Nostra Aetate (October 28, 1965, Vatican II Document)

Reflections by William H. Cardinal. Keeler at the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding's Nostra Aetate Awards. June 25, 1997:

The publication of the Nostra Aetate document marked a special moment in the history of the Church and its relation to other religions, especially to Judaism. Nostra Aetate repudiated the centuries-old Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people. The foundations for the document were laid at the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world's Catholic bishops convened by Pope John XX III in October 1962, and continued by Pope Paul VI in three periods, each of about three months duration, during the fall months of 1963, 1964, and 1965.

Cardinal Augustin Bea, the German scripture scholar who had been a close advisor of Pope Pius XII and became the key figure in developing the Council's program for Catholic outreach to other religions, oversaw the drafting of a statement on Catholic-Jewish relations. After the death of Pope John XXIII (June 3, 1963), Cardinal Bea made a presentation to the Council on November 19, 1963, insisting on the importance of Catholic outreach to other religions, especially Jews and Muslims. This presentation was received not without resistance by some of the bishops. Nonetheless, the Cardinal cited the Holocaust and how Nazi propaganda used arguments "drawn from the New Testament and from the history of the Church."(1) He believed that it was a question of "rooting out from the minds of Catholics any ideas which perhaps remain fixed there through the influence of that propaganda."

Thus began the legislative history of what was to become Nostra Aetate, the Council's Declaration on the Relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian Religions. Solemnly enacted by the council on October 28, 1965, its third chapter presented the relationship between Church and Synagogue in terms which responded to Pope John XXIII's original directive.

The Declaration made these principal points:

  1. The Church, as Saint Paul points out, is founded by Christ who, "according to the flesh," pertains to the Jewish people (cf.Romans 9:4-5). The Virgin Mary, the Apostles, indeed practically the entire infant Church could be correctly described as Jewish.
  2. Although some Jews opposed the spread of the gospel of Jesus, "nevertheless, according to the Apostle, the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues" (Romans 11:28-29)
  3. The Church draws nourishment from the revelation contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The Law, the Prophets, the Psalms and the Wisdom literature - all are part of a heritage given to that people with whom God made a covenant through Abraham.
  4. "Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred Synod (the Second Vatican Council) wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies and of brotherly dialogues."
  5. With specific reference to texts of the Christian scriptures, the Council points out that what happened to Jesus in "his suffering cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today." What follows is the basis for catechetical instruction to insure that neither Christian scriptures nor Christian teaching could be used in any way that would be an excuse or pretext for anti-Semitism.

Statement by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, Chairman of the International, Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, to Pope John Paul II. Rome, October 28, 1985:

We appreciated, in Nostra Aetate and in the Declarations which have flowed from it, the ability of a great faith to examine itself and to chart new directions. The repudiation of false teachings - responsible for so much hatred and persecution... encouraged Jews everywhere to feel that there was a new spirit in the Christian world... the wide acceptance of the new approach in the Catholic world has been for us a source of hope.

The further recognition in Nostra Aetate and in the [Vatican] Guidelines that the Jewish religious tradition has continued to evolve and grow through the centuries to the present day and has much to contribute to our world, and the assertion that every effort must be made to understand Judaism "in its own terms," as it sees itself, made dialogue possible.

...Thus, a renewed Jewish people, restored to Jerusalem and to human dignity, can engage in dialogue with the Catholic Church, confident that we have spiritual riches to cherish and to share, aware that we both have a common obligation to engage in Tikkun Olam - the improvement and perfection of our world. On this anniversary of Nostra Aetate we are conscious that much of its vision has yet to be translated into reality and universal acceptance. But, we look forward to the creation of structures and programs which will translate our dialogue into actions which will move the hearts of the members of our respective faiths in the joint quest for universal peace, for social justice and human rights, and for upholding the dignity of every human being created in the Divine image...

ON OCTOBER 28, 1965

1. In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely he relationship to non- Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth.1 One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men,2 until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.3

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men 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. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, 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. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. 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. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.4

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,5 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. 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.

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.

4. As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.

Thus the Churchof Christacknowledges 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 6 – 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.7 Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself.8

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. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation,9 nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.10 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.11 In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9).12

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;13 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. 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.

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.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, 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. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man's relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: "He who does not love does not know God" (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to "maintain good fellowship among the nations" (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men,14 so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.15

  1. Cf. Acts 17:26
  2. Cf.Wis.8:1; Acts 14:17;Rom.2:6-7; 1 Tim. 2:4
  3. Cf. Apoc. 21:23f.
  4. Cf 2 Cor. 5:18-19
  5. Cf St. Gregory VII, letter XXI to Anzir (Nacir), King of Mauritania (Pl. 148, col. 450f.)
  6. Cf. Gal. 3:7
  7. Cf. Rom. 11:17-24
  8. Cf. Eph. 2:14-16
  9. Cf. Lk. 19:44
  10. Cf. Rom. 11:28
  11. Cf. Rom. 11:28-29; cf. dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium (Light of nations) AAS, 57 (1965) p.20
  12. Cf. Is. 66:23; Ps. 65:4; Rom. 11:11-32
  13. Cf. John. 19:6
  14. Cf. Rom. 12:18
  15. Cf. Matt. 5:45