On October 28, 1965, during the fourth and last session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Paul VI formally promulgated the council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Like other documents promulgated by the council, it would be identified by its opening words, Nostra Aetate (In our time). Of the 16 documents published by the council (dogmatic constitutions, pastoral constitutions, decrees and declarations), Nostra Aetate alone can trace its original inspiration to the personal intervention of Pope John XXIII (1958-63), who surprised the church and the world by calling for an ecumenical council of the church in January 1959, less than three months into his pontificate, and 90 years after the last such council, the (first) Vatican Council (1869-70).
After several years of preparation, the Second Vatican Council held its opening session on Oct. 11, 1962, and in a memorable address to the fathers of the council, Pope John XXIII gently chided those prophets of doom who saw nothing of redeeming promise in the present age. That first session of the council ended in December 1962, and Pope John XXIII would not live to see the opening of the second session. After a long agony that captured the attention and sympathy of the entire world, good Pope John went to the Lord on June 3, 1963, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, was elected pope in a conclave later in the month. Pope Paul VI immediately declared his intention to continue the work of the council in fulfillment of his predecessor’s inspiration.
As Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., reports later in these pages, the idea of a statement on Catholic-Jewish relations was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by all of the more than 2,000 council fathers, the largest such assembly in the history of the church. After a series of setbacks and blessings, the declaration on the relation of the church to all non-Christian religions did receive, in the end, overwhelming support. Cardinals and bishops from the United States, in particular, emphasized the importance of repudiating any understanding of Christian Scripture or tradition that may have given counterfeit justification to the poison of anti-Semitism. But a number of observers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, found the final document disappointing in that it did not contain any explicit expression of contrition for offenses of the past.
After the passage of four decades, however, it is clear that Nostra Aetate ushered in a new age in Catholic-Jewish relations. During his papacy, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), in both words and striking symbolic actions, not only encouraged the continuing development of closer relations between Catholics and Jews but also asked forgiveness for the admitted sins of Christians against Jews in the past. In 1993 full diplomatic relations were established between the Vatican and the State of Israel, finally putting to rest the concerns of those council fathers who in 1965 had worried about political reprisals by Muslim nations if Nostra Aetate were promulgated.
In the early months of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has made clear his continued support of closer Catholic-Jewish relations. In August, during his visit to Cologne for World Youth Day, he met with 500 Jewish leaders in the historic Roonstrasse Synagogue, which had been destroyed in the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom and rebuilt in 1959. In September, Pope Benedict met with both chief rabbis of Israel at Castel Gandolfo and welcomed their invitation to visit Jerusalem.
The history of the past 40 years confirms the importance of the definitive condemnation of anti-Semitism in Nostra Aetate for the development of closer Catholic-Jewish relations. Today, however, in our time, international terrorism poses a new and dangerous challenge to the document’s call for mutual respect for all non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate urged Christians and Muslims to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom. Today interreligious dialogue must support Islamic leaders in their necessary campaign to reclaim their religious tradition from fascist fundamentalists who recklessly promote a clash of civilizations.
Contemporary secularists may object that the absolute truth claims of different religious traditions are the inevitable cause of conflict and violence. Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council declared otherwise, insisting that authentic religious faith, manifested in different religious traditions, reflected the common humanity that all men and women share. In an age of suicide bombings and blasphemous claims that the innocent can be slaughtered in the name of a bankrupt ideology, the call of the Second Vatican Council to recognize the image of God in every man and woman rings with new urgency.