I teach my classes at Seton Hall University in a seminar room known as the Oesterreicher Suite, in which a photograph of Monsignor John M. Oesterreicher looks down on the class as it is being held. The room itself is comprised of glass cases with speeches and documents that track and illustrate the Monsignor’s path from Catholic convert of Jewish origin, encouraging others to follow his path of conversion to a commitment to change the Church’s attitude toward the Jews.
In the 1930s, Monsignor Oesterreicher lived in Germany and belonged to the Freiberg Circle, which opposed anti-Semitism and sought a non-racist approach toward Judaism. After World War II, he founded an institute for the then-oxymoronic concept Judeo-Christian studies and was an editor for The Bridge, a 1950s journal which allowed Catholic authors to develop positive approaches toward Judaism. These efforts bore fruit as the 1961 publication, “Decree on the Jews” to which Oesterreicher was the major contributor. It took four years of ecumenical work to produce a fourth draft of the original document, which became known as Nostra Aetate.
John Connelly, a renowned University of California historian, recently wrote an excellent work, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, showing the important role that Jewish and Protestant converts to Catholicism played in the creation of Nosta Aetate.
Is this a revelation? The answer is no, as all the pieces were known. Oesterreicher ’s Jewish roots and his role are well known to those involved in interfaith encounter. Connelly put the material together in a new way with less emphasis on other figures and greater emphasis on the converts.
Connelly’s new book focuses on Oesterreicher’s role, as well as Karl Theme and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who both converted from Protestantism. It should be noted that the Frieberg circle also included non-converts who directly opposed the Nazi regime such as the German Economic Minister Franz Bohm and the historian, Gerhard Ritter.
In this quest, Karl Theme pushed forward and was in dialogue with the German Jewish thinkers Buber, Adorno, and Schoeps. Oesterreicher dragged his feet in this endeavor and in discussion with Theme still envisioned a conversion of the Jews.
Oesterreicher is remembered by many Jews with ambivalence as a 1960s defender of the Catholic Church. Now, in this new reading, Connelly agrees with the charitable approaches toward Oesterreicher as the 1960s a mouthpiece for the progressive words and ideas of Karl Theme, which he used in the drafts leading to Nosta Aetate. Connelly also shows the importance of the Jewish thinkers such as A. J. Heschel and Ernst Ehrlich for their influence on Cardinal Bea.
Will this lead to new conspiracy theories focusing on the prominent role attributed to Jewish-born theologians? Until this book was published, most of the many online conspiracy theories blamed the French Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, who in 1947, laid the need for a change before the Church. The conspiracy theorists also blame the B’nai B’rith as Freemasons and the American Jewish Committee as maliciously manipulating the situation.