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Thomas Petriano

A Monk, a Rabbi, and a Cardinal and the Making of Nostra Aetate

Although the opening line, “a monk, a rabbi, and a cardinal” could sound like the start of an old joke, in this case, it actually captures a small but important chapter in the development of one of the most momentous documents to be promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. It is a chapter whose story needs to be preserved, as the living memory of this document becomes the patrimony of history. As Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, recedes further and further from memory and into the horizon of history, and as its first-hand witnesses become fewer in number, the reporting of the turbulent history of this ground-breaking document becomes an ever greater imperative.  Citing an important distinction between living memories (milieux de mémoire) and memory sites (lieux de mémoire), Stephen Schloesser, S.J. reminds us of the post Vatican II struggle now going on over “whose memories will become the monuments upon which future Catholic self-understanding and identity will be based.”[1]

It has been widely acknowledged that Nostra Aetate represents one of the landmark contributions of Vatican II to Catholic self-understanding and the unfolding of Catholic doctrine. What is perhaps less well known is the critical and often contentious behind the scenes struggle that went on over the three years of its making. Of all the documents of Vatican II, “no draft had a more unplanned, threatened, and torturous journey” than did Nostra Aetate, especially section 4 which was the statement on the Jews.”[2]

What began as a wish to include in the document on Ecumenism a statement on the Church’s relationship to Judaism, eventually evolved into a separate document on non-Christian religions. There were many players involved in the struggle to forge this final document. In this paper, I would like to speak of three: a monk, a rabbi, and a cardinal.

A Brief History of Nostra Aetate

Nostra Aetate represents one of the first documents to be taken up by Vatican ll, and, ironically, it was one of the last to be promulgated. Between its initial conception as a statement on Catholic-Jewish relations to be included in the Document on Ecumenism, and its final publication as a separate document on all non-Christian religions, there was an often heated debate about what precisely should be included in a statement about the Jews.

The fact that there was even a perceived need for a statement at all on Judaism is rightly credited to the foresight of John XXIII. In his comments on the history of Nostra Aetate, John M. Oesterreicher points out that much of the impetus for John XXIII’s wish that the Council take up the question of the Jews came from two sources. One was his visit with the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac. In 1960, Isaac travelled to Rome to meet with John XXIII to express on behalf of the French branch of B’nai B’rith his wishes and hopes for the upcoming council.  Oesterreicher sums up the significance of the visit as follows:

“That Jules Isaac’s visit had a lasting effect on John XXIII cannot, in my opinion, be doubted.  On the other hand it is questionable whether his was the decisive influence in moving the Pope to act, as is sometimes asserted. What he did, however, was to cause the Pope’s intentions, until then but vaguely formed, to mature. It was, after all, the measures taken by JohnXXIII before the audience to remove hurtful phrases from liturgical texts that had encouraged Isaac, as he himself acknowledged, to put his ideas before the Pope.”[3]

Undoubtedly, John’s great sensitivity to the concerns of the Jewish people was influenced by the time he spent (prior to his papacy) as Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria and Turkey. It was especially for his work in helping Jews in Turkey during World War Two that he has been recognized by the Holocaust Museum of Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.”[4]

As Oesterreicher points out the true source of John XXIII’s initiative in calling for a statement on the relationship between the Church and the Jews was really his own heart, a heart that had come to truly understand the suffering of the Jewish people.[5]

The Role of Cardinal Bea

A genuine sign of the desire of John XXIII to improve the relationship of the Church to the Jewish community and to correct false and unjust statements about Israel and the Jews from the past can be seen in his choice of Cardinal Augustin Bea to be in charge of this delicate yet important task. Cardinal Bea , a German born Jesuit, was a recognized biblical scholar who was fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Italian , Latin, French, and German.  He was known for his profound knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures as well as a genuine respect for Judaism.[6]

As head of John XXIII’s newly established Secretariat on Christian Unity, Bea appointed a sub-committee.  His choice of members is telling. Among those on the sub-committee were Gregory Baum who wa a Protestant convert to Catholicism of Jewish background; John M. Oesterreicher, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who was the director of the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University; and Leo Rudloff who was the abbot of the Benedictine Priory in Weston Vermont.   Their appreciation, and knowledge of, and sensitivity to the sufferings of the Jewish people throughout history and the influences of Catholic theological outlooks on this history made them excellent choices for the work to be done. Little did they know then, however, the formidable task that lay ahead.

