How Catholic Converts Revolutionized the Vatican’s Teachings on the Jews

June 1, 2012

The New Republic:

Across the violent years of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a trial of conscience that ultimately brought about a radical transformation in its official doctrine regarding the Jews. Church tradition had long held that the Jewish people were abandoned by God and condemned to wander the Earth, their religion nullified by the new covenant with Christ. But the Second Vatican Council marked the culmination of a protracted debate among Catholic theologians that brought this teaching gently to an end. The debate was not without controversy, and it is even today not universally accepted.

Vatican II, the conciliar commission that opened under John XXIII in 1962 and concluded under Pope Paul VI in 1965, is rightly seen as a watershed in the history of modern religion. Some praise its spirit of worldly accommodation. Others condemn it as a demystification of the mysterious and an abdication of ecclesiastical authority. It relaxed the Latin-only stricture on the Catholic Mass and allowed for much of it to be conducted in the vernacular, permitting the laity a more immediate access to the highest ritual of the Church. It permitted the even more controversial idea that the genuine power of Christianity “subsists” in the Catholic Church alone while allowing for a truth that can also be found “outside its visible confines.”

But among the most radical innovations of doctrine that sprang from Vatican II was the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” typically known by its Latin title Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Age.” Included in the declaration was a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a revised official teaching on the Jews. The Church decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” While it allowed for the historical claim that a portion of the Jews in the time of Christ had called for his death, it warned that the crucifixion could not be blamed on all Jews without distinction and across all time. No longer accursed by God, and absolved of any collective responsibility for the death of Christ, the Jewish people were now embraced as the “stock of Abraham” (stirps Abrahae). Most astonishing of all, the Church also affirmed that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers” and that “He does not repent of the gifts He makes”—a phrase that seems to allow for the continued validity of Judaism alongside Christianity.

To understand how this transformation came about, an inquiry into pure theology is necessary but not sufficient. The story is too thick with ironies and politics, and it demands a patient and open-minded reconstruction of ideological quarrels that embroiled the Roman Catholic Church during its darkest and most shameful years of compromise. This is a task undertaken with admirable equipoise by John Connelly, a historian of Central and East-Central Europe, in his remarkable new book. It is not a pleasant tale. Connelly resists the temptation of Whiggish self-congratulation that would make Vatican II appear as a foreordained conclusion, driven forward by nothing else than the Church’s soul-searching and its turn to the higher light of its own universalist ideals.

The truth is that the Church did not reform itself without struggle. Even today many Church officials still lapse into modes of Christian triumphalism and implicit anti-Judaism that were supposed to have been corrected decades ago. Indeed, it is one of the central lessons of Connelly’s book that the bonds of empathy that made Nostra Aetate a historical possibility are far more fragile, and less expansive, than one might care to imagine. The detailed history of its genesis reveals a singular fact: most of the architects of the Catholic statement concerning the Jews in 1965 were themselves, either by descent or practice or public definition, Jews who had converted to Christianity. A handful were Protestants. The drama of this discovery deserves emphasis (the italics are Connelly’s): “Without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.

This is indeed a bitter and complicating truth. The history of Nostra Aetate, writes Connelly, may stand as an instructive lesson on both “the sources but also the limits of solidarity.” A certain tone of disillusionment pervades the book—as if the historian could not wholly abandon the ahistorical (and perhaps religious) expectation that the Church should have lived up to its own ideals. “Christians are called upon to love all humans regardless of national or ethnic background,” Connelly avers, “but when it came to the Jews, it was the Christians whose family members were Jews who keenly felt the contempt contained in traditional Catholic teaching.”

The narrative is hardly straightforward, since Connelly has committed himself to the most painstaking reconstruction of diverse strands of theological argumentation and political history, anchored in the 1930s and ending in the conciliar debates surrounding Vatican II. The complex story returns again and again to the striking fact that nearly all of the major innovations embedded in Nostra Aetate were the consequence of quarrels among a diverse group of rival theologians who, though they disagreed on many points of doctrine, shared in common an unusual distinction: most of them were, in Connelly’s phrase, “border-crossers,” that is, converts from families of Jewish (or, less often, Protestant) descent.

A Dutch symposium in 1958 on Catholic attitudes toward the Jews drives this point home: it included prominent Catholic representatives from France (Paul Démann), Germany (Karl Thieme, Gertrud Luckner), Israel (Abbot Leo Rudluff and Father Jean Roger Hené), the United Kingdom (Irene Marinoff), and the United States (John Oesterreicher). All of these individuals were converts from either Protestantism or Judaism. Even the protagonists of Connelly’s tale who were not converts in the literal sense nonetheless lived at the symbolic crossroads of national and religious affiliation, as children who had grown up in the polyglot and multiethnic territories of East-Central Europe, where confidence of an integral identity was always uncertain. It is only thanks to these border-crossers, Connelly suggests, that the Church came to revise the official doctrine and, by fits and starts, moved to embrace a vision of Christianity that granted full legitimacy to the earlier selves the converts had left behind.

IF ONE RECALLS the unbroken record of prejudice and persecution that stained the earlier history of Roman Catholic relations with their Jewish neighbors, the change is nothing less than astonishing. Medieval authorities, drawing upon passages such as Matthew 27 (“let his blood be upon us and on our children”) had taught that the Jews were fated to suffer for having tormented the Savior who was born in their midst. The supercessionist notion that Judaism was a religion made obsolete by the new covenant with Christ—what the historian Jules Isaac called the “teaching of contempt”—remained a fixture of Catholic dogma well into the twentieth century. Nor was it only a theological principle. In the medieval and early modern world, the idea that Jews suffered for their metaphysical culpability served as a formal warrant for ecclesiastical and state-sanctioned policies of persecution—the legal proscription on rights of settlement and land-ownership, measures against the location and height of synagogues, the royal imposition of special taxes (otherwise reserved for livestock)—that worked in a vicious circle to ensure that the Jews would bear the mark of visible debasement for their imagined guilt…

Read it all.

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