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Catholics, Jews, and Vatican II: A New Beginning

Thomas Beaudoin


Catholicism is the world's largest Christian religion and Judaism is the religious father of Roman Catholicism. The interface and reconciliation of these faiths is very important to modern ecumenism and world peace. This paper will look into just one small attempt at reconciliation between these two religions. This attempt at reconciliation will be explored by describing the documents concerning Jewish/Christian relations from Vatican II, 1962-1965, analyzing these documents and some accompanying critiques, and establishing a synthesizing measurement of (1) the actual language employed in the final document regarding relations with Judaism and (2) how the stances taken in the documents differed from the recent history of Roman Catholic/Jewish relations and (3) answer the question: Did this document yield significant ecumenical progress or little but verbal fence-sitting from the Catholic Church?

I. The Document

The Second Vatican Council was a "solemn and holy circus" of priests, abbots, bishops, and cardinals hailing from San Francisco to Mongolia, assembled to discuss current controversies in the secular world that were impacting the Catholic religious body worldwide. Initiated by Pope John XXIII and continued by Pope Paul VI, a Vatican decree on the Jews was originally a small part of a Declaration on ecumenism in the opening session, but it drew so much attention and debate that it was inserted into a declaration on non-Christian religions in the fourth session. (1)

The text of the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" was hotly debated in the years following its promulgation by the Second Vatican in October, 1965. Since many authors twist the text in the interest of polemics and apologetics, we shall take a little bit of space to devote ourselves to some of the key literal pronouncements from the document, in order to have a firmer base from which to measure it against recent history.

The Vatican's pronouncement opens with a general statement about other religions, including the recognition that "other religions to be found everywhere strive variously to answer the restless searchings of the human heart," and that "The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these 2 religions." The Church's spiritual relationship to the Jews is spelled out through the metaphor of the "root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles," acknowledging that the Church "...cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy deigned to 3 establish the Ancient Covenant." Regarding Jewish guilt for Jesus' death, the Declaration asserts that "...authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ." "Still," it continues, "what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by 4 God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures." 4

Finally, the statement reads "Mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospel's spiritual love and by no political considerations, she deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the 5 Jews at any time and from any source."

II. Recent History of Relations Between Catholics and Jews Zionism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 6 a "movement to reassemble the Jews in their ancient homeland," was not popular with many Catholic Church leaders. Pope Pius X had harsh and unmistakable words in 1904 for a visitor, Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism. "We [the Church] cannot favor this movement. The Jews did not recognize Jesus, our Lord, and 7 we therefore cannot recognize the Jewish people." Pius X further promised that "If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with priests and churches to baptize all 8 of you."

Between the world wars, increasing Zionist activity caused significant nervousness in Vatican City. Their fears were based on anxiety over a compromise of the protection of   Christian holy places and a rollback of Christian influence on the region in general at the hands of the Zionists. On July 4, 1922, a German Papal Embassy report elaborated the Church's position, claiming -- with a tone hauntingly like that of the Middle Ages -- that the Church was not in favor of Jews gaining "privileged and predominant positions" over Catholics. The report also emphasized the concerns about Catholic safety in a Jewish state and concluded with a message that would ring loud and clear in Jewish ears for many years: "Zionism as a power factor is... not acceptable, because it is the mischief-maker of social peace in Palestine, as well as the destroyer of the natural rights of the 9 native population of Palestine."

Later pronouncements further emphasized the Church's antipathy to Zionism. If one letter in 1928 from the Papal Nuncio in the Netherlands regarding Zionism was prophetic in its conjecture about Arab response to Jewish rule, it was lacking in tact in its indictment of the Zionists: "Zionism now pursues a policy which lacks every psychological insight and is bound to result in opposition and the hostility of 10 the Arabs."

