Traditions of peace: 50 years on from Nostra Aetate

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate at a celebration at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Challenges to harmony between faiths and faithful

Nostra Aetate begins with the claim that humanity is drawing closer day by day. Growing interest in other societies, ease of transport and communications, new forms of international co-operation, mass migration, the economic globalisation that interweaves our interests and cultural globalisation that homogenises much of our thinking – such factors mean people of different faiths now interact to a degree unimaginable to our ancestors. In so many ways the Council Fathers were right to think the world was becoming smaller.

Yet the optimistic predictions of Nostra Aetate were not entirely fulfilled. It has often been a few steps forward and a few steps back. Ours is in fact an age of martyrs. Few Australians avert to the fact that on the eve of the first Anzac Day, one hundred years ago, the genocide began of over a million Armenian Christians and other minorities.

This foreshadowed the even more diabolical Shoah in the middle of that century, the terrible holocaust of six million Jews. And that century of blood ended with war and persecution across the Middle East so people of all faiths now live there in fear. The U.S. State Department reports that Christians in more than 60 countries now face persecution from their governments or neighbours; and it is estimated that 100,000 Christians are now killed for their faith every year, especially in the Middle East, Africa and North Korea. Yazidis and Muslims, too, often suffer persecution and the mass movement of peoples we are presently witnessing is partly a result.

While such atrocities can seem alien to Australians, we are not immune to occasional acts of lethal violence against innocents blasphemously perpetrated in the name of God. We all sympathise with Muslim parents and religious leaders struggling with the alienation of some of their young people which makes them prey to radicalisation in hate. They, too, can suffer from religious vilification in our country. And there’s been a hardening of hearts towards religion amongst dogmatic secularists determined to run all faith and faithful out of the public square.

If Christians and other minorities are particular targets of much religious persecution in our world today, it is our big brothers, the Jews, who have known this evil most often. The psalmist’s prayers for the peace of Jerusalem and all Israel are as necessary today as in King David’s time. Nor is it only in Israel that Jews live in fear: anti-Semitic incidents occur in many places. In this context, I can echo Nostra Aetate’s insistence on God’s unique and enduring relationship to the Jewish people, its condemnation of all anti-Semitism and its call for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews – as well as with Muslims whom the document recognised also “adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth” and take pains to submit to His will (§4). I make my own the public apologies for any part Christians have played in prejudiced or hurtful actions towards Jews, Muslims or other believers. I pray for a world in which such prejudice is finally eliminated and commit the Church of Sydney to working for this.

Earlier this year Geoffrey Alderman wrote in the Jewish Chronicle about the prosecution of a couple who ran a bakery in Northern Ireland for refusing to bake a cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” blazoned on it. (There has been a similar case in Oregon.) This offended their Presbyterian faith: Moses, Jesus and Paul all insisted that a man leaves his mother and father to cleave to his wife that the two might become one flesh. But there is no room for such belief at the inn of modernity and the judge convicted and fined them £500 plus costs. Alderman warned this had the “hallmarks of religious persecution” familiar to Jews and that non-Christians should resist the persecution of Christians by the secular state. He thought the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Britain had achieved “parity of esteem” between people of different sexualities only at the cost of parity of esteem between people of different faiths. He predicted more attacks on religious freedom in the future.

Faith between a rock and a hard place

Thus religious believers today find themselves “between a rock and a hard place”: on one side, fundamentalist theists who insist that their interpretation of their faith tradition is the only acceptable belief for any human being and who dream of imposing some sort of caliphate in which all religious difference and indifference is wiped out; and, on the other side, from fundamentalist atheists who dream of a secular utopia in which all religious belief is eradicated from law, institutions, culture and the human heart. Both are totalising ideologies; neither accepts pluralism in faith; both would co-opt state power and in the meantime use vilification to achieve their goals.

In his Regensburg Lecture the then-pope Benedict XVI suggested that both a secularism closed to the transcendent and a fundamentalism closed to modernity represent the same either-or approach to knowing: either we rely upon God, His Book, His revealed will, as only we interpret them, as the only true knowledge and reject all science, all reasoned critique; or we rely upon man, his wilfulness, calculation and technologies, as the only truth and reject faith. A culture that admits no dialogue between faith and reason impoverishes the human soul and resolves divisive antagonisms not by promoting respectful pluralism but by imposing totalitarian homogeneity.

