A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Connelly on Nostra Aetate

I'm not a neutral arbiter -- on the dust jacket of the book I call it one of the most important books ever written on modern Catholicism -- but it was good to see Peter Gordon's interesting review of John Connelly's

    From Enemy to Brother

(Harvard, 2012) in The New Republic. Connelly's achievements are many: reminding us of how near a thing Nostra Aetate actually was, and how deeply anti-Semitism shaped Catholic thought at all levels of the Church, especially in central Europe during mid-20th century; quietly reorienting the tedious debate about the virtues or lack thereof of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust; gracefully dismantling any notion that "Jewish pressure" led to the document and offering a sobering portrait of how even major Catholic theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Adam) did not escape the racialist terminology sadly characteristic of that historical moment.But why, then, did Nostra Aetate occur? Connelly is succinct and compelling: Without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust. That is, only converts from Judaism (and to a lesser extent Protestantism) allowed the Church to reach beyond its own tightly patrolled borders and walls.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Fascinating review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Two questions:a) if it's true that the Catholic Church needed converts to formulate the language needed to speak to Jews after the Holocaust, then is it also true (it seems to be implied) that without the Holocaust, there would have been none of the re-thinking that brought Nostra aetate into being? An appalling thought.b) (and here I ask out of deep ignorance) how and when did the Protestant approach to Judaism in Germany and elsewhere, change as a result of the war and the Holocaust? Many decades ago William Shirer's book on the Third Reich insisted on Martin Luther's anti-Jewish screeds as formative in German in German anti-Semitism. Was that a fair and accurate account of mainstream German Protestantism prior to the war?

"But why, then, did Nostra Aetate occur? Connelly is succinct and compelling: Without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust. That is, only converts from Judaism (and to a lesser extent Protestantism) allowed the Church to reach beyond its own tightly patrolled borders and walls." The last two sentences here are not equivalent. The first is true, I think, although I find it odd to put the matter in terms simply of "a new language." The second statement I don't think is true: there were lots of other Catholics who for decades before Vatican II (and even before the Holocaust) were pressing "the Church to reach beyond its own tightly patrolled borders and walls." Or was the second statement meant only to apply to the Church's teaching and attitude toward Jews?

I bought the book immediately after reading the review a couple of days ago, and then was somewhat taken aback to read the following article, which is a topic of discussion over on First Things:

The Second Vatican Councils declarations on non-Christian religions and religious freedom do not contain binding doctrinal content, Cardinal Walter Brandmuller said at a press conference on May 21.The retired president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, along with Archbishop Agostino Marchetto and Father Nicola Bux, is the coauthor of a newly published book, Le Chiavi di Benedetto XVI per interpretare il Vaticano II [Benedict XVIs Keys for Interpreting Vatican II].Stating that the conciliar documents have differing degrees of authority, Cardinal Brandmuller said that there is a huge difference between a great constitution and simple declarations.Strangely enough, the two most controversial documents [on religious liberty and relations with non-Christian religions] do not have a binding doctrinal content, so one can dialogue about them," he continued. "So I don't understand why our friends in the Society of St. Pius X concentrate almost exclusively on these two texts. And I'm sorry that they do so, because these are the two that are most easy to accept if we consider their canonical nature. . . .

Cafeteria Catholicism in Rome? The Council either meant what it said, or it didn't. There is no level of "saidness" that can be turned into meaninglessness by retired cardinals. Shouldn't someone be caused to provide one of those Vatican "clarifications" that reverses without denying the original error? Otherwise, as one of the faithful, I will be "confused," and we don't want that to happen.

"Stating that the conciliar documents have differing degrees of authority, Cardinal Brandmuller said that there is a huge difference between a great constitution and simple declarations.I guess the Cardinal can say what he likes but he has no idea what is binding or non-binding. What most fail to understand is that the documents of Vatican II were mainly arrived at through compromise as each side pushed to insert its own point of view. Further, comments such as Brandmuller's are a Church of Dogma approach rather than the Church of the Beatitudes.

John,Thank you for posting Gordon's review. I found it not only "interesting," but intriguing. Two assertions seem to me to merit further reflection. Gordon writes:"As a historian, Connelly tries as much as he can to avoid making theological statements of his ownbut occasionally one catches sight of a different scholar, who seems drawn to Scripture as the moral standard by which the actions of the Church may be judged deficient. Connelly never openly acknowledges the use of this higher measure, as it would stand in conflict with the imperatives of modern historicism, for which there can be no transcendent norm. But history is only enriched when it opens itself to other modes of thought. This, too, is a kind of border-crossing, and its conflictual energies may help to explain the considerable drama of Connellys book."And he concludes:"Connelly has written an important book, an extraordinary work of history, although it is sobering to think that its argument may depend on an original sin in human psychology: that the imperative of empathy resists its universal application and collapses back upon itself, darkening its own promise like an imploding star."

