How the Catholic Church Forever Changed Jewish Life

It's hard to believe that my grandparents feared being beaten up on Easter for being Jewish. It's hard to believe that those fears were so credible. It's harder still to imagine a Catholic priest saying from the pulpit that Jews should be blamed for Jesus' death. It's nearly impossible to envision a Catholic Church whose clergy could sanction pogroms or the Crusades in which thousands of Jews were slaughtered.

The reason we can't even conceive of such cruelty is in large part because of a radical transformation (or clarification, depending on your viewpoint) that took place 50 years ago today within the Vatican.

On October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI pronounced the following, as part of a broader declaration on "The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions":

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ[...] still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Though this was but one part of one document put forth by the Second Vatican Council, which changed the Catholic Church in innumerable ways, its impact was landmark to the point that most Millennials like me cannot remember a world without it. Since then, multiple popes have apologized for the role of some Catholics in the Holocaust and reached out proactively to the Jewish community and its leaders.

For young Jews to grow up without Catholic friends would be the exception. For young Jews to grow up in fear of Catholics would be practically unheard of.

Fittingly, the declaration that forever changed Jewish-Catholic relations is part of Nostra Aetate, a document that literally means "In Our Time." The document marks the single greatest improvement in interfaith collaboration in history, forever reducing anti-Semitism and creating the framework in which the largest religious institution could improve relations with countless other traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

For me, as a rabbi and millennial, the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate's promulgation evokes an odd mixture of upset and profound gratitude. I feel upset by the lingering question of why a document that changed the course of Jewish and Catholic history took so long to issue. Why wait so many centuries? I am likewise upset that there have been no issuances since from other religious institutions that could possibly rival it in significance. What about Jews and Muslims? Shiites and Sunnis? Hindus and Buddhists? The potential for collaboration is boundless - if only we unbound it, whether through proclamation or other meaningful action.

It likewise evokes the question of what we will do 'in our time' to transform relations between different religious traditions. What accords will we sign or visionary ideas will we put forth to diminish tension between Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists? What language will we find in which to affirm difference without affirming discord?

Most of all, however, I feel grateful. I am so lucky to have grown up with Catholic friends, to have spoken about theology with Catholic colleagues, to regularly attend roundtables with Catholic priests, and to live in a world in which I have never been accused of killing another tradition's holiest being. We are all so lucky that in fifty years the world has changed so much that the surprisingly muted commemorations of Nostra Aetate are an affirmation of progress, rather than an indication of how far we have yet to go.