Opinion Essay                                                                                                             April, 2005                                                                                                                                                     


Forty Years After Nostra Aetate

Karen L. Howard

Karen Howard, Ph.D. teaches Holocaust courses at Merrimack College in No. Andover, MA and is on the faculty in the Theology Department at Boston College.


In one of Robert Frost's poems, he speaks of stopping by the woods one snowy evening, but not tarrying long, for he realizes that he has "promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps, miles to go before he sleeps" (1).  Writing a brief essay about the progress of Nostra Aetate throughout the past forty years is like that brief respite, I think.  Good things have begun, but we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.  While the document opened the doors for interfaith sharing and respect with many of the world religions, no where has progress been more evident than in the area addressed by paragraph 4, that of Jewish-Christian relations.  In Nostra Aetate, the Church professed that "all Christ's faithful, who as men of faith (cf. Gal. 3,7) are sons of Abraham, are included in the same patriarch's call and that the salvation of the Church is mystically prefigured in the exodus of God's chosen people from the land of bondage" (2). The Church cannot forget that those chosen people were instrumental in passing on God's revelation to all Christians, and "that the Jews remain very dear to God…since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made" (3).  Christians and Jews have a common heritage for we are siblings in the same faith.  In the document the Church writers also were also wise to insist that the Church "deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews" (4).  That passage was included in the document, because it needed to be.  Christianity has had a terrible history of allowing and even promoting antisemetism.  As a result of Nostra Aetate in1965, that "teaching of contempt" (5) in many ways has been arrested.  There have been strong starts in Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue, several centers for Jewish-Christian learning have been established at universities, cooperative programs with the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), the AJC (American Jewish Committee) and other Jewish agencies, and with some parishes aimed at combating local antisemitism have been launched.  Significant progress has been made in Christian preaching and teaching, esp. within Religious Education texts, but there is much more to be done.  The Holocaust (6) at the end of world War II may have been the singular event that grabbed the world's attention and acted as catalyst for the call to end all forms of discrimination and antisemitism and encourage further dialogue between Jews and others, but all too often the tragedy of the Holocaust and further study of that event is taking a backseat to other less traumatic encounters in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  Jews and Christians today are studying each others texts and traditions together, establishing friendships and enjoying each other's company, and exploring how we can cooperate in charitable works and social justice programs, which are all wonderful endeavors, but it behooves us all to regularly revisit that "symbol of evil" as Yehuda Bauer has named the event (7).  The rallying cries of "never again, never again" have already fallen on deaf ears in our modern world in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda and parts of the Sudan.  We have not learned its lessons.  Bauer contends that some 60 years after the event, we are still regularly seeing films about the Holocaust, reading memoirs about the Holocaust and are building memorials of the Holocaust, sometimes in areas that were not even remotely involved in the event, such as Hiroshima, Japan.  A Chinese university is even translating a summary of Holocaust literature into Chinese.  It is this paradigm of evil that continues to draw peoples from around the globe to try to learn and understand.  How could one group of people do that to another group of people?  One of the primary reasons antisemitism was able to gain a foothold in Christian thought and practice for centuries was that for so long the human race had such a hard time coming to terms with its own deicide charges.  Many preferred locating a scapegoat rather than dealing with such radical confrontation with one's own sinful guilt.  The same thing is beginning to happen with the Holocaust.  Modern society caused the Holocaust and it CAN happen again if modern society does not regularly confront its own history regarding this catastrophe, repent, and recommit itself to peace.  It is easy to sweep it under the rug as the past.  Repeatedly, however, Pope John Paul II and bishops around the world have called for remembrance, education and repentance.