Several years ago I was in a diocesan archive and came across a memo from a Jesuit working for the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to an American bishop, in May 1965. It was marked "urgent and confidential," and I was fascinated: it detailed how the Secretariat of State had presented an anti-Semitic report to the pope, based on opposition from Arab governments and Catholic bishops in Arab countries, trying to scotch Nostra Aetate. At the time of the memo's writing, Cardinal Bea of the SPCU had presented a counter-report but he and the memo-writer were very worried and were trying to collect as much in-person support as possible. The bishop replied that he had hoped not to have to go to the next meeting of the SPCU but, circumstances being what they were, he would book a night flight to Rome and get there in time for the meeting, despite his busy schedule the day before.Reading this memo really brought home to me "how near a thing" Nostra Aetate was. I'm looking forward to reading this book, perhaps in combination with Susannah Heschel's The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, which I've been meaning to get around to for some time now.

"Joseph Eberle, an important Catholic intellectual in the 1930s and the publisher of one of the most popular Germanlanguage Catholic journals of the day, declared without fear of self-contradiction that blood and race are not erased by baptism.Mind boggling that such a viewpoint could prevail in a church in which all the Apostles were Jews and the founder was a Jew. This new book is important in a world in which prejudice against Jews remains in many circles. In Westchester County New York a Wasp enclave town, Bronxville, used to exclude Jews. The Jews responded by encircling Bronxville with Scarsdale Village. While the exclusion no longer exists Scarsdale remains predominantly Jewish while Bronxville is still very much Wasp.

Incidentally, is a newish blog (I was just tipped off by Pray Tell) that is posting, day by day, events related to the Council fifty years ago, in the style of the New York Times blog that is currently 'following' the Civil War. And here is a memo from the great theologian Abraham Heschel to Cardinal Bea, dated May 22, 1962.

I hope I am not detracting from the original post, but on the one hand we have what seemed to me (and to John McGreevy and also the reviewer in TNR) a very important book about the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church, and then we have a Cardinal (though I suppose he shouldn't be considered a Vatican spokesperson) minimizing the importance of the documents Connelly writes about as important developments in the Church. The less authoritative those documents are, the less important the development Connelly writes about. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I did wonder about the timing of a Cardinal throwing Nostra Aetate and Dignitatus Humanae under the bus when the Vatican is trying to woo SSPX, with it's regrettable attitude toward Jews, back into the Church.

The reviewer misunderstands Nostra Aetate, which does not teach dual covenant thelogy:

John O'Malley's book, What Happened at Vatican II, had an interesting bit about how Nostra Aetate came to be. It was discouraging to read how the Council wasn't abel to put to reast the "deicide" claim. I have some excerpts from his book on Nostra Aetate here if anyone's interested ....

Here, as a counterweight to Cardinal Brandmuller, the important speech given by the (not retired) head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch: The speech is a strong statement that the conciliar declaration represented a point from which the Church could never retreat. I would take Koch much more seriously than Brandmuller.Brandmuller for some time has been trying to downplay the importance of Vatican II. In an essay back in 2005 he compared it unfavorably to other Councils, such as Trent, and expressed his regret that Vatican II had not issued any condemnations, especially of Communism. That essay, which Sandro Magister wrongly thought would be an appropriate preface to Pope Benedict's views, can be found here:

"Shouldnt someone be caused to provide one of those Vatican clarifications that reverses without denying the original error?"These days the Vaticanes have bigger scandals to deal with, i.e., a possible "Vatileaker" in the person of the pope's butler, and the ongoing Vat Bank scandals that simply don't seem to end.One old retired cardinal looking for his 15 seconds in the court of the heretics is small peanuts."Sandro Magister wrongly thought ..." Nothing unusual there.

Catherine et al: Conciliaria is a project of, among others, Deacon Eric Stolz who used to post here regularly.

The truth shall make you free, but that doesn't mean that it will not be very, very painful.

Catherine O. --Thanks for the Conciliaria blog. What a great idea for teaching history!

The consistent doctrine and practice of hatred for the Jews by the magisterium demonstrates clearly that infallibility does not exist and that the magisterium needs to be challenged when it strays from the gospel. The history of the RCC persecution of the Jews is directly contradictory to the lesson of the Good Samaritan which teaches that the Jews have always been our neighbor.

John McGreevy: I am not likely to read John Connelly's book. I did read Peter Gordon's lengthy review of it in TNR. Thank you for calling his review to our attention.I was very fascinated by Connelly's description of certain persons as border crossers because of their own personal and family identity.

Jimmy Mac, by "original error", in Nostra Aetate, do you mean the fact that although it is true that there is only One True God, The Communion of Perfect Love that is The Blessed Trinity, Who Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be, those who profess to be Jewish or Muslim, are not worshipping the same God because they do not worship The Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or the fact that Nostra Aetate does not make it clear that Christ, through His Life, His Passion, and His Death on The Cross, revealed that the fullness of Love requires desiring Salvation for one's beloved? "I give you a new Commandment, Love one another as I have Loved you." - Christ"No one comes to the Father except through me." "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day...". - Christ

Or the fact that without a final authority, there can be no cohesiveness of belief, so for the sake of ecumenical dialogue, how does one determine which group within the group that professes to be, for example, Muslim or Jewish, accurately reflects the truths that are recognized by that particular Faith group?

... [Trackback] ... [...] Find More Informations here: [...] ...

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment