Cardinal reaffirms Nostra Aetate’s centrality in Catholic-Jewish relations

Cardinal reaffirms Nostra Aetate’s centrality in Catholic-Jewish relations

Talk sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation

Kurt Cardinal Koch (left) speaks at a press conference after he delivered an interfaith lecture sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation. Rabbi Jack Bemporad is on the right. The cardinal’s translator is in the center. Vassilis Chatzigiannis

A rabbi from Alpine last week hosted a cardinal from Basel in a program held in Rome funded by an Englewood-based philanthropy.

On Wednesday, May 16, the rabbi, Jack Bemporad, invited the cardinal, Kurt Koch, to present the prestigious John Paul II Honorary Lecture in Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum, the more popular name for the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. A pontifical university is one under the direct control of the Vatican.

Bemporad is director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. The Bergen County resident is also the executive director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding ( in Englewood, and the scholar-in-residence at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine. He teaches an annual course in Judaism to seminarians at the Angelicum.

Koch is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews

The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue is funded by The Russell Berrie Foundation (based in Northern New Jersey) and is regarded by many as a unique interfaith program. Among other projects, it sends seminarians to Israel, offering them studies at the Shalom-Hartman Institute. It also presents seminarians with an annual lecture by a leading theologian. The cardinal is among five from the three Abrahamic faiths to participate this year. His topic was “Building on Nostra Aetate: 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue.” The talk was immediately followed by a press conference moderated by Bemporad.

The cardinal began his lecture with a brief history of Nostra Aetate’s impact on the relationship of the church to the non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate was formally adopted in 1962 as the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council, giving it an imposing influence on how the church conducts its relations with others. “It is considered the Magna Carta of the dialogue of the Roman Catholic Church with Judaism,” Koch said. It was written because of the “unprecedented crime of the Shoah…, [as] an effort was made in the post-War period towards a theologically reflected re-definition of the relationship with Judaism.”

The cardinal spoke of perpetrators and victims who were Christians, and said the “broad masses surely consisted of passive spectators who kept their eyes closed in the face of this brutal reality. The Shoah, therefore, became a question and an accusation against Christianity.”

Koch talked of how “the Christian side confronted the phenomenon of anti-Semitism at the International Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism at Seelisberg in 1947, which was “a wide-ranging reflection on how anti-Semitism could be eradicated at its roots.”

The meeting at Seelisberg aimed at laying a new foundation for the dialogue between Jews and Christians, Koch said, and was to stimulate mutual understanding. He noted that, over time, the perspectives known as the “Ten Points of Seelisberg” became “path-breaking,” and in one way or another found their way into “Nostra Aetate.”

“‘Nostra Aetate’ and the ‘Ten Points of Seelisberg’…both emphasize that disdain, disparagement, and contempt of Judaism must be avoided at all costs, and therefore the Jewish roots of Christianity are explicitly given prominence. At the same time, the two declarations converge – each naturally in a different way – in rejecting the accusation which has unfortunately survived over centuries in various places, that the Jews were deicides,” Koch said.

Besides the Shoah, he said, there were other factors that led to “Nostra Aetate.” He spoke of how, “Within Catholic theology following the appearance of the encyclical ‘Divino afflante spiritu’ by Pope Pius XII in 1943, biblical studies were opened up – though with cautious beginners’ steps – to historical/critical biblical interpretation, which implies that one began to read the biblical texts in their historic context and within the religious traditions prevailing in their time….In this way, the New Testament was placed entirely within the framework of Jewish traditions, and Jesus was perceived as a Jew of his time who felt an obligation to these traditions.” These points also found their way into “Nostra Aetate.”

In the course of his lecture, the cardinal recalled Pope John Paul II’s unprecedented outreach to the Jewish communities of the world, as well as his remarks in Rome’s main synagogue in 1986, and the document, “We Remember,” issued in 1998. He quoted John Paul II, “The Jewish religion is not something ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism we therefore have a relationship we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it could be said, our elder brothers.”

Political and pragmatic reasons also played a consequential role. “Since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Catholic Church sees itself confronted in the Holy Land with the reality that it has to develop its pastoral life within a state which decidedly understands itself as Jewish. Israel is the only land in the world with a majority Jewish population, and for that reason alone the Christians living there must necessarily engage in dialogue with them.”

In 1985, the Pontifical Commission issued another document, “Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.”