Nostra Aetate speaks to the partnership of faith and reason in human life: believers who honour both sources of wisdom join the rest of humanity in asking the big questions: Why is the universe as it is? Why anything at all? What is my life for? What will make me happy? Why do the innocent suffer? Is there ultimately any justice, any mercy? (§1) And they offer humble answers: there is a greater-than-human source of being, truth, goodness and beauty, a beginning, order and end of it all. Some know that source as a Supreme Being, Creator, common Father, and believe he has a plan for human beings (§2). Totalising conceptions of religion and irreligion cut this inquiry short or dismiss it altogether, and so fail to respond to deep human needs or to establish a basis for living peaceably and fruitfully together.

Jews, Christians, Muslims and other believers, from traditions which emphasise peace, have a rôle to play in demonstrating that genuine faith is overwhelmingly a force for good and that recalling people to their transcendent origin and destiny actually helps. Together they can offer our world the threefold proposal of Nostra Aetate made in the middle of the century of blood: a commitment to mutual respect, indeed friendship, between people of different beliefs; an acknowledgement of the considerable common ground between us, whatever the differences; and a willingness to collaborate on many levels for everyone’s sake. Faiths enrich cultures that have lost their moorings on issues as basic as life and love, marriage and family, the dignity of the human person and especially the poor. Faith in God and man must be recovered if modernity is to draw back from the precipice of meaninglessness and find helpful guideposts. Hope in God and man is necessary if we are to avoid being trapped in the temporary or falling into ‘the slough of despond’, and instead build a future together. Love of God and man is essential if people of diverse ethnicity and convictions are to eschew spiralling suspicion and instead build a real community.

Faith as a leaven for peace

One reason dogmatic secularists want to end religion is that they think it the principal cause of prejudice and cruelty in our world. It is true that all too often human beings have distorted true religion to excuse vile behaviour. But in his fascinating book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Jonathan Glover considers the past century of moral catastrophes, the factors which contributed to them and the ‘defences’ that held some people back from co-operating in atrocities such as genocides, purges and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Glover is a non-believer, indeed an advocate of practices like abortion and infanticide that most believers deplore. Yet he acknowledges that the moral cataclysms of the twentieth century were largely areligious in motivation or openly anti-religious. He concludes that: “Those of us who do not believe in a religious moral law should still be troubled by its fading. The evils of religious intolerance, religious persecution and religious wars are well known, but it is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment.” He notes several, including the protest against WMDs by Oxford philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe. Hers was an heroic stance, or should I say an heroic kneeling, since she made her point silently praying on her knees outside the Oxford graduation hall while an honorary doctorate was conferred on Harry Truman – the President who had ordered the slaughter of 200,000 innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Glover notes that Anscombe’s position was informed by her Church’s doctrine of just and unjust wars and concludes that the decline of religion-based morality is a huge loss, for if people have no God they are left hostage to tribal prejudice and current fashion.

Like Glover I’m convinced that only faith can heal the pathologies that endanger peace and good order. The Scriptures call the Jews the apple of God’s eye and in Abraham “all the families of the earth will be blessed”. As  Nostra Aetate recognised, the three great Abrahamic religions are especially closely related (§§3-4). Perhaps it’s because they are brothers that these three boys have fought so much. But if the world is to be blessed through the children of Abraham it will be up to us. As Pope Benedict explained, because it is unreasonable violence is incompatible with the God who is pure Reason; because it is unloving violence is incompatible with the God who is love. So  Nostra Aetate pleads with humanity to end religious discrimination and sincerely seek “mutual understanding”. God does not want people persecuted; God wants us to live as neighbours, friends, brothers, in reverent dialogue, genuine friendship and fruitful collaboration.

 Nostra Aetate therefore asks more of us than live-and-let-live. Of course that’s better than being at each other’s throats; but the children of Abraham must talk the talk together and then walk that talk together. Conflict can only be resolved by such respectful dialogue and joint action, as Pope Francis has observed. Our patient dialogue must be measured against God’s patience with humanity; our peacemaking make His Shalom visible in our world.

The faith of popes and rabbis

Last year I was privileged to attend the canonisation by Pope Francis of John XXIII and John Paul II. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a parish priest, seminary professor and papal diplomat. Rabbi David Dalin estimates that during the Second World War, in Budapest alone, Roncalli’s program of issuing baptism certificates and other false documents saved as many as 50,000 Jews. During the German occupation of Greece, he helped locals prevent the deportations to Auschwitz. He pressed the Bulgarian monarchs to resist Nazism, threatening the king with “the punishment of God” if he cooperated. Roncalli also intervened to stop the deportation of the Slovenian Jews, to the fury of Eichmann. With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944 he again issued tens of thousands of documents so Jews could escape to Palestine.

