Conversion Issue Looms Over 40th Anniversary Celebration of Nostra Aetate

VATICAN CITY — Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) is the shortest of the Second Vatican Council's 16 documents, but it has had long-lasting repercussions — particularly in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations.

In his Angelus address Oct. 30, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the declaration, which laid the groundwork for the Church's interreligious dialogue, had set forth “with clarity the special bond that unites Christians with Jews.”

And, in a message read four days earlier to a high-level Rome conference marking the declaration's 40th anniversary, the Holy Father said the Vatican II document “opened up a new era of relations with the Jewish people and offered the basis for a sincere theological dialogue.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and chairman of the Rome conference, summed up Nostra Aetate's achievements as proclaiming the Church's No to anti-Semitism and Yes to the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, and a keynote speaker at the conference, said the “implications” of the document were “truly revolutionary” for Jews.

“A people — formerly viewed at best as a fossil but more often as cursed and condemned to wander and suffer — was now officially portrayed as beloved by God and somehow very much still part of the divine plan for humankind,” he said.

Nostra Aetate is credited for making three important clarifications: a clear disavowal of the ancient charge of deicide (which held Jews collectively responsible for the killing of Christ), a recognition that God does not take back gifts or choices he has made, meaning that the Old Testament Covenant with the Jews remains valid, and an unequivocal rejection of anti-Semitism (or prejudice against Jews).

The result, according to Rabbi Rosen, has been a “sea change in attitudes” among the American Jewish community towards the Catholic Church “to the point where arguably no other religious community is viewed by U.S. Jewry as more important and empathic to its well-being.”


However, the recurring question of whether the Church has an irrevocable mission to convert the Jews clouded the celebration of Nostra Aetate's anniversary. Rome's chief rabbi, Ricardo Di Segni, boycotted the commemoration because of the presence of another keynote speaker and convert from Judaism — Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop emeritus of Paris.

Rabbi Di Segni, a skeptic of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that Nostra Aetate helped foster, said the cardinal's participation was “inappropriate” because it would “celebrate the resolution of the conversion policy.” In comments to the Associated Press, he asked: “What is dialogue? If it means losing one's identity and crossing over to the other side, then it's not dialogue.”

The rabbi's absence was also a response to remarks made by Cardinal Avery Dulles at another commemoration of Nostra Aetate in March, where the American cardinal said it is still “an open question whether the Old Covenant remains in force today.”

In fact, Jews have long harbored concerns about the Church's attitude to Jewish conversions, and contradictory voices from Church leaders have increased the ambiguity. This is partly because Nostra Aetate is primarily a pastoral document, not a doctrinal one, and consequently is regarded as holding little theological weight regarding the conversions question.

Nonetheless, some Catholics engaged in interreligious dialogue have interpreted the document as mandating an end to efforts to convert Jews. In 2002, for example, an unofficial document published through a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” stated that conversion to Christ, baptism and Church membership are no longer theologically acceptable for Jews.

In an article published in America magazine in October 2002, Cardinal Dulles responded that “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” did not “forthrightly present what I take to be the Christian position on the meaning of Christ for Judaism.”

Cardinal Dulles, a theologian at Fordham University, wrote that while Pope John Paul II, in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (the Mission of Christ the Redeemer), “does not ‘target’ Jews in any special way for conversion, he makes no exception for them.

“He simply assumes, as all Christians must, that if Christ is the redeemer of the world, every tongue should confess him,” he added. “If Jesus offers a share in his divine life through the sacraments, all men and women — not excluding Jews — should be invited to the banquet.”

Cardinal Dulles’ views strongly contrast with those of Cardinal Kasper, who has argued that the Church's “mission does not extend to Jews, who already believe in the one true God.”

In a 2002 speech at Boston College, those of Cardinal Kasper said that Jews need not become Christians to be saved “if they follow their own conscience and believe in God's promises as they understand them in their religious tradition.”

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict addressed the same question in his 2000 book God and the World. He wrote that Christians believe Jews should acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah — but should not be forced to do so — and that the Church is waiting for the moment when Jews “will say Yes to Christ.”

Clarity Requested

Such differing signals led Rabbi Rosen to call at the Rome conference for “a clear reaffirmation of the magisterium in this regard.” Without this, he said, “there will remain not only an unhealthy ambiguity in our relationship, but we will continue to have to deal with unfortunate and unnecessary tensions regarding motives, including the presence and role of specific personalities in the Church whose background is particularly pertinent to this relationship.”

Catholic and Jewish scholars agree the issue is key to moving forward in dialogue.

“This presents us with the first major obstacle as we move beyond the past 40 years,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of Interfaith Affairs at the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League. “Each faith tradition must grapple with the validity of the other.”

Still, even though tensions are likely to persist, Cardinal Lustiger underlined the importance of Christians and Jews in building social unity, respect and providing care for the weakest. And he expressed hope that both religions would allow their differences to “become a goad for reaching — carefully and obediently — ever deeper into the mystery of which we are joint heirs.”

(CNS contributed to this report.) Edward Pentin writes from Rome.