Brotherly Love: Celebrating 50 Years of Nostra Aetate


The year 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, which reformed the way the Catholic Church relates to the modern world. In this new understanding, the Jews became the “elder brothers” of the Christians, language which is directly connected to the document Nostra Aetate (“In our Age”) which was promulgated as a result of Vatican II. Nostra Aetate changed the way in which the Catholic Church relates to other religions, and section four is specifically about the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

One of the most important changes made by this document is that it repudiated the teaching that the Jews, as a collective, were responsible for the death of Jesus. The relationship between Jews and Christians prior to this, due in part to this tenet of the Christian faith, had been one in which the Christians viewed the Jews as obstinate and blind for their refusal to accept the truth of Christianity. Jews throughout the centuries have been persecuted and many lost their lives as a result of this belief and subsequent persecutions. Understanding Christianity, especially early in its history, cannot be divorced from the Judaism(s) of that time, not only because the early church was composed of mainly Jewish believers in Jesus, but that as Christianity spread, it was defined by its opposition to its parent religion.

For much of Christian history, the various churches tried to deny this relationship and hold that Judaism was a lifeless religion, while Christianity was its living successor. This triumphalist conception of Christianity still exists in some churches, while the still somewhat controversial idea of dual covenant theology has been gaining ground. This theological position holds that the covenant with the Jews is still in force and binding, and has attracted those Christians who have started to recover the Jewish roots of Christianity. Understanding the ritual life and theology of Christianity in this light gives its practitioners a different view of what it means to be Christian.

This has implications for interfaith work between Catholics and Jews, as well as between Protestants churches that are emphasizing the shared connection between Jews and Christians. From what I know of the history of the Orthodox Church, it seems to have had a more positive relationship with the Jews, but this aspect would be interesting to research further. By emphasizing this relationship between the Catholics and the Jews, it allows all parties to begin to heal the wounds of their shared history. While they may differ over many aspects of theology and other important issues, the link between Judaism and Christianity cannot be denied, nor should it. The idea that Jews should be free from Catholic attempts to convert them shows that the Catholic Church recognizes this important historical connection and is trying to deepen their understanding.

As both are Abrahamic religions and trace their roots back to that pact made between God and Abraham, I see this deepening of the connection between the Catholic Church and other Christian groups and the Jewish people as a reflection of that original pact. As the saying goes, you can’t pick your family but you can decide how you deal with them, for good or ill. In the coming year, I hope that this connection and recognition will only continue to develop for the benefit of both groups.

Image Source: Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons

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