Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) produced a groundbreaking document on Jewish/Catholic relations titled Nostrae Aetate, the Vatican released a new text on Thursday reiterating the Church’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, playing down the idea of missionary efforts directed at Jews, and recalling the Jewish origins of Christianity.
Called “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” the new document was presented in a Vatican press conference with two Vatican officials and two Jewish leaders.
In all honesty, nobody’s likely to call this new 10,000-word text “groundbreaking.” It’s a fairly routine statement, the most direct assertions of which are largely repetitions of points already made in Nostrae Aetate or elsewhere, while on other matters it acknowledges, but doesn’t resolve, questions that still produce heartburn in the relationship.
In a sense, however, that’s not the point. What the document actually illustrates is that there are times when routine is itself revolutionary, because it shows just how far we’ve come.
Fifty years ago, to call Jewish/Catholic relations “strained” would have been putting things mildly. There was little formal theological exchange, feelings on both sides were dominated by the weight of history, and politically the Church and world Judaism were at loggerheads over Israel.
When Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land in 1964, he never even uttered the word “Israel” in public. If you can’t talk about one of the central concerns for the other party in the conversation, dialogue probably isn’t going anywhere fast.
Today, Catholic/Jewish conversation and friendship have become so commonplace as to seem utterly par for the course.
One proof of the point is that the new Vatican document isn’t even the most important declaration on the subject to appear in the month of December. That distinction belongs to a text called “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians,” signed by more than 25 prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel, the United States, and Europe.
It’s the first time in more than 2,000 years that a group of Orthodox rabbis, as opposed to clergy from the more liberal Reform branch of Judaism, have issued a public statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity.
“This proclamation’s breakthrough is that influential Orthodox rabbis across all centers of Jewish life have finally acknowledged that Christianity and Judaism are no longer engaged in a theological duel to the death, and that Christianity and Judaism have much in common spiritually and practically,” said Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.
“Given our toxic history,” Korn said, “this is unprecedented in Orthodoxy.”
Granted, neither the rabbis’ proclamation nor the new Vatican document solves all the outstanding issues in Catholic/Jewish relations.
During the news conference on Thursday, for instance, Rabbi David Rosen expressed disappointment that the Vatican document doesn’t go further in acknowledging the “centrality that the land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people.”
Dr. Edward Kessler detected ambivalence over the idea that Christianity has “replaced” Judaism in God’s plan, which over the centuries has been the basis for some nasty Christian attitudes toward Jews.
Even though the document doesn’t dispel those tensions, this is probably one of those cases in which it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate where things stand on the ground today as opposed to just a half-century ago.
In 2009, I published a book with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called “A People of Hope.” As part of the reporting, I trailed Dolan around for a few weeks, including a visit in mid-December to New York’s Temple Emanu-El in order to light the first candle of Hanukkah.
Dolan had been invited by the senior rabbi, David M. Posner. We arrived a little early that night, which gave Posner and Dolan a chance to stand together on the bima, the elevated platform at the front of the synagogue, and chat informally.
Bear in mind this was just after Pope Benedict XVI had visited the Rome synagogue, an occasion used by the president of Rome’s Jewish community to renew criticism of Pope Pius XII, and not long after the US bishops had mysteriously deleted a reference in their catechism to the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jews. That, however, is not at all what Posner and Dolan used their time together to discuss.
Instead, the topic was far more prosaic: Money.
Basically, they compared notes about differing approaches to tapping their congregation’s wallets. Posner explained that as opposed to the Catholic custom of passing the collection plate, most synagogues send out bills for dues to registered members once a year. Posner lamented the costs of operating such a cavernous building on Fifth Avenue, a frustration he knew Dolan could appreciate.
Watching the rabbi and the archbishop together, it was as if there were a shared assumption that didn’t need to be spoken aloud. It went like this: Yeah, we know there are headaches, but we also know that things have developed to a point where nothing is going to fundamentally split us apart again, so we can afford to talk about other stuff like friends do.
That’s more or less the spirit of the new Vatican document, too, and in itself, that’s something worth acknowledging as these two faiths celebrate Hanukkah and the Christmas season.