Another sign of his wisdom and sincerity in fulfilling the duty charged to him by Pope John was his consultation with the American Jewish Committee. Although the AJC already was in conversations with the Vatican, what was unique about Bea’ request was that the AJC submit a memorandum to the Secretariat in which it would apprise Bea and his committee of concerns that they believed should be addressed in the anticipated statement.  One of the advisors to the AJC was Abraham Heschel , and he would come to have a  pivotal role in extended and torturous journey from the initial conception of document by John XXIII in 1960 to its final form in 1963.[7]

The Role of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Heschel first met Cardinal Bea on November 26, 1961.  Both men were accomplished biblical scholars. Cardinal Bea had written an introduction to a critical Hebrew edition of the Song of Songs which Heschel had read, and Bea, in turn, admired greatly Heschel’s work on the prophets.  A connection between the two men was immediately evident.  Because of the success of this visit, Heschel became the main representative of the AJC to the Vatican, presenting Cardinal Bea with two memoranda that had been prepared by the AJC outlining recommendations for changes in the liturgy and catechism of the Church. He also promised Bea a “third memorandum urging the church to “bring about a greater knowledge of Jewish religion and Jewish teaching.”[8]

Among the recommendations included in Heschel’s “third memorandum,” as it came to be called, were: “1) A declaration rejecting the charge of deicide; 2) Recognition of Jews as Jews (that is, as a faith separate from Christianity); 3) Explicit rejection of anti-Semitism by the Church.[9]

The recommendations that were contained in this document reflected the prophetic orientation that has become a hallmark of Heschel’s work and is grounded in his landmark study of the prophets of Israel. His memorandum began with the words: “With humility and in the spirit of commitment to the living message of the prophets of Israel, let us consider the grave problems that confront us all as the children of God.[10]

For Heschel the strained nature of Catholic-Jewish relations represented nothing short of a “divine emergency,” and he saw great hope in the decree that the committee working under Cardinal Bea was in the process of formulating. Unfortunately, however, opposition was quietly mounting, a storm was gathering, and his high hopes would be thwarted.

The Second Vatican Council was opened by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. Two months later, the first session ended without a statement on the Jews. Shortly before the first session ended an anonymous and slanderous treatise, Il complotto contro la Chiesa (The plot against the Church) was circulated among all the participants in the Council. Clearly there were forces at work against any efforts to produce some kind of a conciliatory statement by Cardinal Bea and his subcommittee. The document purported to unmask a Jewish conspiracy, as evidenced by Jews who had infiltrated the Vatican, a subtle reference to Gregory Baum and John Oesterreicher. A further doubt was cast upon any hope of the Council making any kind of gesture of reconciliation toward the Jews by the illness of Pope John XXIII that November.

In the interim between the first and second session of the Council, Cardinal Bea visited New York in an effort to keep hope alive.  During that time, he met with Abraham Heschel and other key members of the AJC such as Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum and Zachariah Schuster.  In an address to Jewish leaders in New York, Cardinal Bea used almost the very same words that Heschel had used in his third memorandum, stating, “it is in fact both an error and heresy to charge the Jewish people with deicide.” He further expressed his “sincere desire that the Catholic Church and its faithful will acknowledge the integrity and permanent preciousness of Judaism and the Jewish people.” With his assurance that John XXIII shared these sentiments, hopes of a positive and ground-breaking statement were rekindled. This meeting took place in March of 1963. Three months later, on June 3rd, Pope John XXIII died.[11]

Though Pope John XXIII was now gone there was good reason for Heschel, the AJC and the Jewish community at large to hope that the newly elected Pope Paul VI would favorably support the work that had been done on document on Catholic Jewish relations. They were poised to welcome a decree that would shed new light on a dark history. This anticipation proved to be short-lived, however, due to the fact that shortly after the second session of the council was convened on September 29th, 1963, copies of a draft statement were leaked out.  This in turn produced an avalanche of responses, some of which were supportive and many of which were hostile. Shortly after this another anonymous anti-Semitic document, Gli Hebrei e il Concilio all luce della Sacra Scriturra e della tradizione (The Jews and the Council in the Light of Scripture and Tradition), was circulated among the council members.  The anonymous pamphlet (which argued against including a statement rejecting the charge of deicide against the Jews and called for the conversions of Jews) was influential enough to cause a delay in the vote on the hoped for document, and, as a result, the second session ended without the statement Cardinal Bea and his committee were hoping for.

