“It is important that the priests have good relations with the Jews. If you are an anti-Semite, you cannot be ordained. It is against the teaching of the Church, of ‘Nostra Aetate’,” Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer said, referring to the document which is a key part of the Second Vatican Council agreements on interreligious collaboration. He concluded: “If you don’t agree, you can’t be a priest.
Cardinal Ladaria made the comments to a delegation of 20 rabbis and Jewish leaders (including myself) from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which visited the Vatican this week for a biannual meeting of the International Conference on leadership. For Cardinal Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this was perfectly obvious. For us, it remained a marvel. Cardinal Ladaria leads the arm of the Vatican that led the Inquisition, which from the 15th century persecuted Jews for hundreds of years. He is one of many colleagues who expressed similar sentiments to us during our visit, often speaking in glowing terms about the commonalities of our religions.
Until the Second Vatican Council, and in particular the 1965 conciliar document “Nostra Aetate,” a statement on the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, such comments were rare. But after years of soul-searching in the aftermath of the Holocaust and after years of private meetings with Jewish leaders, the Catholic Church has not only moved away from language blaming generations of Jews for the death of Jesus, but towards a pure and systematic philo-Semitism. It has since become a source of protection for Jewish communities, with some shortcomings, but overall there has been institutional change to a degree that is hard to imagine.
The Jewish revival in the United States may well be due in part to a miracle of the Catholic Church.
The Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which oversees Vatican policy with the Jewish community, sits on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; this structure implies that, in every sense, the Jews are brothers in faith. Cardinal Kurt Koch, a leading Catholic theologian who chairs the commission, meets regularly with his Jewish counterparts around the world, as he did once again on June 27.
Our meetings with key Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, took place in an atmosphere of long-standing friendship. We communicated as siblings who had overcome rivalry and now enjoy our common parentage.
Pope Francis himself considers Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the former chief rabbi of Argentina, as one of his closest friends, thought partners and confidants. His condemnation of anti-Semitism as “neither Christian nor humane” helped vulnerable Jewish communities. (Our delegation missed meeting with Pope Francis this week, who had to cancel his minute with us due to knee pain, but our group has met him several times in the past.)
Pope Emeritus Benedict remained in active theological dialogue with his Jewish counterparts even after his tenure as head of the Church ended. Closer to home, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops maintains close ties with the National Council of Synagogues, co-hosting regular meetings and dialogues and working actively to combat anti-Semitism.
We communicated as siblings who had overcome rivalry and now enjoy our common parentage.
There is a direct link between these signs of profound change and the continued expressions of philo-Semitism within the Catholic Church and a revival of Jewish life taking place in the Jewish community of the United States. For the first time in millennia, the Jewish community can define itself in positive terms, rather than being defined primarily by external hostility. Our population is growing, supported by a growing number of converts; and despite persistent anti-Semitism, the Jewish community is consistently identified in Pew polls as the most valued religious community in the United States. Jewish organizations struggle not because of their failures, but because of their incredible success in helping our population to acculturate and prosper.
It would be hard to imagine this efflorescence of American Jewry without the world’s largest religious organization delegitimizing anti-Semitism and making it obvious that Jews are a beloved part of a larger religious family. The Jewish revival in the United States may well be due in part to a miracle of the Catholic Church.
Jewish and Catholic leaders would do well to safeguard this progress together. Not all current leaders know ‘Nostra Aetate’ so welllike their ancestors a generation ago in either of our communities, suggesting that there is potential for setbacks in the years to come. This may be especially true if future Catholic leaders are not as familiar with the Second Vatican Council or are not personally connected to the Jewish community like Pope Francis or members of the curia our delegation met.
“Nostra Aetate” should become a staple of the curriculum in Jewish and Catholic schools, especially in seminaries where priests and rabbis are trained. It must become a case study in reconciliation, peacebuilding and overcoming the polarization that plagues our society. As Pope Francis conveyed to our delegation this week, through Cardinal Koch, “interreligious dialogue is a privileged path for the growth of fraternity and peace in our world.” And this brotherhood and this peace can combat religious and political extremism.
If “Nostra Aetate” meant “in our time” sixty years ago, we should mean it in our time too.