The Beginning of the Beginning

How Vatican II Changed Jewish-Christian Relations

One of the most embarrassing experiences of my life occurred at a colloquium in London organized by the Sisters of Sion. This Catholic order was set up to promote the conversion of Jews to Christianity, but now, after the changes in the relation of the church to Judaism brought about by the Second Vatican Council, in the words of Professor Marc Ellis of Baylor University, the order “sets out to make us Jews seem angels rather than demons.”

The speakers at the London colloquium were a prominent Jewish rabbi and a well-known Catholic journalist. During question time, I asked how Christians should now relate to their two-thousand-year history of evangelization of Jews, seeing that Jesus testified that he was sent especially to the House of Israel. I also wondered whether, in view of what I call the “Catholic U-turn” regarding Judaism, Jews might reciprocate after a fashion by scrutinizing their own teaching material about Christianity.

The first question was intended for the journalist and the second for the rabbi. I thought this was so obvious that, through my fault, I did not specify. To the rabbi it was anything but obvious. Before I could explain, he became very angry. “In what way,” he demanded, addressing me, “do you think I would be better than I am if I were a Christian and not a Jew?” I thought of that incident recently when preparing a paper for a conference to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Joshua Heschel, famous in the United States as perhaps the archetypal Hassidic rabbi, popular philosopher and theologian, a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he joined on the 1965 Selma march—“I felt my legs were praying,” Heschel said of that experience. My invitation to participate in the conference, held at Baylor, came from the same Marc Ellis, professor of Jewish studies in the university, who drew my attention to Heschel’s influence behind the scenes on Vatican II’s declaration on the non-Christian religions, Nostra aetate. I had not previously known of Heschel’s role, nor is there any mention of it in the five-volume History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo.

Heschel was particularly concerned that the council should not promulgate any injunction to convert Jews. In his inaugural lecture in New York in 1965 as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, he recalled a conversation he had with the theologian Gustav Weigel, SJ, on the evening before the Jesuit’s death. The two close friends were ensconced in Heschel’s study. “We opened our hearts to one another,” Heschel recalled, “in prayer and contrition, and spoke of our own deficiencies, failures, hopes. At one moment I posed the question: Is it really the will of God that there be no more Judaism in the world? Would it really be the triumph of God if the scrolls of the Torah would no more be taken out of the Ark and the Torah no more be read in the synagogue, our ancient Hebrew prayers in which Jesus himself worshiped no more recited, the Passover Seder no more celebrated in our lives, the Law of Moses no more observed in our homes? Would it really be ad majorem Dei gloriam to have a world without Jews?”

The key figure in working out the Catholic U-turn toward the Jews at the Second Vatican Council was the German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea. In collaboration first with Pope John XXIII (Pope John was “a great miracle,” Heschel said), and then with his successor Paul VI, it was Bea who piloted through the council the statement rejecting the centuries-old charge of deicide, which means the killing of God and was used as an accusation against Jews.

Heschel was involved behind the scenes. Before the council met, he had a hand in preparatory memoranda sent to Bea in Rome by the American Jewish Committee and he paid a visit to Rome that impressed him and impressed his hosts. This must have been the first time in history that church officials and Jewish representatives worked together on Jewish-Christian relations.

In March 1963, after the council’s first session and before the second, Bea came to New York. He attended a meeting over which Heschel presided and a dinner at which Heschel spoke. There is a photograph of Bea and Heschel at that dinner. “What jumps out immediately,” commented the scholar Eva Fleishner in a chapter she contributed to a 1985 book, “is the total presence to each other of Heschel and the cardinal. It is as if the rest of the room and people had ceased to exist for them, as if they were aware only of each other. Cardinal Bea is leaning toward Heschel with a smile, and in intense communication. If ever I have seen Buber’s I and Thou caught visually, here it is.”

Nostra aetate was promulgated right at the end of the council’s fourth and final session, in October 1965. “True,” it said, “authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.”