As reported by his colleague and friend Zachariah Schuster, Abraham Heschel “left (Rome) in a state of depression.”[12]

  The failure of the second session of the Council to produce a document was compounded by the news that the statement had not only been delayed, but reports were surfacing that it in fact had been revised.[13]

This news was compounded by the news that Heschel’s only surviving sister had died.  Heschel would seek solace by visiting with a friend with whom he had been corresponding since 1960.  That friend was Thomas Merton. In July of 1964 Heschel went to Gethsemane Abbey in Louisville Kentucky to visit with Merton.

The Role of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was one of Twentieth Century America’s most admired religious thinkers.[14]

Although isolated in his monastery, Merton corresponded extensively with writers, poets, and religious leaders of all faiths. His correspondence and broad reading led him to a genuine respect and understanding of the world’s great religious traditions. In many ways, his writings, developed out of the friendships built on his correspondence and occasional meetings with religious leaders of all faiths, foreshadowed the document that would become Nostra Aetate.

Merton’s interest in Judaism was not merely  theological - it was an intensely personal one as well. During his years at Columbia, three of his best friends, Robert Lax, Seymour Freedgood, and Robert Gerdy were Jewish. They were among the four friends that Merton actually invited to be with him at his baptism at Corpus Christi Church in New York City on November 16, 1938.  Merton’s interest in and involvement in Judaism was therefore something he felt very strongly because it was based on friendship. It was undoubtedly these friendships that prepared him for and opened him to his friendship with Abraham Heschel.[15]

Thomas Merton began his acquaintance with Abraham Heschel in 1960 through an exchange of letters. According to Merton, Heschel was “the most significant spiritual (religious) writer in this country at the moment. I like his depth and his realism. He knows God!”[16]

Merton had developed a high esteem for Heschel, so much so, that he used Heschel’s books, God in Search of Man and The Prophets with his novices.  It is clear from their correspondence that they were indeed kindred spirits both of whom recognized that the modern believer must be someone whose life-stance is characterized by both contemplative inwardness and prophetic action.  Merton would have agreed with Heschel when he wrote in his book The Prophets:

“The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror.      Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the            prophet’s words.”[17]

It would not at all be off the mark to consider these two men of different religious traditions as both prophets and mystics. They can indeed be counted among those who are referred to in the Book of Wisdom as “prophets and friends of God.” Moreover, their mutual respect and deep friendship, despite their different religious commitments, serves as a powerful example not only of the possibilities of deep friendship between a Christian and a Jew, but of the many points of commonality that can be gleaned from a genuine dialogue that is not hindered by the boundaries of religious difference. They emulate well what Pope John Paul II meant when he said at the International Catholic Jewish Liaison Committee meeting in Prague in 1990:

“Catholic-Jewish dialogue can become a sign of hope and inspiration to other religions, races, and ethnic groups to turn away from contempt, toward realizing authentic human fraternity. This new spirit of         friendship and caring for one another may be the most important symbol we have to offer to our troubled world.”[18]

The mutual friendship and respect that Merton and Heschel cultivated during their correspondence is undoubtedly what led Heschel to visit Merton at the monastery of Gethsemane in July of 1964.  Heschel, having just lost his sister and deeply discouraged by the turn of events in Rome, sought solace in the monastery and in the friendship of Thomas Merton. On July 14, a day after their visit, Merton was prompted to write to Cardinal Bea.  His letter begins:

“Yesterday I had the very great pleasure of speaking at some length with Rabbi Abraham Heschel…. He spoke much of his hopes and fears for the Council and of course spoke very much of your Eminence and  of the Jewish Chapter, which we all have so closely at heart, and concerning which we share a certain sadness not devoid of hope.”[19]

With this introduction to Cardinal Bea, Merton went on at some length urging Cardinal Bea to not let this important moment in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations pass.   

“I am personally convinced that the grace to truly see the Church as she is in her humility and in her splendor may perhaps not be granted to the Council Fathers if they fail to take account of her relation to the  anguished Synagogue….If she forgoes this opportunity out of temporal and political motives will she not by that very fact manifest that she is perhaps in danger of forgetting her own true identity? Is not then the whole meaning and purpose of the Council at stake?”[20]

The “political motives” that Merton was referring to in this part of the letter were the concerns raised that the statement as presented would offend Arab states and, in turn,  make life more difficult for Christians living in the Middle East.  It was feared by more conservative bishops at the Council that any gesture of reconciliation toward Jews would be interpreted as an act of hostility toward Arabs. Indeed the basis for this argument were the protests from Arab governments when word of the contents of the document leaked out during the second session.[21]

Cardinal Cicognani, one of the principle opponents of the statement as crafted by Cardinal Bea put the argument this way:  “If we speak about the Jews, why not also about the Muslims?”[22] Unwittingly, by making such a statement, he was advancing an argument for what would eventually emerge as an entirely reconceived document, the one we now know as Nostra Aetate.