But by 1945, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, much of the world, including the Church leadership, outraged at the tales of Nazi atrocities found a new sympathy for -- as it was called -- the "Jewish question." Zionist leaders met with Pope Pius XII, who offered the empathy and concern of the Holy See, but stopped well short of supporting the idea of a Jewish state.

The notion of a modern, political, fully-functioning, successful State of Israel was extremely troubling to Church leaders who tended to see biblical Israel as antiquated, faulty, and finally unsuccessful as a political or religious entity. On a physical level, the sheer numbers of Jews living together, strengthening their religion by making it part of the State's political infrastructure was threatening to Catholics for 12 the sheer challenge it presented to hopes of converting the Jews.

Jewish conversion, though, was related to the larger theological problems that the potential existence of the Jewish State posed to Roman Catholicism. The destruction of the Temple and subsequent dispersion and exile of Jews in many countries were seen as signs of   the "accursed" status of the Jews, the result of their failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and also (in the minds of some Church leaders) owing to the guilt of the Jews -- all Jews -- for Jesus' 13 death. The establishment of the State of Israel would throw a spanner in the Catholic theological works. The founding of a modern Jewish state would either have to be treated as a short-lived historical deviation or else force a major revision of Catholic theology. These traditional ways of thinking, prevalent among many of the Catholic clergy, were made of sturdy stuff. Old theology died hard. The Vatican refused to acknowledge the existence of the State of Israel after its official statehood was declared by the United Nations, a diplomatic move that frustrates relations to this day. Frequent post-1948 Papal references to "Palestine" instead of   "Israel" and the Holy See's overt desire for the internationalization of Jerusalem are still major hurdles to cooperation between Israel and the Bishop of Rome.

The 1950s and early 1960s were a time of progress and procrastination in relations between the Catholic Church and Israel. In 1953, when orthodox Jews in Israel tried to outlaw Christian missionary schools, the Israeli legislature vetoed the move. In 1954, the Hebrew language was finally beginning to make inroads into the Catholic liturgy. Many prayer services began to be offered in Hebrew, and an increasing number of  priests were learning the biblical language. In 1955, Israel made its final payment to the Catholic Church for damages incurred during Israel's 1948 War of Independence in 1955. The Jewish State's Minister of Religious Affairs presented the historic check to Monsignor Vergani, Latin Patriarchal Representative. Vergani made no secret of his personal desire to see an improvement in relations between the Vatican and Israel. He sprinkled the diplomatic air with effusive praise in a letter to the Israeli government after receiving the final war reparation: "I wish to express our thanks for the goodwill, cooperative spirit, and efficiency displayed..." by the Israelis in their handling of the Church's outstanding monetary claims. Two years later, in response to a question from an Israeli journalist, Vergani said, "Personally, I would favor the establishment of regular diplomatic 14 relations, if the Vatican has no objections."

  Alas, the bright light ignited by Vergani flickered in the stale air of the Vatican's confusing gestures and ultimate unwillingness to pursue the issue. The Israel Philharmonic performed Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for Pope Pius XII in 1955, a performance greeted with an ovation and many laudatory comments from the Pontiff. Pius met after the concert with several of the musicians, conversing in Hebrew with some of them. Many newspapers made a big to-do of the audience with the Pope, hoping that this was a subtle signal that the Vatican was ready to consider friendly dialogue.

But once again, inactivity in the following months proved that the gesture was full of pomp and somewhat lacking in 15  circumstance. Construction niceties were exchanged in 1956. When the Israeli government paved new roads to Catholic holy sites, Rome announced its plans to build the biggest Catholic Church in the Middle East in Nazareth. The contract to build the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth was given to Israel's largest 16 building contractor.

