Nostra Aetate and the Church’s Dialogue with Jews – – Fifty Years and Forward in the United States!
“What’s the big deal?” sincerely asked a young priest when I told him how much I was looking forward to this golden jubilee of Nostra Aetate.
He inquired about the significance of this day not sarcastically or cynically, but genuinely. Simply put, he so took Catholic-Jewish amity for granted that he wondered why it was necessary to celebrate this half-century old document.
For this fine young priest, that anyone would have ever considered the Jews guilty of Deicide, thus meriting scorn, harassment, isolation, or tragically worse, was utterly illogical and stupid. He had been raised in a Catholic grade and high school where textbooks treated Jews with dignity and respect, and the full horror of the Shoah had been carefully examined; he had grown up in a parish where Catholics and Jews alternated years coming together in prayer on the eve of Thanksgiving, one year in the synagogue, the next in the parish church; as a seminarian, he had taken a course in Judaism taught by a Rabbi; and, now as a parish priest, is in a weekly scripture study with an interfaith group of local clergy that included a Rabbi.
He had no idea that it was not always so . . . which is only another argument for the case we make today: that the implementation of Nostra Aetate, especially here in the United States, has been remarkably successful, that the invitation to respect and dialogue offered by the council fathers has been enthusiastically accepted, and has borne much fruit.
His “ho-humm” about today’s celebration, though, is not only a cause for gratitude, in that Jewish Catholic friendship is now so-taken-for-granted, but also a cause for some concern, since, well, Jewish-Catholic friendship is now so-taken-for-granted! For, as my grandpa used to say, “What you take for granted can easily be ungranted!”
To be here with cardinals, bishops, priests, scholars, rabbis, and leaders in interfaith dialogue is an honor. To work on behalf of my brother bishops as co-chair with Rabbi David Strauss of the official dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues, following the towering achievements of Cardinal William Keeler and a generation of devoted Catholic and Jewish leaders, is a privilege.
Veterans in this sacred task note that Jewish-Catholic friendship and cooperation has never been stronger, and I would concur.
The recent passing of the former Chief-Rabbi of the Eternal City, Elio Toaff, reminds us of his deep companionship with Pope St. John Paul II, as we realize that the late pontiff expressed explicit gratitude to only two people in his last testament: his loyal priest secretary and spiritual son, Stanislaus Dziwicz, and Rabbi Toaff.
Here in the United States we note the perseverance of the official Jewish Catholic dialogue, both in the previously mentioned meetings between bishops and the representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism in the National Council of Synagogues, in our consultations with the Rabbinic Council of America, and with the Orthodox Union.
Nor can we forget the nearly four dozen centers of joint study between Christians and Jews, such as the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, or the thousands of local and neighborhood partnership between parishes and synagogues in prayer, theological discourse, and community service.
Catholic clergy and people regularly benefit from ongoing education sponsored by the AJC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Hartman Institute, the Karski Institute and Yahad-in-Unum in Paris.
I could go on and on, but I’m preaching to the choir, as I think we are all in concert observing that the brave fathers of the council, aided by Jewish periti, could never have foreseen such progress.
Besides the organizational and educational progress referred to above, two other areas this last half-century deserve special mention.
One is the fruitfulness of mutual theological study. It was Pope John Paul II’s dream that Christians and Jews could return to the theological conversations between Jews and Christians so rudely interrupted 1,945 years ago when the Roman army leveled Jerusalem. Beliefs cherished by each of us – – creation, election, covenant, promise, redemption, the law, grace, revelation, to name a few – – were kitchen table talk, or arguments, between Jews and Christians in the decades right after Jesus, but faded in 70 A.D. when another priority – – survival! – – took over.
Thanks to the green light of Nostra Aetate, such topics are back on the agenda. Alleluia!
The second area of progress has been the candor with which we have confronted the testy controversies which have arisen. Raised voices over such issues as the Good Friday prayer, the cross and convent at Auschwitz, the visit of Kurt Waldheim to Pope John Paul, the lifting of the excommunication of a holocaust – denying priest, the neuralgia over Dominus Jesus, the role of the Holy See during World War II, the reputation of Pius XII, necessary revision in the Oberammergau Passion Play, diplomatic exchanges between Israel and the Vatican, and even last week’s nod to Palestine by Pope Francis – – just to name a few – – have caused spats and arguments. That we have not dodged them and have actually persevered through them is a test of our mettle!
I remember my first meeting as a bishop-member of the Jewish-Catholic dialogues, being amazed at the blunt bickering over Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.
“I could have stayed home and had dinner with my family if I wanted this kind of arguing,” I whispered to an older bishop during the break.
“But that’s the point,” he came back. “We are family, so we argue because we get scared and mad when something threatens to tear us apart.” Not bad . . .
As we look back over the last five decades of progress since Nostra Aetate, I wonder what other successors will observe in May, 2065, when they gather to savor, please God, the advances made since today.
