Event to mark 50 years of improved Catholic-Jewish ties

Antipope John Paul II enters the Jewish Synagogue in Rom, 1986. NOSTRA AETATE.ORG PHOTO

Jews, Christians and Muslims will gather at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College Oct. 8 to celebrate the legacy of a Vatican document that intended to radically revise the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions.

It’s been 50 years since the proclamation of Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which daringly reached out to non-Christian faiths, particularly Jews.

It was, essentially, the church’s first positive statement about Judaism, and it changed the nature of Catholic-Jewish relations, for it not only recognized the validity of Mosaic law from which Christianity sprang, but it finally absolved Jews, past and present, of the charge they killed Jesus.

The day-long conference, titled “Responsibility to Engage,” will feature several Jewish participants, including former senator Hugh Segal, now master of Massey College, and Rabbi Ron Kronish, founding director of the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel, who will address a lunchtime session on “A Jewish Response to 50 years of the Dialogue since Nostra Aetate: The Way Forward.”

Also slated to speak is Edward Kessler, founder director of the Woolf Institute and a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He is a leading thinker in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.

There will also be an evening program and four breakout sessions on economics, the environment, politics and culture, including a panel moderated by lawyer Mark Freiman, the last president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Among the sponsors is the Toronto Board of Rabbis. About 200 people are expected.

Three years in the planning, the program will celebrate the document’s legacy of engagement, said conference chair Barbara Boraks, executive director of Christian Jewish Dialogue of Toronto.

The “whole premise of the document was the concept of engagement,” Boraks told The CJN. “So we’re taking the idea of engagement and applying [it] in a broader way in society.”

Indeed, one of the sessions will explore how religion can have a positive impact on social and public policy.

Boraks pointed to Pope Francis’s recent swing through the United States, in which the pontiff spoke of the “productive and human way to deal with social issues. We need to focus on ideas and people, not on ideology, and we need to engage with one another in a manner that facilitates dialogue and not polarity or debate,” she said.

“So we tried to create a conference that celebrates the document by engaging our audience in a manner that not just talks about what engagement can do, but can show them what it can do.”

An outgrowth of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Nostra Aetate was just 1,600 words long, but it packed a game-changing punch. 

Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965, it spoke warmly of Buddhists and Hindus (“the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” it stated) and Muslims (“they adore the one God.”)

But it saved its best for Jews, which it referred to as “Abraham’s stock.”

It said the crucifixion “cannot be charged against all the Jews… then alive, nor against the Jews of today,” and that Jews “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God."

It also decried “hatred, persecutions [and] displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

The document “made a major difference in [interfaith] relations, in trying to understand one another,” said Rabbi David Seed of Adath Israel Congregation, a member of the conference’s steering committee.

Fifty years on, the statement, which was adopted by the church’s bishops by a vote of 2,221 to 88, was “prescient in terms of the need for this type of dialogue.” Today, “we see how important it is to continue on in that way, and do more,” Rabbi Seed said.

Going forward, the next big challenge for all mainstream religions is the rise of fundamentalism in all faiths, not just Islam, he stressed.

Fundamentalism “doesn’t wipe out gains that have taken place with Nostra Aetate  but that only makes us work harder so that we understand the importance, even more so, to continue that dialogue and respect and understanding.”