After the war, as nuncio to France, he saw a newsreel of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. He is reported to have cried out that these were the mystical Body of Christ being murdered. Thereafter he was elected Patriarch of Venice, cardinal and, in 1958, Pope. One of his first acts was to receive the Muslim Shah of Iran and he received other Muslims too in his short pontificate. He granted some 120 private audiences as Pope to Jewish individuals and groups. By 1959 he removed the term ‘perfidious’ from the Good Friday prayer for the Jews, corrected other Catholic texts that blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death, suppressed a Bavarian pilgrimage commemorating a 14th century pogrom, and announced an ecumenical council to let fresh air into the Church. In 1960 American Jewish leaders presented him with a Torah scroll in gratitude for the lives he’d saved during the Holocaust. He replied: “We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must always be the brightness of love and its practice… I am Joseph, your brother”. In using his baptismal name, the pope was not only quoting the biblical revelation of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt (Gen 45:4), but also honouring them as the descendants of the Patriarchs. In our commemorative book Rabbi David Rosen recalls the momentous meeting that year between John and the French scholar Jules Isaac, who had documented the history of Christian contempt towards Jewry. Roncalli responded by putting the issue firmly on the Council’s agenda. He also promoted dialogue with Muslims with whom he’d had good relations when Nuncio to Turkey.

By the time  Nostra Aetate was complete, John was dead and it fell to his successor Paul VI to approve it on this day in 1965. One of the authors was a young bishop, Karol Józef Wojtyła. Growing up in Wadowice, Poland, he had many Jewish neighbours and friends and was an eyewitness to the Holocaust. Their faith and suffering made a lasting impression on him, and powered his championing of human rights, religious tolerance and interreligious friendship. A few months before the war ended, Wojtyła rescued a starving Jewish girl by carrying her to his rail car, feeding her and covering her with his coat. After the war he helped reunite Jewish parents with children they had placed with Christian families to escape extermination and supported the valiant attempt of survivors to rebuild Jewish life in Poland. Speaking at the United Nations in when John Paul was beatified in 2011, University of Toronto Professor of Jewish Studies, David Novak, said: “Not so long ago we thought that at best there were only about five thousand Jews in Poland, almost all of them aged Holocaust survivors, who would be the final generation of Polish Jews. But with the active support of the Catholic Church in Poland, there are now more than 50,000 in Poland who identify with the Jewish people and with Judaism. Today, Polish Jews can, as it were, come out of the closet, because they live in a much more hospitable political and cultural climate than that of Soviet or pre-Soviet Poland.”

Wojtyła, as I said, was a significant contributor to the formulation of  Nostra Aetate but more importantly to its enactment. Elected Pope in 1978, he frequently met Jewish and Muslim leaders and condemned anti-Semitism and religious intolerance. He commemorated the Holocaust, established diplomatic relations with Israel, knelt in prayer at Auschwitz. He was the first pope to enter Rome’s Great Synagogue and warmly embraced Rabbi Elio Toaff, describing the Jews as our “beloved elder brothers”. In our commemorative book Rabbi Apple tells of John Paul’s meeting with Australian Jewish leaders in 1986 in what is now my home. John Paul II also made gestures towards other faiths, such his prayers for peace with leaders of major religions in Assisi, his visits to Islamic lands and mosques, his writing annually to Muslims at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, his (controversially) condemning the Gulf War, apologising for the crusades and everencing the Holy Quran.

In 1998 was published We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah expressing the Church’s “deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age” with respect to the Jews. In the Jubilee Year 2000 John Paul again apologised, this time at Yad Vashem, and put a written plea for forgiveness in a crack in the Western Wall. Rabbi Toaff and the Pope’s private secretary were the only two individuals named in his will (2005). In no small measure due to such leadership, mainstream Catholicism now looks on the Jews with great affection and recognises with St Paul that to the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the Torah, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”. Likewise our dialogue, friendship and collaboration with Muslims have gone ahead in leaps and bounds in many parts of the world.

So, there is much to celebrate in and since Nostra Aetate. Yet reconciliation is never complete. My hope and expectation is that our communities will continue to bear witness to faith, hope and love. Our Joint Statement tonight is an example of this. There are today 3.8 billion Jewish, Christian and Muslim children of Abraham in our world; if they were consistently to demonstrate their recognition of every human being as an inviolable image and beloved child of God what a difference it would make! The world needs such common witness from us. There is no room for apathy or disengagement, partiality or pessimism. Dialogue, friendship and collaboration between us are no longer optional extras: they are the will of Almighty God and vital for the peace of our world. So I pray with you and for you all that the Lord bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).

This is an edited text of the talk given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Nostra Aetate at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on 28 October.