Holocaust awareness and education has been a developmental enterprise and several of the documents that followed Nostra Aetate explicitly identified such education as a call to repentance, a moral imperative, and a deterrent for any future genocides.   There appears to be a progression of steps from Nostra Aetate of 1965, to the 1974 "Guidelines" (Guidelines and Suggestions for Jewish-Christian Relations) to the 1982 "Notes" (Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church).  Nostra Aetate not only called for an end to the charge of deicide, but also a recognition of the validity of the first covenant, a dialogue with Jews based on biblical and theological inquiry, and that important call to "halt all the hatred, persecutions and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews in any form at any time by anyone" (8).   The 1974 "Guidelines" called for respect for religious liberty and a reeducation of the Church’s members as to the integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ Jewish heritage, especially in textbooks and all educational endeavors (9).  By 1982, the "Notes" called upon catechists and preachers to delve deeper into the riches of the Hebrew Scriptures, to articulate the Jewish roots to Christianity, to demonstrate a greater awareness that the Jews remain a chosen people of God to this day, and to explore the meaning and consequences for the Jewish extermination during the years 1939-1945 (10).  No where in these documents, however, was there any explicit ownership to the centuries of the teaching of contempt nor recognition that such teaching was one of the causal components that led to the Holocaust.

In the 1980s and 1990s, dialogue continued around the world with Jewish-Catholic groups and many were waiting for some type of acknowledgment of such a history and some type of expression of penitence.  In 1995, as the 50th anniversary of the close of World War II approached, bishops’ groups from around the world released documents on the anniversary of the Holocaust (11).  Much anticipation preceded the 1998 anniversary document by the Holy See, “We Remember,” for many hoped to hear such an expression of penitence then.  It did not occur then, but what was articulated in this document was strong language that called the duty to remember the past injustices of the Shoah a moral imperative (12), a call to penitence, and a prelude to an explicit acknowledgment of sorts: "We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church" (13).  An actual acknowledgment of  culpability by the Church itself may not have occurred in the 1998 document, for what coincided with this document, was the immediate preparation for the millennium celebrations of 2000 years of Christianity.  Pope John Paul II had set in motion a trinitarian three year preparation for the Jubilee Year when he released the document, Tertio Millennio Adveniente in 1996.  In this writing, Pope John Paul II recounted the massacres of the 20th century and called again for purification and conversion to God. (14).  He also called all Christians to become more aware of their sinfulness, especially those times in history when members departed from the Spirit of Christ and his Gospel (15).  This millennium document laid the groundwork not only for “We Remember,” but for the acknowledgment and explicit expression of penitence that finally did come in the Jubilee Year, 2000 at Yad Vashem, during liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica, and at the Western Wall.  As the Jubilee Year drew to a close, Pope John Paul II released yet another document, Novo Millennio Inuente, which called all Catholics to repentance and a purification of memory before it embarked on any pastoral planning for the third millennium (16). 

Educational Considerations

On the national front, the American bishops released two other related documents, one in 1999 and one in 2001.  The 1999 document, “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us” called all catechetical personnel to begin to shift focus away from children as the primary students and toward adults as the objective norm for all catechesis (17).  The 2001 document, entitled “Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing the Holy See’s We Remember” (18) called all Catholics, at least in the United States, to begin the process of Holocaust education.  From a practical viewpoint, if one takes the directives of “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us” and intersects them in the directives of “Catholic Teaching on the Shoah,” one is given an outline for Holocaust education, not only for Catholic Schools, universities and seminaries, but also for ordinary religious education programs within parishes. 

If the Church wants to take Jewish-Christian relations more seriously, more fundamental education about the Holocaust is sorely needed.  Recently, Cardinal Walter Kasper, in reflecting after forty years after Nostra Aetate, said further Jewish-Christian  relations will need three things in the future: deeper historical studies, dialogue in fundamental theology and advances in cooperative works of charity and social work (19).  Deeper historical studies must examine Church history with all its flaws and must examine our 20th century paradigm of evil.  Examining the nature of evil in such starkness and proximity to our own lives as well as examining our fragility and brokenness against the backdrop of a loving God of hesed can lead to mutual explorations of fundamental theologies.  The American bishops in their document on the Shoah have asked universities in particular to examine the moral choices that so-called believing Christians made during the Holocaust.  Why, for instance, did one group of ordinary middle-class men with families and businesses back home in Hanover, Germany become one of the deadliest execution battalions in the Third Reich, (20) while another group of people in a French parish community create a safe haven of their whole town for the Jews? (21) Why were some Christians bystanders or perpetrators while others were Righteous Gentiles?  I do not see Catholic universities taking on this challenge in any systematic fashion.  If we are really serious about advancing the dreams of  Nostra Aetate, we must face up to our past, repent and learn.  Holocaust education in some parts of the country is mandated from K-12 in public school systems.  It should be mandated in religious education core curriculum, and no graduate of a Catholic college should be able to be awarded a diploma without having somewhere examined the realities of the Holocaust as part of his or her core curriculum.

