Nostre Aetate: a Brief Guide on Jewish Relations for the Millennial Catholic

By Wednesday, October 25, 2017

DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt and Joseph King of Dreams were as much a part of my Millennial Catholic upbringing as The Lion King, but as I grew older I realized that while I was taught as a child to feel empathy and affection for the Jewish people—who wouldn’t root for a young Joseph voiced by Ben Affleck?—no one had ever taught me what a Catholic’s theological relationship is to the Jews. My school went merrily along from Easter Sunday to the early Church, and I never thought to ask: where was the Jew’s place in God’s plan after Jesus rose from the dead?

A Catholic priest and a Canadian Jew addressed this oversight in my cradle Catholic education during my time at Philos Leadership Institute in July 2017. Both directed me to Nostre Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, passed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 in the wake of the Holocaust.

The declaration affirms the enduring place of the Jewish people in God’s salvific plan. Paul writes in Romans 9:4-5, “Theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh.” He emphasizes the common heritage between the Jewish people and the new Church, and above all, that Jesus himself was a Jew.

Appealing to Paul’s words, Nostre Aetate clarifies, “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” Put simply, God honors both the Old Covenant with the Jews and the New Covenant with the Church. He does not revoke his promises, which means the Jews are still part of The Plan.

How that can be possible is addressed, again, by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Saint John Paul II made broadly accessible in 1992: “When one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah.” The catechism teaches that Christ is central to The Plan, and that the Jewish people still require and anticipate salvation through Christ.

For some, this is not a satisfying answer, since the Jews rejected Jesus as Savior, and so the Church continues to dwell on God’s plan for the Jewish people. Most recently in 2015, the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews (aka Nostre Aetate Part II), acknowledged, “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

For those who accept the mystery, the beauty of Nostre Aetate is not merely that it affirms the spiritual bond between the Jews and the Church, but that it exhorts Christians to build community with the Jews as brothers and sisters. It emphasizes, “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.”

This practical element adds richness to the declaration, which was meant not only to clarify theology, but in doing so, to teach the Church how to love the Jews. Dialogue built on mutual understanding and respect—this is how the body of Christ builds relationship with the people who share our patriarchs, psalms, and God’s promise.

Naofa Noll

Naofa Noll is Development Associate for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and human rights nonprofit. She also serves as Vice President of the Philos Project DC Chapter. She graduated from Hillsdale College in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and a minor in Spanish. Naofa first became interested in human rights advocacy while interning with International Justice Mission in 2015. She is originally from Johnstown, PA.