Catholicism and the legacy of anti-Judaism

Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By John Connelly, Ph.D.
Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley


What follows is a consideration of how the Catholic church has dealt with perhaps the most difficult chapter of its long history : a set of teachings according to which Jews were God-killers condemned to suffering. This teaching gave justification to centuries of contempt and persecution.  The question after the Holocaust became: can a religious institution that represents a supposedly unchanging wisdom make a sudden course change in a basic teaching and still remain credible?


Relations between Christians and Jews are special in the history of tolerance.  For centuries Christianity fostered contempt, asserting that Jews had killed their own Messiah and were destined to suffer under a curse until they accepted baptism.  Yet in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church suddenly and radically reversed such age-old poisonous teachings, proclaiming that God loves the Jews.  Because of the violent consequences over many centuries of Christian anti-Judaism, it’s worth exploring what made this liberating but mysterious shift possible. After all, the bible was the same text in the 1960s as it had been for many centuries, and could not suddenly speak a new language.  Or could it?

The decisive factor was the Holocaust yet the shift to new thinking was not easy. It took time and reflection. If one reads the Catholic press from the 1950s, whether in the US or Europe, one finds virtually no hint that Catholic teaching was a source of hateful beliefs that might have fostered Nazi crimes. The Nazi regime after all was an enemy of Christianity, and had sent thousands of priests and nuns to concentration camps.

Still, a serious change in thinking did commence, unnoticed at first, among tiny groups of Christians who had fought Nazi racism before the war, and continued to worry about anti-Semitism’s presence in European life afterward. From 1945 they began doing something once unthinkable, namely talking to Jews, and they heard how Christian teachings sounded to Jewish ears.  Particularly painful was the presumption that Jews were inadequate and destined to become Christians: Christians became aware they had been hoping and praying for a world without Jews – a program that now sounded like genocide.

Yet this was an ethical realization, powerless as such to touch teachings derived from scripture. What happened in the following years – from 1947 to about 1953/54 – was that these theologians returned to old texts and read them in new ways.

The atmosphere was anything but conducive.  They were outsiders, far from power, and the Vatican was censuring and silencing critics.  Then, in 1958, came a fortuitous event. Pope Pius XII died and the cardinals elected John XXIII, a man convinced that the church had to be reconciled to the modern world, and to some extent, its own past.  He summoned bishops from all continents for a reform council, yet at first had no intention of discussing let alone changing the theology of Christian-Jewish relations.

Now a second fortuitous event occurred: in the summer of 1960, the French Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac, who had lost his wife and daughter at Auschwitz, and studied the anti-Jewish contempt in Christian scripture while hiding from the Nazis, made a personal appeal to John XXIII.  The Church could not be silent in the shadow of the recent mass murder.  Deeply moved, the Pope directed the German Cardinal Augustin Bea to form a committee to prepare a statement for the bishops to vote on concerning the Church’s relation to the Jews.

Now the pieces came together. Bea, a scholar of the Old Testament, had little background in Christian-Jewish relations, and therefore called upon the theologians who had been quietly working for Christian-Jewish reconciliation, above all the priest John Oesterreicher, who was born of Jewish parents in Moravia in 1904, had developed a Christian critique of Nazi racism and anti-Semitism in the 1930s before making an adventurous escape from Europe to the US.  At one crucial moment in 1964, when Bea’s commission was redrafting its statement on the Jews, the two other priests working with Oesterreicher were also of Jewish background.

Because of their family heritage, these priests understood that Jews were more than a religion. They were a people.  In accord with their cutting-edge theology, they focused the council’s evolving statement on the Epistle to the Romans.  There St. Paul had faced the fact that Jews by and large did not accept Jesus as their Messiah.  This was a painful mystery for him as a Jew and onetime Pharisee, but the ways of God were ultimately inscrutable.  “Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11: 34-35) What was certain was that the Jews’ rejection had permitted the gospels to be extended to all humanity (Rom. 11:11).  Still, the Jews remained beloved by God because God does not retreat from his promises (Rom 11:29).

Paul wrote these passages around 58 AD and they had never been read in this way, yet in the 1960s they offered the Church a new language of reverence for the Jews. The bishops voted for the new teaching at the council’s conclusion in 1965 2,221 to 88.

The statement therefore showed how a small group – a few dozen thinkers in this case – could make possible an epochal change in a world-wide institution. Had it not been for the pain felt by Jules Isaac and John Oesterreicher – both of whom lost close family members at Auschwitz – there would have been no language for the Catholic church to speak about the Jews after the Holocaust.

It’s impossible for the historian to neatly separate cause and context.  On the one hand, the widespread sense of shame after the Holocaust was necessary for this new teaching to find adherents.  Indeed, the bishops were relieved that someone had taken the trouble to work out the tricky theological difficulties. And if the theologians had not made their efforts to devise a revised teaching, beginning at the height of Hitler’s reign, there would have been no resource to fall back upon.

Still, context was crucial. When the theologians began their courageous work in the 1930s, very few bishops were listening. Indeed, even these pioneers did not imagine an essential breakthrough until the 1950s. The sense of shame grew year by year and was not automatic. When he died in 1958, world leaders, including Golda Meier, still honored Pius XII as a friend of the Jews.  Still, something was not right. In 1962, a rhetorical house of cards collapsed when a German playwright penned a critical portrayal of Pius XII called the The Deputy. A truth suddenly made its way to the surface: Christians, including the pope, had watched Jews die without open protest, and indeed some had actively participated.  Many of the bishops at the council had to acknowledge their own passivity of, and were determined the church of their time would not be silent.

“In our Time” (Nostra Aetate) was the title of the document they voted upon, but contrary to the instructions given by John XXIII to Cardinal Bea, it was not simply a document about Jews, but was a Declaration on non-Christian Religions. When the Church spoke about its relations to the Jews, it found it could not stop there. What about other religions?

The answer was that all humans faced the same questions about existence and found many congruent answers. What, the document asked, is the “ultimate mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going.”  Each religion had its own response. Nostra Aetate said “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

Mentioned explicitly were Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but implicitly other faiths as well.  Painful reflection upon the Holocaust, the attempt to destroy one people with its way of life and faith, had opened Catholicism to the belief that the diversity of human religions was willed by God, and that was a good thing.

Skeptics of our day, witnessing the fortunes and misfortunes of liberal democracy in Hungary or Poland, will wonder whether any teaching can be permanent. What is to keep the old hostility from rising once more? After all, fascist symbols that were thought consigned to the past have recently reappeared in North America and Europe.  Jewish cemeteries are routinely vandalized, and Jews in Germany no longer feel safe wearing the kipa.

Against these trends, Nostra Aetate remains secure. No populists are justifying anti-Semitism with the old idea of Jews as Christ-killers. The theological revolution of the 1960s is not being questioned.

Still, the Church could do much more to confront hatred and actively promote tolerance. Over 90 percent of Catholics have never heard of Nostra Aetate. Because the populist right openly invokes anti-Islamic sentiment while claiming to defend Christianity, the church should make clear that Christianity is incompatible with any calls for resentment of other faith groups. If one opposes anti-Semitism one cannot be for any kind of intolerance.

I propose that once a year time should be set aside during the Catholic Sunday mass – perhaps during the feast of the circumcision at the beginning of each year– to reiterate the Jewishness of Jesus, mentioned clearly in Nostra Aetate.  A religion originated by a religious other cannot tolerate religious hatred.  In other words, the preacher should preach the text of the 1965 revolution on a regular basis.

This is not a matter of right or left, conservative or liberal: when the ground for Christian anti-Judaism disappeared over a half century ago, so did sources for contempt of any faith.