During the Second Vatican Council discussions in Rome in the 1960s, Jewish leaders wanted the Catholic Church to make statements denouncing antisemitism, apologizing for the church’s role in the Holocaust and recognizing the State of Israel. The Catholics, however, were most interested in discussing God and Scripture. Jews talked politics, while Catholics talked theology. Eventually sustained dialogue narrowed the communication gap, and the results were Nostra Aetate and subsequent salutary documents, all of which were a constructive blend of politics and theology.
Unfortunately, this communications gap continues to cause problems. Recently some Jewish leaders issued criticisms of Pope Benedict XVI for his failure to focus on antisemitism and Jewish martyrs during his visit to Auschwitz. Yet these leaders appeared to miss the significance of what Benedict did say. While he was at the extermination camp, the pope made a number of stunning theological statements about Jews and Judaism that hold enormous positive value.
Jews have correctly charged that the basis for classic European antisemitism and persecution lay in traditional Catholic teachings. Until Vatican II, the church taught that Christianity rendered God’s covenant with the Jewish people obsolete, that Jews are rejected by God unless they accept Jesus as the messiah, and that Jews are cursed to wander throughout Christendom as negative witnesses to the truth of Christianity, only to be disgraced, demonized and marginalized by believing Christians. Both Judaism and the Jewish people had run their course in history and were barely tolerated. Christian teachings of supersessionism and humiliation, which were termed “the teaching of contempt” by the historian Jules Isaac, led Christians to actively persecute Jews. While not sufficient to explain the ghastly Final Solution, they were necessary conditions for its acceptance throughout Europe.
There is no doubt that some Christians still believe in the “teaching of contempt” and feel psychologically hostile to Jews — although the Catholic Church now repudiates that teaching. Old attitudes take a long time to die, but the church has done a remarkable job of heshbon ha-nefesh, or spiritual introspection, and removed the theological foundation for those attitudes. One Catholic theologian summed up the post-Vatican II transformation of Catholic teaching in six R’s: repudiation of antisemitism, rejection of deicide, repentance after the Shoah, review of teaching about Jews and Judaism, recognition of Israel and rethinking about converting Jews.
At Auschwitz, Benedict chose to speak in theological terms to reinforce this positive attitude by highlighting the church’s new respectful posture toward the Jewish people and Judaism. He asserted in the name of the church that today’s Jewish people remain living witnesses to God who spoke to their ancestors at Sinai. Further, he explained that the Final Solution was a Nazi attempt to banish God from the world that could only be achieved by first exterminating the Jewish people. This is a firm denial of the doctrine of Judaism as obsolescence and the Adversus Judeus church tradition. In doing so, Benedict indicated that he and the church understand the continuing religious and moral validity of Judaism and Jews.
Indeed, traditional Jews hold the very same convictions today about our faith and our people. Both faithful Jews and faithful Christians understand that there was no way for Nazi genocide to coexist with God’s moral authority and “Thou shall not murder.” It is therefore no surprise that researchers at Rutgers School of Law have discovered documents indicating that if Hitler had succeeded in destroying the Jewish people — God forbid — he would have proceeded to destroy the church. After the Shoah, both religions are allies in upholding morality and guiding humanity.
Indeed, the pope could have been more explicit about antisemitism at Auschwitz by repeating what John Paul II said numerous times: “Antisemitism is a crime against man and a sin against God.” Yet Benedict chose to attack the foundations of Christian antisemitism in a message that resonates with more than a billion Christians around the world.
As Jews, we should be fully appreciative of Benedict’s words — words that would have been unthinkable for a Catholic even 60 years ago. We do well to understand the context and power of the pope’s theological statements and the breakthrough in church theology toward us. We must remain politically vigilant, but we harm Jewish interests and foster misunderstanding if we are deaf to the theological language of the church. At Auschwitz, Benedict attacked the roots of Christian hatred and persecution. In the end, these theological claims may do more to undo Christian antisemitism than exclusively political proclamations.
Rabbi Eugene Korn is director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress.