On this day in 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted the text of “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time), the document that redefined the approach of the Catholic Church toward non-Christian religions, most notably Judaism. Among other things, it declared that the Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the killing of Jesus, “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ.”
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After two millennia of highly fraught relations, Nostra Aetate really did usher in a new era in the way that the Church considered the role of the Jewish people in history, and its attitude toward them, for example, foreswearing interest in converting them.
The Second Vatican Council had been opened three years earlier by Pope John XXIII, at St. Peter’s Basilica. Its purpose, roughly, was to reevaluate Church doctrine and practice in light of the philosophical challenges of the modern age – or, as the pope put it, “to throw open the windows of the Church.”
Pope John died on June 3, 1963, but his successor, Pope Paul VI, immediately announced that the work of the Council, which dealt with a wide range of doctrinal and organizational questions, including relations with other Christian denominations and the updating of the liturgy, would continue.
Although Nostra Aetate did not explicitly acknowledge the role played over time by the Church in promulgating anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior, it did condemn “all hatreds, persecutions [and] displays of anti-Semitism,” and stressed the common origins of Christianity and Judaism, including the Jewishness of Jesus himself. Most importantly, in terms of practical implications, “In Our Time” repudiated the charge of deicide, stating that “Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.” Behind the scenes, there was significant cooperation between Jewish organizations and the Church leaders involved in preparing Nostra Aetate to help the Vatican understand the issues from the Jewish point of view.
The bishops assembled at St. Peter’s voted 2, 221 to 88 to approve Nostra Aetate on October 28.