The Second Vatican Council, which ended 50 years ago this month, produced 16 documents. Together, those texts contain hundreds of pages of reflection on the nature of the Catholic Church and its mission in the world. In all that wealth of teaching, no other 18 sentences bore a greater weight of historical memory, or suggested a greater opportunity for a new and providentially guided future, than the fourth section of the Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions — the brief document known by its first words as Nostra Aetate (In Our Time):
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 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.
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” (Romans 9:4–5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s mainstay 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, nor did the Jews in large number accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. 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 (Romans 11:28–29). 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” (Zephaniah 3:9).
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; 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.
To mark the golden anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican office that oversees the Catholic Church’s formal interreligious dialogue with world Jewry issued a “reflection” on what has happened theologically over the past half-century, in a conversation that many would have found difficult to imagine a century ago. Taking its title from the sentence in Paul’s letter to the Romans cited in Nostra Aetate — “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” — the reflection was both a review of what had been accomplished since Vatican II and a gentle, if quietly bold, suggestion for where the Jewish–Catholic dialogue should go in its next phase.
Unhappily, in a world media environment that now operates on autopilot, according to the template Post-Franciscum ergo propter Franciscum (“If it happened after the election of Pope Francis, it happened because of Pope Francis — and it’s something radically new”), the reflection was instantly misrepresented, or at least spun, as a virtual about-face in Catholic doctrine about the relationship of the Church and its people to Jews and Judaism. Or, to quote an e-mail I received from a highly intelligent Israeli friend, who was relying solely on press reports, “I would be fascinated to know your thoughts about the Vatican`s decision that Catholics have no obligation to convert Jews, as it seems quite revolutionary.”
Well, not quite. But there is something dramatic afoot here, and it’s important to identify it. So, seven points (a good Biblical number) on “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” which can be read in full here.
1. As the text itself states, “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” is “not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church.” Rather, it’s a “reflection” by a Vatican office on what has happened in the Jewish–Catholic dialogue over the past half-century and a proposed “starting point for further theological thought with a view to enriching and intensifying . . . Jewish–Catholic dialogue.” And thus the first crucial point: The Catholic Church thinks of this unique conversation in theological terms, as a matter of deepening its understanding of its Jewish parent and its own self-understanding. This is not, in other words, about either politics or historical reckoning, important as those are. This conversation, as the Church understands it, is about Jews and Catholics thinking together, as they haven’t done since perhaps 70 a.d. and the “parting of the ways” (at the time of the first Jewish–Roman War and the destruction of the Temple), about what it means to be elect people who are called to live in a covenant relationship with the God who first revealed himself to Abraham and whom Jesus called “Father.” That, the reflection suggests, is the important stuff today, now that almost two millennia of Catholic sins against Jews and Judaism have been reckoned with, confessed before God, and repented of.
2. The reflection then insists that Catholics cannot understand themselves rightly if they live in ignorance of the patrimony they have received from the People of Israel: “Without her Jewish roots the Church would be in danger of losing its . . . anchoring in salvation history and would slide into an ultimately unhistorical Gnosis.” Which is to say, absent the Old Testament, the people of the New Testament would become votaries of a cluster of mythic abstractions, untethered to the experience of God-among-us. And since Gnosticism — the rejection of the grittiness of history and the givenness of human nature, and the claim that everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable for those who are “enlightened” — is arguably the premier heresy of our post-modern age, this is a very weighty claim indeed: a claim that calls Jews to ponder the religious meaning of their relationship to these Catholics who claim to have received their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through the People of Israel. Catholic–Jewish relations are not, in other words, a matter of civility in tolerant societies alone, important as that is; as the Catholic Church understands itself, Catholics and Jews are religiously entangled, and must be. Jews have, and with reason, typically rejected such a claim as threatening to their very identity. Might a newly confident Judaism, which has built a vibrant democratic state in Israel and whose diaspora is as secure in the United States as Jews have been at any time in history, reexamine that traditional reluctance to enter into religious conversation with Catholics? Might, for example, faithful Jews acquaint themselves with the New Testament, one of the foundational documents of Western Civilization?
