• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Catholics and Jews: The Great Change

Palazzo Ducale, Urbino/Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource
A Jewish merchant and his family being burned at the stake for desecrating the host; from Paolo Uccello’s altarpiece for the Confraternity of Corpus Domini, Urbino, 1467–1469

The history of Christian viciousness toward Jews is too grotesque for credence. As a character in a James McCourt novel says, in a very different context, “I can’t believe her!… So I won’t.” Some Catholics at the Second Vatican Council said that the charge of deicide against the Jews was so silly it should not be dignified with a refutation. John Connelly in his book From Enemy to Brother writes that the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray actually claimed that he had not heard the charge until he was forty. In the same way, deniers of anti-black prejudice in America forget that there was slavery, or say it was ended without aftereffects, or that it wasn’t really so bad (no worse than, say, “wage slavery” up north—slaves, after all, could not be fired from their jobs). The prejudiced cannot recognize their own prejudice—as one cannot taste one’s own saliva.

Admittedly, the Christian-Jewish history does test belief, so packed is it with absurdities. The Jews, it was claimed, were not sated with the blood of Christ; they had to sacrifice more innocent blood running in the veins of Christian children—see Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale.” Still wanting to kill Jesus, Jews loved to stab the Eucharistic host—see Paolo Uccello’s Urbino altarpiece of Corpus Domini. The stories are so deeply ludicrous that they cannot, one would think, be deeply true. Why, for instance, would Jews be such believing Christians as to think Jesus is present in the host for them to kill him again? But law records support the twisted art of Chaucer or Uccello. In 1255, eighteen Jews were hanged in England on the charge of killing “Little Saint Hugh” for his blood. In 1492, twenty-seven Jews were burned alive in Sternberg, Germany, for desecrating the host. In 1510, thirty-nine were burned and two beheaded for the same “crime” in Berlin.1

These tales are so vile that people do not want to advert to them. They are hidden by their hideousness. But lesser forms of persecution—branding, ghettoizing, stigmatizing, caricaturing—continued even past the Holocaust. When the Second Vatican Council was assembled, two decades after the Holocaust, there was no urgency to remedy injustices inflicted on Jews by the Catholic Church. Luckily for church apologists, there had never been a full-dress papal statement of Jewish “perfidy”—though that had been deeply inculcated by bishops and publications and practices. The resulting atrocities could be dismissed as the acts of individual Catholics, not of the church itself—or so traditionalists hoped. They had not counted on one thing, a thing that made all the difference. That one thing was John XXIII—a wonderful exception, a rule-breaker pope.

In 1960, John had met Jules Isaac, a Holocaust survivor whose family had not survived, and his heart went out to him, as it did to so many. Isaac, a friend and fellow Dreyfusard of the French Catholic poet Charles Peguy, was a historian who had exposed the roots of Christian anti-Semitism in his Jesus and Israel (1948). Pope John, after surprising the world by assembling a new ecumenical council, shocked the Curia (the papal bureaucracy) by raising the “unnecessary” question of Christian relations with Jews. John commissioned the Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea to prepare a statement on the issue. There the matter would have died if the rule-breaking pope had not inherited the efforts of a group of boundary-crossing Catholic theologians who had been worrying at the problem of Christian anti-Semitism since the early 1930s.

These boundary crossers were converts to Catholicism—some, like Karl Thieme, from Protestantism, others, like John Oesterreicher, from Judaism. They were joined by more than a dozen similar converts who were able to recognize the sorry history of the church they had joined. As John Connelly writes, these recent Catholics were brought together by opposition to three things: (1) a new (1930s) “science” of race-cum-eugenics that “proved” Jews are genetically inferior, (2) the growing thuggery of Nazism, and (3) the acceptance of one or both of those two positions by prominent Catholic thinkers and writers. To their dismay, bishops and theologians found the anti-Semitism of the scientists and the Nazis the most familiar and acceptable part of both movements. The most disheartening section of Connelly’s book recounts how much support leading Catholics gave to “Aryan” myths of the time.

A liberal hero, Karl Adam, compared the pure German Volk to the Mystical Body of Christ, and praised Hitler for restoring German “blood unity,” an entity whose purity must be secured “through the force of law.” But wasn’t Jesus a Jew? No, answered Adam, since Mary’s immaculate conception spared Jesus from “those characteristics that are passed by blood from Jew to Jew.” Thus Jesus was not a “race-Jew.” He was just what the Catholic Hitler wanted—an Aryan Christ. The priest-anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt, who was favored by Pope Pius XI with the founding of a Vatican museum of ethology, said that the Jewish rejection of Christ was a transgression that “can by itself distort the being of a people,” with a “real effect on its physical race.”

