How the Church embraced Judaism
Prejudices – such as racism, sexism and homophobia, to name but three – die hard, not least those that seem to have religious approval. Sometimes shameful experience combines with courageous visionaries to jolt us out of complacency and force us to think again. For Catholics this was the case with anti-Semitism.
The murder of six million Jews by the Nazis was the shameful experience. Though there were notable exceptions, European Christians mainly turned a blind eye to murder. Jewish and Christian historians like Daniel Goldhagen and James Carroll have documented this – and see in such complicity centuries of Christian anti-Semitic attitudes based upon a twisted misreading of Scripture, reference to the “perfidious Jews” in liturgy (including the Easter services), popular legends depicting Jews as sacrificing Christian babies (the “blood libel”) and stereotypes of Jews as usurers in literature.
A superficial reading of the Gospels – particularly John and Matthew – can create this impression, unless one remembers that the authors are themselves Jews (who see Jesus as the Messiah) engaged in a theological dispute with first-century Jewish scholars who regarded the Christian position as unorthodox. Moreover, as contemporary scholars agree, the real “Christ killers” were the Romans and their puppet rulers in Palestine – who unfortunately remained the authorities under whom the early Christians had to live.
The lesson in all this: It is much easier to blame a small minority than the guys with all the weapons.
Sadly this (morally dubious) pragmatism became popular dogma. Over the centuries dogma became public policy, with Jews suffering discrimination and even persecution at the hands of many Christian European rulers. Nazism, one might say, merely took Christian prejudice to its brutal, illogical conclusion.
Thankfully, there were Christians of heroic conscience who rejected such a line. Even under Nazism, thousands of Christians risked their lives to rescue Jews. At the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem they are commemorated as the “Righteous Gentiles”. Among them is stout Italian peasant, a Vatican diplomat to Turkey during World War II who helped rescue thousands of Jews: today we call him Blessed John XXIII, pope of Vatican II. (And let us not forget that his great critic, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who opposed most of what John desired at the Council, was another anti-fascist who helped Italian Jews during the war).
Together with Cardinal Augustin Bea and others, Pope John wanted a radical change of attitudes of Catholics towards Jews. The opportunity came at the Second Vatican Council in the document Nostra Aetate (1965), on non-Christian religions.
In the context of declaring that truth could be found in all great religions, that Christians in some way can see in other faiths Christ’s presence, the Catholic Church formally condemned Christian anti-Semitism.
While some wanted a separate decree on Judaism and Christian-Jewish relations, many bishops felt that such a text would be a bad idea. It would be read by Muslims as an endorsement of the State of Israel, and could stir up Muslim hostility to Christians. Then as now, it was difficult in many minds to distinguish Judaism (the faith) from Zionism (a secular political ideology), being Jewish from being an Israeli.
What Nostra Aetate did do, however, was to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. The Jews as a people or nation, it stated, were not guilty of Christ’s murder. A proper reading of Scripture showed moreover the immense debt the Christian faith had to its elder sibling.
Today Christian and Jewish scholars study the whole Bible together – and Jewish New Testament scholars help us see the distinctive Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples! In this they help us carry out that other great injunction of Vatican II: to get back to a deeper knowledge of Scripture.
All the classic slanders and blood libels were rejected as nonsense too. They had contributed to persecutions in which the Church had been complicit, if not actively pursuing, for centuries. Such attitudes and behaviour had to stop. Most dramatically, the Council saw to it that anti-Semitic references and prayers for the conversion of the Jews were removed from all liturgical texts. Even when and where Tridentine liturgy is used today, it is not supposed to include sections that contain prejudiced and racist references to Jews or Judaism.
To those who see the Church as unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable, the implicit acceptance that we had been wrong and had sinned may seem unbearable and unbelievable. Could the Church really have erred? For me, the answer is obvious: Yes, we erred terribly. Yet, we should note too that not all Christians erred all the time. There were Christians – a minority no doubt caught between an indifferent, complacent majority and the ideologues – who rejected prejudice, who were ashamed of anti-Jewish persecutions and who tried to resist it.
In this we can say that the Jew of Nazareth, our Risen Lord, preserved his Church from falling into error.