LeFrak Conference Features Presentation on the Impact of Vatican II on Jewish-Catholic Relations


by Jennifer McGuiggan

Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M., Ph.D., is a Servite priest and professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union of the University of Chicago. His address on the second night of The Ethel LeFrak Holocaust Education Conference focused on the impact of Nostra Aetate on Jewish-Catholic relations.


One significant outcome of Nostra Aetate can be seen in the area of textbooks, said Pawlikowski. After years of presenting Jews in a negative light, Catholic textbooks shifted to present a more positive image of Jews. This change came about after several studies of religion textbooks helped to convince American bishops to support Nostra Aetate. Then, explained Pawlikowski, after the close of Vatican II, the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Washington charged the major Catholic textbook publishers with incorporating into their publications a new, constructive vision of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish People.

The publishers did so, and subsequent studies in the 1990s confirmed that the textbooks' presentation of Jews had improved significantly. Pawlikowski proposed that leaders in all religions undertake studies of current textbooks, since “such studies would prove very beneficial in identifying issues that require further clarification and development in their own educational materials.”

The Role of the Hebrew Scriptures

The changes that took place in Catholic education materials were influenced by a revolution in biblical understanding, said Pawlikowski. He noted how Christianity had slowly lost its connection to Jewish revelation as the church and synagogue separated during the first century after Christ. This began to change in modern times. Even before Vatican II, Catholics had begun to view the so-called Old Testament as a legitimate holy text independent of how it illuminates the New Testament. These shifts in understanding also placed Jesus firmly in a Jewish context, acknowledging that Jesus and the apostles were fully Jewish. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, became a source of continuing revelation and spirituality for Catholics. Pawlikowski described Christianity and Judaism as “distinctive paths within a common revelatory field.”

Study of the Holocaust

Even as Vatican II and Nostra Aetate have improved Catholic-Jewish relations, there has been some stagnation and even backsliding, Pawlikowski said. He offered thoughts on two key areas of focus to ensure forward movement.

The continued study of the Holocaust is of supreme importance, as is not allowing it to be subsumed into general genocide studies without the acknowledgment of its unique place in history. Pawlikowski praised the NCCHE, saying that its ongoing activities have “made an indispensable contribution in focusing Catholic attention on this central event in modern history. That work must continue in earnest. The Holocaust is not merely an historical event of fifty years ago or more. The issues it brought to the surface remain central features of contemporary society.” Furthermore, he said, Christian social ethicists must consider the Holocaust in any discussion of public ethics.

Israeli-Palestinian Relations

Pawlikowski then brought up what he called “the eight hundred pound gorilla in the dialogue,” which is the current Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The Vatican's recognition of Israel in 1993 “put a final lid in the coffin of the theological tradition that had argued that Jews could never again have a homeland of their own as a consequence of their rejection of Christ.” But, said Pawlikowski, this hardly ended all questions from all people concerning the matter. The current situation and rhetoric coming out of the Middle East and other parts of the world, including some groups in North America, demonstrate that it's time to create a new conversation between Christians and Jews on the topic of Palestinian-Jewish relations. This is not an easy challenge, Pawlikowski acknowledged, but one from which we cannot shrink.

Looking Ahead

Pawlikowski ended his talk by emphasizing how far the Church has come in transforming the Christian-Jewish relationship since Nostra Aetate and emphasizing the importance of continuing that growth. “Whether those seeds mature into the full reality of such a relationship,” he said, “or whether they experience a drought, depends on us.”


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