3. The reflection continues by stating, in what seems a genuine development since Nostra Aetate, that the Jewish–Catholic dialogue is intrafamilial in a way that the Church’s dialogues with other “non-Christian religions” aren’t, and cannot be. Thus the reflection makes the bold proposal that this conversation is “interreligious dialogue” only “by analogy”; Judaism has “a completely different character and is on a different level in comparison with the other world religions,” and this is not, therefore, a conversation “between two intrinsically separate and different religions.” Rather, the reflection suggests, it’s much more entangled than that. For as Saint John Paul II said at the Synagogue of Rome in 1986, Catholics consider Jews their “elder brothers.” So a question is posed: What do 21st-century Jews and Judaism make of the reflection’s claim that “Jews and Christians have the same mother and can be seen, as it were, as two siblings who — as is the normal course of events for siblings — have developed in different directions”? Can faithful Jews “fit” Christianity into Jewish self-understanding as something religiously distinctive and religiously related to God’s covenant with the People of Israel?
4. The reflection states flatly, in a brisk reiteration of the truth taught by Saint Paul two millennia ago and reaffirmed by Vatican II, that “the covenant that God has offered Israel is irrevocable.” The implication of that for Catholics is clear: Christian supersessionism – the notion (as the reflection describes it) that “the people of God of Israel has ceased to exist” – is heresy and must be firmly rejected. But what does that mean on the other side of the dialogue? Can faithful Jews “read” the Catholic rejection of supersessionism as something more than an affirmation of civility and mutual respect, and see in it a call to return to the conversation about election, covenant, and being-a-light-to-the-nations that was so tragically cut off two millennia ago? That conversation, the reflection candidly admits, will always be marked by a “basic tension,” rooted in two different ways of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. But on the basis of the experience of the past half-century, the reflection suggests that that tension can be religiously and theologically fruitful, and not merely a cause of disagreement leading to acrimony.
5. At the deepest level, the reflection concedes, all of this is beyond us. Yes, Christians confess that Jesus is Lord of history and the cosmos and the unique savior of humanity. Yet, as the reflection states unambiguously, “it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God,” for to claim that would be to call Saint Paul a liar. But how all this works – the Church’s confession that “the Jews are participants in God’s salvation” even “without confessing Christ explicitly” – is, was, and likely always will be “an unfathomable divine mystery.” It is also perhaps the most powerful, and poignant, expression of Paul’s confession, in Romans 11, of the inscrutability of God’s judgments and the unsearchability of God’s ways. Which is to say, it’s not up to us to figure out some sort of formula that makes this providential entanglement algebraically or geometrically logical. At the end of each Catholic–Jewish dialogue, there remains silence before the Mystery.
6. As for what all this means in terms of Catholic responsibilities toward Jews, the reflection states that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission towards Jews,” although Catholics are “called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah.” This may be the most forthright statement of the implications of Nostra Aetate from a Vatican body, but it’s really nothing “revolutionary.” Indeed, it reflects the approach of Catholics, among whom I count myself, who believe that our first religious responsibility to our Jewish friends is to urge them to be the best Jews they can be — to be the faithful people of the covenant they were elected to be by the providence of God. Somewhere down the line, when we’re all being the best Catholics and the best Jews we can be, thanks to God’s grace, we’ll be able, again, to talk about messianic hope and its possible fulfillment. For the moment, there is the task of bearing common religious witness to the dignity of the human person as revealed in the Creation account we share, in a world that regularly and often brutally denies that dignity because of warped religious fanaticism or the cult of the imperial autonomous Self.
7. So while “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” is a welcome development of Nostra Aetate, its implications address both parties in the ongoing Catholic–Jewish conversation that Nostra Aetate jump-started. This anniversary reflection challenges both parties to religious solidarity and theological seriousness is a world that too often considers “theological” a synonym for “mindless.” And it is, finally, a call to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our own: a confession that ought to lead to mutual respect and common work to embody the truths of the moral code that Jews and Christians bear into the world.
This article was originally published on National Review Online