Cardinal Koch on “Nostra Aetate”, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of Vatican II

The following is a lengthy excerpt from his speech at a conference hosted by the Pontifical Angelicum University in collaboration with the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, delivered in May 2012 (Source: Zenit)

“Nostra Aetate”: YES to our Jewish roots, NO to anti–Semitism

Cardinal Augustin Bea, who oversaw the draft of Nostra Aetate

On the Catholic side, the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the relationship of the church to the non–Christian religions, “Nostra aetate”, can be considered the beginning of a systematic dialogue with the Jews. Still today it is considered the “foundation document” and the “Magna Charta” of the dialogue of the Roman Catholic Church with Judaism, so my tour d’horizon of the Jewish–Catholic conversation must begin there.It did not develop in a vacuum, since on the Christian side there had already been approaches to Judaism both within and outside the Catholic Church before the Council. But after the unprecedented crime of the Shoah above all, an effort was made in the post–War period towards a theologically reflected re–definition of the relationship with Judaism. Following the mass murder of the European Jews planned and executed by the National Socialists with industrial perfection, a profound examination of conscience was initiated about how such a barbaric scenario was possible in the Christian–oriented West. Must we assume that anti–Jewish tendencies present within Christianity for centuries were complicit in the anti–Semitism of the Nazis, racially motivated and led astray by a godless and neo–pagan ideology, or simply allowing it to run its course? Among Christians too there were both perpetrators and victims; but 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: Why did Christian resistance against the boundless brutality of the Nazi crimes not demonstrate that measure and that clarity which one should rightfully have expected? Have Christians and Jews today the will and the strength for conciliation and reconciliation on the common foundation of faith in the one and only God of Israel? What significance does Judaism have in the future for churches and ecclesial communities, and in what theological relationship do we stand today in connection with Judaism?
Soon after the end of the Second World War, the Christian side confronted the phenomenon of anti–Semitism at the International Emergency Conference on Anti–Semitism which took place at Seelisberg from 30 July to 5 August 1947. About 65 persons, Jews and Christians from various denominations, met for 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, and giving a stimulus towards mutual understanding. The perspectives which have become known as the “Ten Points of Seelisberg” have over time become path–breaking, and in one way or another found their way into the Council declaration “Nostra aetate”, even though in this text a decidedly theological framework was given to the relationship with Judaism. This declaration in fact begins with a reflection on the mystery of the church and a reminder of the deep bond which links the people of the New Covenant with the tribe of Abraham in a spiritual way.  “Nostra aetate” and the “Ten Points of Seelisberg” both emphasise that the 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”.
In the Christian sphere, coming to terms with the Shoah is certainly one of the major motivations leading to the drafting of “Nostra aetate”. But other reasons can surely also be identified: 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. This process ultimately found its doctrinal expression in the Conciliar decree on divine revelation “Dei verbum”, or more precisely in the instruction that the exegete should carefully research what the authors of the biblical texts really intended to say: “Those who search out the intentions of the sacred writers must among other things have regard for literary forms. For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another, or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry or some other form of speech.”[2] The precise observation of historical religious traditions reflected in the texts of sacred scripture had as a consequence that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth was located ever more clearly within the Judaism of his 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. This view also found its way into the Council declaration “Nostra aetate”, when it states with reference to the Letter to the Romans (9:5), that “Jesus stems according to the flesh from the people of Israel, and the church recalls the fact that the apostles, her foundation stones and pillars, sprang from the Jewish people, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ to the world.” Since “Nostra aetate” it has therefore become part of the cantus firmus of Jewish–Christian dialogue to call to mind and to emphasise the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. During his visit to the Roman synagogue on 13 April 1986 Pope John Paul II expressed this in the vivid and impressive words: “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.”

However, it was not only theological insights which led the Christian side to seek theoretical and practical rapprochement with Judaism. In fact, political and pragmatic reasons also played a not inconsequential role in this. 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 this regard the Holy See has consistently pursued two goals, that is enabling on the one hand unhindered pastoral activity of the Catholic congregations in the Holy Land, and on the other, free access to the sacred sites of Christians for Christian pilgrims. That requires in the first instance political dialogue with the ruling executive of the State of Israel, which from the Jewish perspective must naturally always be embedded in a dialogue with the religious authorities of Judaism. Christians seem to be rather inclined to differentiate and delimit political and religious affairs from one another, while Judaism strives to converge and integrate the two dimensions.
Whatever motives and factors may have individually led to the drafting of “Nostra aetate”, the declaration remains the crucial compass of all endeavours towards Jewish–Catholic dialogue, and after 47 years we can claim with gratitude that this theological re–definition of the relationship with Judaism has directly brought forth rich fruits throughout its reception history. It seems that as far as content is concerned the Council fathers at that time took into consideration almost everything which has since proved to be significant in the history of the dialogue. On the Jewish side it is particularly positively emphasised that the Conciliar Declaration took up an unambiguous position against every form of anti–Semitism. It is not least on that basis that the Jews are and remain borne up by the hope that they can rest assured that in the Catholic Church they have a reliable ally in the struggle against anti–Semitism.
With regard to the reception history of Conciliar documents, one can without doubt dare to assert that “Nostra aetate” is to be reckoned among those Council texts which have in a convincing manner been able to effect a fundamental re–orientation of the Catholic Church following the Council. This of course only becomes clear to us when we consider that previously there was in part a great reluctance regarding contacts between Jews and Catholics, arising in part from the history of Christianity with its discrimination against Jews extending even to forced conversions. The fundamental principle of respect for Judaism expressed in “Nostra aetate” has over the course of recent decades made it possible for groups who initially confronted one another with scepticism to step by step become reliable partners and even good friends, capable of coping with crises together and overcoming conflicts positively.


