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Commentary on Nostra Aetate

Daniel J. Castellano


1. Historical European Attitudes toward the Jews
2. Relation to Non-Christian Religions in General
  2.1 Muslims
3. Declaration on the Jews
4. Against Religious Discrimination in General

The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the Church’s relation to non Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, is notable primarily for its statements about the Jews, condemning all forms of anti-Semitism. It was highly anticipated that the Council would issue a document on the Jews, and though this was ultimately incorporated into a more general declaration about all non-Christian religions, the section on the Jews has the greatest historical significance. This is due to the fact that various forms of anti-Semitism had long been countenanced within the Church, without any clear guidelines on the distinction between Christian orthodoxy and groundless hostility against the Jewish people. Nostra Aetate took a strong stand against anti-Semitism, while still maintaining traditional teaching about the historical circumstances of the Crucifixion and the Church’s central role in the divine plan of salvation.

At the same time, the declaration acknowledges those good elements that are to be found in Islam and other religions. The motivation of such acknowledgement, as with the statements on the Jews, is to promote “unity and love among men, indeed among nations.” (NA, 1)

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1. Historical European Attitudes toward the Jews

The importance of the document is better appreciated against the background of long-standing tensions between European Jews and gentiles. These tensions were not purely religious in nature, but included ethnic, social and economic aspects. Indeed, European hostility toward the Jews antedates Christianity, and continued even among modern secular and atheistic movements.

In the century before Christ, Jews were already held in contempt by upper class Romans. In the poems of Catullus, we find they are ridiculed as paupers wallowing in filth. This is the diametric opposite of later stereotypes of Jews as wealthy and averse to physical labor. The Roman elites disdained the Jews as dirty and rustic, in keeping with their pre-Christian ethic of associating virtue with wealth.

When Christianity arose, the Jews at first persecuted Jewish Christians, as the latter were held to be subject to the Mosaic Law. The divine status that Christians accorded to Jesus was considered blasphemous by most Jews, so Jewish Christians were expelled from synagogues, and their leaders were killed, notably St. James at Jerusalem.

From a Roman perspective, the Jewish-Christian conflict at first seemed to be a battle between two Jewish sects. Later in the first century, when Christianity came to be recognized as a distinct religion, the Romans occasionally took interest in persecuting Christians. Sometimes Jews, taking advantage of this development, would report Christians to the Roman authorities.

The Jews themselves became subjects of persecution after their failed revolts against the Romans, first in the Jewish war of AD 66-70, and again after the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion in the second century. After the latter event, the Jews were expelled from Palestine, having suffered human losses proportionately rivaling those of the modern Holocaust.

Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius in the late fourth century. This led to persecution of pagans and Manichaeans. Many Christians at this time looked upon the Jews favorably, and sought to emulate their obedience to the Mosaic Law and various religious customs. It was against such Judaizing tendencies that St. John Chrysostom issued some of his infamous polemics against the Jews. He spoke disparagingly of Jewish practices, in order to counteract the pretenses of Judaizing Christians who thought themselves superior to other Christians. He emphasized the Jewish role in the Crucifixion, to show that obedience to the Law did not lead to recognition of the Messiah who saves. The main thrust of St. John’s argument was that keeping the Mosaic Law denied the salvific efficacy of Christ’s redemptive act, and instead retained the Pharisaic error that man may be justified by keeping the Law.

When the Muslims first conquered Christian cities in the Middle East, the Jews frequently sided with the conquerors against the Christians. On occasions when such cities were recaptured by Christian armies, Jewish-Christian relations there remained permanently poisoned.

In the Middle Ages, German princes summoned Jews from the Mediterranean to serve in various professional capacities requiring higher learning, especially in finance. This antagonized the common people, as they suffered in poverty while foreigners were given privileges. European Jews came to be associated with moneylending, since Christians could not lend to each other at interest. Muslims and Jews had similar proscriptions against usury, except the Jews thought it licit to lend at interest to non-Jews. This double standard allowed some to become rich by lending to gentiles. This arrangement also benefited wealthy Christian lords, who needed to circumvent the law against borrowing at interest.

While most Jews were not bankers or moneylenders, enough of them became conspicuously wealthy, with many Christians laboring in debt to them. Thus, for most Christians, the image of the Jew was one of avarice. Hatred of the Jews was most pronounced among the lower classes, who were more likely to suffer from usury. Accusations that the Jews poisoned the wells or performed blood sacrifices of children reflected the popular belief that the Jew was a social parasite.