I do see five areas where we have indeed begun to “cast out to the deep,” challenges that could bring us into an even more durable and beneficial alliance. See if you agree . . .
One would be an intensification of the most obvious imperative for any enterprise by any group of believers: to reclaim the primacy of the God in a world that prefers not to take Him seriously, to ignore Him, or even to deny Him.
Here we face together the impact of that loaded word secularism. This is a point I spent a whole lecture on two weeks ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary back home in New York, proposing that this effort at the core of both Jewish and Catholic belief was the essence of Pope Saint John Paul II’s post- Nostra Aetate agenda. I was glad that the respondents, Rabbi Burton Visotzky and Chancellor Arnold Eisen, agreed.
Simply put, I pointed out that John Paul II was convinced that the most insidious toxin infecting humanity was the denial of God’s sovereignty, even existence, and that the Church’s most natural ally in restoring faith in a world gone skeptical were the Jews. Humanity’s fateful preference, lurking since the Enlightenment, lurching now, was, to use Rabbi Jonathan Sax’s definition of secularism, “to get along just fine without God.” The pope was convinced that the Jewish community would share his urgency that such a cultural sidelining of faith must be reversed. He died, while not without hope, certainly with an impatience that neither Jews nor Catholics seemed to be making much progress in inviting the world to believe that, in the words of the psalmist, “Only in God is my soul at rest.”
I recounted the story of John Paul’s heroic and tumultuous 1979 return to Poland in what historians now call “nine days that changed the world,” and how, inspired by his presence and words, a two-million strong throng in Warsaw on his last day chanted at the top of their voices, to the grimaces of the KGB and Polish communist officials, “We want God!”
“We want God!” The primitive cry of faith, humanity’s innate longing for the Divine, a thirst denied, ignored, ridiculed, outlawed, and rationalized away for too long by the oppression of a regime that had vainly sought purpose in systems that forgot God! It was as if the Polish Pope had put on the lips of his people the pining of the Hebrew psalmist, “Like a deer that thirsts for living water, so my soul longs for you, my God.”
And, it was his aspiration that what most naturally bound Jews and Catholics together would be the common effort to help humanity articulate once again the desire what for too long had been suppressed, “We want God!”
Both Jews and Christians look out their windows daily to behold, in the prescient observation of Blessed John Henry Newman a century-and-a-half ago, “a world that is simply irreligious.”
Two, the friendship inspired by Nostra Aetate coaxes us to explore together the pastoral issues that befuddle both of us.
Not long after my arrival in New York, Rabbi Peter Rubenstein kindly invited me to meet a group of his congregants at Central Synagogue. They thoughtfully spoke to me about their concerns, not surprisingly concentrating on those familiar two categories that have characterized post- Nostra Aetate dialogue; namely, theological issues such as covenant, election, Israel, and neuralgic points such as the hoped-for opening of the Vatican archives, and their apprehension at the time that the Church’s commitment to Nostra Aetate was slackening.
Then they kindly asked me what I thought should concern us Catholics and Jews. I stayed away from the theological and neuralgic, and went for the pastoral.
“I have a hunch,” I began, “that you committed Jews at this Synagogue have the same concerns that my parishioners at Saint Patrick’s have: how to pass on the faith to our kids and grandkids who are growing-up in a culture that hardly has room for religion; how the reality of intermarriage affects us; how to preserve the Sabbath in a society where soccer and shopping reign; how to make sure our kids have some tether to the faith when they leave for college; how to entice back the crowds of our spiritual kin who have drifted away.”
It was a light bulb moment, as my new Jewish neighbors sat-up and exclaimed, “Oh, my, you Catholics worry about all that, too?”
You bet we do! And putting our shoulders and Yarmulkes together to talk about them could be one of the more rewarding results of our celebrated Nostra Aetate friendship – – comparing notes on common pastoral challenges!
A couple months ago, I was invited to preach a Sabbath service at a local synagogue. During the prayer, a young boy celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. After the ceremony I commented to the Rabbi how powerful such a ritual was. He looked at me and commented, “Odds are, we won’t see that young man again for thirty years, until he brings his son here for Bar Mitzvah! “Oh,” I replied, “We Catholics call that the Sacrament of Confirmation!”
That’s what I mean by common pastoral challenges!
And point three is a common front on the most pressing pastoral burr in the saddle of all: the unavoidable fact that what sociologists call “inherited religions” – – read: Jews and Catholics – – are losing their members.
Both Jews and Catholics now approach the findings that Pew Research Center as we do the obituary page, but we can hardly ignore their challenge. Yes, both of us can rejoice in the data that the majority of Catholics and Jews remain steadfast in their allegiance; yes, there’s a bit of evidence that the rate of defection may be leveling off . . . but, it’s “alarm-clock time” for both of us, because the statistics present unavoidable conclusions: belief may be high, belonging is not; and no longer can we presume that being born Jewish or Catholic is a guarantee that one will freely choose to live and die in that faith.
