The Evolution of the Relationship Between Catholics and Jews

How Vatican II Sparked an Ongoing Revolution of Faith

Rejecting Deicide: Vatican II, promulgated under Pope Paul VI (seen here with John F. Kennedy in 1963), articulated a new protocol for how Catholics view Jews.
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Rejecting Deicide: Vatican II, promulgated under Pope Paul VI (seen here with John F. Kennedy in 1963), articulated a new protocol for how Catholics view Jews.

By Jerome Chanes

Published June 25, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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● From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965
By John Connelly
Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $35

My definition of Catholic-Jewish relations: an unnatural act engaged in by partially consenting adults — following an opening prayer.

This one-liner tells us much that we need to know about the relationships between Christians and Jews in the second half of the 20th century. Jews and Catholics — especially Jews — are intensely conscious of the viciousness of 2,000 years of Christian history, and we need to probe the fact that there is still a relationship of any sort.

The relationship came to be in a dramatic moment indeed. The Second Vatican Council, with its watershed document Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”), the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church With Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council” was promulgated in 1966 under the papacy of Paul VI. Nostra Aetate generated intense debate among the bishops of Vatican II. The declaration articulated a new protocol for how Catholics view Jews, and by extension changed the nature of the relationship between members of the two religious communities. The core of Nostra Aetate was a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a rejection of the charge of deicide — that Jews forever were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. In brief, it was a revision of the two-millennium official Christian teaching on the Jews. The church now formally decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

To historian John Connelly, Nostra Aetate represented nothing less than a revolution in Catholic thinking, the most radical of the radical innovations of Vatican II. In “From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965,” Connelly’s proposition is that Catholic empathy toward Jews — the overturning of two millennia of Catholic teachings of contempt — did not come out of nowhere. It did not spring from Christian sources, and certainly not from Jewish ones.

Connelly reminds us, repeatedly, that the early history of the church was such that anti-Jewish themes were not only incorporated into the new theology of Christianity; it was an absolute necessity that anti-Judaism be core to the contouring of Christian theology, and it was. If this were the case, then this anti-Judaism would be impossible to root out. And it was. Even church leaders who were sympathetic to Jews and Judaism, and who battled racism, could not overcome the inertia of 2,000 years of theological anti-Judaism deeply inculcated in priesthood, practice and publications.

Among the startling revelations in “From Enemy to Brother” is Connelly’s analysis of the effect on the church of the new, virulent forms of anti-Judaism, the racist anti-Semitism that flourished in 19th-century Europe. It was in the 1930s that the Catholic Church in both Germany and Austria succumbed to an unusual species of racially tinged anti-Semitism. This version of Jew hatred, as historian George Mosse taught, combined itself with the centuries-old notion of the German Volk, the national German folk-identity that was central to Nazi ideology and informed Nazi practice. Influential German theologians extolled the “blood unity” of the German Volk, and praised Hitler as a savior who would heal the “diseased national body.” German Catholicism proved unusually susceptible to this racist syndrome, which crafted its idea of national-racial unity from the traditional idea of the church as Jesus’ mystical body.

With this as background, how did Nostra Aetate happen at all? It was not enough that Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, a rule-breaker pope if there ever was one, wanted it.


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