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George Alan Baumgarten

50 Years of Nostra Aetate: U.N. Marks Landmark Vatican Accord

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, January 24, 2016


It seems almost forgotten in our new and violent century. And it is easy to discount its overwhelming importance. But the Vatican accord with world Jewry—called Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time…”) for its opening words, was a radical departure from past history, and a critical template for the Vatican’s relations with all of the world’s other religious communities.


The entire effort to write and promulgate Nostra Aetate had been an outgrowth of the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958, on the death of his predecessor Pope Pius XII. Archbishop of Venice when elected, John XXIII—born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli—had been Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria and Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece during World War II. As such, he is regarded as one of those responsible for the unusually low death rate among Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust. Roncalli was also involved in an almost incredible list of efforts: saving Jews, liberating them from Concentration Camps, and other humanitarian acts.


In 1962, Pope John convened an “Ecumenical Council” at the Vatican which came to be known as the Second Vatican Council (The name harkens back to the First Vatican Council, called by Pope Pius IX in 1868-‘70. ). It was this Second Council that produced the document known as Nostra Aetate. The effort was originally quite controversial, and had several false starts and frustrated efforts. And it was somewhat delayed by the death of Pope John XXIII, and the election of his successor, Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan. But finally, on 28 October 1965—just 24 days after his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations—the encyclical was proclaimed by the new Pope, Paul VI.


The encyclical Nostra Aetate says that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers”, and that “…the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures”. Furthermore, it notes that “…the Church…decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone”. This correspondent well remembers the feeling then prevalent that the encyclical would remove the major source of anti-Semitism in the world. It did, only to have the hatred increase—albeit from different sources.


 The Papal Observer at the U.N., Archbishop Bernardito Auza, moderated the panel on Nostra Aetate, held in the U.N.’s Economic & Social Council Chamber. He opened the program, noting that we have now seen “50 years of strengthening friendship”.


Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, speaking by video from London, noted that Pope John XXIII had read the works of the Franco-Jewish historian Jules Isaac, and had met with Isaac. Isaac—whose wife and daughter were killed in Auschwitz and whose son barely escaped death—had discussions with the future Pope and had a strong influence on his thinking, particularly as regards anti-Semitism. Rabbi Sacks noted that Nazism had essentially Pagan roots, but that it is always possible to “change the course of history”.


Bernard-Henri Levy, the French Jewish philosopher and public intellectual, noted—in a private conversation with this correspondent—that politicians who speak against particular ethnic groups and seek to exclude them, can trace their methodology of hatred to the right-wing Le Pens in France, to other noted demagogues, and ultimately “straight back to Adolf Hitler”. Levy said that Nostra Aetate—described as the “shortest but toughest” encyclical--was the product of a tough and protracted process, and inspired much controversy and opposition. But he asserted that that the process is still ongoing, and that in that process Jews have common cause with their Muslim brothers. As a “secular but proud Jew”, Bernard-Henri Levy has become one of the major voices for Jewish pride and strength in the world today. His remarks were a fitting coda to this celebration of Nostra Aetate, and its now half century of Catholic-Jewish friendship.


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