I have not participated actively—or even inactively—in the effort to foster interfaith understanding since I left Canada more than sixteen years ago. But before that—and for at least a decade—I served as on the provincial executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, now very regretfully defunct but for almost a full century the Canadian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, and my specific bailiwick was representing the Jewish community in its effort to reach out to other faith groups and to respond to efforts to be reached out to by at least most of those groups. It was an occasionally frustrating, occasionally exhilarating, experience, one I don’t regret at all, yet also remember in a complicated way. I think—I hope—I did some good. I’m proud to have served in that specific capacity for as long as I did. But what I learned from the experience was both positive and negative, both simple and complex, both reassuring and challenging.
I am remembering that whole part of my life today because this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption by the Roman Catholic Church of Nostra Aetate, also called the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.” Passed by an overwhelming majority of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops (2,221 to 88) and subsequently promulgated by Pope Paul VI as formal church policy, the declaration so changed the face of the relationship of the Catholic Church with Jews and Judaism that it is hard after half a century even to remember what it was like in the bad old days that proceeded the formal adoption of the declaration as official church policy.
This was the mid-1960s. Just twenty-two years earlier, the Holy See, after centuries of teaching and preaching about the devil, failed to recognize him when he finally did come calling and instead chose to negotiate the agreement known as the Reichskonkordat, a treaty that granted legitimacy to the Nazi Party and, by extension, to their policies. Just four years later, Pope Pius XI was angered enough by the degree to which the Germans had not upheld their end of the bargain to issue a second encyclical, this one in German (as opposed to Latin, the usual language for such church-wide letters) called Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Worry”)…in which the pope somehow again forgot specifically to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, which by 1937 had reached a feverish pitch of violence and viciousness of which all, certainly including all concerned Catholic officials, were fully aware. Martin Rhonheimer, a teacher at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and himself an Opus-Dei affiliated Catholic priest, sums up things neatly: “The general condemnation of racism [in Mit Brennender Sorge] of course included the Nazis’ anti-Semitic racial mania, and condemned it implicitly. The question, however, is not what the Church's theological position with regard to Nazi racism and anti-Semitism was in 1937, but whether Church statements were clear enough for everyone to realize that the Church included Jews in its pastoral concern, thus summoning Christian consciences to solidarity with them. In light of what we have seen, it seems clear that the answer to this question must be No. In 1937, the Church was concerned not with the Jews but with entirely different matters that the Church considered more important and more urgent. An explicit defense of the Jews might well have jeopardized success in these other areas.” What else is there to say, really? The Church could have gone to war with the Nazis; instead they chose to be enraged not about Nazi anti-Semitism or the horrific prejudice promulgated against other groups within Germany society but rather about the degree to which the peace treaty (which is what “concordat” means) they had signed with the devil wasn’t being honored in all of its detail and to which, therefore, their own best interests were not being served in the way they had hoped the Reichskonkordat would guarantee.
The war ended. It felt in the best interests of everybody to move forward without dwelling on the past. The Catholic Church never apologized for its inaction during the Shoah, choosing instead to publicize isolated instances in which Catholic clergy or laypeople saved Jewish souls who would otherwise have died. For most, that was good enough; Jews too wanted to move on and the effort to convince the Vatican to recognize the State of Israel seemed like a far more worthy task to take on than endlessly and fruitlessly to focus solely on the past. It took forty-five years for that to happen—diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel were finally established only in the last days of 1993—but in the mid-sixties that effort had yet even to appear remotely likely to bear fruit, let alone actually to bear any. And so most of the Jewish world was fully unprepared for the sea-change in Catholic-Jewish relations that Nostra Aetate signaled.
The Latin words nostra aetate mean “in our time” and are simply the first words in the text, but the first version, as commissioned by Pope John XXIII, was specifically called Decretum de Iudaeis (“Decree Concerning the Jews”) and was specifically about Catholic-Jewish relations. (The final version was expanded to include material about the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions as well.) In the meantime, Pope John died. Most imagined the initiative to reconcile with the Jewish world died with him. But that turned out, to the surprise of many, not to be the case. And in 1965, Pope Paul promulgated Nostra Aetate as official church policy.
