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Jews and Catholics: then and now

By Rev. Damian MacPherson, SA



Anyone who knows anything about Catholics and Jews will be aware that both groups have shared a bad historical relationship. Leading up to the 1965 publication of the Vatican II Decree Nostra Aetate, history verifies that the Roman Catholic Church was for centuries anti-Semitic in its dealings with the Jews. Evidence of such is plentiful, even overwhelming. Nothing could be more convincing of the anti-Semitic attitude of the church than the language contained in the Good Friday prayers, which the church had been praying in the Tridentine liturgy dating back to 1570. In 1960 that text sounded like this:

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts, so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Almighty and eternal God, who does not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness, hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness, (etc.).

Since 1970 that prayer sounds like this:

Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption, (etc.).

With the decree Nostra Aetate (1965) and the subsequent documents that followed, clear and decisive stepping-stones were set in place on the part of the Catholic Church leading to renewed and substantially improved relationship between Jews and Catholics. These documents include the 1974 publication Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate. Also there is the text Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible published by the Pontifical Commission in May 2001.

As alluded to, for the most part Jews have long felt that the mission of the Roman Catholic Church was to convert them. It is not difficult to understand why such a belief would be of such great sensitivity to them since its logical conclusion would bring extinction to the Jews. Suspicion was one of the major stumbling blocks that had to be overcome in order to establish Catholic-Jewish dialogue, which flourishes today. Despite the good work being carried on, a rabbi, one of great distinction, recently reminded me that Jewish suspicion continues to linger in the minds of some Jews on this question of conversion. More precisely, he stated: Let me reveal a secret: to this day some people remain suspicious. Let me reveal another secret: sometimes they are right.

In December 2015 the church published one of its most important documents relating to its understanding of the Jews. The document is titled The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable (Romans 11:29): A reflection on theological questions pertaining to Catholic-Jewish relations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (No. 4). When we compare the long-term thinking of the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews, this document introduces a seismic shift in the thinking of the church. Of the seven chapters contained in the revered document, chapters 5 and 6 best serve our purpose here.

It is hoped that as a result of this most recent document, any and all mistrust can finally be laid to rest. This is possible because in this recent document one hears the Catholic Church say for the first time in its history that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews (par. 40). Compared to the state of affairs in times past, this truly introduces a seismic shift in the thinking of the Catholic Church.

The seed for such thinking is born of Paul’s testimony in Romans 11:29 affirming that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Such an affirmation on the part of the church firmly retains that the church must witness to Christ as the redeemer to all, while stating that it does not in any way follow that Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the messiah of Israel and the Son of God. Confronted with what would appear to be two irreconcilable propositions, the document concludes that unquestionably the Jews are participants in God’s salvation, but precisely how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable mystery (Par. 36). For the vast majority, such an admission on the part of the church is nothing less than breathtaking. It is hoped that this teaching on the part of the church will help to overcome present anti-gentile sentiments, which without doubt were part of our shared history and regrettably remain part of today’s climate between Jews and Christians at large.

It needs to be noted that preaching, teaching and catechesis within the Catholic Church is now challenged to pass on, without compromise, what this added dimension to the practice of our faith entails. Indeed, the pulpit and the pew must become more and more communicative of what is now the latest state of affairs between Christians and Jews. I would dare say, a similar challenge must be undertaken within seminaries to critically examine the good news concerning the evolving state of affairs between Jews and Catholics. In paragraph 46 of this latest ground-breaking document, clear reference is made of this state of affairs. Accordingly, the document notes: Therefore, it is important that Catholic educational institutions, particularly in the training of priests, integrate into their curricula both Nostra Aetate and the subsequent documents of the Holy See regarding the implementation of the Conciliar declaration.

Today we are bearing the fruits of Christian Jewish dialogue. We should not naively think, however, that the dialogue is now complete. With the good news coming from this most recent document, we could certainly say we have common grounds for a new beginning.

Damian MacPherson, SA, is director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.