When Jules Isaac published his famous book L’Enseignement de Mépris (its English translation The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism came out in 1964), he argued that the majority of Christians are antisemites and that the gospels throughout the ages served as “a testimony weighed against the Jews.” [ibidem, 132] He was not the only person concerned with antisemitic tropes present in the Catholic tradition, however he played a particular role in bringing this issue to the attention of the pope John XXIII on the eve of the council.
Pope John commended the Jewish question to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (hereafter SPCU), a newly established body that was one of the preparatory commissions for the Council. The SPCU, under presidency of Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German biblical scholar, prepared and presented to the Council documents on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), Nostra aetate – a declaration that was supposed to concern only Jews but was widened to include all non-Christian religions , on religious liberty (Dignitatis humanae) and, together with the doctrinal commission, the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum).
Nowadays, Nostra aetate is univocally regarded as a milestone in the relation of the Church towards Judaism and the Jews, even if it was preceded by other documents on Christian-Jewish relations such as The Ten Points of Seelisberg (1948), and mentions in papal encyclical (Ecclesiam suam, Pacem in terries) that could be seen as foreshadowing of the ideas developed in Nostra aetate. The pastoral praxis proved that this document paved way for all kind of interreligious initiatives, starting from academic discussions to cooperation on addressing social issues. Since 1965, when the declaration was promulgated, a lot has changed in how Catholics and other Christians relate to Jews and Judaism. Recognition of the antisemitic past, Holocaust remembrance, and references to Jewish Biblical exegesis are some of facets of this new approach. However, was the declaration itself revolutionary?
Gavin D’Costa argues that the doctrinal content of Nostra aetate was not as discontinuous to previous Church’s teachings as many see it [ Gavin D’Costa, Vatican II : Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims, Oxford University Press, 2016]. He claims that in Nostra aetate, the Council promulgated three main points regarding the Jews, all of them in continuity with previous teachings, or rather with no discontinuity to them (not contradicting previous doctrine but developing it). Firstly, that “not all Jews at the time of Jesus, nor Jews since that time, including contemporary Jews, can be held collectively guilty of killing Jesus Christ” [ ibidem, 158). He sees it as a clarification of what the deposit of faith already included: that some Jews were involved in the death of Christ. However, there was no formal treatment of this issue by any pope or Council. At the same time, it is worth remembering that well-established theological traditions held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus.
Secondly, based on Romans 11, the Council declared that God’s promises are irrevocable and He remains faithful to his covenant with Israel. This has not been taught before. Nonetheless D’Costa sees the novelty as “neither discontinuous nor continuous with formal teachings,” meaning a new interpretational line with no contradiction to existing doctrine. This point would be further developed by many theologians in the direction of two equally valid covenants, which D’Costa opposes on the grounds of two other issues: Jewish fidelity to this covenant and the status of the covenant made with the Church, seeing Judaism as praeparatio evangelica.
Thirdly, while stating the faithfulness of God to his promises, the Church did not address explicitly the mission to the Jews. However, in D’Costa’s understanding what was implicitly taught about the need of mission to all non-Christians, should be applied to Jews as well. This point remains a topic of a heated theological debate with scholars such as Mary C. Boys, for example, holding opposite interpretation, especially in the light of later Vatican’s documents such as The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable. The latter calls for a particular approach to the mission to the Jews:
40. It is easy to understand that the so–called ‘mission to the Jews’ is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. This question also proves to be awkward for Christians, because for them the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance. The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah. (bold mine)
While Nostra aetate became a symbol and an expression of theological developments that changed completely the climate of Jewish-Catholic relations, paving way also for more daring theological statements such as the above, it gave way also to some theological developments that D’Costa assesses as false. By that, he means seeing the conciliar documents as a) perceiving Judaism as a valid means of salvation, b) treating the covenant with Jewish people as still valid and c) considering no mission to the Jews as legitimate. Even though it might be a matter of discussion, Nostra aetate still can be viewed as a milestone because of its trailblazing status in the history of the Church.