Catholic Church, Jewish community celebrate 50 years of improving relations

The prejudice, hatred and violence suffered over centuries because of one belief — “the Jews killed Christ” — is incalculable.

Perhaps you have heard it stated as a matter of fact, something learned as part of a Christian education or used as a curse — “Christ-killer” — directed at an individual Jew or the Jewish people in general.

Not until 50 years ago did the Catholic Church, which accounts for half the world’s Christians, acknowledge and repudiate this aspect of its history and doctrine.

On Oct. 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI put into effect a relatively brief document, approved 2,221-88 by bishops participating the Second Vatican Council. In English, it was the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church With Non-Christian Religions.”

In Latin, it was called Nostra Aetate: “In Our Time.”

By 2015 standards, the language in Nostra Aetate feels mild and understated. What’s not included in its 1,600 words is as noteworthy as what is.

A look back is necessary to understand what made Nostra Aetate groundbreaking and why Atlanta’s Jewish and Catholic communities will mark its 50th anniversary together.

In 1965, World War II was just 20 years past, and debate continued over whether Pope Pius XII had done all within his power to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

Israel, founded in the wake of the Holocaust, was 17 years old and had fought two wars with its Arab neighbors.

Five years earlier, the United States had elected a Catholic president for the first time.

Cantor Lauren Furman Adesnik listens while Rabbi Scott Colbert speaks to a gathering of Catholics and Jews held at Temple Emanu-El in May in honor of Nostra Aetate.

Cantor Lauren Furman Adesnik listens while Rabbi Scott Colbert speaks to a gathering of Catholics and Jews held at Temple Emanu-El in May in honor of Nostra Aetate.

The civil rights movement was challenging the status quo in America, and within a few years the existing order in nations around the world would be targeted by a younger generation.

Nostra Aetate represented change. The church now allowed that truths could be found in other religions. The Jews as a people no longer were to be blamed for the death of Christ. Anti-Semitism was rejected as having any support from church doctrine. Though not directly addressed, efforts to convert Jews eased.

These are the basics of what will be celebrated Wednesday, Oct. 28, at the Ferst Center for the Arts in an event co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.

For Catholic and Jewish clergy and communal leaders, the atmosphere created by Nostra Aetate was as important as its substance.

“We have in this event an opportunity to praise G-d for the reset button that Nostra Aetate was for Jews and Catholics the world over,” Archbishop Wilton Daniel Gregory said during an interview in his office at the Smyrna headquarters of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “From my perspective, it depends on the part of the world that you’re living in. I am very proud and very encouraged by the level of dialogue, friendship, interaction, collaboration that we in Atlanta have with our Jewish brothers and sisters. It could be strengthened. It should be strengthened. I hope it will be strengthened. But I give great thanks for its intensity and its vibrancy today.”

“We are celebrating what we’ve gone through as a community,” said Dov Wilker, the Southeast regional director of the AJC. “In 1965, nobody thought this was possible. This was not something people thought would ever happen, that there would be any sort of apology, any sort of condemnation of anti-Semitism, any sort of idea that there would be a positive relationship between the Catholic Church and … while they say other non-Christian religions, for us it’s about the Jewish community. That’s one thing we are celebrating; that’s how far we have been able to come.”

Another, Wilker said, is “how we hope things will continue in a positive manner.”

The event will feature remarks by Archbishop Gregory and Rabbi James Rudin, the AJC’s senior adviser on interreligious affairs and founder of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University.

The program will include performances by the Amazing Grace Dance Company and a dance troupe from the Weber School.

“We are proud and honored that the Weber School, represented by our student dance team, will participate in this important event that recognizes the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a breakthrough in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Weber’s head of school.

Three choirs will participate. One is composed of students from the Davis Academy (Jewish) and the Marist School (Catholic). The schools have an ongoing relationship: Their eighth-graders participate in interfaith dialogue and community service projects.

“The song that will be sung at the Nostra event is an original song that I wrote based on the teaching ‘Hinei Mah Tov.’ The song was recorded on a Davis Academy album, and the recorded version has kids from both schools. The song was inspired by the interfaith partnership and the goals that it aspires to,” said Rabbi Micah Lapidus, Davis’ director of Jewish and Hebrew studies.

“I am very proud and very encouraged by the level of dialogue, friendship, interaction, collaboration that we in Atlanta have with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory says.

