The Catholic Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of a document that has profoundly changed its understanding of other religious faiths—the Nostra Aetate, a Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. It was passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled bishops, on October 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI.
The assembled bishops declared that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religious traditions, and urged Catholics to pursue “dialogue and collaboration” with people of all different faiths, most importantly the Jews. The document radically reshaped Catholic relations with the Jewish world, condemning all forms of anti-Semitism and stating that Jews cannot be held responsible for the Crucifixion.
Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who played an influential role in the drawing up of Nostra Aetate, told Vatican Radio that her father once said that “Christians understood his work better than Jews,” and how his involvement in the drafting of Nostra Aetate brought with it a “warmth towards Christians that imbued our home.”
At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Rabbi Heschel persuaded the bishops to eliminate or modify passages in Church liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or referred to their expected conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one. He believed that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.
Susannah Heschel illustrated the positive influence of Nostra Aetate on interfaith dialogue saying her students at Dartmouth have never heard anyone suggest that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion.
“This negative teaching has been eliminated in such a short period of time… it’s extraordinary,” she said.