As Pope John Paul soberly commented, no longer can we count on birth, family tradition, or culture to automatically pass on the faith.
We Jews and Catholics – – and, lest we forget, Islam (which brings up yet another challenge!) – – believe we are born into the faith, we inherit it. We did not choose our faith – – God chose us! We have no more business choosing our supernatural family than we do our natural family! We’re stuck with it. Rabbi Joshua Heschel entitled his masterpiece, not “Man’s Search for God,” but God’s Search for Man!
When the teenage girl asked the “Whisky Priest” in Graham Greens’ classic, The Power and the Glory, the priest fleeing Mexican troops persecuting the Church, why he didn’t just leave the Church and save his life, he replied, “But I can’t just leave it. It’s part of me.”
“Oh, like the birthmark on my arm,” the girl asked.
“That’s it . . . like a birthmark.”
In Jewish and Catholic chemistry, our belonging, our religious identity, is “like a birthmark.”
No more for a growing swath of our people! And therein is the most towering pastoral problem we face together: to recover the sense of belonging we believe essential to our relationship with God.
We Jews and Catholics face two obstacles in our mutual insistence on belonging:
The first is the sociological phenomenon noted above, that people today prefer belief over belonging: They want God as their Father as long as they’re the only child; they want the Lord as their shepherd as long as the flock consists of one lamb – – themselves; they want God as their general as long as it’s an army of one. None of this sits well with Jews who believe God chose a people, or Catholics who believe we are only a part of a body with many members.
The second obstacle we face is America itself, which stresses personal choice in everything from coffee to religion. In fact, our highly Puritan, Calvinist religious climate puts the premium on my personal choice of God, not His choice of me. Cardinal Francis George used to worry that Catholics in America were becoming “Calvinists with incense.” His fear was well-grounded.
So, what’s happening is that religion is now listed under “hobby” or “personal interests,” if at all, instead of “family background and history” – – and that, my friends, is a juicy challenge for both of us. For us to tackle it together could be a good time!
Four, the gruesome reality of religious persecution is yet another worry that unites us. Somewhere right this moment a Jew or a Catholic is in the crosshairs of the rifle scope of an extremist. All believers – – Jews, Christians, and, yes, genuine moderate Muslims – – which means most of them – – are at risk in vast regions of the world. Christians fear ISIS and Boko Haram in the Mideast and Africa, and Islamic and Hindu extremists in the far East, while Jews fear Islamic terrorists in Israel and anti-Semitic thugs in Europe.
Our God, we both believe, can bring good out of evil, leading to what Pope Benedict, Cardinal Koch, and Pope Francis have called an “Ecumenism of Martyrdom,” as Jews and Christians huddle more closely together to protect, advocate for, and care for each other as mobs with torches and swords threaten our churches and synagogues in other parts of the globe.
Five, and finally, Nostra Aetate has given us an infrastructure of friendship these past fifty years allowing us to reclaim and preach again the Biblical reality that popular soothing spirituality would rather us forget: sin and redemption!
Why in the world we Jews and Catholics have lost our voice in preaching sin and redemption is beyond me. If our people believe they are without sin, that they need no salvation, why would they sense a need for church, synagogue, religion, belonging? Affirmation and fellowship they can find much easier over a latte at Starbucks or at the gym … and they are!
Here I will defer to an eloquent author, David Brooks, whose new bestseller, The Road to Character, should be gift wrapped for every graduate these days.
Monday I interviewed him on the radio, and got red with embarrassment when he asked why the Church, why the Synagogue had stopped preaching sin and redemption, without which culture is doomed to pledge continued allegiance to the central fallacy of modern life, that “The Big Me,” the culture of achievement, our total focus on what he terms “resumé virtues” as opposed to “eulogy virtues,” can lead to true fulfillment.
No, David Brooks insists, we must preach that I am flawed; I am imperfect; I have a dark side; I am incomplete; I am a sinner; I need redemption, and I can’t give it to myself!
That’s our forte, folks! That’s the Jewish and Christian vocabulary! That’s what the prophets and saints claimed!
Earlier I suggested that we Jews and Catholics are losing our people. Where are they going? I can only answer for Catholics: most go to no other religion, but became a “none.” But those who do join another church sure aren’t registering with the Unitarians! They’re more than likely signing–up at a Bible waving mega-church that bellows sin and salvation in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, because all they’re hearing at Sunday Mass is a version of the discredited “I’m ok – you’re ok” therapy of thirty years ago.
It’s time to reclaim our specialty as Jews and Christians: sin, grace, mercy, redemption!
Enough from me . . . By now it’s obvious that I am far from a theologian, and still a rookie in Jewish-Catholic dialogue compared to distinguished veterans here with us. I was only fifteen when Nostra Aetate was promulgated by Blessed Paul VI.
But I am a pastor, and, as such, both rejoice in the progress that has been made, and relish the goals we realistically admit loom before us.
And, for the record, I told that young priest, “Listen, Buddy, this is a big deal!”