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Immediate Background

Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope on October 20, 1958, taking as his papal name John XXIII. Given his advanced age of nearly seventy-seven, many presupposed his pontificate would be brief and uneventful. Therefore, his announcement three months later, on January 25, 1959, that he intended to convene an “ecumenical” council—a gathering of all Catholic bishops worldwide—was startling. Such a council had not occurred in eighty years, and before that for over three hundred years. John explained that the council would “be concerned with the condition and modernization (Italian: aggiornamento) of the Church after 20 centuries of life” (Criterion 1961).

In the preparatory years before the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962, the Vatican invited bishops and theologians to submit topics for its consideration. The question of the status of Jews in Catholic theology was raised by hardly anyone. It would take a directive of John XXIII himself to make it a subject of concern for the Council (Connelly 2012, 240; Miccoli 2004, 136-137).

As the Holy See’s delegate in Bulgaria and Turkey during the Second World War, Angelo Roncalli aided thousands of Jews to flee the Nazis, including by providing false baptismal certificates or Vatican visas (Wallenberg). It appears that his experience of Jewish suffering during the Shoah stayed in his mind; mere months after his papal election, on March 21, 1959, he directed that the adjective perfidis—often popularly (though inaccurately) rendered as “perfidious”—be excised from the traditional Good Friday intercession for the Jews. He also extended a familial welcome to American Jewish visitors in October 1960 by saying, “I am Joseph [Giuseppe] your brother,” recalling the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45:3 (Oesterreicher 1986, 108-112).

On June 13, 1960, French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, whose wife, daughter, and son-in-law perished in the Shoah, had a private audience with the pope. He presented his research into what he called the perennial Christian “teaching of contempt” for Jews and requested that the upcoming Council study this issue. In his personal notes, Isaac wrote that he asked Pope John as they parted if he could “carry away a bit of hope.” The pope exclaimed, “You have a right to more than hope,” but cautioned, “What you see here is not an absolute monarchy” (Oesterreicher 1986, 108).

Perhaps the pope’s conversation with Isaac caused the resurfacing of his wartime efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees. Three months later, on September 18, 1960, he instructed Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J., president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to prepare a draft text on the theological relationship of the church to the Jewish people for the Council.

The Initial Development of Nostra Aetate

Bea’s team of writers, which would come to include Gregory Baum, John Oesterreicher, Anton Ramselaar, Leo Rudloff, George Tavard, Thomas Stransky, and additional advisors, soon began their work. They consulted the writings of Schalom Ben Chorin, Renée Bloch, Léon Bloy, Martin Buber, Paul Démann, Jules Isaac, Gertrud Luckner, Jacques Maritain, James Parkes, Charles Péguy, Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Thieme, and many others, some of whom had struggled against both Nazi antisemitism and the effect of the Christian teaching of contempt on their own theologies. They also drew upon post-war statements produced by Christian conferences in Seelisberg (1947), Schwalbach (1950), Evanston (1954), and Apeldoorn (1958). By December 1961, the drafting committee had completed its first draft, entitled Decretum de Iudaeis (Connelly 2012, 174-248; Oesterreicher 1986, 128-158).

The first of many crises that nearly derailed the initiative then occurred. After the World Jewish Congress attempted to appoint an Israeli official as its official observer at the Council, predominantly Muslim nations protested that the Vatican was taking sides in what was then called the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” Concerned about the safety of Christian minorities in those countries, the Council’s Coordinating Commission removed the draft from the agenda of the Council’s first session in the fall of 1962 (Miccoli 2004, 137-138).

During this fraught period, various Jewish leaders provided input to Cardinal Bea. Perhaps most notably, the American Jewish Committee submitted three memoranda for the consideration of his writing team in 1961 and 1962: “The Image of Jews in Catholic Teaching,” by Judith Hershcopf Banki, which drew on a study of Catholic religion textbooks by Rose Thering, O.P.; “Anti-Jewish Elements in Catholic Liturgy,” by Eric Werner, and “On Improving Catholic-Jewish Relations” by the prominent Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

As the drafters labored over the next three years, they struggled with the proper setting for a statement on Jews. Should it be part of the planned constitution on the church, an appendix to a text on Christian ecumenical unity, or a free-standing document? When Pope John died on June 3, 1963, no draft had been placed on the schedule for the Council’s second session that autumn.

Opposition to the envisioned statement arose from both inside and outside the Council. Some bishops resisted changing long-held ideas. Unknown persons distributed antisemitic tractates to the Council fathers. Government entities in several Arab nations engaged in media campaigns against any conciliar statement that cleared “the Jews” of the “crime” of crucifying Jesus (Oesterreicher 1986, 182). Ecclesiastical opponents deployed various parliamentary strategies to table discussion of a possible document (O’Malley 2008, 218-226, 250-252, 275-277).

