Lifting the Veil on Nostra Aetate: How Jewish-Catholic History Changed

REVIEW: The World Jewish Congress: 1936 to 2016 sheds light on the backstory of Nostra Aetate, and gives a glimpse into how people of good will on either side of other millennia-old divisions, whether Sunni and Shia, or Muslim and Hindi, can chart a way to true reconciliation.

Portion of the front cover of The World Jewish Congress: 1936 to 2016.
Portion of the front cover of The World Jewish Congress: 1936 to 2016. (photo: Peter Jesserer Smith)

Catholics and Jews grow up today in world their ancestors would have found difficult to image a century ago: in all areas of human life, Jews and Catholics live and work side-by-side as friends, neighbors, and advocates united in the promotion of human rights and dignity, religious understanding, and building peace based on mutual respect.

Most Catholics growing up today take this relationship as natural; harder to imagine is the history of the past 1,900 years, littered with its enormous traumas between Catholic and Jewish communities. In Europe, this anti-Semitism largely unchecked through the ages by the Church, and warped the weave of Christian culture with anti-Jewish bigotry, hatred, and violence, culminating in the Shoah. Although the Church had its heroes who resisted the Nazis and risked or lost their lives to save Jews — the Nazis had benefited from ingrained Jewish-hatred in local populations across Europe to find the collaborators they relief upon to carry out the Holocaust.

The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate affirmed the common heritage of Christians and Jews, condemned any form of anti-Semitism against Jews as an attack on the faith, and launched a new era of friendship. But how did such a sea-change take place in the aftermath of such unparalleled human catastrophe?

The backstory to this profound shift can be found in The World Jewish Congress: 1936 to 2016, a collection of essays on WJC history compiled and edited by Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress.

Rosensaft includes a vital essay by Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli, a former secretary of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews during St. John Paul II’s pontificate, who describes the critical role played by Gerhart Riegner, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress (1965-1983) in building bridges between Catholics and Jews that led to Nostra Aetate and an ongoing, productive Jewish-Catholic dialogue at all levels.

Reigner, who first informed American and British diplomats in 1942 about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews, faced obstacles and disappointments in proposing a new way forward for Catholics and Jews in the aftermath of the Shoah. However, his persistence succeeded to bring together leaders from the World Jewish Congress and the Catholic Church to become workers in this new direction, which has continued to bear fruit through the ensuing decades.

Today, Catholics and Jews have a common ground on which to stand together and face renewed challenges: the resurgence of anti-Semitism, racial ideologies in the West that enwrap their true nature with appeals to religion or nationalism, and global lethargy in the face of new genocide.  

I spoke with Rosensaft, who is both the son of Holocaust survivors and a human rights advocate, about Nostra Aetate and the example of Reigner, and others in The World Jewish Congress: 1936 to 2016. The book is not just a story of the past that has shaped our present, but a model of hope for the future.


How much of a different world are Catholics and Jews living in today than previous times, because of Nostra Aetate?

I think between Catholics and Jews, we live in a very different world. And that is due to a couple of phenomena. The first, which you cannot understate, is the progressive importance of John XXIII, John Paul II, and now Francis, with respect to their personal, instinctive, intuitive attitudes towards the Jews, the Jewish community, and Judaism.

The other side of the coin is what Monsignor [Pier Francesco] Fumagalli writes in the book where in fact, and in large part due to Gerhart Riegner and a number of others in the World Jewish Congress during that period right after Nostra Aetate. You ended up with a dialogue in which the relationship on a social level, became a partnership where individuals like [Cardinal Johannes] Willebrands on the Catholic side and Riegner in the Jewish side, were able to sit and discuss and find solutions — and really learn to not just respect each other, but to relate to each other. I think that is the other side for what John Paul and now Francis are radiating in attitudes downward — the framework had already been set and I think that is one of the hidden, not so well known, facts because it doesn’t lend itself to drama. It was monthly and bi-monthly conversations and meetings, putting together documents, interacting with one another and getting to the point where people understood that there were no hidden agendas.

It had the added benefit of having a personality like Riegner, and on the other side a personality like Willebrands. When the dust settles, these were two individuals for whom Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and Jewish-Catholic cooperation became a mission on their own.


