Jesuit examines history, impact of ‘Nostra Aetate’ in Fordham lecture

BRONX, N.Y. (CNS) — Despite its brevity, “Nostra Aetate” marks a starting point for dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews that must be continued into the future, according to speakers at Jesuit-run Fordham University.

“Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”), the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the Catholic Church’s relations with non-Christian religions, was the shortest of 16 documents promulgated by Blessed Paul VI in 1965.

Jesuit Father Patrick J. Ryan examined its history and impact in the annual fall McGinley lecture he delivered 11 November Father Ryan is the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham.

Father Ryan said “Nostra Aetate” was intended as a statement on the Catholic Church’s relation to Jews, but ultimately included “a relatively brief passage about Muslims and a vaguer paragraph about Hindus and Buddhists and the adherents of other religious traditions.”

St. John XXIII, who convened the council in 1962, was inspired and encouraged by French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, whose family perished at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Isaac asked the pope in 1960 to issue an authoritative rejection of Christian and Catholic anti-Semitic thought, Father Ryan said.

To shape the statement, Isaac collaborated with Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German Jesuit, and what was then the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, established in June 1960.

Father Ryan said “Nostra Aetate” is a theological document written for Catholics by people who understood it would be examined by Jews “to see how it treats them and their faith.” It echoes another Vatican II document, “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which recognized the historical understanding of the “unique priority of the Jews” over Gentiles in faith.

In “Nostra Aetate,” “19 centuries of Gentile-Christian hatred of Jews as enemies of Jesus, himself a Jew, are here clearly renounced. Instead of promoting a mission to convert Jews, something not unknown in Catholic history, even as recently as the 19th century, the church from the time of Vatican II takes a different attitude towards Jews, looking forward to ‘that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice,’” Father Ryan said.

This passage is currently understood to mean “the church offers its message about Jesus to all of humankind, not excluding Jews, but with due deference paid to the fact that the covenants offered by God to Abraham and his descendants have lost none of their import for Jews,” he said.

In addition, “Nostra Aetate” stressing the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews stems from an understanding by scholars and historians that geographic varieties of Judaism and Christianity “mutually enriched each other’s histories.”

Father Ryan said the Jewishness of Jesus, his disciples and most of the New Testament authors should be emphasized in the present day to help people understand the Gospels and the events they describe. The disciples remained Jews and were neither “convert Jews” nor “former Jews,” he said.

“Nostra Aetate” considers Islam a post-Jewish, post-Christian phenomenon that does not have the same organic relationship to Christianity that Judaism does, Father Ryan said. Nonetheless, the relationship among the three is genuine, long-standing, not always peaceful, not always hostile and includes some of the same “ancestors in faith, even if their understandings of those ancestors may sometimes differ,” he said.

The seemingly bland statement in “Nostra Aetate” that “the church regards with esteem also the Muslims” is a dramatic reversal from earlier prayers that considered Islam a religion of idolatry, Father Ryan said.

Despite many differences, the common expectation of Christians and Muslims for the rising of the dead on a day of judgment “serves as a link between Christian and Islamic teaching,” he said.

There is a long history of tension between Christians and Muslims. It has sometimes involved Jews, especially since the creation of the State of Israel, Father Ryan said. There are also examples of places where Muslims and Christians have lived together for a long time.

“Nostra Aetate,” “especially its section on the faith of Muslims, marks a starting point for the process of dialogue between Christians and Muslims — perhaps even among Jews, Christians and Muslims — that must be continued today and tomorrow for the sake of humankind and for the glory of God,” he concluded.

The McGinley lecture was delivered twice at Fordham, at the Manhattan campus 10 November and the Bronx campus 11 November.

Each time, Father Ryan’s address was followed by responses from Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies at Fordham and Hussein Rashid, adjunct professor of religious studies at Hofstra University. The moderator was Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, a former executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He served in the post from 2005 to 2011.

Teter said “Nostra Aetate” is a milestone that “represents, in a complex way, both continuity and change.”

By encouraging an honest examination of the Jewish-Christian past, and opening “dialogue rather than polemic,” “Nostra Aetate” helped spur new scholarship that resulted in nuanced studies of Jewish and Christian cultures and relations between the two groups, she said.

Rashid said Pope Francis is the embodiment of the promise of “Nostra Aetate.” This includes a challenge to reject the worst parts of the world, commit to a vision of a more peaceful society and listen carefully to one another to achieve transformation.

Bishop Massa said Pope Francis’ spontaneous embrace with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Imam Khalid Latif 25 September at the 9/11 Memorial in New York was “an unspoken word that continues the dialogue of ‘Nostra Aetate’ into the future.”

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