“This document has a stronger theological-exegetical orientation in so far as it reflects on the relationship of the Old and New Testaments, and demonstrates the Jewish roots of Christian faith…,” said the cardinal. “This document…makes reference to the State of Israel, which has a special significance for observant Jews, but at the same time, again and again provokes political tensions.

“With regard to this ‘land of the forefathers,’ the document emphasizes: ‘Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in biblical tradition without, however, making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship. The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged in a perspective which is not in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law.’ The permanence of Israel is, however, to be perceived as an ‘historical fact’ and as a ‘sign to be interpreted within God’s design.'”

Koch said that there is “increasing clarity to the awareness that Christians and Jews are dependent on one another and the dialogue between the two is, as far as theology is concerned, not a matter of choice but of duty. Jews and Christians are precisely in their difference the one people of God who can enrich one another in mutual friendship….

“Separating Judaism from Christianity” would mean “robbing it of its universality,” which was already promised to Abraham, and that the Christian church without Judaism “is in danger of losing its location with salvation history and, in the end, declining into an unhistorical Gnosis.”

Koch argued that Pope Benedict XVI believes “that there can be no access to Jesus and therefore no entry of the nations into the people of God without the acceptance in faith of the revelation of God who speaks in the Sacred Scripture which Christians term the Old Testament. It is therefore a core concern for him to demonstrate the profound connections of New Testament themes with Old Testament message, so that both the intrinsic continuity between the New and the Old Testament, and the innovation of the New Testament message are clearly illuminated.”

Benedict’s verdict on the trial of Jesus, as expressed in his writings, is that the Christian bible’s report of the trial of Jesus cannot serve as the basis for any assertion of collective Jewish guilt. Quoting the pope, the cardinal said, “Jesus’ blood raises no call for retaliation, but calls all to reconciliation. It has become, as the Letter to the Hebrews shows, itself the permanent Day of Atonement of God.”

Koch recalled that in the seven years since Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy, he has taken the same steps taken by John Paul II during his 27-year pontificate: He visited Auschwitz-Birkenau; traveled to Israel and stood before the Western Wall; met with the chief rabbinate in Jerusalem, and prayed for the victims of the Shoah at Yad Vashem. He was warmly received by the Jewish community in Rome in their synagogue, and visited the synagogue in Cologne on World Youth Day, and Park East Synagogue in New York “just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesach,” as Benedict noted at the time. He appeared at the synagogue on a Friday afternoon that also marked the start of the Passover festival.

Koch also addressed the scourge of anti-Semitism, which, he said, “seems to be ineradicable in today’s world; and even in Christian theology the age-old Marcionism and anti-Judaism re-emerge with a vengeance again and again, and in fact not only on the part of the traditionalists, but even within the liberal strands of current theology. In view of such developments, the Catholic Church is obliged to denounce anti-Judaism and Marcionism as a betrayal of its own Christian faith, and to call to mind that the spiritual fraternity between Jews and Christians has its firm and eternal foundation in Holy Scripture.”

The cardinal concluded his lecture by stressing that the fostering of mutual understanding and respect between Jews and Christians must continue to be accorded due attention.

“That is the indispensable prerequisite for guaranteeing that there will be no recurrence of the dangerous estrangement between Christians and Jews, but that they remain aware of their spiritual kinship…, so that Jews and Christians as the one people of God bear witness to peace and reconciliation in the unreconciled world of today – and can thus be a blessing not only for one another but also jointly for humanity.”

At the press conference immediately following the lecture, Benedict’s reaffirmation of the centrality of “Nostra Aetate” to a Jewish delegation earlier that week was high on the agenda. Koch reiterated that “Nostra Aetate” continued “to be the basis and the guide for our efforts towards promoting greater understanding, respect and cooperation between our communities.”

In an e-mail to The Jewish Standard, Bemporad explained that this most recent reaffirmation of the declaration was very important.

“Nostra Aetate is just a declaration – it doesn’t have the status of dogma. So while it’s a very important declaration, it endures because it was promulgated at Vatican II, and all popes have since reaffirmed it. It’s worth underscoring that the key person affirming it does so at a time when there are segments of the Church pushing back against it.”

Also on May 16, Israeli artist Avner Moriah presented the pope with his Illuminated Book of Genesis. Bemporad had first shown the artist’s work to Mordechay Lewy, Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, who in turn brought it to the attention of officials in the Vatican Library. The work juxtaposes Hebrew text with the artist’s interpretative drawings, and is the first stage of his larger project to illustrate the entire Torah.

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