, just one year after Hitler came to power, Prince Hubertus zu Loewenstein, representing a small but growing group of conscientious Catholics, made a dramatic interfaith appeal against Nazism: “Jews and Catholics must stand together, for we are faced with the same troubles. Everyone calling himself a Christian must be deeply affected by the present regime of terror in Germany. The struggle is between God himself and Satan.”

Warning how the Nazis were twisting Scripture for malevolent purposes, the Prince declared:

To claim, as many Nazis are claiming, that Christ was of ‘Aryan’ origin, is not only absurd. It is heresy. The Nazis are now trying to Nazify the Bible. By the time they have finished with it, it will have become a pamphlet against the Holy Scripture. To change Scripture is blasphemy. From the Catholic point of view, anti-Semitism is against our faith and our beliefs.

The Prince concluded that “anti-Semitism is not only opposed to religion, it is against all the unwritten divine and human laws. It is going back to barbarism and paganism.”

The then-reigning Pope Pius XI understood that as well as anyone. In addition to helping endangered Jews privately, he issued the anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (1937), and followed that with a memorable statement on Catholic-Jewish relations: “Anti-semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”

His successor, Pius XII, issued an equally powerful encyclical, Summi Pontifactus (1939), which condemned totalitarianism, and openly challenged Nazi racial theories by defending the unity of the human race.

But it was another of Pius XII’s wartime encyclicals—Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)—on Biblical studies, which may have had the greatest impact of all on the Church’s evolving appreciation of Judaism.

The encyclical allowed Catholic exegetes to move beyond a literal interpretation of Scripture, employing new insights, to discover its authentic meaning. The “Jews” mentioned in the Gospels, and especially during Christ’s Passion, were not to be understood as all Jews at that time, much less Jews of all times. This view, given the full backing of Pius XII, had huge implications, as it helped rescue the Gospels from the concept of collective guilt, and destructive anti-Semitic interpretations.

Years later, Monsignor John Oesterreicher, one of the architects of Nostra Aetate, would describe the encyclical’s vital importance:

In his encyclical on Holy Scripture, Pius XII warmly acknowledges that the inquiry of modern exegetes ‘has also clearly shown the special preeminence of the people of Israel among the other ancient nations of the East….’ Today, we hear a statement like this without overtones, as something obvious, if not commonplace. In those days, however, with the Nazis in power, to praise the genius of the Jewish people was considered treason….In the days of Hitler, it was a courageous affirmation. [Pius XII] thus helped us become more and more aware of the authentic bond between the Church and the People of Israel.

In fact, Msgr. Oesterreicher saw in Divino Afflante Spiritu “a first impetus” to the realization of Nostra Aetate, twenty years later.

In 1946, the Conference on Jewish Relations, hoping to forge a new era of Jewish-Catholic relations, in the wake of the Holocaust, published Essays on Anti-Semitism. What was remarkable about this work is how frank it was, making clear the terrible sins Christians had committed against Jews throughout the ages—and the need to repent and reform for them. Yet the book was careful not to make sweeping generalizations, and paid tribute to two men who stood tall during the Nazi era, when so many others looked away:

We may agree or disagree with the general lines of political policy of the Vatican. But this much is undisputed fact: never has the papacy spoken in such unmistakable terms against racialism and anti-Semitism as in the words and deeds of the present Pope, Pius XII, and his predecessor, Pius XI.

According to many commentators, the next major breakthrough in Jewish-Catholic relations occurred in 1960, when French-Jewish historian Jules Isaac and Pope John XXIII agreed to confront the Church’s historic “teaching of contempt” toward Jews at Vatican II. But—without diminishing the achievement of those two great men—this is to overlook and slight Isaac’s earlier visit to the Vatican, and the decade of fruitful activity that followed. As historian Jean-Marie Delmaire notes:

The historian Jules Isaac . . . obtained an interview with Pius XII in June 1949 and felt he was heard ‘with good will and understanding sympathy’ . . . During the 1950’s, the signs of understanding increased in the Vatican media, particularly at Christmas or Unity Week; the philo-Semitic orientation of certain religious orders; the effort to understand Judaism in theology schools, and meetings in ecumenical settings, no longer met with distrust by Roman Congregations.

By the end of his pontificate, Pius XII had welcomed numerous Jewish delegations to the Vatican, precisely to help combat anti-Semitism in the post-War world—both inside and outside the Church. After one such meeting in June of 1957, the NY Times quoted a top Vatican official, saying the Church had opened “a new chapter” toward the Jewish community.

This was the crucial background which set the stage for St. John XXIII’s famous meeting with Isaac in 1960, whom he assured: “You have a right to more than hope!”

The Pope subsequently appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea to work on a declaration on the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people (later expanded to include other non-Christian faiths) for the upcoming Vatican Council. With the assistance of foresighted men like Msgr. Oesterreicher, and the unofficial but crucial input from Jewish historians and theologians, the declaration—after numerous drafts, several years of intense debate, and even a last second bid by reactionaries to thwart it—was voted on and finally passed at the Council, by an overwhelming margin.

The “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” now known simply as Nostra Aetate (or, “In our Time,” from the first words of its Latin text), denounced all forms of religious hatred, and called for a new dialogue among the world’s religions. It still makes inspiring reading, especially the section linking Judaism with Christianity:

The Church . . .cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself.

Commemorating its anniversary, Rabbi David Rosen, of the America Jewish Committee, recently said that Nostra Aetate “took us from a situation where the Jewish people were seen as cursed and rejected by God, and even in league with the devil, to a situation now where popes say it is impossible to be a true Christian and be an anti-Semite, and that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is an eternal covenant, never broken.”

An inter-faith miracle, indeed.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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