Pope Paul VI visited the “Holy Land” on January 4-6, 1964. Although he met at Megiddo, Israel with that nation’s president, Zalman Shazar, the word “Israel” was never mentioned because of the “Arab-Israeli” conflict, highly inflamed by the Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. The pontiff said that he was a “pilgrim” motivated only by “spiritual [not political] considerations.” He prayed from the land of the patriarchs and the prophets, “for all people, believers and non-believers alike,” and included “in this prayer the descendants of the ‘People of the Covenant,’ whose role in humanity's religious history could never be forgotten” (Paul VI 1964). His distinction between geopolitics and religious tradition and his affirmation of a Christian covenantal connection with Jews were simultaneously informed by the evolving drafts of Bea’s writers and in return supported the direction of their work. The pope was accompanied by about 400 bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, some of whom had informal contacts with Israeli authorities. According to an internal Israeli foreign ministry memorandum: “A climate of understanding was created around their visits. [...] Israel is no longer ‘out of bounds’ and this direct contact with the upper echelons of the Church will help break down barriers” (Bialer 2005, 84).

Cardinal Bea, with the occasional intervention of John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI, finally succeeded in getting the developing statement “On the Jews” on the agenda of the Council’s third session in the fall of 1964. However, Bea’s secretariat had been dismayed the previous spring to receive from the Coordinating Committee a revision of its latest draft (Miccoli 2004, 144-152). This new text, which the Council would discuss in September and which struck Bea’s team as much weaker than their own, spoke of the church’s “deep longing for the entry of that [Jewish] people into the fullness of the people of God established by Christ.” There was also a sentence implying that Jews in Jesus’ time were accountable for “that which was perpetrated in the Passion of Christ” (Cunningham 2007, 195). The Coordinating Committee’s revision somehow leaked to the media, starting a public controversy in the summer of 1964 as to whether the Catholic church was about to launch a campaign to convert Jews. Rabbi Heschel repeatedly declared to media outlets that he was “ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death” (Connelly 2012, 253).

Meanwhile, the contentious atmosphere back at the Vatican was exacerbated by the ongoing debate over the 1963 play The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy by Rolf Hochhuth. It depicted the wartime Pope Pius XII as silent in the face of the Nazi genocide of Jews, thereby abetting it. The controversy kept the Catholic church’s stance concerning Jews in the public eye (Miccoli 2004, 139-140, 146).

The “Great Debate”

On September 25, 1964, Cardinal Bea presented the Coordinating Committee’s March 1964 draft to the Council during its third session. He began by observing “that public opinion is turning its eyes to the church precisely on this issue and that from the approval or non-approval of this Declaration many will make favorable or unfavorable judgments concerning the Council.” Bea made it clear to the Council fathers that the text before them was not the work of his Secretariat’s writing team. He invited them to suggest improvements (Miccoli 2004, 152-155). Over two dozen prelates spoke on September 28-29 in what is sometimes called the “Great Debate.” Most of them insisted upon an unambiguous call for rapprochement with Jews. Perhaps with the Hochhuth controversy in mind, some asked “How many [of our Jewish brothers] have died because of the indifference of Christians, because of their silence?” A number of speakers warned that any hint of conversionary efforts would “build another high wall separating us from a holy and fruitful dialogue with the Jewish people.” Several bishops urged that the statement positively mention Muslims and “also the numerous families who, like sands on the seashore, fill India, China, Japan, and other countries who follow Confucius or Buddha, or attempt, as it were, to seek to find God under other forms” (Brannon).

As a result of these deliberations, a new draft of a free-standing declaration was prepared, which, according to the conciliar record, avoided “any appearance of proselytism” of Jews and stated, “that Christian hope [...] embraces all peoples” (Acta Syn., III, 8: 648). It also declared that: “All that happened to Christ in His passion cannot be attributed to the whole [Jewish] people then alive, much less to that of today” (Cunningham 2007, 197).

With this post-Great Debate iteration, the final text of what became the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” was substantially achieved. Its theological foundations were enhanced when Paul VI promulgated the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, on November 21, 1964. That text, which as a dogmatic constitution enjoyed even higher authority than the eventual Nostra Aetate declaration, considered how other religions related to the Catholic church: “There is, first, that people to whom the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom 9:4­-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom 11:28-­29)” (Lumen Gentium, §16). That Jews are most dear to God was now firmly enshrined as Catholic magisterial teaching, as Nostra Aetate would reiterate.

Despite its difficult gestation, on October 28, 1965 Nostra Aetate was formally promulgated after an overwhelming vote of 96% ayes and 4% nays (Oesterreicher 1986, 276).

