Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965
From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965
John Connelly
Harvard University Press, 2012
384 pp., 42.0

Buy Now

Michael A. Skaggs

All Hands on Deck

New beginnings for Catholic-Jewish relations.

On March 27th, 1959, the barque of Peter shuddered, her captain having jerked the wheel—to port, we might say. As the Good Friday liturgy proceeded in St. Peter's Basilica, the man chanting the service arrived at a prayer containing intentions for various segments of humankind. For one group, though, the congregation would not say "Amen," and neither would they genuflect and rise as they had for the other groups. The leader chanted "Oremus et pro perfidis Judaeis / Let us pray also for the faithless Jews." And the pope said stop.

John XXIII, who had been elected only a few months earlier after serving as nuncio to several European countries where he had observed the rise of the Nazi menace and helped Jews escape to safety, stopped the liturgy and asked the man to chant the prayer again. Only this time, he was to leave out perfidis. The omission reversed centuries of describing Judaism as "faithless." Later in his papacy, John met with a delegation of rabbis at the Vatican, greeting them with words from Genesis 45 "I am Joseph, your brother."

Six years later, the Catholic Church officially embraced John's unscripted rejection of anti-Semitism. The assembled bishops of the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, by an overwhelming majority. The document implied a rejection of the old Catholic charge of deicide, condemned anti-Semitism, and expressed regret for the centuries of abuse inflicted upon Jews by Christians. Two books with seemingly conflicting accounts shed much welcome light on just how this leap in interfaith relations came to pass. Despite their differences, the books do show how the key players unknowingly relied upon each other—theologians laying the intellectual groundwork for high-ranking prelates to push an at-times hostile audience toward a new appreciation for their relations with Judaism. The end point was agreement by the vast majority of the world's Catholic bishops, in 1965, that the time was right to embrace Jews as their "older brothers."

But what about those parts of the Bible which apparently condone anti-Semitism? The Gospels, Acts, and the Letter to the Hebrews all have served as justification for historical anti-Semitism: Matthew 27:25, Acts 3:15, and Hebrews 3:16 can be read to imply judgment against Jews. According to Berkeley historian John Connelly in From Enemy to Brother, the answer to these passages, which might be read as saying that Jews were uniquely responsible for the death of Christ, also comes from biblical teaching. Paul's letter to the Romans, for example, makes clear that "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him" (10:12). Connelly further suggests that when the Catholic Church came to focus on three chapters of Romans (9-11) as the definitive reversal of the centuries-old charge against the Jews as "perfidious," this embrace reflected the influence of a small group of European theologians—who had won out only after decades of theological infighting and struggle, rather than as the result of an overnight theological revolution.

A startlingly small cast of characters pushed back against a tide of specifically and uniquely German anti-Semitism. The most important were Karl Thieme, Johannes (later John) Oesterreicher, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. These and only a few others played the central role in overcoming the idea that Jews of every generation were eternally damned by the response of the crowd in Matthew 27. The racist idea (particularly strong in Nazi Germany) that Jews carried a sort of second original sin, a "special propensity to evil," that could not be blotted out by baptism, made the struggle against anti-Semitism even more difficult.

Thieme, whom Connelly calls "the most influential Catholic writer on the Jewish question in the twentieth century," placed special stress on the original Greek of Romans 11 and thus pushed the council in Nostra Aetate to reverse the condemnation. For his part, Oesterreicher ensured that Thieme's additional argument denying the requirement that Jews convert survived counter-maneuvers by the Roman Curia in 1964, some members of which attempted to retain a call for Jewish conversion in the final version the document.

Rabbi James Rudin's Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor also spotlights the efforts of individuals to define a new Catholic attitude vis-à-vis Judaism. Rudin, senior interreligious advisor to the American Jewish Committee, sees the real impetus for the Second Vatican Council's reversal on Judaism as coming from American ecclesiastical leaders. At the council, Cardinals Richard Cushing and Francis Spellman did not worry about the technical exegesis of Connelly's European theologians. Instead, they relied on their own personal experiences to convince their peers of the need to move beyond old stereotypes of Jews as intrinsically evil or damned a priori.

