It almost didn’t happen: The sea change in Jewish-Catholic relations known as “Nostra Aetate” — or Vatican Council II’s Declaration on the Jewish People — faced so many objections, from Jews as well as Christians, the effort almost died on the vine.
Addressing an audience at Seton Hall University in South Orange on Oct. 27, the Rev. Thomas F. Stransky described the roller-coaster of hope and frustration faced by the team of “consultors,” staff members, and negotiators who drew up the declaration and the battle that was waged until its final acceptance.
Stransky, now 83, had an inside view of that battle. He was appointed in 1960 to the staff of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, one of the preparatory commissions for the Vatican Council, called to consider primarily the Catholic Church’s relations with other branches of Christianity. His job was to serve as an assistant to the three-man subcommittee assigned to consider the Church’s relationship with the Jews.
One of the three “consultors” on that subcommittee was Msgr. John Oesterreicher, who seven years earlier had established the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall, the first academic institution of its kind in the world. Oesterreicher passed away in 1993, at the age of 89. Stransky’s talk was the 20th memorial lecture given in his honor and part of the year-long celebration of the institute’s 60th anniversary.
Stransky had no idea how long the job would last. “Even the Pope doesn’t know,” he was told. Pope John XXIII had set the council process in motion, “with no hints of what was intended, and no feasibility studies. He just called it.”
Though few secrets survive in Rome — “a Swiss cheese of rumors,” Stransky said — the Pope did manage to very quietly convey his support for an outcome ending the inflammatory teachings that blamed all Jews for the murder of Jesus.
In the end, “Nostra Aetate” was broadened to cover the Catholic Church’s relations with all non-Christian religions — a move, Stransky said, that guaranteed its overwhelming acceptance in 1965, after Pope John’s passing and his replacement by Pope John Paul VI.
Stransky, who is writing a book about the council and “Nostra Aetate,” made it plain that much of what transpired remains mystifying. “In old age one can be tempted to let the imagination run away with what happened and replace facts with myth, or to control the narrative,” he said.
‘Dialogue is a necessity’
However, he had others who could back up his version of events. Present in the audience of about 60 people were the only two other surviving members of the “Nostra Aetate” team, 90-year-old Prof. Gregory Baum of Montreal, who served on the subcommittee, and Judith Banki, now in her mid-80s, who participated as a representative of the American Jewish Committee. Banki is now director of special programs for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City.
Right at the start, Stransky said, critics asked whether tackling Christian-Jewish relations “would be good for the Church, and if it would be good for the Jews.” Vigorous protests came from the Middle East, where both Christians and Muslims objected that the Catholic rapprochement with the Jews implied a tacit approval of the State of Israel. There were also protests from Jews, including the Orthodox American Torah scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who accepted humanitarian and cultural cooperation between Jews and Catholics, but rejected dialogue on areas of faith and doctrine. “He said that Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism,” Stransky recalled.
On the other hand, there was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the AJC, “who believed that no religion is an island, and that dialogue with the Catholic Church is a necessity.” It was a more romantic vision, but one that ultimately proved more powerful.
But the crux of the matter, Stransky stressed, was that while “we could invite and welcome those from the outside to look over our shoulder to help us avoid mistakes,” the statement they were crafting “was only for Catholics, not for anyone else.”
Speaking from a wheelchair but with vigorous enthusiasm, Stransky said that “many questions weren’t asked or were not answered by Nostra Aetate,” but what he learned through the discussions “continues to shape my life and ministry.” He went on to live and work in Jerusalem, returning to the United States three years ago, and he is at work now on a book about the declaration.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, North American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Efrat, gave the concluding remarks. He expressed his gratitude to Stransky. He said the declaration managed to shift the image of Catholic-Jewish interaction from one of “eternal combat” — like with the brothers Jacob and Esau, where one side had to be defeated for the other to be victorious — to a new paradigm of reconciliation and mutual benefit. It took “heroic, brave, wise human beings to make that happen,” he said.
Recalling the question of whether the declaration would be good for the Jewish people, Korn gave his own answer: “It has been an unalloyed blessing for the Jews. No one in 1965 could have foreseen the enormous consequences, and the theological transformation — from which there can be no return.”