Several grateful and brief letters were sent from the Vatican in 1957 to the government of Israel, thanking them for their assistance in providing security for the many Christians in the Holy Land. But this somewhat warmer good-naturedness turned a bit chilly upon the issuance in 1958 of the Pontifical Yearbook. This directory of all Catholic dioceses and ecclesiastics included more than one hundred religious posts that had not been extant for hundreds of years. The Yearbook also ommitted mention of the modern State of Israel in the book itself and in its huge index. "The name [Israel], which appears well over a dozen times in the New Testament, by 1958 had not yet been found worthy of mention in the official reference book of  the Catholic Church." Needless to say, any positive strides in recent relations between Catholics and Jews were momentarily 17 shelved.

In the autumn of 1958, an ecumenical firebrand stormed upon St. Peter's stage, setting in motion a massive turning of  the Catholic anti-semitic tide from an unlikely position: the Papacy. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, was a cosmopolitan world traveler with a passion for reform and a genuine affection and desire to bring Catholics and Protestants and Christians and Jews back closer together, declaring that every person has the right to "worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, 18 and to profess his religion both in private and in public." John XXIII, the two-hundred and sixty-second pope, was the first 19 pope to make cardinals of African and Japanese bishops. He was bold and visionary. "We do not intend to conduct a trial of the past," he said, "we do not want to prove who was right and who was wrong. All we want to say is: Let us come together. Let us make an end of our 20 divisions." Toward that end, John XXIII met in 1960 with Jules Isaac, French professor and author of  The Teaching of Contempt. Isaac expressed his desire that the upcoming Council would deal 21 decisively with the question of Christian anti-semitism.

John was a hospitable man, granting thousands of audiences to non-Catholics, including 120 meetings with Jews (including the Israeli ambassador!). Dr. Saul Colbi, Director of the Department for Christian Communities in Israel's Ministry for Religious Affairs said in 1962, "It was a rare feeling to be received with full honors by the Swiss and the Nobile Guards, as an official representative of sovereign Israel. The more so when one recalls that only 130 years ago, the President of Rome's Jewish community had to kneel before the pope 22 each carnival time and to receive a papal kick in the pants."

Pope John XXIII was indeed not about to heave his holy elderly foot into the pants of a people he wanted to embrace spiritually, the Jews. He prayed in 1965, We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes, so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy Chosen People, nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in the blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy Love. Forgive us for crucifying thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did. (23)

In 1960, John created the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, an office under the jurisdiction of John's confidant and fellow ecumenical crusader, Cardinal Bea. Its purposes were threefold: to enhance inter-Christian cooperation, to ensure religious liberty, and to promote dialogue 24 with Judaism. Bea and the Pontiff were trodding upon similar paths in their pursuit of a major reconciliation with their Jewish brothers and sisters. In a speech in 1962, Bea exclaimed:

The problems which humanity has to face today are, indeed, so enormous and so urgent that it is really indispensible to mobilize all those forces which are in agreement at least on the level of the religious idea, the idea of God, and the existence of a moral order. On that ground, they can and they ought to seek to understand each other. (25)


By late 1960, Bea -- with the help and inspiration of Isaac --drafted what was originally called the "Jewish Declaration." This document would, after much debate and revision, eventually be accepted by the Second Vatican Council as part of a larger edict on non-Christian 26 religions.

In this blossoming environment, Jewish-Catholic relations began to brighten. Under recommendations from the Secretariat, Catholic publishing houses began immediately to publish "revised and improved" editions of Catholic textbooks and school literature. The overwhelming public support from clerics indicated that many Catholic clergy were more than happy to ride the Johaninne tide. Public clerical remarks seemed to indicate that John desired to insitutionalize what many of  27 his Catholic flock were already experiencing. Cardinal Meyer of  Chicago observed in 1965 that "a growing sense of responsibility for, and solidarity with, the Church's Elder Brother can be perceived in 28 Catholic circles today." In July of 1965, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, Primate of Chile, speaking in Santiago's B'nai-B'rith Synagogue, said: "In The Lord's inscrutable designs for Israel, you continue to bear a witness of sacrifice, martyrdom, love and liberty, of the defense of human rights and the dignity of man..." And he closed with: "God has not forsaken His People, and a splendid dawn of  hope, of peace and liberty, of brotherhood and love, will yet shine upon Israel. This we desire with all our heart." The next day, a Chilean newspaper captured the vitality of the new Johannine direction: "Ten years ago, such a meeting was not only impossible, but the mere 29 idea of it would have been inconceivable." Monsignor Gerry, Archbishop of Cambrai, Netherlands, remarked "We respect the loyalty of the Jewish people to its millenial mission as spokesmen of  monotheism and the transcendency of God." Cardinal Frings of Cologne surmised that "No ecumenical council can order the faithful to love the Jews. That Christ himself has done, and we can only repeat His 30 wish."