Almost every word in this passage and others had been fought over. The conservative minority at the council was alarmed. They saw rightly that traditional mainstream understandings were being reversed. Must that not mean that the church had previously been in error? And the political realities were pressing in: Arab governments and their peoples were hostile, interpreting the council’s move as favoring Israel. The Eastern Orthodox churches, prominently represented in the Middle East, were opposed. So was Maximos IV Saïgh, patriarch of the Eastern-rite Melkites. He had emerged as one of the champions on the progressive side at the council, but took an opposite stance on Nostra aetate. He became so agitated that he declared he would walk out of the council hall if the charge of deicide against the Jews was withdrawn. Pope Paul VI told his associates that if the patriarch took so drastic a step, then, as pope, he would have no option but to close down the discussion. In the end the text contained compromise wording that avoided explicit mention of the deicide charge, thus apparently allowing Saïgh to countenance the statement.

Bea proved equal to the task of reconciling the biblical evidence with the council’s declaration. Intellectually brilliant, prudent in judgment, he was an eminent Scripture scholar, a former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute under Pope Pius XII, whose confessor he had been. The church must reflect the love of Christ and the apostles—all of them Jews—for the Jewish people, he argued. On the Cross, Christ himself had said that his executioners did not know what they were doing. But Bea’s opponents objected that St. Paul had spoken not only of the divine election of the Jews and God’s love for them “for the sake of their forefathers,” but also of their being “enemies of God” as regards the gospel (Romans 11:28–29).

Meanwhile, Bea also had to face a groundswell of Catholic anti-Semitism among a minority that went as far as to attempt to smear him personally by claiming in an anonymous letter distributed to all the bishops that Bea was “of Jewish descent.” The same poison oozed from letters written by Fr. Luigi Macali, a moral theologian at the Pontifical Theological University of St. Bonaventure in Rome, to Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni. In line with traditional Catholic propaganda asserting the right and duty of Catholics to defend themselves against Jewish “aggression,” Macali alleged that from the beginning “all the evils, all the persecutions of the church have come from the synagogues.” But today, he wrote, the church “has come to the point of indicting itself while gaily absolving its oldest and most deadly enemy.”

At one point in November 1964, during the council’s third session, the battle was so fierce that the draft of Nostra aetate was withdrawn. It was at this time that Abraham Heschel made his most forthright intervention. In September 1964 he had strongly condemned the emerging draft text of the document, which expressed a hope for the eventual conversion of the Jews. In a statement, Heschel said: “A message that regards the Jews as candidates for conversion and proclaims that the destiny of Judaism is to disappear will be abhorred by Jews all over the world.” In a rebuke designed to shock, he declared: “I’d rather go to Auschwitz than give up my religion.”

His concern was such that shortly afterward he went to Rome to see Pope Paul VI. In an audience with him, Heschel repeated forcefully that if the text included the theme of conversion, it would produce negative reactions among Jews worldwide. He reported that he persuaded the pope, who “personally crossed out a paragraph in which there was a reference to conversion or mission to the Jews.” The implication is that Paul VI did this in Heschel’s presence, but most commentators suspect a touch of poetic license on Heschel’s part.

In the end, the progressive majority at the council carried the day. The world was watching in expectancy, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, told his fellow bishops. Twenty years after the Holocaust, they had to speak out. In the final vote the declaration went through with an overwhelming majority.

Rarely can so short a text have had such far-reaching effects. In its final form Nostra aetate said nothing about converting Jews. There are now no organizations in the Catholic Church devoted to that institutional aim.

The opportunities and pitfalls on the road still to be traveled became evident during the papacy of John Paul II, who widened the openings toward Judaism that Nostra aetate contained. Here was a pope from Poland, the native country of Abraham Heschel, also the country whose then–cardinal archbishop, August Hlond, had declared in a 1936 pastoral letter that

there will be a Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain.... It is a fact that the Jews are fighting the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion.... It is a fact that the Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of Jewish young people on Polish youth is a negative one.

Cardinal Hlond continued: “But let us be just. Not all Jews are like that.”

As editor of the Tablet from 1982 to 2003, I watched as Karol Wojtyla moved boldly in a dramatically new direction. As early as 1980 he was stressing that the covenant with the Jews “has never been revoked by God.” When he visited the synagogue in Rome in 1986, he hailed Jews as “our elder brothers.” In this way, said Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, he made a bond between Judaism and Christianity, “and in so doing he moved us all.” But some Jewish observers were a touch cynical at being recognized as “elder brothers.” They dryly noted that according to some Christian interpretations of the Jewish Scriptures the older brother of Jacob loses out when Jacob usurps the divine promise from him.