Liturgical Considerations

Annually, Jews from around the world remember the victims of the Holocaust in a day of remembrance, Yom Ha Shoah (Day of the Shoah), which has become part of their liturgical calendar.  Catholic Christians would do well to ensure the dreams and aspirations of Nostra Aetate if we also liturgically marked our calendars, not with a Christian version of Yom Ha Shoah, but rather with a Christian version of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Rather than the springtime, it might fit more suitably with the Feast of the Holy Cross in September.  We could use such a day to examine our personal sinfulness as well as the history of the many times we as a historical Church have sinned and failed to understand the mystery of the Cross.  Far too often in our history, the Cross has been used as a weapon, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to its twisted version in the swastika.  Reclaiming the power and mystery of the Cross can only begin with repentance.  Within liturgical circles, there is a favorite Latin adage, "lex orandi, lex credendi," or the law of prayer is the law of belief.  Once the Christian community really faces its own history and regularly repents and prays for forgiveness will we really come to believe in the intrinsic value of our older siblings in the faith and of those of other faiths.  Then, the dreams of Nostra Aetate can continue to grow.



1.        Robert Frost, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," A Pocket Book of Robert Frost Poems (New York: Washington Square Press, 1960) 194.

2.        "Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1975) paragraph 4.

3.        ibid.

4.        ibid.

5.        Jules Isaac, Has Anti-Semitism Roots in Christianity? (New York: National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1961) 57.

6.        The word, Holocaust, will be used throughout this essay for that is what the event and the study of the event has come to be named in academia.  The preferred word for many, however, is that of Shoah.  The term, Holocaust, actually means "whole burnt offering" and since many feel that there was no offering whatsoever in this event, a better term is Shoah, which means annihilation.

7.        Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) x-xi.

8.        Nostra Aetate, paragraph 4.

9.        "Guidelines and Suggestions for Jewish-Christian Relations," 1974, Unanswered Questions: Theological Views of Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. Roger Brooks (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) 23-30.

10.     "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church," 1982, Unanswered Questions: Theological Views of Jewish Christian Relations, ed. Roger Brooks (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1988) 31-47.

11.     Documents at the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz included: The Hungarian Bishops and Ecumenical Council of Churches Joint Statement of 1994, the German Bishops’ “Opportunity to Re-Examine Relations with the Jews” of 1995, The Polish Bishops’ statement on “The Victims of Nazi Ideology” of 1995, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb’s “Commemorating the Liberation of Auschwitz” of 1995, the Dutch Bishops’ “Supported by One Root: Our Relationship to Judaism” of 1995, the Swiss Bishops’ “Confronting the Debate About the Role of Switzerland” of 1997, Cardinal William Keeler, US Bishops’ Statement, “Lessons to Learn from Catholic Rescuers” of 1997, the French Bishops’ “Declaration of Repentance” of 1997 and the Italian Bishops’ Letter to the Jewish Community of Italy” of 1998.

12.     "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, March 1988, Washington, D.C., USCC) I.

13.     ibid, IV.

14.     "Tertio Millennio Adveniente," Pope John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1996) 18.

15.     Ibid. 33.

16.     "Novo Millennio Inuente," Pope John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000).

17.     "Our Hearts Are Burning Within Us," (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1999).

18.     "Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing the Holy See's 'We Remember'," (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 2001).

19.     Jerry Filteau, "Cardinal Kasper cites three tasks for Catholic-Jewish Relations," The Pilot, vol. 76, no. 11, March 18, 2005, 12-15.

20.     Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992, 1998).

21.     Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the south of France.  This Protestant community hid approximately 5000 Jews during World War II - approximately its own population, in a "conspiracy of goodness" as described by filmmaker Pierre Sauvage in his documentary film, "Weapons of the Spirit," U.S.A., 1987.