The Catholic Conversion in Teaching on Jews

By | Oct 04, 2013

The path to Nostra Aetate moved in fits and starts and with a good deal of internal discord among the men and women who collectively served as the Church’s conscience. It was one thing to denounce Nazism as “neo-paganism” and another to specifically decry anti-Semitism. One of the leading Catholic voices against Nazi racism in the 1930s,  John LaFarge, nonetheless characterized Jews as “this unhappy people, destroyers of their own nation, whose misguided leaders had called down upon their own heads a divine malediction.” Even in the wake of the Holocaust, Oesterreicher clung for years to his belief that Jews needed to accept Christ in order to be saved. Paradoxically, it took the Protestant-born Thieme to finally persuade the Jewish-born Oesterreicher that Jews could receive divine favor even without adopting Christianity.

The efforts of all these men, of course, also depended on the support of Pope John XXIII. He convened the Second Vatican Council with the broad, daring mission of aggiornamento (bringing up to date). And he specifically commissioned a statement to be written about Catholics and Jews. During World War II, Connelly points out, the future pope had served as the Vatican’s nuncio in Turkey, helping 25,000 Jewish survivors and refugees “with clothes, identity papers and money so that they could continue their journeys to safety.” As Pope, he was deeply affected by a meeting with a survivor named Jules Isaac, who lost his wife, daughter and son-in-law to the Nazis.

Pope John XXIII did not live to see the debate and vote on Nostra Aetate, which included statements on Catholic relations with a variety of religious groups, not only Jews. But his efforts helped lay the groundwork for the landslide in favor of the document: 2,221 bishops for it, only 88 against. Despite the expectation that the document would bitterly divide the prelates, the main opposition ultimately came from those in Arab countries, who claimed Nostra Aetate amounted to the Vatican taking sides in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That fear has hardly been realized in the decades since then. Rather, Arab Christians have been persecuted primarily by Arab Muslims, driving tens if not hundreds of thousands from Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon into exile. It is true, though, that Nostra Aetate paved the road for the most stirring moment in the millennia of Jewish-Catholic relations, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel, including Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. The language of Nostra Aetate about Christianity’s Jewish roots also anticipated the pope’s words to the chief rabbi of Rome on a visit to the synagogue: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

In the hands of scholars who write in a narrative mode, such as Taylor Branch or Alan Brinkley, From Enemy to Brother would have made great use of the epic moments and larger-than-life characters who fathered the Vatican’s momentous shift.  Connelly, in contrast, traces the intellectual and theological disputation that took place in obscure venues—religious periodicals, retreat houses, clerical conferences. His focus is what might be called the “retail politics” behind Nostra Aetate, the gradual and granular effort to win allies, build coalitions and get out the vote.

As a chronicle of the truly heroic role that scholars can play in public life, From Enemy to Brother brings to mind Jonathan Spence’s exceptional account of Chinese intellectuals during the Nationalist and Communist revolutions, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Like that book, Connelly’s is not an easy read, but it is unquestionably an edifying and rewarding one.

Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, is the author of six books and a religion columnist for The New York Times.

3 thoughts on “The Catholic Conversion in Teaching on Jews

  1. Amo Fuchs says:

    That may be applicable maybe! in the U.S.A.
    Not for somebody grown up in a Christian/Catholic environment.
    Besides, have you ever heard of Tshuva?
    The holy see ha made Tshuva vs. the times of John XXIII.
    Read Minerbi, scion of an old Italian Jewish family and former ambassador of Israel in Rome, for the two states, Italy and the Vatican. He is not American, he has inside experience from the thick of the fray.
    Amo Fuchs

  2. Frank Selch says:

    These so-called Catholic/Jewish relations are nothing more than a clever window dressing by the Vatican. Christian theology canoot depart from its key dogmas, i.e. original sin and Jesus being the only way to God. If a Jew were to touch these, and many others, that friendship would quickly disitegrte.

  3. While you are correct about the pope extending a hand in friendship to the Jews, he did not absolve the Jews in Jesus’ death, but merely instructed not to teach that because it sows hate. I was recently told by my Assyrian Christian hairdresser hat her 6 year old daughter was in the Easter play at her church and they were reenacting Jesus’ imprisonment and death at the hand of the Jews…because that is what their pastor taught them. Apparently, he did not get the memo. And another generation is taught to hate.

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