Three statements in particular are of fundamental importance.
Jesus the Jew and the Jewish roots of the Church
The first relates to the Council Fathers’ call to remember the Jewish roots of the Church: “Sounding the depths of the mystery which is the Church, this sacred council remembers the spiritual ties which link the people of the new covenant to the stock of Abraham’ (Nostra Aetate, 4).
In doing so, we remember that Jesus was, and always remained, a Jew. As a faithful ‘son of Israel’ he was circumcised as a baby, raised on the stories of his ancestors, prayed Jewish prayers, celebrated Jewish festivals. As an adult he based his life and teaching on the Torah. Whatever debates he entered into with other Jews were intra-Jewish debates. He was fully a person of his Jewish Palestinian first-century environment, as also were Mary, the apostles and most of the early disciples.
All this is expressive of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. As God in human form, Jesus of Nazareth was not some kind of abstract, general, neutral human being. He was Jewish.
Today the Church embraces the fact that Christianity’s deepest roots lie in Judaism; that the New Testament is grounded in the divine authority of the Old Testament scriptures. These Jewish origins are not just significant as historical backdrop, or for a ‘preparatory’ phase. Rather, they inform the core of Christian self-understanding. In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say,“Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). With its roots in Judaism, Christianity cannot live apart from the soil in which it is planted.
Pope John Paul II put it this way: “The church of Christ discovers her ‘bond’ with Judaism by ‘searching into her own mystery.’ The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.”
The Jews as the beloved of God
Secondly, echoing the words of St Paul in Romans 11:28-29, Vatican II taught that “the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made” (Nostra Aetate, 4; Lumen Gentium,16).
Subsequent Church documents and papal teachings illuminate the significance of this statement. No longer can the Church be viewed as simply ‘replacing’ Israel. Gone is the insidious ‘language of contempt’ whereby Jews were accused of being ‘Christ-killers’ rejected from God’s embrace. Rather, the Jewish people are recognised as God’s beloved, as a people in a living covenantal relationship with God who never reneges on divine promises.
What is extraordinary is that, in the 1960s, in order to speak of the Jews as the beloved people of God, the Council Fathers had to reach back over nearly two millennia to find an authoritative Christian text to ground their statement. This gives you some idea of how deeply entrenched were anti-Jewish attitudes and how groundbreaking the Vatican II teaching. Not since St Paul had the Church spoken like this!
This Vatican II teaching has given rise to new challenges, including still unresolved theological questions. A question for Christian scholars today is how to articulate the universal significance of Christ as saviour in a way that respects the integrity of both Church doctrine and Jewish self-understanding. This is a profound question. Discussions at times attract controversy. Meanwhile, affirmation of Judaism’s ongoing covenantal life can be consistently traced in official ecclesiastical documents in the decades since the Council.
Rejection of anti-semitism
A third important statement of Vatican II was its rejection of anti-semitism. Although this may strike Catholics as an ‘obvious’ thing to say, we need to be aware just how confronting it is for the Church to face the fact that the Shoah (Holocaust) occurred in a Europe shaped by a long Christian tradition. The Shoah is not only part of Jewish history; shamefully, it is Christian history. Nazism in itself was not a Christian phenomenon, but centuries of church-sanctioned anti-Jewish attitudes helped to create the cultural conditions that allowed Nazism to emerge.
Today the Church maintains an imperative to remember these diabolical events, recognising that overcoming anti-semitism is not a finished task. Pope John Paul II wisely spoke of it as an “enduring call to repentance.” No community can completely purge itself of two millennia of anti-Jewish influences in just fifty years. It takes time. And it requires vigilance towards the new guises under which anti-semitism can reappear.
Engaging with “living Judaism”
As the Church today applies the teaching of Vatican II, it urges its members to engage with “living Judaism”. In the Vatican’s phrasing, Christians “must strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience” (Guidelines, 1974; Notes, 1985). This is an important statement. It exhorts Christians to stop presuming and to start listening to and learning from present-day Jews. The Jewish religion today is not the same as ancient Judaism. Just as Christianity has evolved dramatically since the time of Jesus, so has Judaism. We can’t simply read something in the bible and presume to know what Jews today believe and practise.
All this affects how the Catholic faith is taught. Again, in the voice of the Vatican, “The Jews and Judaism should not occupy an occasional and marginal place in catechesis: their presence there is essential and should be organically integrated.” Such catechesis has many facets, one of which is the invitation to understand the deeply-held Jewish connectedness to the Land [of Israel].
Finally, through many statements, the Church acknowledges that Christians and Jews both place their hope in a future known to God. With this comes a responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder in the task of preparing the world for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. In that task alone, there is much to unite Christians and Jews for the sake of the world.
Teresa Pirola is involved in ecumenism and interfaith relations in the Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay. She is also founder of the Light of Torah ministry (www.lightoftorah.net) which promotes Torah reading among Christians.