Church Builds on 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue

Pontifical Angelicum University Hosts Conference on Nostra Aetate

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, MAY 16, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The development of relations between Christians and Jews in the 50 years since Vatican II's Nostra aetate was the focus of a conference hosted today by the Pontifical Angelicum University.

The conference, titled "Building on 'Nostra aetate': 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue," was organized by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, in collaboration with the Russell Berrie Foundation.

Keynote speaker for the conference Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and president of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, explained the history and offered insight into the events leading up to the writing of the document, as well as the initiatives that have come forth in the decades since.

In his address, the Swiss-born cardinal explained that Nostra aetate can be seen as "the beginning of a systematic dialogue with the Jews. Still today," he continued, this document "is considered the 'founding document' and the 'Magna Carta' of the dialogue of the Roman Catholic Church with Judaism."

Nostra aetate, published just a couple decades after World War II, is in many ways the product of self-reflection in regards to anti-Semitism. "Following the mass murder of the European Jews planned and executed by the National Socialists with industrial perfection," the cardinal explained, "a profound examination of conscience was initiated about how such a barbaric scenario was possible in the Christian-oriented West."

"Must we assume," Cardinal Koch asked, "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."

From the Christian point of view, coming to terms with the Holocaust was "one of the major motivations leading to the drafting of Nostra aetate."

Another significant event leading to the formulation of Nostra aetate was the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Since then, "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."

"The fundamental principle of respect for Judaism expressed in  ‘Nostra aetate,’" explained Cardinal Koch, "has over the course of recent decades made it possible for groups who initially confronted one another with skepticism to step by step become reliable partners and even good friends, capable of coping with crises together and overcoming conflicts positively."

In the years following Vatican II, a number of documents have been released and initiatives have been established in order to encourage and fortify dialogue between the Church and members of the Jewish religion. "Over the past decades both the 'dialogue ad extra' and the 'dialogue ad intra' have led with increasing clarity to the awareness that Christians and Jews are dependent on one another and the dialogue between the two is far as theology is concerned is not a matter of choice but of duty. Jews and Christians are precisely in their difference the one people of God who can gain from this dialogue for its own purpose."

"For the Christian church," moreover, "it is certainly true that without Judaism it is in danger of losing its location with salvation history and in the end declining into unhistorical Gnosis."

Much of Blessed John Paul II's pontificate was marked by the great strides which he made in the area of interreligious dialogue. The former Pontiff's upbringing likely contributed to "passionate endeavors for Jewish-Christian dialogue," said Cardinal Koch, having been raised in a town that was at least one quarter Jewish. "Since everyday contact and friendship with Jews was taken for granted already in his childhood," he continued, "it was for him as Pope an important concern to maintain his friendship with a Jewish school friend, and to intensify the bonds of friendship with Judaism in general."

Differing in his manner of approach, Pope Benedict's engagement in interreligious dialogue effectively legitimizes the work of his predecessor from the perspective of theology. "While Pope John Paul II had a refined sense for grand gestures and strong images, Benedict XVI relies above all on the power of the word and humble encounter. That was given particularly clear expression during his visit to the memorial Yad Vashem when he deliberately referred to the name of this place and meditated on the God-given inalienability of the name of each individual person."

Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, Cardinal Koch concluded, will "never be unemployed, especially at the academic level, particularly since the epoch-making new course set by the Second Vatican Council regarding the relationship between Jews and Christians is naturally constantly being put to the test."

"We will therefore be grateful for every contribution made here to expand the dialogue with Judaism on the foundation of 'Nostra aetate,' and to arrive at a better understanding between Jews and Christians 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."