As the turn of the millennium approached, Pope John Paul’s guiding theme became “the purification of memory” through examination of conscience, repentance, and ethical conversion. Part of this process was a full-scale Vatican review of the church’s record toward the Jews. Published in 1998, the Vatican document was titled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. It had taken eleven years to prepare this text. Jewish reaction, however, was generally reserved. They had expected rather more. The Vatican was more circumspect than the Catholic bishops of Germany had been in 1988 and 1995 and the Catholic bishops of France in 1997. Both the French and the German bishops explicitly recognized that anti-Judaism had been endemic in the Christian churches, providing the soil that—in the French bishops’ words—“nurtures the poisonous plant of contempt for Jews.”

It was the church’s “teaching of contempt”—the belief that Jews were to be despised as stubborn and blind—that Abraham Heschel particularly asked Christians to repent of. But whereas the French bishops directly indicted elements in the church’s own “doctrine and teachings, theology and apologetics, preaching and liturgy,” the Vatican, by contrast, distinguished between the church itself and those of its “sons and daughters” who had fallen into “errors and failures.” Nor did the Vatican document give any hint that a controversy was raging over the wartime record of Pius XII with respect to the Holocaust, while his cause for sainthood was going forward.

Nevertheless, here on behalf of the whole church and with its full authority was a self-confessed “act of repentance.” It was reinforced in March 2000 when a remarkable ceremony, televised to the world, was held in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Among seven categories of sins for which John Paul II asked pardon from God were offenses against the Jewish people. Only days afterward he was in Israel, and the same Day of Pardon prayer became the focus of his visit to the Western Wall on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

This affirmation of the continuing validity of the Jewish covenant is another fruit of Nostra aetate (section 4), but it brings with it an obvious challenge to Christians. Speaking in England in 2004, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, saw here “the central question” around which Jewish-Christian dialogue now revolves. If the Jewish covenant continues in force, how can Christians still claim that the revelation brought by Jesus Christ is unique and universal? But they must do so, Kasper insisted. He said: “Giving up the claim to the universal truth and salvation of Christ Jesus would be equivalent to giving up Christianity itself.”

So are there two covenants, related to each other, or one? The latter theory, in Kasper’s judgment, preserves the unity of the plan of salvation, but is in danger of “either claiming Judaism for Christianity or making Christianity into a sort of reformed Judaism.” The two-covenant theory, on the other hand, “maintains the relative autonomy of Judaism and Christianity,” but risks “considering the two as totally independent entities.”

The doctrine of Christ is crucial, Kasper asserted. There is a fulfillment that had been achieved in him, and simultaneously a consummation through him that is still awaited. From this standpoint, “at the end of days Jews and Gentiles will stand shoulder to shoulder and await the Messiah.”

What would Abraham Heschel think of the Jewish-Christian dialogue today? Some observers feel that recently Kasper has become more reserved. They are anxious that the momentum built up under John Paul is being lost. They see a danger that when the next test comes, the mechanisms for dealing with it may not be ready.

Such disquiet is not shared by one American rabbi, Alan Brill. Reading Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, said Brill, he could see that the optimists had been correct in believing that Benedict XVI would continue the work of bridge-building to the Jewish people. For in it, Brill thought, Benedict presents Jesus as a follower of true biblical and rabbinic traditions. At several points, Brill noted, Benedict quotes rabbinic literature favorably, presenting the Talmud as a continuity of the Bible’s true message. The Jesus of the book takes the message of Moses and brings it to the world. Brill concluded: “Benedict wants to make sure that Judaism is presented positively, and in accord with Nostra aetate, to the world’s billion Catholics. Jews concerned with the Christian-Jewish relationship should take this book as proof of continued positive developments during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.”

In his latest encyclical, Spe salvi, however, Benedict makes little use of the Hebrew Scripture; and the message of his visit to Auschwitz in 2006 was not unambiguous. After the motor cavalcade stopped at the gates of the former concentration camp, Benedict and his retinue proceeded on foot. The German pope walked ahead by himself, coping through intense interior recollection. The weight of history seemed to press down on him. In the cramped cell where the Franciscan priest Maximilan Kolbe had died, having taken the place of another condemned prisoner, Benedict seemed almost overcome. “Pray for us,” he interceded with the Polish saint.