Georg Bichlmair, an influential Jesuit preacher at the University of Vienna, taught that the legacy of killing Christ had “diseased Jews as a collectivity,” leaving it with “defective genetic material.” At least three prelates important in the hierarchy voiced similar views. The most influential Catholic publisher in Germany, Joseph Eberle, said Catholics should cultivate good relations with the Nazis, and exclude even Jewish Catholic converts from positions of dignity since “blood and race are not erased by baptism.” When Catholic scholars composed a 1937 memorandum against anti-Semitism and tried to get bishops to sign it, none did. A French Jesuit who wanted to sign was effectively forbidden to do so by the general of his order, Włodimierz Ledóchowski, a Nazi supporter.

The American Jesuit John LaFarge was an outspoken critic of America’s anti-black racism. When Pope Pius XI learned of his work, he asked LaFarge to draft an encyclical on racism. But again the Jesuit general, Ledóchowski, intervened. He assigned a racist German Jesuit to be LaFarge’s coauthor. Thus, as Connelly writes, when LaFarge turned from “advocating the rights of African Americans victimized by discrimination…to Catholic writings on the Jews, [he] drew upon the same anti-Judaic tradition” as his racist coauthor. The encyclical was never released, since it said that Jews, “blinded by a vision of material domination and gain,” were an “unhappy people, destroyers of their own nation,” who had “called down upon their own heads a divine malediction.”

This notion—that Jews may not be racially inferior, but that theirs is a failed religion, one that must be rejected by Christians unless the Jews convert—is called supersessionism, the idea that the New Covenant mediated by Jesus has superseded the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. This belief had several sources in the New Testament, and especially in the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews, a weird document that called the Old Covenant useless. This tradition was so strong that even liberal Catholics of the 1930s continued to hold it. Connelly writes:

No Christian theologian of note dissented from this point of view before 1945: not Charles Journet, Jacques Maritain, Karl Barth, Martin Nie- möller, or even the martyrs Die- trich Bonhoeffer and Bernhard Lichtenberg. Though horrified by Nazi antisemitism, leading Catholic theologians Romano Guardini and Erich Przywara—both inspirations to the White Rose resistance group in Munich—remained silent. The prominent French anti-fascist theologian Henri de Lubac said nothing publicly against anti-Judaism before 1945. Those few Christians who opposed antisemitism in the interwar years, such as Maritain, Karl Thieme, or Dietrich von Hildebrand, still said to Jews, in essence, “The Jew Jesus of Nazareth has become my savior, redeemer and King; and because of that, I would like that he finally be recognized by his own people as their redeemer, because then they will be saved.”

If this was the overwhelming weight of tradition, how could those wanting to change it wrestle free from its grasp? It was Karl Thieme who forged a path out of the dead end of tradition. He thought it made no sense that Jews could be honored only on condition that they surrender their religion. Helped by works of men like Léon Bloy, Thieme began to focus on one passage in the New Testament, the genuine letter of Paul to the Romans. This said that “God has not rejected his people.” God could not do this, since his calling of them is “not subject to second thoughts” (ametamelēta), and “the whole of Israel will be saved.” Paul says that how this will happen is mysterious, but believers in Jesus are branches grafted onto the root of Israel, and the root cannot die while the branch lives.

It seems paradoxical, though on reflection it is not surprising, that those in the best position to say that conversion from Judaism is not necessary to salvation were themselves converts to Catholicism. John Oesterreicher always bristled when others called him “a former Jew.” He knew he was still a Jew, but he had to work out the theology of continuing to be a member of the chosen people. His friend Karl Thieme was ahead of him in standing with Paul, the first author of the New Testament, against the whole later tradition. Oesterreicher was still trying to convert Jews in 1960, to the disgust of Thieme, who stopped speaking to him. Their relationship had not been restored when Thieme died in 1963.

But by that year, the Second Vatican Council had begun, and Oesterreicher belatedly picked up Thieme’s fallen torch, to struggle with others on the commission formed by Cardinal Bea in response to Pope John’s directive. Through successive drafts of the statement on Jews, supersessionism was edged out, thrust back in, hotly contested, and very nearly reaffirmed. Oesterreicher’s (originally Thieme’s) Pauline thesis led a Perils-of-Pauline existence right down to the finish line in 1965, when it was finally vindicated in the council document Nostra Aetate.

That outcome, which forthrightly condemned anti-Semitism, followed an even closer and harder fight than Connelly’s book indicates. A better picture of the clash is in John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II.2 Successively weakened drafts, or attempts to weaken them, were leaked to the Protestant and Jewish observers John invited to the council, and they caused explosive reactions. Rabbi Abraham Heschel even declared that he would prefer Auschwitz to conversion. In O’Malley’s words, “Like no other document in the council, the declaration on the Jews became the focus of intense media attention and public scrutiny.”

Paul VI, who did not quite know what to do with the council Pope John had left him, sided with those trying to retain supersessionism. He even preached a Passion Sunday sermon during the last session of the council that said the Jews killed Jesus. And when Maximos IV Sayegh, the Melkite patriarch, said he would have to leave the council if Jews were cleared of deicide, Paul told Bea that he would have to kill the document in that case.

  1. 1

    Carolyn Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), pp. 68–70, and Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Zone, 2011), p. 211. 

  2. 2

    Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2008. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print