Building Upon Nostra Aetate: Fraternity Over Collaboration


Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton

In April, news reports surfaced that the Vatican was on the verge of granting canonical status to a far right breakaway movement within Roman Catholicism that rejects the Second Vatican Council: the Society of Pius X (SSPX). Most Catholics became familiar with this group’s existence in 2009, when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though not granting it canonical recognition, lifted the excommunication of its members, including an infamous bishop of the Society, Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier since expelled from the group. Sadly, the removal of that bishop has not, as documented by the Anti-Defamation League, done anything to cleanse the SSPX of its anti-Semitism.
In January 2013 – just two months before Pope Francis ascended to the papacy – the leader of the Society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, blamed the Vatican’s refusal to grant his group canonical recognition on the Jewish people. As reportedby the ADL:
In his remarks, Fellay accused Jews of lobbying the Vatican to accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. “Interesting, isn’t it?” Fellay said. “People from outside the Church, who were clearly during centuries enemies of the Church, say to Rome, ‘if you want to accept these people (SSPX) you must oblige them to accept the Council.’ Isn’t that interesting? Oh it is. I think it’s fantastic, because it shows that Vatican II is their thing, not the Church’s. They see, the enemies of the Church see, their benefit in the Council. Very interesting.”
Fundamentally, what Fellay was referring to when he said that Vatican II was “their thing, not the Church’s” was the landmark Vatican document, Nostra Aetate: a document which revoked the charge of deicide against the Jewish people, and which paved the way for the following 50 years of positive Catholic-Jewish relations.
Indeed, without that so-called “Jewish interference” at the Second Vatican Council generations of Catholics would have likely been imbued with the same anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Judaic, religious mindsets that plagued pre-Vatican II Catholicism.Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, was the lead representative for the American Jewish Committee on the Council text addressing Catholic-Jewish relations in this post-Holocaust world, helping to shape its outcome for the better.
On September 3rd, 1964, Heschel issued a statement condemning the then-most recent draft of what would eventually become Nostra Aetate. Heschel, decrying the Vatican draft’s language that “the Church expects in unshakable faith and with ardent desire…the union of the Jewish people with the Church,” stated:
Jews throughout the world will be dismayed by a call from the Vatican to abandon their faith in a generation which witnessed the massacre of six million Jews and the destruction of thousands of synagogues on a continent where the dominant religion was not Islam, Buddhism or Shintoism.
(Merton & Judaism, Fons Vitae, 2003)

Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time. Artwork by sculptor Joshua Koffman.

Six days later, Catholic monk Thomas Merton sent his friend Heschel a response to the statement to express his own astonishment at the draft, writing, “This much I will say: my latent ambitions to be a true Jew under my Catholic skin will surely be realized if I continue to go through experiences like this, being spiritually slapped in the face by these blind and complacent people [the Vatican drafters] of whom I am nevertheless a ‘collaborator.'”
Merton’s pointed self-abasement in deeming himself a “collaborator” is relevant for this particular moment in Catholic Church history.
For all Catholics, lay and ordained, who have grown up in a post-Vatican II world, and who would surely be stunned to someday, perhaps quite soon, find themselves worshipping alongside people who openly express anti-Semitic and/or anti-Judaic attitudes, we must ask the self-abasing question just as Merton would: Were we collaborators, by way of silent acquiescence, in permitting this canonical recognition of an anti-Semitic movement in the Catholic Church?
To counter this hate group within Catholicism, Catholics who treasure our fraternity with the Jewish people must not only underscore the importance of Nostra Aetate in our parishes, universities and church communities, but take personal, prayerful responsibility in letting the likes of Bishop Fellay and his followers know that ongoing fraternity among Catholics and Jews is very much indeed “our thing.”

Timothy Villareal, a Miami-based writer, is a privately-vowed Christian monk. His website is

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