Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote: “The life of the law is not logic but experience.”
So it is too for the unfolding of Catholic-Jewish relations in the 50 years since Nostra Aetate was released in October 1965.
Meaning “In Our Time” in Latin, Nostra Aetate reflects on Catholic relations with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In the case of Judaism, though, it was in many ways a resetting of relations with Christendom as a whole.
Originating from the great Catholic Church dialogue and changes of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate came to pass in the shadows of the Holocaust. Some of the most damaging and poisonous theology and liturgy of the church of two millennia were addressed.
Nostra Aetate teaches: 1) Jews were not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – at any time in the past, present, or future; 2) anti-Semitism was a sin against God; and 3) the Jewish covenantal relationship with God remained intact despite the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The articulation of these principles marked a huge step forward for Christian-Jewish relations.
As powerful as the words of the carefully crafted Nostra Aetate were, the concepts required engagement across time, space, faith, and experience.
The Twin Cities experience
For the Twin Cities, of course, there was a long history of interfaith relations between Christians and Jews before 1965. In Minneapolis – before Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s coalition effort to enact civil rights measures protecting African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Jews – Minneapolis was notorious for its social and economic exclusion of Jews. St. Paul, by some contrast, was considered more accepting of Jews, a circumstance some considered to be a consequence of a more pronounced Catholic milieu in Minnesota’s Capitol city.
Indeed, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was seen and heard as a voice of protest against the German persecution of Jews in the Third Reich – particularly around the time of the Kristallnacht.
Much of the experience of the past 50 years since Nostra Aetate has been remarkably positive. Leadership has been provided by the Vatican; catalyzed by Pope John Paul II; strengthened by Pope Benedict; and elevating to even greater warmth and spirit in the first years of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis’ deep connection to the Jewish world was seen in his days of Archbishop of Buenos Aires. One of his great friends is Rabbi Skorka, with whom he edited their years of dialogue in “On Heaven and Earth.” Rabbi Skorka describes a watershed moment. A delegation from the World Jewish Congress came to visit Pope John XXIII. The pope extended his arms and said: “I am your brother Joseph.” Rabbi Skorka notes this is the language Joseph used to make peace with his brothers.
The upward trajectory of international Catholic-Jewish relations, which is the inheritance of Pope Francis, includes many milestones in the last quarter century of the history of Nostra Aetate. This includes the visits of Pope John Paul II to the synagogue in Rome (1986); to Israel (2000) where he wrote in a note at the Western Wall asking for forgiveness for Christian treatment of the Jews; to his reference to the Jewish people as “elder brothers in faith”; and to the Vatican’s recognition of Israel in 1993. In the United States, for its part, the Anti-Defamation League considers Catholic-Jewish relations “exemplary.”
In each generation – locally and regionally – the essence of Nostra Aetate is renewed. In 1971 the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition was created to advance a legislative agenda for which there was agreement among Minnesota’s Abrahamic faith communities. Today the JRLC includes the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Islamic Society of Minnesota, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).
The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning (now the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning) was founded in 1996 as a collaboration of Saint John’s University and the University of St. Thomas. The mission and history of the Jay Phillips Center explicitly cites the call of Nostra Aetate upon Catholics to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions.” A recent example was in October, when the center hosted a symposium about the meaning and future of Nostra Aetate.
In 2015, the commemoration of 50 years of Nostra Aetate brought together the Catholic and Jewish communities of North Dakota and South Dakota in celebration. The venues and participants are telling in a salutary way. Bishops Folda (Fargo) and Swain (Sioux Falls) spoke in a synagogue (Fargo: Temple Beth El) and an iconic civic space (Sioux Falls: Washington Square Pavilion).
Celebrating Nostra Aetate here
The Twin Cities’ celebration of Nostra Aetate, to take place on Wednesday (Dec. 2) in Minneapolis, will include all of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, and Minnesota Catholic Conference hosted by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in conjunction with the JCRC. The keynote speaker of the evening – Dr. Amy-Jill Levine – represents the epitome of possibility in Christian-Jewish dialogue and learning inspired by Nostra Aetate and the experiences and experiments which have been unfolding ever since.
As we approach our respective seasons of light for the 50th time since the declaration was released, how can Nostra Aetate inform and inspire our future? In a world that again has been fractured in recent weeks by intergroup conflict, Nostra Aetate teaches us: 1) to focus on what all people have in common and what can draw us together; 2) that every person has a spark of divinity within them, no matter their background or behavior; and 3) to earnestly seek peace, however daunting the task may be. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a global religious leader and philosopher, has said, “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Rev. Erich Rutten is the officer for ecumenical and interreligious affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Andy Tix, Ph.D., teaches in the psychology and religious studies programs at Normandale Community College.
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