What is particularly interesting in Msgr. Fumagelli’s essay is how the relationship with Catholic leaders changed in the time leading up to Nostra Aetate due to the persistence of Gerhart Riegner, who found Catholic partners in others such as Cardinal Willebrands.

It was such a painstakingly process, and it was against the backdrop of Reigner’s predecessor meeting with Cardinal, then Msgr. Montini and later Paul VI, raising the post-Holocaust issues and not getting very far. Today, we are in a world where Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of the NY archdiocese, jointly write an article in the NY Post that condemns bigotry in the Middle East. But that kind of relationship is today considered natural. Today, I don’t think anybody was surprised that such an article was written, but that is because of the painstaking relationship building that took place. And I think that is something that is important to understand.


Given the painful experience that Jews have received from Catholics, particularly in Europe, for nearly two millennia, how is it that Riegner and the World Jewish Congress would have this vision of working with leaders in the Catholic Church to restart or reset that relationship?

Again, you need to put it in the context of the people. This is also the time that the World Jewish Congress was intrinsically involved in the drafting and the development of the founding documents of the United Nations. The declaration on human rights, the convention on refugees, and the genocide convention were against the backdrop of the horrific Jewish experience during the Holocaust. They had a determination to change history going forward, and to be proactive in that change.

We learned from the deficiencies during the League of Nations’ days by building, participating, and providing a Jewish perspective and instilling Jewish concerns into the founding documents of the United Nations. And in that context, you have to see the Riegner’s effort with respect to the Catholic Church. If we keep it the way things are, things will not improve. At least that was the position of Riegner and [WJC President] Nahum Goldmann at the time. We are not going to get there by screaming; we are going to get there by working together and developing relationships. Which does not mean that you are going to be obsequious. As Fumagali said, there were any number of times where Riegner stood up at meetings [of Catholic-Jewish dialogue] and said, “no, you can’t do this. We will not accept it.” He was able to do that because when he did get up and say that, his Catholic counterparts had gotten to know him and gotten to understand where his views and concerns were coming from. They did not look at them with suspicion any more than Riegner would look at something that Willebrands said and take that with suspicion. They developed respect for one another.

To a certain extent, the book is a historical lookback. But it also provides certain guidelines of what the mission of the [WJC] is going forward. In the past, the organization came into being to fight against Nazism. We are today confronting a resurgence of neo-Nazism in many parts of the world and it is where the voice of the Jewish community needs to be outspoken where ever those elements surface.


We are observing a troubling resurgence of neo-Nazism and ideologies of racial supremacy in the world: do you think this book gives insights into how Catholics and Jews can face these challenges together?

There are any number of good reasons why Catholics and Jews have very similar stakes in fighting bigotry, aside from the philosophical principle reasons. But we are natural allies there, and I think to a certain extent the building blocks of the past 80 years make that kind of alliance much easier to implement and much easier to strengthen and to find areas of cooperation.

Let’s go back to Nostra Aetate. The groundwork of Nostra Aetate is an affirmation of a common humanity. And a common humanity means that those who are trying to diminish someone else’s humanity are not acceptable in polite society. They are not acceptable.

One of the major differences between now and the 1930s is that today there is a joint front [between Catholics and Jews] against white supremacism, against Nazism, against bigotry. There is a joint front in whether it’s anti-Catholicism or anti-Semitism. We are in a situation where it is natural for the two communities to join forces. And I think that is huge progress in a relatively short period of time. And again, the efforts of Gerhart Riegner and the World Jewish Congress in that respect cannot be minimizes and cannot be understated.


So your book has provided a very valuable historical reference for both Catholics and Jews to understand the shoulders on which they stand and have given us the world we have today. But it also conveys a sense of obligation as well. We have inherited this world and we have to make sure to pass it on.

If I have one hope for the book, I wish it would find its way, not just into the hands of rabbis and scholars and Jewish libraries, but I wish that it would find itself into the hands of priests and bishops and onto the shelves of parish libraries across the country, so that it becomes an introduction for the Catholic community as to the origins of the relationship. Perhaps introduce them to what the Jewish political history of the past 80 years was like. But also how the Jewish concerns and Catholic concerns meld at a given point and provide in that way, a basis for about better understanding between us. Because in large part, the understanding has to come with knowing one another. And it is really my hope that this book will contribute to that. 


The interview has been edited for length.