When the Crusades were summoned, some popular preachers (usually lay monks) excited existing anti-Jewish sentiment and triggered riots against the Jews, resulting in looting and killing. Although such preachers used religious arguments against the Jews, they were successful primarily because the people already resented the Jews due to long-standing social and economic grievances. It is not the case that the institutional Church encouraged persecution of the Jews. On the contrary, bishops, cardinals, and popes, being themselves feudal lords, often had recourse to the services of Jews, and frequently protected them in their own residences from the fury of popular riots.

Still, there were prominent aspects of Christian liturgy and preaching which tended to exacerbate existing hostility toward the Jews. Most notable were the passion plays or re-enactments of the Crucifixion, in which the Jews played a critical role. The very nature of such plays tended to collapse the distinction between past and present, so that it was easy to infer that the Jews of the present had the same guilt as those who called for Christ to be crucified.

It did not help matters that the Jews, for their part, often did little to hide their contempt for the Christian religion, displaying a lack of respect or mockery toward public Christian practices. Among themselves, they expressed a virulent hatred toward the Church and her Founder. Such animosity was understandable, since, on their assumption that Jesus was a false messiah, there was every reason to condemn him for the gravest blasphemy and distortion of the Jewish religion. The Talmudic imprecations against Jesus and his followers should be understood in this context.

During the reconquest of Spain by the Christians, the Jews frequently sided with the Muslims, as was understandable, considering the higher social status they enjoyed under Muslim rule. In order to preserve something of their status in the new kingdoms, many Jews converted to Christianity, with varying degrees of sincerity. This led to later suspicions that the Jews were false converts who secretly disseminated heresy within the Church. Thus the Spanish Inquisition held trials of suspected Judaizers.

Martin Luther thought that the antagonism between Christians and Jews was a senseless tragedy, occasioned by misunderstanding and exacerbated by the superstitious practices of medieval Christians. Luther pursued Jewish studies in order to facilitate a reconciliation between Judaism and reformed Christianity. Instead, he was outraged by the vitriol and malice he found in Talmudic texts and Jewish curses. He came to see the Jews as a provincial, inward-looking race who hated their enemies and longed for a day of bloody vengeance. He was scandalized by the complete lack of mercy and charity he found in medieval Judaism, and came to see the Jews as an obstinate people, full of superstitious pride in the salvific efficacy of their rituals.

In the modern era, nationalism emerged as a new ideological force, whereby every ethnic group claimed the right to form its own state. Yet the Jews retained their own national identity in addition to any identification with modern European nation-states. This created a new basis of hostility toward the Jews, who were now suspected of having conflicting national loyalties. Meanwhile, the ancient stigma of usury reached gargantuan proportions, as modern finance enabled the amassing of hitherto inconceivable fortunes. Most notable among Jewish financiers were the Rothschilds, who were important power brokers in the British Empire, and were not above starting wars for profit. Here arose the image of the Jew as the clandestine manipulator and puppetmaster of the world, dovetailing with more ancient stereotypes.

In Germany, aversion toward British imperialism and Jewish finance was rationalized in racial terms, as intellectuals became increasingly non-religious. Antipathy toward the Jews on the basis of race rather than religion was called ‘anti-Semitism,’ using the pseudoscientific racial label ‘Semite.’ Today the term is used for any sort of anti-Jewish sentiment, whether it is based on race, religion, or anything else.

Although the leading racist intellectuals were generally secular in outlook, their ideas propagated among the predominantly Christian masses of Europe and America. Among Catholics, there were numerous priests and laymen who promoted tales of Jewish conspiracies against the interests of Church and country. Even the less strident would regard the Jew with distrust, and insist that he be kept in a subordinate social position so that he may not wreak too much mischief. Such demagogues were able to find abundant quotes from Scripture and Tradition which seemed to vindicate the idea that the Jews were an accursed race, implacable enemies of Christ and His Church.

When Nazi Germany and some of its allies perpetrated mass genocide against the Jews, there were many Catholics, both among the clergy and laity, who were complicit in this crime. Catholic participation in persecution of the Jews was most pronounced in countries such as Romania and Croatia, where there was already strong cultural hatred toward the Jews. In other words, Catholic anti-Semitism was driven more by nationalism than by religion as such, though there was no shortage of religious rationalizations for this hatred. Even in countries where bigotry was less pronounced, there was a decided reluctance to risk too much for the sake of the Jews, for whom there was relatively little sympathy. Although there were many examples of Catholic heroism among bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laity, overall Catholics did relatively little for the Jews, in proportion to what they could have done.