“I am very proud and very encouraged by the level of dialogue, friendship, interaction, collaboration that we in Atlanta have with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory says.

One of two adult choirs combines singers from the Zimria Festivale Atlanta, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Beth Tikvah, Congregation Beth Shalom and The Temple. This Jewish ensemble, performing a “Hinei Mah Tov” medley and “Hallelujah (Psalm 150),” is organized and conducted by Cantor Lauren Furman Adesnik of Temple Emanu-El and Zimria director and conductor Amy Thropp.

The third choir, performing “Ubi Caritas,” features singers from All Saints Catholic Church and the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception under the direction of Donal P. Noonan and Bernie Sotola.

The adult choirs will join to sing “The Lord Is My Light” and “We Are Marching.”

Veteran Atlanta theater director Mira Hirsch and actor Chris Moses are directing a theatrical presentation titled “More Than Hope,” in which four actors — Moses, Clayton Landey, Pamela Gold Alexander and Kathleen McManus — will read excerpts from Nostra Aetate along with the words of historical figures and members of the committee planning the event.

“We need to know our history as Jews in relation to other religious and cultural communities … to know why the Nostra Aetate was necessary,” said Hirsch, a member of The Temple. “We didn’t always have this collegial relationship because of ideas within the church that led to a lot of misunderstanding.”

Its anniversary aside, Nostra Aetate is little known or discussed in the Jewish community.

“This is a tremendous success that we take for granted,” Wilker said. “My hope is that by educating more people about it, they will be more thoughtful about our relationships with other denominations and other religions and why are we able to have interfaith, interreligious dialogue with all of these groups.”

When work began on Nostra Aetate as part of the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, it was envisioned as a document clarifying the church’s position toward the Jewish people.

The AJC was involved from the outset in discreet conversations with church officials. A key participant was the scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

An early draft was titled “Decree on the Jews,” but by the time the document was completed, it had been expanded to reference Catholic relations with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

The title “In Our Time” was meant to show that the church wanted to set a marker with the document’s promulgation and move forward from that point, said Cory Labrecque, co-director of Catholic studies at Emory University.

Nostra Aetate reminds that the church of the Second Vatican Council was reading the signs of the time — civil rights movements, heightened attention to injustice and inequality of many kinds, the resurgence of globalization in the shadow of World War II, etc. — as an indication that there was pressing need for an aggiornamento,” or bringing up to date, said Labrecque, the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in bioethics and religious thought and the director of the master’s program in bioethics at the Emory Center for Ethics.

In the 600 words of its fourth section, Nostra Aetate speaks of the ties between people of the “New Covenant,” meaning Christians, and “Abraham’s stock,” the Jews.

In the sixth paragraph of this section, the document addresses the core issue: responsibility for the death of Jesus.

“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 G-d, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by G-d, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures,” Nostra Aetate declares.

Rabbi Analia Bortz, who says Nostra Aetate opened a “new concept of reconciliation between Jews and Christians,” speaks at a forum on anti-Semitism held at the United Nations in August.

Rabbi Analia Bortz, who says Nostra Aetate opened a “new concept of reconciliation between Jews and Christians,” speaks at a forum on anti-Semitism held at the United Nations in August.

Then comes the statement on anti-Semitism: “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.”

Nostra Aetate “introduced a new concept of reconciliation between Jews and Christians. We call it in Hebrew an opportunity to teshuvah, the opportunity of redemption,” Rabbi Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Hadash said when she spoke Aug. 11 to a forum on anti-Semitism held at the United Nations in New York.

Rabbi Bortz ticked off a list of anti-Semitic incidents from history to make her point. “Unfortunately, throughout history, hatred and bigotry have been based on ignorance. Once again, ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate breeds violence.”

