Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The genesis of Nostra Aetate

Georgetown University is sponsoring a series of lectures on Nostra Aetate (the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church with non-Christian Religions). The first four talks are by Rev. Tom Stransky CSP, a Paulist priest, and one of the only surviving members of the original Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU) set up by Pope John XXIII to prepare for the Council.

A bunch of folks from St. Paul's College were over at Georgetown tonight for what turned out to be a really informative lecture. Tonight's talk really went through the background of the genesis of Nostra Aetate, and particularly how the document took shape.

Very shortly after the SPCU got its mandate (a vague one of "helping other Christians follow the work of the Council"), it received a second mandate, to lookinto the relationship of the Church to the Jewish people. The origins of this mandate went back to a crucial meeting between Jules Isaac, a Holocaust survivor and Pope John XXIII, where he asked if the Council could address some of what he called the "Teaching of Contempt" towards the Jews, "which enclosed them in a spiritual ghetto." The Pope is supposed to have said, "I'll consult with my advisors, but remember, the Vatican is not an absolute monarchy!"

There were many setbacks - not the least of which was walking a fine line between not being seen as supporting the modern State of Israel and addressing the question in some substantive manner - but eventually, with the full backing of Pope John (and later Pope Paul), the draft "De Judeis" (Concerning the Jews) got put on the Council's agenda. This eventually lead to the declaration now known as Nostra Aetate. Its purview also expanded to deal with non-Christian religions in general, and not just Judaism.

It was a fascinating lecture -- there's very few people in the world who can give such an upfront, behind the scenes insight into those heady days of the Council. [I hope we can get to to the rest of the talks in the series! I'll have to check with the Novice Master. ] I took extensive notes and if anyone is interested, I can email the Word Document.

Here's a few interesting quotes:

The Vatican (through Cardinal Augustine Bea, the President of the SPCU) consulted with various Jewish leaders about this document. The level of mistrust on the Jewish side was quite clear: why trust the Church now? Is this a ruse to really proselytize? The history of Church Councils and the Jews isn't a happy one. Trent added the Talmud to the Index (and some suggested that the Protestant Reformers were informed by the Talmud), the Fourth Lateran council banned interaction between Jews and Christiand asked that Jews wear a distinct garb. Just 90 years earlier, 508 Bishops at Vatican I were going to sign a declaration on missions formally asking the Jews to embrace the true faith. [The document never saw the light of the day since the Council was interrupted by Garibaldi's troops invading Rome in 1870. It was Garibaldi who tore down the ghetto enclosing Jews in Pius IX's Rome.] Why expect the church to have changed?

Fr. Stransky studied the responses that various bishops around the world gave to the Vatican's questionnaire for the Council's agenda, which was circulated to the world's bishops in the years leading up the Council (published in 15 volumes!). The relations with Jews wasn't even on the radar. Most amusing was the very first entry in the volume with the responses of the American Episcopate was from the Bishop of Albany. This is what he wanted 2000+ of the world's Bishops to discuss: shortening the Breviary, allowing priests to say Mass without servers and allowing priests to carry the oils for anointing in the glove compartments of their car!

A young peritus at the Council, associated with Cardinal Frings of Cologne (and who wrote his texts. Cardinal Frings was nearly blind) has said that it was Frings speech on the first day which really set the agenda for the Council and gave the Bishops a sense of ownership over it. That young peritus was Joseph Ratzinger.

One of the best insights into Ratzinger's thought on the Council was a book he published soon after it concluded, some 99 pages. When he saw the manuscript in German, Fr. Stransky immediately asked Paulist Press to translate it into English. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the name of this book!

All told, it was just amazing to listen to the stories of someone who not only lived through the Council, but who was part of history. Wow. I'm still in awe.

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