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In 1961, Oesterreicher was summoned for work in the Vatican II committee tasked with the “Jewish question,” which became the most difficult issue to face the bishops. At one critical moment in October 1964, priests Gregory Baum and Bruno Hussar joined Oesterreicher in assembling what became the final text of the council’s decree on the Jews, voted on by the bishops a year later. Like Oesterreicher, Baum and Hussar were converts of Jewish background.
They were continuing a trend going back to the First Vatican Council in 1870, when the brothers Lémann — Jews who had become Catholics and priests — presented a draft declaration on relations between the church and Jews, stating that Jews “are always very dear to God” because of their fathers and because Christ has issued from them “according to the flesh.” Without converts to Catholicism, it seems, the Catholic Church would never have “thought its way” out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism.
The high percentage of Jewish converts like Oesterreicher among Catholics who were opposed to anti-Semitism makes sense: In the 1930s they were targets of Nazi racism who could not avoid the racism that had entered the church. In their opposition, they were simply holding their church to its own universalism. But by turning to long-neglected passages in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, they also opened the mind of the church to a new appreciation of the Jewish people.
What were the impulses behind their engagement after the war? In a generous review of my book in The New Republic, Peter Gordon suggests that the converts’ willingness to advocate for the other was driven by a concern for the self. They had retained a sense of themselves as Jews even in the Catholic Church. Gordon reminds us of Sigmund Freud’s skepticism about the possibility of love of other. True love, Freud believed, “was always entangled with narcissism: it is not the other whom I love but myself, or at least it is only that quality in the other which resembles me or resembles the person I once was.” Yet in Oesterreicher we see an enduring solidarity with the community that once was his, most immediately his family. In 1946 he pondered the fate of his father, who had died of pneumonia in Theresienstadt (his mother was later murdered at Auschwitz). Contrary to the ancient Christian idea that there is no salvation outside the church, Oesterreicher did not despair for his father. Nathan Oesterreicher had been a just man, to whom the “beatitude of the peacemakers applied.” If Oesterreicher, the son, had been a true narcissist, he might have rested content in the belief that he was saved through baptism. Yet intense love and longing for his Jewish father began opening Oesterreicher’s mind to the possibility that Jews could be saved as Jews.
The lasting gift of the converts who helped rewrite Catholic teaching on the Jews was to extend their familial sense of solidarity to us, to Jews and Christians. In 1964, Oesterreicher personally crafted that part of Nostra Aetate according to which the church no longer speaks of mission to the Jews, but looks forward to the day when all “peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’” (The last phrase is taken from Zephaniah 3:9.) With this new teaching, the church gave up the attempt to turn the other into the self, and after this point Catholics involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue tend not to be converts. They live out of the new understanding that Jews and Christians are brothers. The converts crossed a border to the other while in some deep sense remaining themselves, but by recognizing the legitimacy, indeed the blessing, of our differences, they helped bring down a wall separating Jews and Christians.
John Connelly is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965,” (Harvard University Press,2012).