Groundbreaking as it was, Nostra Aetate includes much with which Jews could find fault:

  • It contains no mea culpa (“through my fault” in Latin), no apology, for injuries suffered by the Jews over two millennia.
  • The word “deicide” is not used in removing collective blame for Jesus’ death.
  • There is no mention of Israel. (The Vatican did not formally recognize Israel until 1993. Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000.)
  • There is no mention of the Holocaust, even though Christian theology was twisted to provide a religious underpinning to the Nazis’ effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Nostra Aetate was an acknowledgment of past wrongs and reflected a desire to recast Catholic thinking about the Jews, Labrecque said. “Although this is not an apology for wrongdoing, neglect, passivity, silence or failure by ‘the sons and daughters of the church,’ especially in ‘the hour of darkness,’ that we would see with St. Pope John Paul II’s reflection of the Shoah in 1998, the declaration affirms abhorrence for ‘persecutions … directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,’ actions that are ultimately ‘foreign to the mind of Christ.’ ”

Archbishop Gregory recalled a meeting in Rome a few years ago at which he represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was clear that responding to the Holocaust remained a sensitive issue, “especially in the European countries, where the Holocaust took place and where there are still people, elderly people, people who are the family members and survivors of the Holocaust, where the hurt is still too present.”

Archbishop Gregory offered a different perspective on the issue of apologizing for historical wrongs.

“I sit here talking to you as a Jew, as a Catholic. But I want to switch hats. I’m now an African-American man, and you’re a Caucasian man,” he said. “My people endured slavery, and so the question is how do we look at our past, acknowledge it, and what constitutes an appropriate mea culpa. … We certainly do have to apologize. … For example, in the Jubilee year of 2000, John Paul II did speak of the sin of anti-Semitism that has pervaded Christianity too long.”

In Nostra Aetate, anti-Semitism is “decried.” Stronger language came in October 1974, when the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews issued guidelines for implementing Nostra Aetate, affirming “that the spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism condemn (as opposed to the very spirit of Christianity) all forms of anti-Semitism and discrimination.”

Cleared of Christ Killing: 50 Years Later 4

“In 1965, nobody thought this was possible,” AJC Atlanta Director Dov Wilker says.

Nostra Aetate neither disavowed nor endorsed efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.

The document states that “the Church awaits that day, known to G-d alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’ ”

Archbishop Gregory acknowledged that conversion remains a touchy subject. “The policy on conversion would be this,” he said. “That we as Catholics respect the religious heritage and faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters. However, as Catholics, we also accept our responsibility, as followers of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that faith and to announce it. So that, while we can talk to each other, we have to talk to each other both from the conviction of our faith in Christ and in respect to the Jewish community that we see as our elder brothers and sisters. … For some Catholics, the issue of respecting the religious heritage and covenantal relationship that Jews have with the Lord, it confuses them. That we can’t speak of Christ? Of course we can speak of Christ. And we must speak of Christ and His salvific role we believe as redeemer, but simultaneously respecting that unique relationship that our Jewish brothers and sisters have with the Lord as his first chosen people.”

As chairman of its Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Gregory was a signatory to an Oct. 2, 2009, “Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue,” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It clarified, in response to concerns voiced by Jewish leaders, that “Jewish-Catholic dialogue, one of the blessed fruits of the Second Vatican Council, has never been and will never be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism — nor is it a disguised invitation to baptism.”

Nostra Aetate remains controversial with Catholics who feel it retreated from the tradition of proselytizing to all non-Christians, regardless of their beliefs. The idea that any non-Christian, particularly the Jews (given their role in Jesus’ death), would be exempt rankles conservative Catholics, who claim, most often citing the Gospel of Matthew, that Nostra Aetate violates Scripture holding that Jews are to be rejected by G-d.

Also troubling for Jews is the reference to the people of the “New Covenant,” as if it supersedes the “old” covenant of the Jewish people with G-d.

Labrecque said this “New Covenant” should not be interpreted to mean the Old Testament is a mere prologue to the New Testament, a case of “out with the old, in with the new.”

“It does refer to what St. John Paul II said in a very forceful way, that G-d does not rescind His covenant. That’s post-Nostra Aetate,” the archbishop said. “What John Paul II said is that G-d is faithful to his covenant. Now, from a Catholic point of view, we look at that and say, yes, that G-d has committed himself to His people, but from our perspective as Catholics, as Christians, we believe that there is a covenant that He established in Christ, which will be completed in time without the violation of the earlier covenant. They will come to a reconciliation that is respectful of the initial promise.”

While Nostra Aetate as a statement of policy applies to more than 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, it does not apply to the 1.1 billion non-Catholic Christians.

Davis Academy Rabbi Micah Lapidus will direct children from the Davis Academy and Marist School in a performance of his version of “Hinei Mah Tov,” which they also sing together on the Davis CD “A Palace in Time.”

