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The 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate: The Past, Present and Future of the Christian-Jewish Relationship

2015 International Conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews | Rome, Italy, 28 June – 1 July, 2015

Dr Raymond Canning, Executive Secretary of the Bishops Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations, meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Towards the very end of the final session of the Second Vatican Council, the document Nostra Aetate, the “Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions,” received definitive approval from the Council Fathers meeting in Rome.

At the heart of the declaration is the relationship of the Church to the Jewish people, “the descendants of Abraham” (NA 4).

As the Jewish French historian Jules Isaac had demonstrated in his book The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism, Christians had throughout history presented a distorted image of the Jews and their religion. So Pope John XXIII’s meeting in audience with Jules Isaac on 13 June 1960 was ground-breaking in that it was there that the Pope agreed to the request to raise the question of the Jews during the coming Council.

As the theologian Yves Congar stated at the time, if twenty years after Auschwitz the Council had said nothing about its relations with the Jews, the moral credibility of the Church would have been compromised.

The approved text of the “Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions” promulgated on 28 October 1965 was intended to put an end to every form of anti-Semitism within Christianity and to express the Church’s acknowledgment of its own Jewish roots.

The Declaration shows that, on the basis of sound biblical and historical arguments, the Church was able to set aside centuries of traditional animosity towards the Jews, and also to create a space for genuine interreligious dialogue more broadly.

It was fitting then that the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) should hold its 2015 Conference in Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that landmark document, Nostra Aetate. As Philip A. Cunningham, the ICCJ President, writes in his introduction to the Conference program:

In addition to looking at the remarkable history and current state of the new relationship, we will also ask: where do we go in the next fifty years? Clearly we … are all enriched by the diverse ways in which Christian-Jewish relations have unfolded in different parts of the world.

Some people have led the way in grappling with the horrible legacy of the Shoah. Some have stressed forming personal friendships as paramount. When sustained conversation occurs, theological dialogue can attain a profound depth…. Elsewhere trilateral relations with Islam are vigorously pursued.

Key moments of the Conference were the visit to the Rome Synagogue and the meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Riccardo Shemuel De Segni, and the audience with Pope Francis in the Sala Clementina at the Vatican.

In his address to the more than 250 Conference delegates the Pope reminded them that the seeds of cooperation between the ICCJ and the Catholic Church had been sown as early as 1947, when the “Emergency Conference on Antisemitism” held in the Swiss town of Seelisberg formulated basic statements which influenced the Second Vatican Council in its reflection on Judaism. It was this reflection that found expression in the signal 1965 Declaration Nostra Aetate.

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