Jews and Christians in Germany: A New but Still Troubled Relationship *

By Holmgren, Fredrick C. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Jews and Christians in Germany: A New but Still Troubled Relationship *


Holmgren, Fredrick C., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. The Turning Point in the Church's Relationship to Jews

Unmatched in the entire history of Christianity is the about-face that the Christian church has made regarding Jews and Judaism in the past forty years. This revolution, of which there were only a few signs as recently as the 1950's, may be due to a number of factors, but chief among them is the Holocaust. This terrible outbreak of persecution and mass murder is the turning point of the church's relationship to Jews and Judaism.

The knowledge that Christian defamation and persecution of Jews was the road that finally ended in the Holocaust caused a number of Christian leaders to make a decisive break with the church's anti-Jewish past. Increasingly, the Christian community began to stand with, instead of against, Jews and Judaism. It was only a beginning, however, one that at first involved a very small number of Christian leaders. Nevertheless, since the 1960's both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches have moved from institutions that initiated or permitted anti-Jewish words and acts to ones that explicitly repudiate such activities. The result of this revolution in theology and practice may be seen in the United States and Europe, but they find their most dramatic visibility in Germany, where in the 1930's and 1940's the majority of Germans supported Hitler's war against the Jews.

II. Vatican II: A Historic Break with the Past

Vatican II (1962-65), which was initiated by Pope John XXIII, set the church on a new and renewing path. Although Pope John died in 1963, his spirit carried on in the fourth session of the Council, held in 1965. This session addressed, among other matters, the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to Jews and Judaism. It was a historic breakthrough in Catholic-Jewish relations, and its decisions had a powerful impact on the churches in Germany as well as on the whole Christian world. Finally, after some 1,900 years, the accusation was lifted that Jews were collectively guilty for the death of Jesus. Further, the church confessed its indissoluble bond with Jews and declared that Jews were beloved of God, not a rejected and lost people. They continue, Vatican II affirmed, to be God's elected people who share with Christians in the eschatological hope, the final salvation. (1) Such statements would appear to exclude a Christian mission to Jews. Vatican II, however, failed to produce an explicit rejection of such a mission, even though presently within the church there exists no institutionally organized missionary activity. (2)

Somewhat belatedly, Pope John Paul II, who follows in the ecumenical footsteps of John XXIII, carried out the spirit of Vatican II in 1991, by declaring Antisemitism to be a sin. (3) It may be noted that it was Pope Paul II who, as Archbishop of Cracow, played an important role in Vatican II and who, on December 30, 1993, announced the Vatican's recognition of Israel. On his recent visit to Israel, John Paul II carried further the spirit of Vatican II by apologizing to Jews for the way some "sons and daughters of the church" have treated Jews. Both Jews and Christians, however, have criticized the pope's statement because there was no specific mention of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and because he appeared to hold back from a complete apology for what the church itself had done. Still, most people hailed his declaration, the first of its kind by a pope, to be one that gave new impetus to better relationships between Jews and Christians. Ehud Barak, then the Prime Minister of israel, praised him, saying that the pope, more than anyone else, had brought to fulfillment the historic change of the church toward Jewish people that was begun by John XXIII. In doing so, Barak said, he is bringing healing to the open wounds that Jews still bear from the many centuries of persecution. (4)

The initiatives of Vatican II are kept alive in the German Catholic Church that maintains contact with the Central Council of Jews in Germany. …

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