Davis Academy Rabbi Micah Lapidus will direct children from the Davis Academy and Marist School in a performance of his version of “Hinei Mah Tov,” which they also sing together on the Davis CD “A Palace in Time.”

“Catholicism has a well-developed theological history, as does Judaism. Some of the other Christian traditions, born out of a political, social structure that is not as historically long as Catholicism, may not look at that heritage and look at that reality in the same way. … Not all Catholics have reached that,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Wilker credits the church with reach beyond its realm. “Nostra Aetate influenced the other mainline Protestant denominations. By their condemnation of anti-Semitism, it is sort of helping the larger tent of the Christian community.”

Even with Nostra Aetate, long-held beliefs can be resistant to change.

A survey done in October 2013 by the Anti-Defamation League (1,200 Americans contacted by telephone) found that 26 percent of respondents believed that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, down from 31 percent in 2011.

Catholics, like Jews, have experienced prejudice in the South. Both were targets of the Ku Klux Klan, reconstituted in 1915 by some of those who took part in the lynching of Leo Frank.

“There’s something that we as Catholics and Jews in Atlanta share. We’re both minorities in a largely Protestant environment,” Archbishop Gregory said. “We were living in a world where we were clearly a minority presence, and so that kind of drove us together. We were kind of comrades of arms in a number of ways, including living in segregated times.”

Monsignor Henry Gracz of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, who this year celebrated his 50th year in the priesthood, told the Georgia Bulletin, an archdiocese newspaper, that the relationship forged during the 1960s between Atlanta’s first archbishop, Paul Hallinan, and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of The Temple, based on mutual support of the civil rights movement, created a foundation for Jewish-Catholic ties that endures today.

On a national basis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began informal conversations with the Jewish community in 1966, the year after Nostra Aetate was issued. The connection was formalized in 1977 with the start of biannual meetings with the Synagogue Council of America, which represented the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.

A decade later, separate dialogue tracks were created between the bishops and what became the National Council of Synagogues (representing the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements) and with the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America (representing Orthodox Judaism).

Archbishop Gregory served for a time as the bishop conference’s moderator in dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues.

He said his predecessors “have been sitting down at the table of fellowship and friendship for a long time. And it doesn’t mean that every conversation is smooth and without bumps, but it’s like an old friendship. The older the friendship is, the more capable it is of enduring bumps and disagreements. A new friendship is still rather fragile, and so the dialogue partners are kind of eyeing each other up, but after 50 years and more they’ve laid a solid foundation.”

According to the most recent numbers from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life, those 1.1 billion Catholics are 16 percent of the total global population. Jews are 0.2 percent.

An estimated 50.9 million Catholics make up 20.8 percent of the U.S. population, while 5.7 million Jews are 1.9 percent, according to the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center.

In the state of Georgia, 9 percent of the population is Catholic, and 1 percent is Jewish, compared with evangelical Protestants at 38 percent, mainline white Protestants at 12 percent and historically black Protestants at 17 percent.

According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s 2006 community study, an estimated 120,000 Jews live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, about 2.5 percent of the 10-county metro population.

The archdiocese covers an area of 69 counties, encompassing north and much of central Georgia, while the extended province of the archbishop also includes the dioceses of Charleston, Savannah, Raleigh and Charlotte.

There was a time when the Jewish and Catholic populations of the Atlanta area were similar. In 1960, the Jewish population was estimated at 14,500, and a year earlier the number of Catholics was pegged at more than 24,400. By 1980, when the Jewish population had increased to 27,500, there were nearly 100,000 Catholics. A decade later, there were some 160,000 Catholics, compared with a 1992 estimate of 70,000 Jews.

The greatest growth in the Catholic population has come in the past decade, from an estimated 368,100 in 2006 to some 1.1 million today, spurred by an influx of immigrants. An estimated 11 percent of Atlanta-area residents now are Catholic. According to the archdiocese, an estimated 45 percent of local Catholics are Hispanic and 36 percent are non-Hispanic and white, with the remaining 19 percent African-American, Asian, Pacific Rim and other ethnicities.

The 67-year-old Gregory was installed as archbishop of Atlanta in January 2005, his appointment having been announced in December 2004 by Pope John Paul II. His previous pastoral post was as the bishop of Belleville, Ill. He served as the president of the bishop conference for three years, beginning in November 2001, a challenging period that included the burgeoning scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Of Catholic-Jewish relations locally, he said: “From my humble experience, I’d like to say they are good; they’re thriving. I wish they were richer. Because it’s one thing for me as the archbishop to speak with my dialogue partners in the Jewish community. It’s another thing for the local communities, for the local pastor and the local rabbi to know each other and to be friends. So the dialogue exists on that official level of the official authorities and then on the local level of the neighbors and the local pastors.”