It was only appropriate, then, that after John announced the commencement of the Second Vatican Council, he ordered the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to draw up a document that would speak out against anti-semitism and the notion of Jews as "deicides." He had planned for the so-called "Schema on Ecumenism" to be introduced and ratified during the opening session. He did not anticipate the resistance and popular debate that would eventually lead to the construction of a new document called "The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," passed in 31 a later session of the Council, after John's death in 1963.

No opposition could undo what John had begun. His radical leaderhsip no doubt influenced one clergyman, Archbishop Thomas Roberts of Bombay, to remark a bit sarcastically, I never could understand what the fuss was about during the Third Session of the Council, when the guilt of the Jews was debated. It is so plain that the guilt lay not with the Jewish people, but with the Jewish priestly Establishment, that it seems legitimate to wonder whether the refusal to face up to this may not be a subconscious reluctance to face up to the analogy in the Church today. (32)

III. Interpreting the Evidence

The Declaration has been heavily criticized by religious and laity alike. Two critiques in particular can serve as critical boundaries, between which the truth about the potency of the Vatican's actions lies. Paul Blanshard, the Roman Catholic Church's most infamous conscientious objector, came down in harsh criticism of the Vatican II reforms in Paul Blanshard on Vatican II. Blanshard's purpose was to evaluate the Second Vatican Council according to the standards of "traditional American 33 democratic values," a philosophical flaw that causes Blanshard to make wholly inappropriate criticisms of the Church's statement on the Jews. In fact, Blanshard's lack of theological knowledge comes shining through in this book when he ignores religious concerns by the Vatican about the State of Israel, concluding instead that modern Catholic anti-semitism was a major factor in Rome's non-recognition of the Jewish State and the non-mention of Israel in the final Vatican document. Were John XXIII not such a peace-loving pope, he probably would have ordered Blanshard's head on a platter for this ill-founded assertion. Also when describing the Vatican documents, Blanshard jumps up and down in anger at the striking of the word "deicide" from the original text regarding the misrepresentation of Jews in Christian history. He summarily dismisses Rome's argument that simply employing the word "deicide" in an official Church document could present serious theological problems for current and later generations. He once again sounds the knell of  institutional anti-Semitism in the Church, failing to even argue 34 the theological point.

At the other end of the critical spectrum is  The Church and the Jewish People by Augustin Cardinal Bea, John XXIII's hand-picked director of the Secretariat for Promoting Chrisitan Unity, the papal office that crafted the declaration on the Jews. Diametrically opposed to Blanshard's bashing is Bea's blessing of the Vatican's decrees about the Jews: "We should note the very strong terms in which this [denunciation of anti-semitism] is couched." Indeed, Bea denies any anti-semitism inherent in the New Testament, and with the desire for Christian/Jewish unity that we have seen Bea tended to see the Council's declaration as a bold, complete step toward reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, even if it was a different version than 35 the one he originally crafted.

These two critiques offer valuable insights, but only tell partial truths. One must conclude that the language of the Declaration (as described earlier in this paper) is indeed a bit guarded and distant, lacking in warmth, employing such phraseology as "spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews" must lead to "mutual understanding."

