Converts Who Changed the Church

Jewish-Born Clerics Helped Push Vatican II Reforms

50 Years Ago: Vatican II changed the Vatican’s positions on key issues including the church’s teachings on Jews. Many of the intellectual forces behind the reforms were converts from Judaism.
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50 Years Ago: Vatican II changed the Vatican’s positions on key issues including the church’s teachings on Jews. Many of the intellectual forces behind the reforms were converts from Judaism.

By John Connelly

Published July 30, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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Most important was Johannes Oesterreicher, born in 1904 into the home of the Jewish veterinarian Nathan and his wife, Ida, in Stadt-Liebau, a German-language community in northern Moravia. As a boy, he took part in Zionist scouting and acted as elected representative of the Jews in his high school, but then, for reasons that remain inexplicable (he later said he ”fell in love with Christ”), Oesterreicher took an interest in Christian writings (Cardinal Newman, Kierkegaard and the Gospels themselves), and under the influence of a priest later martyred by the Nazis (Max Josef Metzger) he became a Catholic and then a priest. In the early 1930s he took over the initiative of the Diocese of Vienna for converting Jews, hoping to bring family and friends into the church. In this his success was limited. Where he had an impact was in gathering other Catholic thinkers to oppose Nazi racism. To his shock, Oesterreicher found this racism entering the work of leading Catholic thinkers, who taught that Jews were racially damaged and therefore could not receive the grace of baptism. His friends in this endeavor included fellow converts like philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and the theologian Karl Thieme and political philosopher Waldemar Gurian. In 1937, Gurian, Oesterreicher and Thieme penned a Catholic statement on the Jews, arguing, against the racists, that Jews carried a special holiness. Though it constituted orthodox teaching, not a single bishop (let alone the Vatican) signed on.

Oesterreicher escaped Austria when the Nazis entered, in 1938, and continued work from Paris, broadcasting German-language sermons into the Reich, informing Catholics that Hitler was an “unclean spirit” and the “antipode in human form,” and describing Nazi crimes committed against Jews and Poles. In the spring of 1940 he barely eluded an advance team of Gestapo agents, and via Marseille and Lisbon he made his way to New York City and ultimately Seton Hall University, where he became the leading expert on relations with Jews in America’s Catholic Church.

Oesterreicher gradually abandoned his “missionary” approach to the Jews and increasingly called his work ecumenical. He and like-minded Christians tried to figure out how to ground their belief in continued vocation of Jewish people in Christian scripture. If the battle before the war was against the superficial assumptions of Nazi racism, after the war it took aim at the deeply rooted beliefs of Christian anti-Judaism. In the former period, the converts argued that, yes, Jews can be baptized. In the second period, even if they continued to believe that Jews must be baptized to escape the curse of rejecting Christ, these thinkers began pondering the nature of the supposed curse.

If history was a series of trials sent to punish the Jews for failing to accept Christ, then what meaning did Auschwitz have? Were the Nazis instruments of God’s will, meant to make the Jews finally turn to Christ? To answer yes to this question was obscene, but it was the only answer Catholic theology provided as of 1945. In the years that followed, the converts had to stage a revolution in a church that claimed to be unchanging. They did so by shifting church teaching to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9–11, where the Apostle, without speaking of baptism or conversion, proclaims that the Jews remain “beloved of God” and that “all Israel will be saved.”

Like Oesterreicher, the thinkers who did the intellectual work that prepared this revolution were overwhelmingly converts. Soon after the war, Thieme joined with concentration camp survivor Gertrud Luckner to publish the Freiburger Rundbrief in southwest Germany, where they made crucial theological breakthroughs on the path to conciliation with the Jews. In Paris, the Rev. Paul Démann, a converted Hungarian Jew, began publishing the review Cahiers Sioniens and, with the help of fellow converts Geza Vermes and Renée Bloch, refuted the anti-Judaism in Catholic school catechisms.


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