When the scale of the Holocaust became known after the war, the world was scandalized not only by the evils of racism and anti-Semitism, but also by the passive indifference with which nominally Christian Europe allowed this to happen. This immeasurable moral failing is least excusable among Catholics, who profess to have the Christian faith in its integrity. Most scandalous of all is the notion that such indifference, even hostility, was facilitated by appeals to Christian Scripture and Tradition.

In view of this history, many Fathers of the Second Vatican Council considered it was high time for the Church to definitively abolish any pretext by which anti-Jewish prejudice might be grounded in Scripture or Tradition.

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2. Relation to Non-Christian Religions in General

The declaration opens with some remarks about non-Christian religions in general. All men have a final goal in God the Creator, whose goodness and saving design extend to all, “until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City..” (NA, 1) Various religions attempt to answer the deepest questions about the human condition, perceiving in different ways “that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history...” (NA, 2) This power is sometimes identified as a Supreme Being, or even a Father.

More advanced cultures attempt to answer the same fundamental questions with “more refined concepts and a more developed language.” The Hindus, for example, “contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust.” Similarly, Buddhism “realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.”

The Council does not assert that these religions are always successful in their seeking, but does recognize that there are elements of truth in their insights. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” (NA, 2) Without endorsing the errors found in other religions, the Church accepts anything that is true in them. There may even be holiness in other religions, insofar as they involve contemplation of divine goodness. Even in precepts and teachings contrary to those of the Catholic Church, and therefore erroneous in some respects, there may nonetheless be found some true principle. The Council does not deny that truth is one, and continues to proclaim Christ as “‘the way, the truth, and the life’ in whom men may find the fullness of religious life...”

No action is prescribed, other than a general call for “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life,” in order to “preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” (NA, 2)

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2.1 Muslims

The Council notes a special esteem toward the Muslims, on account of their shared Abrahamic tradition. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.” (NA, 3) The Council does not explicitly endorse the Islamic claim to be successors of Abraham, but notes that they try to emulate Abraham in his perfectly obedient faith. Indeed, no other religions besides Christianity and Islam place such supreme importance on the virtue of faith. The Council does not say that Muslims are always correct in what they perceive to be divine decrees, but it does explicitly state that they “adore the one God.”

Among modern Christians, especially those of “conservative” or “traditionalist” leanings, it has become fairly common to accuse the Muslims of practicing a form of idolatry, worshiping a false god named Allah. While Islam might have some theological errors from a Christian perspective, these are not of such a character as to make the God of Islam an altogether different being from the God of Christianity. They may have different ideas about God, but their notion of the divine essence, perfectly self-subsistent, all-powerful, transcending heaven and earth, yet provident toward men, is all in accord with Abrahamic faith. It would be as inapt to say that Muslims pray to a different god as to say the same of Protestants on account of their doctrinal heterodoxy. In fact, the medieval doctors made no distinction of essence between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity, and they were even indebted to the Muslims for some of their philosophical conceptions of theological questions. Accordingly, during the Middle Ages, even before the age of Scholasticism, the Muslims were generally regarded as heretics rather than idolaters. The medieval notion of Islam as a Christian heresy may seem historically erroneous, but it reflects the accurate perception that Muslims worshiped the same God as Christians, albeit differently.

As points of similarity between Christianity and Islam, the Council notes:

Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. (NA, 3)

The comment that Muslims “value the moral life” is not an endorsement of every single Islamic moral precept. Rather, it is acknowledgement that Muslims do hold in special esteem the cardinal moral virtues, and even religious virtues as they perceive them, and uphold these virtues as best they know how, often with much more rigor than is found in other societies. In an age when secular liberalism is abandoning even basic principles of natural law, the Church finds an important ally in Islam in defense of moral virtues, and of religious life in the public sphere.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. (NA, 3)

Consistent with other Council declarations, we find here an exhortation to forget past conflicts and start anew, without pretending to decide who was right or wrong in some long-dead quarrel. Instead, looking forward, Christians and Muslims should recognize what they have in common and work toward the goals described.

Nowhere in any of the above is there a suggestion of what is commonly called “ecumenism,” an attempt at doctrinal or liturgical rapprochement. Ecumenism, as indicated in Unitatis Redintegratio, applies only to Christians, who are called by Christ to form one flock. Since there can be no religious ecumenism between Christians and non-Christians (note the word “ecumenism” is not even used in this declaration), the Council can only exhort adherents of various religions to work toward mutual understanding and the promotion of general morality.

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3. Declaration on the Jews

The declaration with regard to the Jews contains several doctrinally significant statements.