The Declaration speaks of being motivated by "the gospel's spiritual love and by no political considerations." This reference to politics could have two meanings. It could refer to a resolution on anti-semitism passed three years earlier by the World Council of Churches (of which the Roman Catholic Church is not a member) that caused substantial criticism of the Catholic Church for its lack of such a statement. Or it could be another reminder of the Church's hard-headed hesitancy to recognize the State of Israel by implying no connection between denouncing anti-semitism and recognizing Israel. Also, the extension of John's papal hand to the Jews had political significance for the growing number of liberal 36 Catholic clergy who -- since the nineteenth century -- had been demanding religious toleration and freedom of conscience, and also as a reminder that the Church would not play games of exclusiveness in its expansion to all parts of the globe.

The phrase "the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God," which appeared in the final draft, originally included: "or guilty of deicide" in earlier drafts of the  Declaration. This phrase was excised before the final draft, a move blasted by Blanshard and other critics as anti-semitic. A less emotional response and more careful inquiry would show that to include (and therefore theologically legitimize) "deicide" in an official Church proclamation would cause untold theological problems; the Church could not proclaim that God was dead or could even be killed.

The Declaration indeed set out official policy that proved the Church "repudiates all persecutions against any man." The special mention of Jews in this document is important for Jews and Christians alike, especially given the haughty attitude of the Church toward Jews in the years immediately preceding Pope John XXIII. Remember that it was only 60 years earlier that Pope Pius X, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, declared "We cannot recognize the Jewish people."

Above all, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions from Vatican II is the statement of a Church suffering growing pains. It may even be argued that in many respects, the way to a brotherhood of the two religions has been largely an intellectual undertaking, with few 37 practical ecumenical results. But history does not usually move with such swiftness, especially when a long range transformation is wanted, and in truth, needed. The realization of a new and enlightened path was in the eye of the Church, but the long road to fulfillment was just beginning.


1. Paul Blanshard, Paul Blanshard on Vatican II (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 3.

2. The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, trans. Joseph Gallagher (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), 662.

3. Ibid., 664.

4. Ibid., 666.

5. Ibid., 666-667.

6. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre,  O Jerusalem (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 18.

7. Sergio I. Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 100.

8. Arthur Gilbert,  The Vatican Council and the Jews (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 107-108.

9. Pinchas E. Lapide,  Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1967), 272-273.

10. Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism, 95.

11. George Emile Irani, The Papacy and the Middle East (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 79.

12. Arthur Gilbert, The Vatican Council and the Jews, 108-110.

13. Pinchas E. Lapide,Three Popes and the Jews, 277-78.

14. Ibid., 296-298.

15. Ibid., 297-298.

16. Ibid., 300.

17. Ibid., 301.

18. E. E. Y. Hales,Pope John and His Revolution(Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965), 58.

19. Pinchas E. Lapide,Three Popes and the Jews, 308-310.

20. Peter Nichols, The Pope's Divisions(London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 207.

21. Malachi Martin,Three Popes and the Cardinal (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972), 243.

22. Pinchas E. Lapide,Three Popes and the Jews, 313.

23. Ibid., 318.

24. Peter Nichols, The Pope's Divisions, 165.

25. E. E. Y. Hales, Pope John and His Revolution, 133.

26. Malachi Martin,Three Popes and the Cardinal, 243.

27. George Emile Irani, The Papacy and the Middle East, 15.

28. Pinchas E. Lapide,Three Popes and the Jews, 331.

29. Ibid., 332.

30. Ibid., 332-333.

31. Vittorio Gorresio,The New Mission of Pope John XXIII (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), 316.

32. Frederick Franck, Exploding Church (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968), 230.

33. Paul Blanshard, Paul Blanshard on Vatican II, 1.

34. Ibid., 129-142.

35. Augustin Cardinal Bea,The Church and the Jewish People (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 135.

36. E. E. Y. Hales, Pope John and His Revolution, 59.

37. George Emile Irani, The Papacy and the Middle East, 3.


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