Rudin begins with Richard Cardinal Cushing, archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970, whose strong anti-communism and deep commitment to interreligious cooperation led him to perceive a definite compatibility of Roman Catholicism with American patriotism. As a consequence, Rudin argues, Cushing's devotion to the United States arose from a sense that this was the most inclusive, most welcoming, most diverse nation on earth. At John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, Cushing prayed alongside Rabbi Nelson Glueck, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, and Dr. John Barclay of the Central Christian Church of Austin, Texas. His invocation on that occasion illustrated his straightforward theology and patriotism. He implored God to strengthen Americans' resolve "to revere in every man that divine spark which makes him our brother" and to "defend my neighbor's right to be himself." Besides this general perspective, Cushing had a personal reason to repudiate anti-Semitism: his sister was married to Richard Pearlstein, a prominent Boston Jew. Thus, Rudin writes, it came as no surprise when Cushing condemned Leonard Feeney, the ultraconservative priest excommunicated in 1949 for his obstinate adherence to an overly narrow interpretation of the ancient principle extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church). Cushing's public speeches at the Second Vatican Council pushed strongly for the specific elements that later made Nostra Aetate so powerful: an implied repudiation of deicide, a condemnation of Catholic anti-Semitism, and acknowledgement of Christians' past complicity in the abuse of Jews.

For his part, Francis Spellman did not become a public opponent of anti-Semitism until he was named Archbishop of New York in 1939. Rudin draws particular attention to Spellman's relationship with Charles Silver, a prominent New York Jew. In this relationship, Spellman acquired "interreligious credibility in a pluralistic America," while Silver gained an in with the most important Catholic leader in the United States, and one who also had powerful connections in Rome.

Rudin pairs Spellman's address to the American Jewish Committee in April 1964 with his 1965 speech at Vatican II. To the AJC, Spellman cited the "urgent need" of the Church to change its historically difficult relationship with Judaism. At the council, Spellman relied on the words and actions of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII to argue against the long-standing charge of Jewish culpability for Christ's death, against the exclusion of Jews from the possibility of salvation, and for the common historical and theological roots of both Christians and Jews. With the first speech Spellman had "outed himself" as theologically progressive on the Jewish question; with the second, he laid the groundwork for Cushing's later, similar address. In Rudin's words, the public support from Spellman and Cushing "moved the ball into the end zone," crossing the goal line of a positive statement on Catholic-Jewish relations from the soon-to-end ecumenical council.

Rudin's chapter on John Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000, departs sharply from his treatment of Cushing and Spellman, since it relies mostly on anecdotes about O'Connor and Rudin's personal recollections. Rudin points to O'Connor's childhood in Philadelphia—he had Jewish classmates as a child and attended high school in a largely Jewish neighborhood—and service as a Navy chaplain, where he encountered Jewish service men and women frequently, as the foundation of his open attitude. Moreover, O'Connor's close ties to Pope John Paul II helped the affable New York archbishop propel positive relations with Jews into the spotlight. While his contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations were mostly symbolic and took the form of publicizing that warmer relationship, O'Connor did partner with Rudin to found the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Project. O'Connor's ability to move so fluidly in Catholic-Jewish circles however, came from the push of Cardinals Cushing and Spellman at the Second Vatican Council to turn the Catholic Church away from institutional anti-Semitism

Connelly and Rudin have not presented necessarily opposing explanations for how the Catholic Church got from point A—widespread casual and locally explicit teachings about the Jews as a damned people—to point B—the institutional embrace of the Jews as "older brothers" in the faith, a people and a tradition underpinning all of Christianity. But they do narrate parallel processes at opposite ends of the Catholic vocational hierarchy, at least as it was conceived prior to Vatican II's own emphasis on the Church as the whole People of God. Connelly's research indicates that it was the experiential and academic knowledge of a relatively small group of liminal Europeans—men and women on the literal and intellectual fringe of their communities—that did most of the heavy lifting to move the Church toward Chapter 4 of Nostra Aetate, where Jews are called "the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles." But as they encountered the world's oldest bureaucracy, these ideas would never have received official approbation without the patronage of those princes of the Church who saw, and thought necessary, a new day for Christianity.

Michael A. Skaggs is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.

Most ReadMost Shared