When Pope John XXIII convened Vatican Council II, he initiated the process that led to Nostra Aetate, which 40 years ago this year essentially dropped the charge that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Nostra Aetate accorded fundamental respect to Judaism, not only as the mother religion of Christianity, but also as an ongoing religious faith.
Perhaps more important than doctrinal shifts that occurred at the Vatican Council were the changes in church liturgy, so that Good Friday readings eliminated the mention of “perfidious Jews,” and scriptural readings were adjusted so as not to reinforce anti-Semitism and endow it with biblical and church sanctions.
Before these changes, it was theologically impossible for Catholicism to co-exist serenely with Judaism. There was, of course, the accusation that Jews were “Christ killers,” but also the notion of supercessionism, namely that Christianity had come to fulfill Judaism and replace Judaism — and that Jews should recognize this, convert and disappear. A religion that has no raison d’ etre commands no respect. And to say that a tradition has no future is to invite someone to make it so.
Finally, the teaching of contempt, that segment of Christian teaching that was not only anti-Jewish but deeply anti-Semitic, was deliberately muted in the aftermath of Vatican II. A redirected Catholic theology built on alternate traditions took center stage, de-emphasizing the problematic teachings.
The church didn’t stop there; it also employed the tools of religion to promulgate these altered directions.
Through new scholarship and exegesis, through bringing front and center traditions that had previously been ignored or underrepresented — such as Jesus the Jew — Roman Catholic teaching was transformed and renewed and a new sense of mission achieved.
This did not happen by accident. Pope John XIII met with the Jewish scholar of anti-Semitism, Jules Isaac. The pope understood the nature of this important research and thus, the scope of the problem presented by church teaching and tradition.
Representing the Jews in negotiations with the Vatican was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who entered the Vatican as the spiritual and intellectual equal of the men he encountered, representing and embodying the mother tradition. Heschel was so deeply learned that he understood church teachings, not just his own.
Heschel’s leadership took courage. Rabbi Joseph Dov Baer Soloveitchik, the great spiritual leader of Orthodox Jewry, publicly opposed the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Jews, although he was kept informed of every stage of negotiations. History has not proven his distrust — expressed so forcefully in “Confrontations,” an article published in Tradition — correct, and two of his distinguished disciples have tried to refashion these teachings.
Change did not happen in isolation. The teaching toward the Jews was one part of Nostra Aetate, which indeed charted the Roman Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of Christian pluralism, its embrace of ecumenicism.
It was a response to modernity and to the ethics of interreligious civility that was facilitated by the church’s role in the modern world. In fact, it was the adoption by the Roman Catholic Church of the norms of mutual acceptance that were common to the American religious experience. And the changes were later institutionalized in prayer and liturgy, in teaching and catechism.
A generation ago, they were revolutionary, now they are routine. Many devout Catholics and their priests do not remember a time before this acceptance of Jews and Judaism was the church teaching. Even in 1984, less than 20 years after Nostra Aetate, my students at Georgetown had never heard of the accusation of Jews as “Christ killers,” despite its persistence for some 2,000 years.
Let’s be candid. Nostra Aetate was, in large measure, an act of repentance in the post-Holocaust church. The change in Roman Catholic teaching is a pristine example of Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim’s axiom that where there is recognition of the Holocaust as rupture and mending takes place, newfound strength is to be found.
The church’s theological evolution is also a paradigmatic illustration of the paradox that in the Holocaust, the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent. Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII, had behaved admirably during the war, when as apostolic delegate to Istanbul he worked with the Yishuv leadership to save Jews. He appealed to the Bulgarian king not to deport Jews, and after the war, possibly against the Vatican’s orders, he had Jewish children who had been baptized returned to their parents and/or the Jewish community.
Perhaps the only reason Yad Vashem does not honor him as a “Righteous Among the Nations of the Earth” is that he operated in neutral Turkey. So his life was never at risk, which is an essential criterion for the designation.
