Catholic Christianity’s understanding of and relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people was radically transformed by the the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, “The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” On Oct. 28, 1965, Nostra Aetate formally declared that the church cannot “forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.” The declaration repudiated the ancient teaching of contempt and affirmed God’s continuing fidelity to the covenant with the Jewish people. It decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” and called the church to “foster that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.”
Our observance of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in 2005 takes us back to the tragic failure of humanity and Christianity during the Nazi era, which culminated in what has come to be known as the Holocaust, or Shoah. Not every Nazi victim was Jewish, but every Jew was a Nazi target. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were killed. Variously described as “the tremendum,” “the crucifixion of the Jews,” and “the rupture of Christianity,” this tragic event shattered the soul of Christianity.
The Christian “teaching of contempt” toward the Jews and Judaism had so effectively prepared the soil of Christian Europe that the Nazi killing machine could degrade the Jews to subhuman or nonhuman status and systematically eliminate them. Christian leaders in Germany and elsewhere failed to present a unified, principled protest against this racially motivated “final solution.” As the gravity of the devastation sank in, the question gradually emerged in the stunned silence of the aftermath: Can and should Christianity survive?
Sadly, it took the ovens of Auschwitz to open the eyes of Christianity to the danger of its supersessionist theological self-definition over against Judaism. Supersessionism, the belief that the church, as the New Israel, displaced the Jews as God’s covenanted people, had defined Judaism as superfluous. It was an easy, short step to the Nazis’ program of racially based physical extermination.
Transformed by their first-hand experience of “the tremendum,” such individuals as Gertrude Luckner and the Freiburg circle, Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), Augustin Bea, S.J., Paul Démann, Johannes Willebrands, Charles Boyer and John Oesterreicher acknowledged this failure of Christianity and began addressing its theological underpinning. Their influence at Vatican II enabled the church to begin a repentant search into its “mystery,” remembering with a new reverence and respect “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.” With a similar passion, nurtured by his war-time experience as a young man in Poland, Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II, helped deepen this conversion of Catholic Christianity with his repeated insistence on God’s unrevoked covenant with the Jewish people and his humble jubilee year prayers for forgiveness in the name of the church at St. Peter’s in Rome and at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Incarnation: Courage for Kenosis
At the start of this new millennium, Pope John Paul called the church to a “purification of memory.” This referred to a self-emptying, not unlike the kenosis, the self-emptying of the one who “humbled himself” by “being born in human likeness.” Both entail a radical letting go of real or apparent greatness and power, and both are marked by humility, simplicity and compassion.
At Vatican II, the church’s post-Holocaust response was already a beginning of this purification. As the church struggled to acknowledge the error of its ways in relation to Jews and Judaism, Catholics entered a kenosis. With courage and integrity, we began the journey of purifying Christianity’s theological self-definition.
The controversy last year over Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” revealed that many Catholics are still unfamiliar with the church’s cautions regarding the portrayal of the passion and death of Christ, raising the danger of again bringing to the surface in the Christian imagination the image of the Jew as Christ-killer. Equally clear was the courageous witness of Catholic scholars whose voices of concern about the film indicated that they are taking seriously the purification of our theological self-understanding. Regrettably, in what felt like a betrayal of Nostra Aetate’s prophetic call, the voices of U.S. church leaders were uncharacteristically muted. They might have used their own excellent teaching guidelines, developed since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, to help Catholic Christians grasp the problematic nature of this film. The courage of kenosis calls for the use of the prophetic voice, even when it may be discomforting and unpopular.
An Examination of Conscience
The Catholic Christian stance within today’s religiously pluralistic society must also be questioned, especially with regard to the definition of salvation. An attitude of kenosis recognizes the dangers of triumphalist, absolutist claims. In response to Peter’s query about another disciple, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “What is that to you? [You] follow me!” Likewise, when James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory, they are informed that they do not know what they are asking. “To sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant.” Not even Jesus has the audacity to pronounce on who will sit where in eternity. In the purification of our understanding of Jesus as redeemer, we still have significant depths to probe and much to learn about what God’s unrevoked covenant with the Jewish people means, and what this may imply about God’s covenant relationship with all of creation.
In today’s world, held captive by war and violence, at a time when patriotism is dangerously morphing into nationalism, we might also voice the lessons of the Holocaust in the public forum. The lack of concern about the thousands of civilian and military casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, which we do not even count or report unless they are our own, uncomfortably reminds us of the Nazi degradation of Jews. While the diminution of their status as human beings is more subtle, it involves a similar denial of their place in our universe of moral obligations. As a church we have done well in affirming and promoting the importance of Holocaust education. But we are very timid and faint-hearted in applying to concrete situations “in our time” the lessons drawn from this failure of humanity and Christianity.
Reconciliation and Partnership
For several decades Catholic and Jewish leaders and scholars have engaged in a sincere dialogue striving for understanding and reconciliation. This effort has weathered numerous obstacles that seriously threatened to undermine open and trusting reciprocity. In recent years they have begun to join hands to address joint moral concerns. Today, we grapple together with post-Holocaust questions of theodicy, the meaning of salvation and the vindication of God’s goodness in light of the experience of evil. We also discover a new understanding that recognizes the need for human beings to take up, humbly and with a profound sense of dependence, their awesome role as co-creators with God.
If, after centuries of alienation and intense animosity, these two sibling faiths, Judaism and Christianity, can sincerely join in a reconciled partnership—as co-creators with God striving to incarnate “peace on earth among people of good will”—they together will truly be “a light unto the nations” (Is 51:4) in a very dark time.