An example of the latter would be a program held in May when about 150 members of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation in Sandy Springs, hosted clergy and about 100 parishioners of nearby All Saints for a program that was educational and social.

“When it came down to answering questions, I think that what confused the Catholic community was the sectionalism in the Jewish community. I made it very clear that this was a Reform congregation,” Rabbi Scott Colbert said.

“Likewise, our people were taken aback because they see Catholics in a very monolithic way and came to find that there are both liberal and conservative Catholics and that there is some variation within the church and the practices of the church,” Rabbi Colbert said.

“Hopefully, out of this there will be greater cooperation between religious denominations to solve some of the social issues in our communities,” he said.

Nostra Aetate was only one part of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council.

Among the most noteworthy were that priests began celebrating Mass in the languages of the country where they served (rather than in Latin), priests faced their congregations (leading to greater interaction with worshippers), and many nuns exchanged their habits for civilian clothing. At the same time, Catholic clergy in the United States engaged publicly, often risking arrest, in such issues as the rights of African-Americans and workers and against the war in Vietnam.

A history written for the AJC of discussions that led to Nostra Aetate explained how the document came to be extended beyond Catholic-Jewish relations to include, in particular, Muslims.

“For many Arab leaders, any demonstrative sign of consideration on the part of the Church toward the Jews would be tantamount to an expression of support for the State of Israel, which had been established only fifteen years before the launch of Vatican II,” Gary Spruch wrote in “Wide Horizons: Abraham Joshua Heschel, AJC, and the Spirit of Nostra Aetate.”

“During the course of Vatican II, the pressure from these groups was very real, and included the distribution to participants, on a few occasions, of viciously anti-Semitic literature. In addition, the government of Gamal Abdul Nasser, then president of Egypt, was busy spreading the message that a ‘world Zionist plot’ had been hatched to take advantage of Vatican II.”

In the third section of the document, preceding the part dealing with the Jews, Nostra Aetate declares that “over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”

A single reference is made to Hinduism and Buddhism, emphasizing areas of mutuality, as with the Jews and Muslims, rather than points of difference or conflict (such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades).

Asked to identify one of those “bumps” that remain in the wider Catholic-Jewish relationship, Archbishop Gregory pointed to the Middle East. “I think it would be our evaluation of the situation in Israel with the Palestinians and the Israeli government because many of the Palestinians, or some of the Palestinians, are Christian. And so we’ve got to keep talking to each other about how we can respect Israel’s right to a national identity as well as the rights of the Palestinian people to a homeland. That’s a big bump.”

Even 50 years later, the perspectives of the Jewish and Catholic communities differ when it comes to Nostra Aetate.

“It’s more a perspective of how we work within our religions. As a Jewish community, we reflect a lot because we have a lot to reflect on, and we have had all of our experiences,” Wilker said. “My perception of the Catholic Church is that they, and in Catholicism as a whole, it’s more about looking forward, and while there is reflection, it’s reflection to look forward, where in the Jewish community we reflect to understand, to think. That’s a very big difference between how we view things.”

“The way we as Jews view this post-Nostra Aetate world is a little different than our Catholic counterparts,” theater director Hirsch said. “While we all view it as a wonderful era in the relationship,” the Catholic institutional focus is on the present and future, whereas the Jews cannot help but look back “to understand the significance of where we are now.”

One aspect of where we are now is with Pope Francis, who is known for having had warm relations with the Jewish community in his native Argentina.

During the pope’s recent trip to the United States, his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina was in Philadelphia for the dedication of a statue, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” at St. Joseph’s University, designed to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate as a repudiation of anti-Semitism.

Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at St. Joseph’s to bless the statue. On the pedestal of the statue are his words: “There exists a rich complementarity between the Church and the Jewish people that allows us to help one another mine the riches of G-d’s word.”

What: Nostra Aetate celebration

Where: Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive, Midtown, on the Georgia Tech campus

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28

Tickets: $15 plus $4 in service fees; peotest.ad.gatech.edu/PEO/show.asp