Fifty years ago this fall, Catholic bishops gathered in Rome for a council that would bring the church “up to date” by making it speak more directly to the modern world. After three years of deliberation, the bishops voted on and accepted statements that permitted the faithful to attend mass in their own languages, encouraged lay reading of scripture and entreated Catholics to think of other religions as sources of truth and grace. The council referred to the church as “people of God” and suggested a more democratic ordering of relations between bishops and the pope. It also passed a statement on non-Christian religions, known by its Latin title, Nostra Aetate (“In our times”). Part four of this declaration, a statement on the Jews, proved most controversial, several times almost failing because of the opposition of conservative bishops.
Nostra Aetate confirmed that Christ, his mother and the apostles were Jews, and that the church had its origin in the Old Testament. It denied that the Jews may be held collectively responsible for Jesus Christ’s death, and decried all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism. Citing the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Nostra Aetate called the Jews “most beloved” by God. These words seem commonsensical today, but they staged a revolution in Catholic teaching.
Despite opposition from within their ranks, the bishops knew that they could not be silent on the Jews. When the document stalled in May 1965, one of them explained why they must push on: “The historical context: 6 million Jewish dead. If the council, taking place 20 years after these facts, remains silent about them, then it would inevitably evoke the reaction expressed by Hochhuth in ‘The Deputy.’” This bishop was referring to German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s depiction of a silent and uncaring Pius XII in the face of the Holocaust. That was no longer the church these bishops wished to live in.
The problem was, they had possessed no language of their own with which to break the silence. More than most academic disciplines, theology is a complex thicket with each branch guarded by a prickly coterie of experts. Those wanting to grasp the complexities of the church’s relations to Jews had to study eschatology, soteriology, patristics, Old and New Testament, and church history through all its periods. The bishops thus found themselves relying on tiny groups of experts who had cared enough to amass the unusual intellectual qualifications for this task.
As I discovered while researching my recently published book, “From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965,” these experts did not begin their work in the 1960s. From outposts in Austria and Switzerland, several had tried to formulate Catholic arguments against anti-Semitism under the shadow of Nazism three decades earlier. They were as unrepresentative of Catholicism as one can imagine. Not only were they, Central Europeans, brave enough to stand up to Hitler when it counted, but they mostly had not been born Catholic. The Catholics who helped bring the church to recognition of the continuing sanctity of the Jewish people were converts, many of them from Jewish families.