Undoubtedly, the changes in the church would have been much more radical had John XXIII lived longer to follow through with the reforms of Vatican II. More conservative church leaders, including his successor, Pope Paul VI, restrained the changes he championed. Pope John XXIII died well before the Vatican was ready to accord diplomatic recognition to Israel.
Enter Pope John Paul II, who had made the battle against Christian anti-Semitism a significant focus of his papacy. Pope John XXIII had once paused to greet Jewish worshippers on a Shabbat eve, treating them with dignity and respect in a then-unprecedented gesture by the bishop of Rome and the heir to St. Peter. Pope John Paul II went further; he entered the synagogue and prayed with the congregation.
When John Paul visited Jerusalem, he paid a courtesy call on the chief rabbis. The haredi dayanim (ultra-Orthodox religious court judges) were surprised — and in the words of one reporter, “overwhelmed” — by their own ecumenical feelings. He came to visit, not to convert. He came for a conversation, not a polemical confrontation as Jewish memory had led the rabbis to expect.
Something had changed. The church had been changed by the acts of the past 40 years.
Under John Paul’s leadership, the Vatican granted diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel and exchanged ambassadors. In 2000, the pope visited Israel, arriving at its international airport, meeting with the president and prime minister, according them the very same honor he would accord the leaders of other faiths and nations.
The pope then took the unprecedented step of praying at the Western Wall, inserting — as pious Jews insert their prayers — a prayer of apology in the Wall. No American president has yet stood at the Wall.
At Yad Vashem he said: “I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place. The church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.”
His words were carefully chosen — the anti-Semitism acts were directed against Jews by Christians not by Christianity.
Were his statements all that could have been said or that should have been said?
Of course not.
Were they significant?
“The church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.”
Surely these words were 60 years too late — at least. But surely they must be accorded respect and welcomed.
Was Pope John Paul II merciful toward the failures of his church by what was not said? Was he elliptical in the acceptance of responsibility by speaking of Christians and not Christianity?
But the gesture was definitive and must be recognized. And the deed may speak louder than his words. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.
Clearly, there is a struggle going on between factions within the church over how to come to terms with modernity and pluralism, and how to speak of failure and sins, when there is a papal tradition of infallibility. The documents of the church, such as “We Remember,” reflect that struggle. They are the work of committees and demonstrate factional divisions, which is why organized Catholicism in France and the United States, for example, can move far more quickly than the Vatican.
Long after people have forgotten carefully crafted sentences that hedge on the question of responsibility, they will remember that the church is committed to remembering the Shoah and that Christianity rejects anti-Semitism.
Of course, there are still problems outstanding in Jewish-Roman Catholic relations. But when the history of the last third of the 20th century is written, the mending in Catholic-Jewish relations and the unprecedented civility, harmony and mutual respect between these two ancient faiths will be one of its significant — and most honorable — achievements.
It is a model for interreligious relations in the 21st century. It is an act of true repentance that ought to be recognized.
Nostra Aetate showed us that religion has tools and resources — such as commentary — for its own transformation. Commentary has enabled the leadership of a religious faith to take the sting out of religious teaching by its transformation, even while concealing the innovation within. All religions, especially Judaism, employ commentary. Otherwise we would still be taking out an eye for an eye.
The most significant religious issue in our world today is: How does one believe absolutely — fundamentally — in the integrity of one’s own faith while accepting the legitimacy of other traditions?
One way is to build on alternate traditions within one’s own religion, ones that emphasize co-existence.
The Roman Catholic Church did not abandon its teaching, but it built upon contemporary scholarship relating to the historical Jesus. It built on traditions that were ignored or underrepresented.
Anyone who has worked on the Bible knows that there is a much greater emphasis today on Jesus as the Jew, and on what first and second century Christianity and Judaism share in common.
We should give the Roman Catholic Church enormous credit for what has been done. It is a model of how religions must deal with one another if we are to survive.
Michael Berenbaum is adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, whose mission is to explore the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust.