Nostra Aetate proves that change is possible

by Maureen Fiedler

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When I was a young Catholic growing up in Lockport, NY, the priest would sometimes end Mass with a prayer for the “conversion of the Jews.” Now, this was the 1950s. I was in grade school at the time so I didn’t really think about it. 

But as an adult, I looked up the prayer I remembered. On Good Friday, until 1959, one of the official Catholic prayers went like this: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” (I recall that the pastor of my youth offered prayers like these more often than just on Good Friday).

Sounds downright insulting. Of course, after Vatican II, prayers were revised significantly. We now pray for the Jews as “the first to hear the word of God that they may continue to grow in the love of God’s name and in faithfulness to God’s covenant.” That’s just one small example of how the Catholic church has dramatically changed its attitude towards Jews, and other religious groups. 

At the same time, the teaching about the Jews’ alleged role in the death of Jesus also changed.  

This change stemmed from an official document of the Second Vatican Council that sought to end centuries of hostile relations between Catholics and Jews and other faiths, as well. It’s called Nostra Aetate, which is Latin for “In Our Time.”  We celebrate its 50th anniversary this month. Specifically, it threw out the ancient “Christ killer” charge levied at the Jews for centuries, and it affirmed the covenant God made with the Jews in the Bible.  

It also dealt, in a very positive way, with many faith traditions around the globe other than Judaism. As such, it really marks the entrance of the Catholic Church into the interfaith movement. 

But most interesting to me in the light of the recent Synod is the case it makes that common church teaching CAN be changed. 

At the Synod, we heard arguments against changing the “teaching” of the Church on issues involving divorced and remarried Catholics and LGBT people. But who says teachings can’t be changed?  Nostra Aetate did just that! It specifically contradicted the common teaching at the time about the Jews having killed Jesus. In fact, the gospel of Matthew actually affirms that idea: when the crowd before Pilate shouted, “Let his blood be on ourselves and our children.”  (Matthew 27:25). 

Yes, this is also a question of biblical interpretation but still, the “Christ killer” charge had become common “teaching” for centuries, heard in pulpits around the world. Moreover, it was an ugly teaching that actually played a part in violence against Jews in pogroms and ultimately, the Holocaust … ugly teaching that cried out to be changed. Thank God someone had the wisdom to wipe it out. 

So, if that can change, why not other teachings that are also harmful to groups of people, but do NOT even involve scripture … like rules for divorced and remarried Catholics? The Church’s relations with LGBT people? Contraception?  

Nostra Aetate did more than change Catholic relations with Jews. It showed that teaching can, and sometimes should, change. 

We covered the import of Nostra Aetate for Jewish/Catholic relations on Interfaith Voices this week. Here is the link to listen to my interview with the noted scholar of Jewish/Catholic relations, James Carroll and Rabbi Jack Moline of the Interfaith Alliance.

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