Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German Jesuit Scripture scholar who served as the first head of the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity, must go down as one of the great heroes of the Second Vatican Council.
Bea's greatest contribution at Vatican II was the shepherding of what eventually became the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) through the approval process. He faced strong opposition and anti-Jewish prejudices which reached to the high ranks of the Curia.
The importance of the council's declarations about Jews and Judaism can hardly be overstated. Nor can Bea's perseverance in overcoming obstacles and turning a blind eye to personal attacks.
While other documents of Vatican II have been more fundamental to the Church's self-understanding and to its theology, none drew as much media attention as did its Declaration on Non-Christian Religions. In the end, the declaration was seen as a litmus test for the degree to which the Church was serious about renewal.
Nostra Aetate's teaching about Judaism can be summarized as follows. Christianity has a common heritage with Judaism in the Old Testament and draws nourishment from the same sources as does the Jewish faith. Through his cross, Christ reconciled Jews and Gentiles "and made them one in himself."
Cardinal Augustin Bea (right) shakes hands with a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church from Switzerland in this undated photo.
While many Jews did not recognize "God's moment" in the coming of Christ, yet the apostles and many of the early disciples who spread the Gospel were of Jewish descent. Moreover, Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if that followed from Scripture.
Further, God's covenant with the Jewish people is an eternal covenant "since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made."
While Jewish authorities pressed for the death of Christ, "neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with crimes committed during his passion."
Nostra Aetate encouraged greater mutual understanding and appreciation between Christians and Jews, especially through biblical and theological studies. "She deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews."
Christ, the document says, freely chose to undergo his suffering and death because of the sins of all people and so that all might attain salvation.
Nostra Aetate thoroughly undercut the basis for Christian anti-Semitism. Such anti-Semitism was not the chief cause of the Nazi Holocaust, but it was a sordid, dark part of Christian history. The council's declaration was a major step toward denouncing that history as contrary to the Gospel.
Today, 50 years after Vatican II, Nostra Aetate's teaching about Jews and Judaism is so widely accepted among Catholics that it might be assumed that Catholics would never think anything different. In fact, during the council, attitudes were far different.
In that period, the Church's Good Friday service still contained a prayer for the Jews asking that God "remove the veil from their hearts" and heal them of their blindness so that "they might be rescued from their darkness." The prayer did grudgingly admit that God loves "even the Jews."
At one point during Vatican II, all the council fathers received anonymous printed material in sealed envelopes trying to discredit Bea by claiming that he was of Jewish origin.
Over my many years as editor of the WCR, I have fielded thousands of calls from readers. Among those calls, a small handful reflected attitudes that can only be described as virulently anti-Semitic. While such attitudes are far from being the norm, they do still exist even in our local Church, contradicting the clear teaching of Vatican II.
In next week's article, I will summarize the tortured process that took place before the council overwhelmingly approved Nostra Aetate in October 1965, only six weeks before the end of Vatican II. In the following issue, I will examine the declaration's teaching on relations with other non-Christian religions.