It’s hard to grasp today just how far-reaching these changes in policy contained in that single document actually were. In a single stroke, the document undercut the Church’s own anti-Jewish argumentation in one fell swoop. Neither the Jews of Jesus’ own day nor the Jews of today were to be considered responsible en masse for Jesus’ execution. The Church formally and forcefully rejected its own prior teaching that God has rejected or cursed the Jewish people for not wishing to abandon their own faith. Anti-Semitism, Nostra Aetate says clearly, is by definition morally wrong and thus wholly unacceptable for Catholics. The language used to express this last notion is so strong as to make it worth quoting here verbatim: “Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Those words should move anyone, but only those—like myself—who have read and reread books like Rosemary R. Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, Daniel Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning, and Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews will be able to appreciate just how remarkable a statement they constitute, and just how utter a repudiation of beliefs that have plagued the Catholic Church not for centuries but for millennia. I recommend all four of those books, by the way, and think all readers who don’t know them will find them fascinating and insightful, if also chilling and disquieting. There are many books on the topic to look at, but those are the first four I’d recommend to anyone interested in understanding the history of Western anti-Semitism.
From there, finally, interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews was able to take off. The sense that it was somehow wrong, or at least suspect, for Catholics to encounter Jews as their spiritual equals was gone; the feeling that Jews were somehow behaving perversely by not allowing their own religious civilization to be supplanted by its self-appointed successor faith was no longer hovering over every interfaith meeting. Slowly, things moved forward and I personally participated in many such efforts to create dialogue where there had earlier only be suspicion and mistrust. Other Christian denominations, although regretfully not all, adopted the Catholic Church’s basic stance and abandoned the notion that Christians have some sort of moral obligation to be insulted by the mere existence of Judaism. The arena of Christian-Jewish dialogue became a rich, interesting place in which the need endlessly to tiptoe around the various elephants in the room was replaced by openness and a level of friendliness that would once have been considered unimaginable.
As I process these thoughts on this fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, I wonder how possible it would be to forge some sort of dialogue with Muslims that would allow for a level of respectful dialogue that hasn’t existed, if it ever truly did exist, for a thousand years. (My fantasies about the level of Jewish-Muslim cooperation during the so-called Golden Age of Iberian Jewry were mostly laid to rest by reading Hillel Halkin’s biography of Judah Halevi in the Schocken Press’s Jewish Encounters series called simply Yehudah Halevi, a book I can also recommend to you all very highly.) It feels impossible even to contemplate—Jews and Muslims respectfully discussing their issues and coming not merely to understand each other but truly to appreciate each other’s position. Wouldn’t Middle Eastern politics poison the well even before either side ventured a first sip? Wouldn’t the need to blame supplant the need to speak honestly and clearly? And with which Muslims should the Jewish world enter into dialogue? Surely not with violent Islamicists…but then with whom? And what could come of it anyway, a mere dialogue, a mere conversation, a mere sharing of viewpoints unruined by vituperation or the need to assign blame? When such encounters are announced, I tend to shy away from them for fear that participation itself will signal a kind of betrayal of our core values. And then I remember back to my years in British Columbia, to which province I moved a full two decades after Nostra Aetate, when the fertile ground for Catholic-Jewish dialogue had already been plowed and prepared and all that remained was for well-meaning people to plant seeds and then to nurture them.
Could that be possible for Jews and Muslims? How would Israel fit in? Wouldn’t the specter of Islamicist terrorism cast too cold a shadow over the whole effort for anyone in the room to remain comfortably in place for more than a minute or two? Wouldn’t the first reference to Jerusalem end the conversation before it even got started? To exclude Israelis would be unacceptable to any rational Jewish person, but would not including them doom the enterprise to failure even before it got off the ground? None of these questions has an obvious answer to me. And yet…when I think that the Catholic Church, not a quarter century after choosing tacitly to acquiesce to Nazi anti-Semitism for the sake of safeguarding its own interests, unilaterally coming to the point at which Nostra Aetate was approved almost unanimously by the bishops of the Church and then promulgated as official policy by the Pope himself…then I find myself wondering if interfaith dialogue can ever truly be doomed to failure other than by the absence of will on both sides to engage honestly, to recognize and endorse the best in each other, and to accept as basic the right of a partner to speak as an equal and, at least potentially, as a friend. And if the presence of those things means that such dialogue would not a priori be doomed to failure…then I have to ask myself why it is that we engage in it so little (and, speaking honestly, really not at all), and why it is we shy away from the kind of simple, honest dialogue that can foster understanding even between people whom everyone knows cannot possible come to know and like each other.