There was a steady build-up of emotion as the visit progressed. It was at its height when the time came for Benedict to deliver his address in Birkenau, two miles from Auschwitz. Around him stretched the remains of the huge Nazi death camp, where a million and a half victims, of whom more than a million were Jews, perished in the gas ovens and crematoriums. Would he use the occasion to launch himself further than the church had—to this moment—felt able to go?

His address included a disconcerting analysis of Nazi times. The German people, he said, had been “used and abused” by “a ring of criminals” who rose to power “by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honor, prominence, and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation.” Was this an apt enough explanation, when so many in Germany were fellow travelers with National Socialism as it rose in the early 1930s? Compare the judgment of Konrad Adenuaer, first chancellor of the Federal Republic, writing in 1946: “The German people permitted itself to be nazified without offering resistance—yes, even with enthusiasm. Therein lies its guilt.” Adenuaer was referring to the crucial years when resistance was still possible, before the terror of the brownshirts was everywhere firmly established and Hitler, democratically elevated to chancellor in 1933 by a majority in the Reichstag, held all the reins of power.

And was there nothing to be said by Benedict of the record at that time of the Vatican, which had given Hitler his first international recognition with the Reich Concordat of 1933? Hitler himself believed the concordat would benefit him to the extent of “creating a sphere of competence” that would be—in a chilling phrase—“especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.” And what of the Vatican’s failure during this period to support the mainly Catholic Center Party in Germany, a potential rock of democratic principle amid the sea of fascism, which had been such a force against Bismarck’s Kulturkampf? The Vatican’s then-Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII, never approved of democratic groupings independent of the Holy See, and was content to see the Center Party dissolved.

But if that was a step back, Benedict also took a step forward. Toward the end of his address, the pope developed a thought in line with the one expressed by the Calvinist theologian Karl Barth who once said that the root of anti-Semitism is that the Jews were indeed the chosen people. By wiping out the Jews, Benedict said, the Nazis “wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for humankind.” By their very existence, Benedict went on, the Jewish people were witnesses to God. If the Nazis wanted to make themselves by force masters of the world, “that God finally had to die.” And after the destruction of Israel would come the destruction of the Christian church, for by destroying Judaism the Nazis’ ultimate aim was “to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.”

However problematic his formulation, it was daring for Benedict to link Jews and Christians in this way. Would any previous pope have said that in seeking to eliminate the Jews, the Nazis sought to eliminate God?

I wonder what Abraham Joshua Heschel’s verdict would be today. At the Baylor conference I was conscious that I was speaking to an audience of whom a significant proportion were Jewish. They did not hear what I said in the same way Christians would. I had emphasized how Christians were again focusing on the Jewishness of Jesus. “But we don’t necessarily like that,” said Heschel’s daughter Susannah afterward, expressing anxiety about a possible Christian takeover bid, or redoubled Christian questioning as to why Jews had not followed Jesus if he was so much one of their own. Susannah Heschel, a distinguished scholar in her own right, also voiced skepticism about the distinction drawn in We Remember between anti-Judaism, to which the document confessed, and anti-Semitism, to which it did not. Nevertheless, Abraham Heschel would surely have felt that the meetings he had with Cardinal Bea and Pope Paul VI at the time of the Second Vatican Council had borne fruit.

His daughter believes he influenced the agenda of Jewish-Christian discussion by making Catholics and Protestants realize how well they could learn about God from a Jew. “So many,” she says, “feel deepened in their Christian faith thanks to him—and that truly is a miracle, given our turbulent history.”

Nostra aetate, said Cardinal Kasper in his Cambridge address, was “the beginning of the beginning.” Jews and Christians, in his image, are “like two brothers.” The Jewish root St. Paul speaks of in Romans 11 supports the whole Christian tree, while the Jewish community cannot be indifferent to this Christian tree “without denying a part of itself.” The sea change in Jewish-Christian relations, the cardinal hoped, would allow the two faiths to overcome alienation and hostility, “as Joseph found his brothers again after a long history of guilt and betrayal.”


Related: Misremembered and Benedict at Auschwitz, by the Editors
Can Jews Trust Catholics? by Rabbi Michael A. Signer

Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: 

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

Also by this author
What Happened at the Council?

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