A living question mark: Protestants and Jews after Nostra Aetate

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, one of the shortest but conceivably among the most influential of the major documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council. Its promulgation in October 1965 was controversial, and its appearance was therefore delayed. When it was finally published, its scope had been enlarged. It was no longer a document focused solely on Judaism and Jewish-Catholic relations; it also included brief reflection on other non-Christian faiths, especially Islam.

Looking back with the advantage of 50 years’ hindsight on what Nostra Aetate said about Judaism, our first reaction might be surprise at what it says and doesn’t say, and at its tone. It states that the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the passion of Christ, but this comes across as a rather grudging declaration, prefaced as it is with the remark, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ . . .” An explicit reference to expunging the charge of deicide (the killing of God) had been present in an earlier draft but was eventually omitted as a result of pressure from representatives of Middle Eastern Catholics. It was noted that the church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” but there was no overt admission that the church and its adherents had been guilty of precisely such actions many times over many centuries.

A careful reading of the paragraphs in the document relating to Judaism makes it apparent that the theological position adopted could be described as a soft supersessionism (the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism and made it obsolete). Liberal Catholic critics noticed that though Nostra Aetate described other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in terms that followers of those faiths would regard as authentic, the same courtesy was not applied to Judaism, which was clearly viewed through Christian spectacles, albeit with a gaze that was seeking to be as benevolent as possible.