From the Archives of the Catholic World: Nostra Aetate, 1965

I hope that you’ve noticed that the Paulist Fathers have decided to continue the interrupted second century of publication of the Catholic World in an online format. One of their sections involves reprinting articles from the long past of the magazine. Currently, they feature an older article by Fr John Basil Sheerin, CSP, about Nostra Aetate – the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, and, more specifically, Catholic-Jewish relations. The article, originally published in December, 1965, is remarkably frank about the need for ecclesial “self-reform” (“the central theme of the Council”), the tragedy of the “course of history” in previous decades, and the unsurprising political context of the declaration. It is, I think, rather interesting.

Here, then, is an excerpt:

In the case of the Jews, we have a sad record of violence. Catholic prelates launching pogroms, Catholic laity persecuting their Jewish neighbors, Catholic preachers spreading the myth of “deicide” – comprise a dark page in Catholic history. There was no anti-Semitism among the authors of the New Testament. They castigated certain Pharisees as blind guides of the people but they loved the people. A pagan element, however, began to creep into Christian writing and preaching after the time of Constantine who made paganism respectable among Christians. Today we blush to shame to read some of St. John Chrysostom’s diatribes against the Jews, especially against the synagogue, or to read St. Ambrose’s injustice to them when a synagogue was destroyed by Christian vandals and Ambrose threatened with excommunication the emperor who demanded restitution from the hoodlums.

In the Middle Ages, anti-Jewish violence was fed by popular preachers who pounded pulpits to denounce the Jews as a people under God’s curse, a deicide race, an immoral and treacherous band of social outcasts. How many lying fables about the Jews were seriously believed by devout Christians in the Middle Ages and later, both by Catholics and Protestants. Down to our own century, we find anti-Semitism in catechetical texts, in Catholic devotional manuals, in theological treatises and popular sermons. Until Pope John deleted it, there was even in the liturgy a reference to the “perfidious Jews.” Only God knows how much all this rancor contributed to the butchery of the Jews under Hitler. Said Cardinal Bea in introducing the Jewish statement at the third session, “In this age how many suffered. How many died because of the indifference of Christians, because of silence. There is no need to enumerate the crimes committed in our time. If not many Christian voices were raised in recent years against the great injustices, let our voices cry out humbly now.”

The Jewish declaration is then, as M. Abram, head of the American Jewish Committee, has said, “a long awaited act of justice.” At the same time, it represents the Church’s efforts to purify itself by getting the virus of violence out of its system. To most Americans the discussion about the “deicide” clause was puzzling. It is a term that is almost unknown in the United States but it seems to have been at the root of historical anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. I confess, however, that the Council debate on the “deicide” clause was mystifying and confusing. The 1963 text had said that it would be an injustice to call the Jews a “deicide people.” The 1964 text omitted “deicide” and simply forbade preacher and catechists to present the Jews as “a reprobate people.”

As to the omission of the “deicide” clause, Abbe Rene Laurentin, the distinguished French theologian, remarks that if anti-Semitism disappears, the omission of the word will appear to be only a minor incident in the Council. But if history dredges up a new persecution of the Jews, then the omission will be judged as a grave mistake. To forestall any future anti-Semitism, he asserts that all Christians must be vigilant and that the Church must speed up its efforts to expurgate books that implant in the hearts of children the seeds of contempt and hatred for the Jews.

In spite of the fact that the document renounces any political purposes of aims, the Arabs opposed it as an endorsement of the state of Israel. One Arab paper, Al Hayat of Beirut, predicted that the approval of the document was the first step toward recognition of Israel by the Vatican. One of the strange elements of the Arab hostility, however, was that many Arabs opposed the text on religious grounds. They held firmly to the position that the Jews were and are guilty of deicide. This contention is refuted even by the Koran itself. It says of the Jews in relation to Christ, “No, they did not kill him, they did not crucify him” (Koran Sourate IV). Some Christian Arabs mixed theological with political objections. La Croix (October 19) reports a Catholic source at Cairo as saying: “The vote on the text gives to the Jews a moral weapon which they can use against the Arab countries. We are sure and certain that the Jews are morally responsible for the death of Christ.”

The Jerusalem Post commenting on the approval of the document, said that the spirit and sentiments of the text have already found a profound echo among the Jews but that the real test will come in the practical application of the text. What does the future hold in store? At the First Vatican Council, two documents had been prepared regarding relations with the Jews, but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war ended the Council and these documents were not discussed. One of them, a resolution signed by almost half the Council Fathers, recognized the primatial right of the Jews to the love and respect of the Church, in accord with the thoughts of St. Paul. One wonders how radically the course of history would have been changed had the German bishops been able to point to such a document in 1941.

The present document also cites St. Paul’s attitude toward the Jews: “According to the Apostle, the Jews are still dear to God because of their patriarchs and because of the gifts and the call of God are without repentance.” God has called the Jewish people in a special way and even though some have rejected his call, this people is still dear to God for he never withdraws his gifts or invitations.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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