Catholics, Jews, and Vatican II: A New Beginning
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
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
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
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
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),
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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