Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Church and the Jews: Issues Resolved since Vatican II and Issues Remaining

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Church and the Jews: Issues Resolved since Vatican II and Issues Remaining

Article excerpt

The Second Vatican Council, through its adoption of a "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Catholic Religions," which included a section on the Church and the Jews, marked a new beginning and a new direction in Catholic-Jewish relations. Those of us on this side of that declaration, Nostra aetate, who are the beneficiaries of the progress it engendered and who are aware that it was ultimately passed by an overwhelming majority, might conclude that its adoption

was a routine matter ... In fact, it was from 1he outset a highly-charged

matter which became one of several key issues dramatizing the split between

liberal and conservative viewpoints within Roman Catholicism and

the fierce struggle for control between forces representing these viewpoints

at the council. Like some of the other controversial subjects on which there

was sharp division between a majority of the bishops and a small, but

powerful and influential minority, it was subjected to various procedural

delays and other tactics designed to prevent it from coming to a vote.

Furthermore, the statement on the Jews became involved with political

considerations never intended by its authors and the object of intensive

diplomatic representations and political pressures.(1)

The document that was promulgated on October 28, 1965, was not the same as the one passed on November 20, 1964, eleven months earlier. From a Jewish perspective, it was weaker, less forthright, less decisive. Even so, there were last-ditch efforts to prevent it from coming to the floor. It was, as we say, a cliffhanger!

During the course of its various formulations, it became something of a

bone of contention within the Jewish community as well. There was

openly-expressed disagreement both as to the intentions and value of the

declaration and as to the role, if any, that Jews should play with regard to

it, and to the Ecumenical Council generally.(2)

I believe it would be helpful to revisit that struggle and to review some of the tensions within the Catholic and Jewish communities, as well as between them, during that period, because some of them are still with us.

While the declaration in question was essentially a statement of

attitude whose effective implementation would require specific directives

and ... educational measures, it was immediately seen as a symbol of

fundamental change within the Roman Catholic church. Its supporters

claimed that it did not enunciate any new doctrine, but that it did

remove -- in the words of America [the Jesuit] magazine -- the source

of a "ghastly ambiguity." Many Jews believed that, new doctrine or not,

the authoritative removal of a [negative and hostile] tradition depicting

them as deicides, cursed by God and doomed to punishment in each succeeding

generation, would do away with one of the deeply-rooted sources of

antisemitism; for the charge had been used to justify many of the

hostile policies of the church and of Christian rulers toward Jews

throughout history.(3)

I do not call attention to these elements of the Christian anti-Jewish polemic -- summarized by the French historian Jules Isaac as "the teachings of contempt" -- to embarrass us. The Church has effectively repudiated these pernicious teachings. However, it is remarkable how some of these ugly themes kept resurfacing in material circulated during the Council: that the Jews were killers of God, doomed to perpetual servitude for the crime of deicide, a crime that could only be expiated by their conversion; that the Jews were the enemies of and conspirators against the Church; and that the Jews were Freemasons and Communists. Antisemitic literature distributed during the Council in opposition to the "Jewish Declaration" played on exactly these themes. …

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