Sunday, November 29, 2015


Last month was the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate. Only a small part of it was about relations with Jews. I discussed its inadequacies in the post below. I mentioned there that the best document the Church produced on this subject appeared in 1974, nine years after Nostra Aetate. “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” was entirely devoted to improving Christian attitudes towards Judaism. It went much further than Nostra Aetate and deserves a separate discussion.

Where Nostra Aetate praised the religious value in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but was silent on the religious worth of Judaism, it now made up for this in “Guidelines”.

The single best statement in that document was this: “The history of Judaism did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem, but rather went on to develop a religious tradition.” To fully appreciate what a revolution lies buried in this statement, you have to know that from the oldest Church Fathers to the present (1974 and even after), Catholic teaching was that Judaism had effectively come to an end with the destruction of the Temple—which destruction signaled that Christianity had taken over. Judaism had become frozen in time for Christians, and now here was the Church in 1974 overturning that in one fell swoop.

Judaism’s religious tradition, according to “Guidelines”, is “rich in religious values.” Jewish scripture and tradition “must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.” The Jewish soul is “rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence.” The document encourages Christians “to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” It even affirms that there is value in Jewish scripture “that has not been cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.”

“Guidelines” condemns “all forms of anti-semitism and discrimination” both because they harm “the dignity of the human person” and because they harm and ignore “the spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism.” In a footnote, “Guidelines” criticizes the pejorative use of ‘Pharisee’ and ‘Pharisaism’, but I have to wonder how much has been done to actually correct this.

Of course, there are some comments that would be objectionable to Jews (such as to the effect that the New Testament brings out the full meaning of Jewish scripture), but the remarks I have quoted are more abundant and more representative of what “Guidelines” stands for.

One of the most curious things in “Guidelines” is that it does not quite correctly quote Nostra Aetate’s statement about not blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. It leaves out the part where it is said that “Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ.” There are two things that can be said about this interesting omission. One is that the authors of “Guidelines” possibly wanted to make Nostra Aetate’s confession grander and purer than it was (Jews were not to blame, period! No ifs, ands, or buts about it!, which is what many of us wish Nostra Aetate had said). The other is that “Guidelines” seems to have implicitly recognized that blaming Jewish leaders and some wide contingent around them for the death of Jesus is still an offensive remark to make about Jewish culture; hence, they left it out. It is also historically untrue, but I doubt that the authors of “Guidelines” had that in mind.

Besides that, my other criticism of this best of all Catholic documents on Christian relations with Jews is the early reference to the fact that “the gap dividing them [Christianity and Judaism] was deepened more and more, to such an extent that Christian and Jew hardly knew each other.” There is a similar reference to a gap 24 years later in the Church’s 1998 “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”. What neither document does is give any thought to who and what was responsible for creating that gap. One major contribution was made, and is still made, by the Church’s failure to explore and present Jesus’s full Jewishness. It is a frightening subject to many people (both Christians and Jews) and it helps to create that gap between Jew and Christian. Nothing has changed on that score.

One can wonder how much has been done to fulfill the best parts of the “Guidelines” but there is no denying that it set a high ideal to live up to.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

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