Jewish Leaders Meet Pope Francis, Commemorate Decree Repudiating Idea That Jews Killed Jesus

Rabbis present Pope Francis with Jewish response to 1965 'Nostra Aetate' declaration, recognizing common ground with Catholics while stressing 'irreconcilable theological differences'

Pope Francis shakes hands with Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, during an audience with the representatives of the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel at the Vatican, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017.
Pope Francis shakes hands with Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, at meeting with rabbis, August 31, 2017

Half a century after the Second Vatican Council published its groundbreaking declaration on interfaith relations, Nostra Aetate, among other things exonerating Jews as a whole for Christ's death, a delegation of Jewish leaders met on Thursday with Pope Francis to mark the event and deliver a response to the landmark document.

The 9-page response, titled "Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate," stresses common ground with Catholicism as well as the distinctions of Judaism. It is signed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Conference of European Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America.

In his meeting with the rabbis, Francis praised the response, particularly for "affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education - not war, coercion or social pressure – to influence and inspire”.

"This is most important: may the Eternal One bless and enlighten our cooperation, so that together we can accept and carry out ever better his plans," Francis said, before ending his speech with a Shanah Tova greeting for the upcoming Jewish new year.

In their statement, the rabbis also called "upon the Church to join us in deepening our combat against our generation's new barbarism, namely the radical offshoots of Islam, which endanger our global society and does not spare the very numerous moderate Muslims."

Radical Islam "threatens world peace in general and the Christian and Jewish communities in particular," the response states. "We call on all people of good will to join forces to fight this evil.”

Nostra Aetate ("In our Time"), commissioned by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s and released in 1965 (technically 52 years ago – it took two years to write the response), marked a turning point in relations between the Catholic church and other religions, notably Judaism and Islam.

Some Jews had indeed called for Jesus' death but, Nostra Aetate stated, "what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

Moreover, since God does not repent of gifts he makes, he will not revoke his divine election of Israel. Thus, the Vatican paper says, "The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God."

While Judaism and Catholicism have irreconcilable theological differences, the rabbis wrote in the paper released today, "we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security."

Religious leaders of many faiths are struggling to contend with the changing mores of modern society, and have been slowly – sometimes – shifting attitudes towards homosexuality, divorce and abortion, for instance, but the message in the Jewish declaration is conservative. The rabbis write that they see room for partnership with Catholicism in assuring religious freedom, fostering the "moral principles of our faiths" – particularly the "sanctity of life and significance of the traditional family."

There is but one humanity

Nostra Aetate and the Jewish response stress common areas between the monotheistic religions, most importantly that man is but one: "In the biblical account of creation, God fashions a single human being as the progenitor of all humanity. Thus, the Bible's unmistakable message is that all human beings are members of a single family."

The Jewish response notes how, a century after emancipation began in Europe and some 20 years after the Holocaust that decimated European Jewry, "the Catholic Church began a process of introspection that increasingly expurgated from Church doctrine any hostility toward Jews." It was the recognition by Pope John XXIII, who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, of the need to revise “the teaching of contempt” that ultimately facilitated the adoption of Nostra Aetate , the rabbis wrote.

Another aspect of Nostra Aetate that the rabbis stressed is that while the church didn't agree to entirely forgo trying to convert Jews, the "Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed" towards them. "we understand that [the church] has nonetheless shown understanding and sensitivity towards deeply held Jewish sensibilities, and distanced itself from active mission to Jews," the rabbis write.

Following the presentation of the document to Pope Francis, Pinchas Goldschmidt from the Conference of European Rabbis stated, “This is an historic moment for relations between our two faiths. Nostra Aetate set the tone for the last 50 years and we hope that From Jerusalem to Rome will set a similar precedent going forward.”

Nostra Aetate not only redefined relations between Catholics and Jews and called for fostering “mutual understanding and respect,” but even enabled the establishment of relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993, write the rabbis. Francis has also told a World Jewish Congress delegation, "To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism."