Thursday, October 29, 2015
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate. NPR remembered it as a revolutionary document that radically changed Jewish-Christian relations. NPR also said this proclamation absolved Jews of the charge of killing Jesus. Nostra Aetate actually did not use the language of absolution and quite right that it did not. It would be absurd to absolve a people or an individual of something they never did. It is also not quite right to say that it exonerated Jews, as I will explain below.
Nostra Aetate was actually a very weak statement and not very revolutionary, unless you regard going from doing absolutely nothing to a tiny, tiny effort at improvement as a revolution. This is not a judgment in hindsight. Complaints were made at the time by liberal Catholics that it did not go far enough. In particular, they lamented that a previous draft had said Jews cannot be accused of having committed deicide, but that word was removed from the final version. Conservatives had objected that such a statement could be read as implying that Jesus was not the son of God.
There were two main things that were seriously wrong with this Catholic effort at reconciliation between Jews and Christians. It has to be remembered that the part having to do with Jews was a small part of its purpose. The full title of the document was “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. Jews were not the main issue. In correcting its relations to other religions, Nostra Aetate sang the praises of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They may not be Christians, but they have wonderful ideas about God and life.
And what did Nostra Aetate have to say about the goodness of Judaism? Absolutely nothing. Not one word of praise. That is the first thing that made this declaration so weak regarding Jews. The contrast to how it treated other religions is startling. There must have been complaints about this because nine years later in “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” (Dec. 1, 1974), the Catholic Church made up for the deficiency in Nostra Aetate. Here, Judaism is praised and respect is shown for Judaism’s independent relationship with God.
Between the two, the 1974 “Guidelines” is far more revolutionary than Nostra Aetate, yet it hardly ever receives attention. That just goes to show that true revolutions are often ignored, while inferior efforts are exaggerated out of all proportion to what was actually accomplished. I don’t deny that 1965 marked a change, but it was not because of Nostra Aetate, it was rather because liberal Catholics and liberal Jews incorrectly promoted Nostra Aeatate as doing more that it did and made it out to be some sort of full scale apology which it was not.
The second thing that was deeply wrong with Nostra Aetate concerns what it actually said about Jews and the death of Jesus. It is typically misquoted by quoting it out of context. Even the “Guidelines” misquoted the document on this point. Nostra Aetate does say that Jews today and all Jews in the time of Jesus cannot be blamed for “the crimes committed during his passion.” But it introduces this by firmly declaring, “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” In other words, the Church was affirming its right to blame some Jews for Jesus’s execution, and not just some, but apparently a wide contingent (how wide is left vague) who followed the leaders.
That is the part that most people, including those who authored the 1974 “Guidelines”, leave out when they quote Nostra Aetate. And since in most societies we regard the leaders as representing the culture, then ancient Jewish culture, or some important aspect of it, is still being blamed in Nostra Aetate. That’s not much of an exoneration. And it ignores how much Gospel evidence there is that makes the case against Jewish leaders or any other Jews for complicity in the death of Jesus a very bad case.
What Nostra Aetate stands for is the idea that Church officials will never let go of the traditional story of Jesus’s death; the only thing it will do is not extend the blame to all Jews. The Church would have done a lot better to have retracted all the false things it has said over the centuries about ancient Jewish culture, taken responsibility for having created these stereotypes about Jews and Judaism and for having fomented bad feelings about Jesus’s people and culture, and perhaps above all, encouraged continued study of the New Testament to get to the bottom of what happened to Jesus. It should have admitted that there is no consistent pattern of evidence in the Gospels blaming any Jews for his demise. Therein lies the beginning of a real revolution.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer