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Moving the Christian-Jewish Dialogue to a New Level: Can it Happen?

March 19, 2015

by Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski
Originally published in 2008 in Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations
In an address to the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1986 the Canadian theologian Gregory Baum, who served as an expert at Vatican Council II and worked on the Council document Nostra Aetate, argued that “the Church’s recognition of the spiritual status of the Jewish religion is the most dramatic example of doctrinal turn-about in the age-old magisterium ordinarium to occur at the Council.” For centuries Western Christian theology, beginning with that of most of the major second century Church Fathers, was infected with a viewpoint which saw the Church as replacing “old” Israel in the covenantal relationship with God. This replacement theology relegated Jews to a miserable and marginal status which could be overcome only through conversion.
Nostra Aetate, together with many parallel Protestant documents, fundamentally changed Christianity’s theological posture relative to Jews and Judaism that had permeated its theology, art, and pastoral practice for nearly eighteen hundred years. Jews were now to be seen as integral to the ongoing divine covenant. Jesus and early Christianity were portrayed as deeply rooted in a constructive sense in the religiosity of Second Temple Judaism (particularly its Pharisaic branch). Jews were not to be held collectively accountable for the death of Jesus. Vatican II did not “forgive” Jews of the so-called crime of deicide as some newspaper headlines proclaimed.
Rather it argued that there existed no basis for such a charge in the first place. Certainly the past four decades have seen substantial, even monumental, changes in the way Christians present Jews and Judaism in their educational materials, in understanding and combating anti-Semitism, and in incorporating the reality of the Shoah into their religious consciousness. Though the situation is quite different in terms of Jewish perceptions of Christianity, there is no question that many Jews now look far more positively on the Church. The Christian-Jewish relationship today differs greatly from what it was fifty years ago. We must not lose sight of this new reality as we ask what developments are still needed and what obstacles still remain as we prepare to move to the next level in our relationship.
An initial step that must be taken if the thrust of Nostra Aetate, §4 is to be advanced is determined opposition to those forces attempting to vitiate the fundamental theological significance of this Council statement on the Church and the Jewish People. Current voices, primarily within conservative circles in Rome, are arguing that Nostra Aetate was only a “pastoral document” with no theological implications. The undiluted nonsense of this position must be made clear. In its utter reversal of the classical Christian view of the Jewish People’s covenantal exclusion after the coming of Christ, a view that had significant impact on the Church’s articulation of Christology, Nostra Aetate cannot be seen as anything but theological. To say otherwise is to radically distort the vision of Vatican II.
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Published with the author’s permission.