Pope Francis and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Vatican
Pope Francis and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the VaticanFlash 90

Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Inter-religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee(AJC) and the Adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel on interfaith relations, welcomed the new Vatican document on Catholic-Jewish relations that was released at a press conference on Wednesday for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

“This is the first time that we have a document that is a Catholic teaching that was being presented to Catholics, but the Vatican asked Jewish representatives to be there to give their response. That was a remarkable tribute to building new relationships,” Rabbi Rosen told Arutz Sheva.  

“The document not only calls on Catholics worldwide to condemn anti-Semitism, but it also calls on the Church to do everything it can to combat anti-Semitism. That is a strong language that has never been used the same way,” he said. 

The document, entitled: “A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations,” was issued by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and approved by Pope Francis. It explores theological issues that have emerged since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

In a historic first for the release of a Vatican document written for Catholic audiences, Rabbi Rosen and Dr. Edward Kessler of The Woolf Institute, Cambridge  were invited to provide Jewish responses. They joined with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president, and Father Norbert Hoffman, secretary, of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in addressing the press conference.

“Nostra Aetate revolutionized Catholic teachings about Jews and Judaism,” said Rosen. “The new ‘Reflection’ document clearly repudiates replacement or supressionist theology; and expresses an increasing appreciation and respect for Jewish self-understanding, reflected in recognizing the place of Torah in the life of the Jewish people,” said Rosen.

However, Rosen expressed disappointment that the new document fails to acknowledge "the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people,” and the groundbreaking role of Nostra Aetate in leading to the diplomatic accord between the Vatican and Israel.

“The establishment of full bilateral relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See -- very much guided and promoted by Saint Pope John Paul II – was one of the historic highlights on the road since Nostra Aetate, reflecting more than anything else the fact that the Catholic Church had truly repudiated its portrayal of the Jewish people as condemned wanderers to be homeless until the final advent,” said Rosen.

“Without Nostra Aetate, the establishment of these relations would surely not have been feasible,” Rosen added.

Rosen praised the document’s emphasis on the responsibility of educational institutions, particularly those that train priests to integrate into their curricula both Nostra Aetate and subsequent Holy See documents pertaining to Jews and Judaism. “This remains the most notable challenge in taking the achievements from their Olympian heights down to the grassroots universally,” he said.

Renowned interfaith scholar and activist, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, Rabbi Alon Goshen Gottstein, also gave his opinion on the new document to Arutz Sheva.  

“The new document is much more theological than previous documents. Previous documents keep the theology section very short, but this document is about 20 times the length of the original.” The new document is 16 pages whereas the original statement made was no more than 1,000 words.

Goshen-Gottstein had an overall positive response to the document, but also had some reservations about it.

“The document affirms the good relationship between Judaism and Christianity and calls for a lot of collaboration between Catholic and Jews. The first and last part will be very good to Jewish ears, however the body of the text is a Christian theological reflection that ultimately understands Judaism's efficacy through the lens of Christ. This is a position that could potentially turn Jews away from the encounter, now that the theological perspective is so explicit." 

Goshen-Gottstein explained that from the perspective of a Catholic audience this document affirms that Judaism is a valid religion and one which co-exists with Christianity and is a different path to the path of Christ. However, because the document emphasizes there is only one, and not two, covenants, at the end of the day Judaism too is ultimately related to Christ, even though it is left to the domain of mystery, beyond our understanding. 

“While to Christian ears, it is an interesting and significant attempt to deal with Judaism's enduring validity, the document is ultimately unable to resolve the  conundrum of how to affirm Judaism as a self standing faith, while at the same time affirming Christ's universal salvation.”

Goshen-Gottstein said that the reflection document shows the “courage” of the Church as well as the solid bonds of friendship that allow it to try to tackle this question by opening serious theological dialogue. However, he  would have preferred had the document affirmed Judaism without “going through Jesus.”

According to Goshen-Gottstein the document will help to end Christian supersession of Judaism. However, it has not resolved the problem of the mission to the Jews in an unequivocal way. Whereas it affirms that there is no institutional mission to the Jews, individual witnessing is still in place, even if it is carried out with tact and sensitivity. "Until the theological foundations of the utter self-sufficiency of Judaism as a valid spiritual path are confirmed, the concern of mission will always lurk in the background, even if quietly and in a civil way. "This is my great disappointement with the document,", bemoaned Goshen-Gottstein.

“Overall, the relationship that is espoused here is open and honest. In all practical terms, relating to common collaboration, it is a step forward. However, in strictly theological terms it is a step sideways, if not backwards.”  

There currently exists a formal commission between the Chief Rabbinate and the Vatican to discuss and deal with inter-faith issues. Additionally, the AJC is the organization that has been dealing with interfaith relations with the Vatican longer than any other Jewish organization.