Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Diplomat and the Pioneer in Jewish-Catholic Relations Prior to Nostra Aetate: Jo Willebrands and Toon Ramselaar

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Diplomat and the Pioneer in Jewish-Catholic Relations Prior to Nostra Aetate: Jo Willebrands and Toon Ramselaar

Article excerpt


At the end of 2014, it will be fifty years since the declaration Nostra aetate on the non-Christian religions was released at the Second Vatican Council. It is well known that numerous persons contributed to the promulgation of this small but highly influential document. The American bishops took a firm stand during the dramatic events surrounding the making of Nostra aetate, and without them the declaration either would have been watered down or would not even have been published. (1) Recently, the role of Belgian bishop Emile Josef Marie De Smedt has been highlighted. (2) Still, the story of Nostra aetate is not exhausted by these facts.

Next to the events during Vatican II is the period preceding the Council, during which the soil had been prepared. A combined research of documents in the secret archives of the Vatican and of hitherto unexplored Dutch archives sheds new light on the genesis of Nostra aetate. Two Dutch Catholics exercised a decisive influence upon the making of this declaration: monsignors Johannes Willebrands (1909-2006) and Anton Ramselaar (1899-1981). Whereas the former is internationally well known for his role in the preparation of Nostra aetate as secretary of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity (SPCU) from June, 1960, onward, and later as president of the same organization, the latter's fame has been restricted mainly to pioneering circles of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

While Ramselaar's role as peritus (expert adviser) at Vatican II concerned primarily the topics of the youth movement and the position of women in the church, the similarities between the two men are striking: Both were internationally oriented, cherished strong cultural affinities, and were highly interested in the interplay between religion and art, probably under the influence of the renouveau catholique. In the Netherlands, this movement of Catholic renewal was concentrated in the prewar cultural magazine De Gemeenschap (The Community). Ramselaar was a wellknown guest in these circles, having demonstrated his artistic affinities by studying musicology in Rome. He returned to the Netherlands after finishing his studies in 1927 and became involved with the youth movement. As a chaplain in the city of Utrecht, he became acquainted with artistic circles. In 1945, Ramselaar was appointed president of the seminary in the city of Apeldoom. Until that time, he had displayed no special interest in the relationship between the Church and Judaism. Eventually, both Ramselaar and Willebrands would devote a good part of their lives to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, although there was little in the pre-war period that announced their special interest.

In this essay, I will argue that it was mainly Ramselaar's sudden interest in Judaism almost directly after the Second World War that eventually served as a bridge that enabled Willebrands to promote this theme in Vatican circles during and after Vatican 11. This is not to say that the two followed the same track in mutual harmony. On the contrary, documents in the archives of the Dutch Catholic Council for Israel (Katholieke Raad voor Israel), founded in 1951 by Ramselaar, and the recent publication of Willebrands's notebooks and diaries allow the reconstruction of a strong antagonism between the two men. (3)

During the 1950's, Willebrands chaired the Dutch ecumenical society Sint Willibrord Vereniging voor Oecumene, of which the Catholic Council for Israel was a section. In addition, there was, next to the Catholic Council for Israel, a Study Committee, instituted upon the express wish of Willebrands. Ramselaar was not invited to take part in that Study Committee, however. This makes clear that Willebrands had little confidence in the course of the Catholic Council for Israel and in its chair, Ramselaar. (4) The Study Committee should provide a "solid" theological foundation for the relationship between the Church and Judaism. …

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