...the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ—Abraham’s sons according to faith—are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself. (NA, 4)

The Council upholds the Church’s traditional teaching that the Church is the successor of ancient Israel, where not only Jews but also Gentiles are saved in Christ. All Christians are truly sons of Abraham, and heirs of his promise. Many Jews were displeased with this aspect of the declaration, as they had hoped the Church would repudiate its claim to be the new Israel (i.e., the new people of God), but this is practically asking the Church to deny Christianity.

Nonetheless, the Council did recognize that the Church’s partaking in the call of Abraham does not imply that the Jews are utterly disinherited.

The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: “theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. (NA, 4)

The Apostles and many early Christians were of Jewish heritage, but most of the Jews did not accept the Gospel, and many even persecuted Christians. “Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues - such is the witness of the Apostle.” (cf. Rom. 11:28-29)

Since God has not retracted His promises to the Jews, it follows that they cannot be regarded as an accursed people. Yet the infamous imprecation of the Jerusalem crowd, “His blood be upon us and our children,” (Mt. 27:25) and the subsequent centuries of Jewish misfortune have been viewed by many Christians as proof that the Jews are cursed by God for crucifying Christ. Against this error, the Council teaches:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. (NA, 4)

This is not a new Catholic teaching, though this is the first time it has been given the weight of an ecumenical council’s authority. In the Roman Catechism of Pope St. Pius V (1566), we find:

Besides, to increase the dignity of this mystery, Christ not only suffered for sinners, but even for those who were the very authors and ministers of all the torments He endured. Of this the Apostle reminds us in these words addressed to the Hebrews: Think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and iniquity crucify to themselves again the Son of God, as far as in them lies, and make a mockery of Him. This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him. (Roman Catechism, The Creed, iv)

The “blame” for Christ’s passion and death, if any, should go to all sinners, yet Christ suffered and died freely of his own accord, not out of any external compulsion. He died for all sinners, including those who administered his torments. Yet all who sin bear guilt that is redeemed on the Cross. The Catechism teaches that this guilt is actually greater in Christians who sin than in the Jews who crucified Christ, since the latter acted in ignorance while Christians claim to recognize Jesus as Lord.

Although the Council emphatically rejects the notion that all Jews, either at the time of the Crucifixion or later, are culpable for Christ’s death, many Jews were not altogether pleased with this declaration. This is because the Council would not repudiate the claim that some Jews, at least, were historically responsible for the Crucifixion. It has been frequently advocated by many Jews and those sympathetic to their plight that the Crucifixion ought to be imputed entirely to the Romans, contrary to the testimony of the Gospels. There is no historical basis whatsoever for this assertion. Even abstracting from the divine inspiration of the New Testament, it is hardly credible that Pilate would have had much interest in tormenting or crucifying Jesus, who never made any political claims. His claims to divine prerogatives, by contrast, were clearly capital offenses to orthodox Jews, on their assumption that the claims were false. Notably, the Jews themselves in the early Christian centuries never denied the role of their ancestors in the Crucifixion, and indeed thought it a just punishment for unconscionable blasphemy. The argument that the Romans were solely responsible is a relatively modern phenomenon, designed more to address the abuses of anti-Semitism than to pursue historical accuracy.

The Council is bound to uphold the historical truth recorded in the Gospels: “All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.” (NA, 4) There can be no denying Jewish culpability in the Crucifixion, but this should be contextualized, so that the limits of this culpability are clearly perceived. In liturgical presentations of the Passion, the term “Jews” is frequently suppressed, to avoid creating a sense of racial culpability. Instead, the focus is on the congregants themselves being responsible for Christ’s suffering through their sins.

[The term “Jews” is frequently used in the Gospel of John not to vilify the people of Israel, but to distinguish those of Judea from those in Galilee, or to refer to the Pharisaic rabbis and their followers, who brought customs and teachings of “the Jews” to other parts of Palestine.]

For those who appreciate the basics of Christianity, it should be obvious that the Crucifixion is not something for which we should seek to point a finger of blame. As the Church has always taught: “Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation.” (NA, 4) Thus the Church is “moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love” in her condemnation of “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

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4. Against Religious Discrimination in General

The condemnation of anti-Semitism is set in a broader context of reproving religious discrimination in general. The Council does not assert that there should be no legal or social distinctions whatsoever on account of religion, but does hold that there can be no “discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.” (NA, 5) All men should be loved as brothers, being children of the same God, and arbitrary harassment on account of religion or race is incompatible with this love. Catholics are called back to the apostolic principle of maintaining “good fellowship among the nations.” (1 Pet. 2:12)

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org