Merton, however, did not agree with Cicognani’s position, and in his letter to Bea he explained why:

“in any event Christians and Jews together in the Koran occupy a privileged position as “people of the Book” and as spiritual descendents of Abraham.  Perhaps this common theological root in the promises made to Abraham might bear fruit in a Chapter on anti-Semitism oriented to peace with all Semites and then with special emphasis on the relation of the Church and Synagogue and at least an implicit recognition of the long-standing sin of anti-Jewish hatred among Catholics.”[23]

In this quotation, we glean Merton’s familiarity not only with Judaism, but also with Islam. One can only wonder if this portion of his letter to Cardinal Bea did not also in some way help germinate the idea that the solution to the controversy that had arisen could come in the form of a document that addressed not only the Church’s relation to Judaism, but to all the religions of the human family.

In the September after his visit to Merton, Heschel decided to formulate his response to the crisis. It was circulated among his friends and became widely publicized.  He called the amended version of Chapter Four “spiritual fratricide.” He was particularly aggrieved by the proposed statement in the document that expressed the Church’s “ardent desire for union between the Church and the Jewish people.  This lead Heschel to declare in his letter, “I am ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.”[24]

One of the friends to whom Heschel sent a copy of his letter was Thomas Merton. This prompted a reply from Merton in which he stated, “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 of whom I am nevertheless a ‘collaborator.’”  He went on to express together with his frustration a sympathy for Cardinal Bea, “I must however think more of people like Cardinal Bea who must certainly be crushed by this development.”[25]

Indeed, Cardinal Bea was crushed by this development; however he did not allow the opposing forces to win the day.  Between the third and fourth session of the Council  Mikka Ruokaanen tells us that “all possible means, diplomatic and undiplomatic, sympathetic and unsympathetic, were exploited in order that the schema would be dropped or at least altered.”[26]

A fourth draft of the declaration on the Jews was written and placed within what would be become an entire document on non-Christian religions, the document we now know as Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate was approved on October 28, 1965 by a final vote of 2,221 to 88.  The document begins with a recognition of the universal longing that is addressed by all the religions of humanity:

“Men look to various religions for an answer to the profound mysteries of the human condition which, as in the past still today deeply move the human heart….. From ancient times down to the present, there could be found among different peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which is present in the course of things and in the events of human life, resulting at times in the recognition of a Supreme Numinous Spirit and even of a Father…. The Catholic Church rejects none of the things that are true and holy in these religions.”[27]

This document was, in many ways, a landmark development in the Catholic Church’s understanding of non-Christian religions and one of the major accomplishments of Vatican II.  Chapter Four represented most of what Heschel, Merton and Bea had hoped for in terms of a positive statement about the Jews, free of any call for their conversion, condemning all persecutions of Jews, and rejecting the notion that Jews then living or now were responsible for the death of Christ. A key element in this chapter were the references to Romans Chapters 9-11, particularly the metaphor of the olive branches used in Chapter 9.

 “Consequently, the Church cannot forget that it was through this  People, with whom God, in his ineffable mercy deigned to establish the Ancient Covenant, that she received the revelation of the Old             Testament, and that she draws sustenance from the root of that good live tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles."[28]

Brenda Fitch Fairaday in her essay, “Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Voice,” points out that the references in Chapter Four of Nostra Aetate to The Letter to the Romans, are in all likelihood, traceable to the influence of the Merton-Heschel exchange. In a journal entry recorded for November 4, 1964, Merton wrote:

“I am more and more convinced that Romans 9:11 (the chapters on the election of Israel) are the key to everything today. This is the point  where we have to look, and press and search and listen to the word.”[29]

It seems very likely that Romans 9-11 was among the topics Merton and Heschel  discussed during Heschel’s visit to Gethsemane in July 1964, and that it was also an element in Heschel’s conversations with Cardinal Bea that would have appealed to the sensibilities of Bea who was himself a biblical scholar.[30]

While Chapter Four of Nostra Aetate was not perfect statement, it represented a huge leap forward in the often sad history of Catholic-Jewish relations. The long road to this document was the realization of the dream of Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac. The path to its final acceptance was one fraught with many obstacles.  It may never have reached the light of day and be the beacon that it is today for interfaith dialog without the determined and prophetic voices of a monk, a rabbi, and a cardinal. May the example of their friendship, determination, and mutual respect be instructive for us as the debate continues and as we move forward dealing with ongoing issues of Catholic-Jewish relations and of interfaith dialogue.