Appendix: Yesterday, The Jewish Forward published quite coincidentally an article written by John Connelly on the Jewish born Catholics who helped to draft the Nostra Aetate. Here is an excerpt, reporting from a Jewish point of view:

As I (Connelly) discovered while researching my recently published book, “From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965,” these experts did not begin their work in the 1960s. From outposts in Austria and Switzerland, several had tried to formulate Catholic arguments against anti-Semitism under the shadow of Nazism three decades earlier. They were as unrepresentative of Catholicism as one can imagine. Not only were they, Central Europeans, brave enough to stand up to Hitler when it counted, but they mostly had not been born Catholic. The Catholics who helped bring the church to recognition of the continuing sanctity of the Jewish people were converts, many of them from Jewish families.

Most important was Johannes Oesterreicher, born in 1904 into the home of the Jewish veterinarian Nathan and his wife, Ida, in Stadt-Liebau, a German-language community in northern Moravia. As a boy, he took part in Zionist scouting and acted as elected representative of the Jews in his high school, but then, for reasons that remain inexplicable (he later said he ”fell in love with Christ”), Oesterreicher took an interest in Christian writings (Cardinal Newman, Kierkegaard and the Gospels themselves), and under the influence of a priest later martyred by the Nazis (Max Josef Metzger) he became a Catholic and then a priest. In the early 1930s he took over the initiative of the Diocese of Vienna for converting Jews, hoping to bring family and friends into the church. In this his success was limited. Where he had an impact was in gathering other Catholic thinkers to oppose Nazi racism. To his shock, Oesterreicher found this racism entering the work of leading Catholic thinkers, who taught that Jews were racially damaged and therefore could not receive the grace of baptism. His friends in this endeavor included fellow converts like philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and the theologian Karl Thieme and political philosopher Waldemar Gurian. In 1937, Gurian, Oesterreicher and Thieme penned a Catholic statement on the Jews, arguing, against the racists, that Jews carried a special holiness. Though it constituted orthodox teaching, not a single bishop (let alone the Vatican) signed on.

Oesterreicher escaped Austria when the Nazis entered, in 1938, and continued work from Paris, broadcasting German-language sermons into the Reich, informing Catholics that Hitler was an “unclean spirit” and the “antipode in human form,” and describing Nazi crimes committed against Jews and Poles. In the spring of 1940 he barely eluded an advance team of Gestapo agents, and via Marseille and Lisbon he made his way to New York City and ultimately Seton Hall University, where he became the leading expert on relations with Jews in America’s Catholic Church. […]

Soon after the war, Thieme joined with concentration camp survivor Gertrud Luckner to publish the Freiburger Rundbrief in southwest Germany, where they made crucial theological breakthroughs on the path to conciliation with the Jews. In Paris, the Rev. Paul Démann, a converted Hungarian Jew, began publishing the review Cahiers Sioniens and, with the help of fellow converts Geza Vermes and Renée Bloch, refuted the anti-Judaism in Catholic school catechisms.

In 1961, Oesterreicher was summoned for work in the Vatican II committee tasked with the “Jewish question,” which became the most difficult issue to face the bishops. At one critical moment in October 1964, priests Gregory Baum and Bruno Hussar joined Oesterreicher in assembling what became the final text of the council’s decree on the Jews, voted on by the bishops a year later. Like Oesterreicher, Baum and Hussar were converts of Jewish background.

They were continuing a trend going back to the First Vatican Council in 1870, when the brothers Lémann — Jews who had become Catholics and priests — presented a draft declaration on relations between the church and Jews, stating that Jews “are always very dear to God” because of their fathers and because Christ has issued from them “according to the flesh.” Without converts to Catholicism, it seems, the Catholic Church would never have “thought its way” out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism.

The high percentage of Jewish converts like Oesterreicher among Catholics who were opposed to anti-Semitism makes sense: In the 1930s they were targets of Nazi racism who could not avoid the racism that had entered the church. In their opposition, they were simply holding their church to its own universalism. But by turning to long-neglected passages in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, they also opened the mind of the church to a new appreciation of the Jewish people.

John Connelly is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965,” (Harvard University Press,2012). 

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2 Responses to Cardinal Koch on “Nostra Aetate”, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of Vatican II

  1. sixupman says:

    See also Frank J Coppi – “Pope Pius XIs Cruscade for Human Rights and His hidden Encyclical “Humanitas Generis Unitas”, against Racism and Anti-Semetism.


  2. toadspittle says:


    Yet another exceptionally interesting recent post on CP&S!

    Though clearly only a thick nitwit, Toad is learning a lot of stimulating new stuff (to him).


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