Nostra Aetate’s Theological Perspectives

Unlike many Catholic texts, Nostra Aetate did not open by citing a revealed “deposit of faith” that the church possesses in contrast to all other peoples. By instead positing that all religious traditions seek God in order to answer universal existential questions of the human condition, the declaration situated the church as seeking to promote fellowship and understanding among all peoples. Thus, its second section proceeds to state that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [other] religions [...] [which, while different] often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men and women.” This positive outlook enables the text to speak with reverence and esteem for the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. However, although it discussed all the world’s religions, Nostra Aetate’s largest section, §4, was devoted to “the bond that ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock” because the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is [...] so great.” Its most significant points about the Jewish people and tradition can be summarized as follows:

Nostra Aetate rejected the long-standing claim that Jews lay under a divine malediction for their alleged collective culpability for the crucifixion of Jesus. It admonished that “Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture.” This repudiation of any notion of a divine curse upon Jews for “killing God” was an explicit reversal of the underpinning of the “teaching of contempt” that had been held universally by Christians for centuries.

Nostra Aetate stressed the religious bond and spiritual legacy shared by Jews and Christians. It emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus, his mother, and the early apostles, and recognized Christianity’s debt to biblical Israel.

Nostra Aetate strongly implied that God and Jews abide in covenant down to the present day. If Jews had never been cursed by God, then, in the words of Rom 11:28 (cited the previous year by Lumen Gentium), they must “remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs,” because God is always faithful to God’s promises. The impression that the writers believed that Jewish covenantal life with God continues to be vital is reinforced when one observes that Nostra Aetate rendered an ambiguous Greek phrase in Rom 9:4-5 in the present tense: “They are Israelites and it is for them to be sons and daughters, to them belong the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ” (italics added). The declaration’s strong implication about ongoing Jewish covenantal life has subsequently been made explicit by subsequent Vatican and papal texts, beginning with Pope John Paul II, who referred to Jews as “the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God;” “the present-day people of the covenant concluded with Moses” (1980); and “partners in a covenant of eternal love which was never revoked by God” (1987).

Nostra Aetate deplored “all hatreds, persecutions, [and] displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews at any time or from any source.” While Nostra Aetate did not express remorse for long-standing Christian anti-Jewish teachings, later Catholic documents would acknowledge Christian wrongdoing (John Paul II 1997) and label antisemitism a sin against God and humanity (International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee 1990).

Nostra Aetate stressed the need for accurate biblical interpretation and religious education: “[...] all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.” This sentence introduced a hermeneutical principle for Catholic biblical interpretation that has been further intensified in later documents, as when the Pontifical Biblical Commission wrote in 1993: “Particular attention is necessary, according to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate, 4), to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people” [IV,A,3].

Nostra Aetate called for Catholics and Jews to collaborate in “biblical and theological enquiry and [...] friendly discussions.” This aspiration is a historic turnaround from previous Christian fear of “the spiritual dangers to which contact with Jews can expose souls,” as a never-promulgated 1938 draft text on racism, Humani Generis Unitas had warned (Passelecq/ Suchecky 1997, 252).

Nostra Aetate expressed no interest in baptizing Jews: “Together with the prophets and that same apostle [Paul], the church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder.” This citation of Zephaniah 3:9 was suggested after the Great Debate by John Oesterreicher as the way to resolve the 1964 dispute over whether the Catholic church would continue to seek to convert Jews. He drew upon the theses, with which he had initially disagreed, that had been proposed by his one-time colleague Karl Thieme in 1954 at a World Council of Churches conference in Evanston, Illinois. Sadly, Thieme died in 1963 and did not live to see his constructive theological work bear fruit (Connelly 2012, 253-255).


Of the sixteen documents issued by the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate unquestionably had the greatest impact on Christian-Jewish relations. It is also reasonable to see it as the Council’s most transformative document. As a member of its drafting team stated, “It could be argued, I think, that the Church's recognition of the spiritual status of Jewish religion is the most dramatic example of doctrinal turn-about in the age-old magisterium ordinarium” (Baum 1986, 87). Jewish commentators have called it “revolutionary,” the “Magna Carta” for a new relationship, “unprecedented,” and a “Copernican” paradigm shift (Connelly 2012, 267).

Before the Second Vatican Council, the idea that Jews were divinely cursed was widespread. Almost no one spoke of an ongoing familial relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The history of the Christian “teaching of contempt” was largely unacknowledged, and Catholics were discouraged from entering into dialogue with Jews except perhaps to encourage their baptisms. Nostra Aetate changed all that.

It has also raised profound theological questions about the self-understanding of Christians and Jews in the light of the new relationship Nostra Aetate engendered. These include the nature of interreligious dialogue, the meaning of “covenant,” the relationship of Jewish covenantal life to Christian belief in the universal saving significance of Christ, the particularity of Christian religious claims with regards to general Jewish views of gentiles, the significance of the Land and State of Israel, the history of interactions between Christians and Jews, the identity of baptized Jews in the Jewish and Christian communities, and the nature and limits of Jewish and Christian “complementarity.”


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