[1]Stephen Schloesser, S.J., “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II,” in John W. O’Malley (ed.), Vatican II – Did Anything Happen, NY: Continuum,  2008, pg. 93.
[2]Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., “The Catholic-Jewish Dialogue: Twenty Years After Vatican II, America, February 8, 1986, pg. 92.
[3]John M. Oestereicher, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Introduction and Commentary,” in Herbert Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, NY: Herder and Herder, 1969, pg. 4.
[5]Oestereicher, pg. 8.
[6]Edward K. Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America 1940-1972, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pg. 239.
[7]ibid. pg. 240.
[8]ibid., pp. 242 & 243.
[9]ibid. pg. 243.
[10]Quotations from Heschel’s typed memorandum, “On Improving Catholic-Jewish Relations: A Memorandum to His Eminence Agostino Cardinal Bea, President, the Secretariat for Christian Unity,” 5 pp.,22 May 1962, Marc H. Tanenbaum, personal papers, American Jewish Archives, and AJC/NY
[11]Kaplan, pg. 249.
[12]ibid., pg. 253.
[13]ibid., pg. 255.
[14]Born in Prades, France on January 31,1915. to a Quaker mother and Anglican father—both of whom were artists. Merton’s mother died when he was just six years old and her death precipitated a difficult period in his life. For a while he lived with his grandparents in New York and later moved to England with his father and brother.  When he was sixteen his father died, and the following year Merton won a scholarship to Cambridge. Though he excelled academically, this was a difficult time in his life, and his inner conflicts were played out in a rather prodigal lifestyle. In 1934 Merton left Cambridge for New York where he enrolled in Columbia University. It is likely that this surprise departure from Cambridge was due to a relationship he was involved in and a pregnancy that resulted from it.15 Merton’s years at Columbia were formative--he studied English literature, completing his Master’s thesis on the poet William Blake. There too he began to read broadly through the influence of a number of friends, most of whom were Jewish. In a French literature course he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, a work that had a profound influence on him. While at Columbia he went to a free lecture by the Hindu scholar Brachmari. Merton was so taken by the lecture that he asked Brachmari to recommend some books. Brachmari’s reply was that he should first read Augustine’s Confessions which Merton promptly did. Another important influence on Merton at this time was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. The combination of reading more deeply some of the classic texts of the Catholic tradition and observing Dorothy Day’s radical commitment to living the gospel ultimately led Merton to seek reception into the Catholic Church in 1938. After a trip to Cuba in 1939, Merton began to seriously consider the priesthood. In 1940, he applied to the Franciscans, but was rejected, most likely because of his earlier lifestyle at Cambridge.  Devastated by this rejection, some of Merton’s friends persuaded him to make a Holy Week retreat at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. The monastic life resonated deeply with him. Shortly after he applied for admission to the monastery. This time he was accepted and given the name Brother Louis. While in the monastery, Merton discovered not only his deep love of solitude but a deep love of writing. His 1948 biography, The Seven Story Mountain became an instant best seller and to this day continues to be reprinted. Merton went on to write sixty books, five-hundred articles, numerous poems, and volumes of journals and correspondences. He became widely known as a monk, a writer, an authority on the mystical life and, in his last years, a peace activist during the Vietnam war. Merton met an early and untimely death in Bangkok. Thailand on Dec. 10, 1968. After delivering a lecture on Marxism and Christianity, he returned to his room and was electrocuted by faulty wiring in an electric fan. For further information see the excellent biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Boston: Houghton Miflin 1984.
[15]Brenda Fitch Fairaday, “Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Voice,” in: Beatrice Bruteau, (ed.) Merton and Judaism,  Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, pg. 280
[16]Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 4, 1960-1963, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, pp.61-62.
[17]Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, New York: Jewish Publications Society, 1962, pg. 5.
[18]Jack Bemporad and Michael Shevack, Our Age, NY: New York City, 1996, pg. 16.
[19]Bruteau, pg. 221.
[20]ibid. pg. 222
[21]Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak,  History of Vatican II, Vol. IV, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2003, pg. 203.
[22]ibid., pg. 203, footnote 164.
[23]Bruteau, pg. 222.
[24]ibid., pp. 223-4 and Kaplan, pg. 260.
[25]ibid., pg. 225
[26]ibid., pg. 368.
[27]The Documents of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, 1, translated by James M. Somerville in Bruteau, pg. 355.
[28]ibid., Nostra Aetate, 4, pg. 359.
[29]quoted in Fairaday, pg. 279
[30]ibid., pg.279.


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