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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The revolutionary event did not come without a struggle. Two thousand years of doctrinal inertia was almost impossible to overcome. Connelly’s detailed retelling of the story of the genesis of Nostra Aetate reveals that most of the architects of the document were themselves Jews who had converted to Christianity. The idea that any number of the Catholic leaders (not the actual drafters of the document) who shaped Nostra Aetate had themselves started out in life as Jews is singular and startling. The point: These churchmen — and their number included serious leaders — were thus naturally more sympathetic toward Jews. To Connelly, the historical context is crucial: The 1960s were but a few years after the end of the Holocaust; a new language was needed to relate to Jews; “Only [through] converts could the Catholic Church find a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.”

Connelly identifies a number of these converts (some were converts from Protestantism). Perhaps the most visible was John Oesterreicher, a Jewish-born German and convert to Catholicism who was a leading figure in shaping the pro-Jewish aspects of Vatican II.

What emerges in “From Enemy to Brother” is that the converts pressed for a new approach to thinking about covenant; that the relation between Judaism and Christianity was no longer to be understood as competitive or successive, with Judaism being a mere preparation for Christianity, but complementary. This idea of two complementary covenants was truly revolutionary and is discussed coherently and cogently in “From Enemy to Brother.” Connelly’s conceit is that the church would not have been able to come to this conception without the “doubling” of identity — Jew and Catholic — that was brought within the sacred Vatican precincts by those who had been considered outsiders and worse.

Despite the fact that “From Enemy to Brother” was published last year, it is unusually timely in light of a new administration in the Vatican and, internally, in the Jewish community, in the ongoing discussion over the nature of interreligious relationships. This discussion, highly sensitive especially in the Modern Orthodox world, was, in fact, triggered by the convening of Vatican II and the drafting of Nostra Aetate.

“From Enemy to Brother” is superb in its analysis of how Nostra Aetate came to be, and especially in Connelly’s discussion of how the drafters of the document arrived at their view of the validity of the Jewish Covenant. Missing, however, is a treatment of the larger context of Vatican II; the reader is left scratching his head, trying to figure out how various personalities and issues fit into the setting of Nostra Aetate. A coherent discussion of Vatican II itself would have helped make sense of the otherwise vivid biographies of the churchmen that the author catapults at the reader.

The equally interesting story, also not addressed by Connelly, is, of course, that of how Jews viewed Christians. The Jewish community itself has been conflicted with respect to how to relate to non-Jews. Within the mainstream Modern Orthodox world, interreligious relationships were defined by Orthodox leader Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who in 1964 asserted that Jews and Christians ought to engage with each other on issues having to do with the betterment of society. But anything having to do with the nature of the faith community itself, such as theology, is untranslatable to the other community, Soloveitchik said, and is therefore off the table.

The Soloveitchik position, dominant for 50 years in the Modern Orthodox world, has long been controversial within the Orthodox arena. But in 1964, did the Jewish view impact the discussions at Vatican II? Connelly’s thoughts on this matter would have been welcomed.

Are nterreligious relations “an unnatural act”? Perhaps; there is always something unnatural about going from enemy to brother. But Christians and Jews, looking at Nostra Aetate a half-century after its drafting, will use “From Enemy to Brother” as a guide in this fascinating — and yes, unnatural — journey.

Jerome Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books on Jewish history, sociology and public affairs. He teaches in the City University system.


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