Catholics, Jews, and Jewish Catholics

By Daniel Johnson
Monday, June 18, 2012

Jews and Catholics in the English-speaking world have so much in common that they ought to make common cause more often than they actually do. The friction between them that sometimes catches fire is, as often as not, based on mutual ignorance and mistrust. On the Jewish side, the mistrust is hardly surprising. For nearly two thousand years, the Church preached anti-Judaism in theory and practice. Only after the Holocaust did a small group of Catholic thinkers—most of them converts from Judaism—have any success in persuading the Church to rethink its anti-Jewish doctrine.   

It was a process that culminated in 1965's Nostra Aetate ("In Our Age"), the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that definitively repudiated the ancient accusation against the Jews of deicide.  Further, the Council stated that God's covenant with the Jews remained valid, that they should not be presented as "rejected or accursed by God," and that the Church "decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed at the Jews at any time and by anyone." Breaking with the theology of supersession, Nostra Aetate reminded Catholics of their debt to the Jews, summed up in "the words of the Apostle [Paul] about his [Jewish] kinsmen: 'theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh.'" Thus the Church, which had always seen itself as the new Israel, at last gave the people of Israel its due place in the history of salvation: the duty of Catholics to "Abraham's sons" was not conversion but reconciliation.

This dramatic and disturbing story forms the subject of John Connelly's remarkable new book, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965. Connelly, who teaches history at Berkeley, has  mastered a vast and obscure literature, much of it hitherto unpublished and most of it in German, in order to establish the contours of what he aptly characterizes as a "revolution" in mid-20th-century Catholic thought.

Connelly's book is largely peopled with "border-crossers": Catholics who had converted or were in the process of converting from Judaism or Protestantism—which meant that they inhabited an uncomfortable no-man's-land, accepted neither by the faith they had adopted nor by the community they had left. Some, such as the later French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, continued to see themselves as Jews, even when the chief rabbi of Paris Meyer Jays objected that he had turned his back on Judaism. "I was not running away from the Jewish condition," Lustiger wrote. "I have that from my parents and can never lose it. I have it from God and He will never let me lose it." Certainly these Catholic border-crossers were seen as Jews by the Nazis.

Perhaps the most important of these Jewish-Catholic border-crossers was John (formerly Johannes) Oesterreicher: having emigrated to the United States, and as the last survivor of the pre-war, he became an advisor to the Vatican Council and helped draft Nostra Aetate. Connelly relies heavily on Oesterreicher's vast correspondence with the rest of this vanguard to unearth the tensions and quarrels, agonies and ecstasies of the struggle for reform. Reflecting on the death of his Jewish parents at the hands of the Nazis, Oesterreicher rediscovered forgotten teachings of the Church, to the effect that all who lived good lives, Jews as well as Christians, could attain salvation, and that the guilt for Jesus's death was shared by all, not just the Jews. While fleeing the Gestapo via Marseilles, he had encountered and been deeply impressed by the French thinker Simone Weil: unbaptized Jews like her were surely saved, he believed. But he quarreled with his friend Karl Thieme, a Protestant convert, who wanted him to represent the Jewish point of view within the Church: "No and a thousand times no! I do what I can to act against the false beliefs about the Jews among Catholics . . . But I see in this real Christian point of view—and not simply a Jewish one." Oesterreicher was still justifying his own baptism.

Yet when it came to the crisis of the Vatican Council, when reactionaries tried to convince Pope Paul VI to temper the declaration on the Jews, Oesterreicher stood firm. At his suggestion, the bishops adopted a text based on words from the prophet Zephaniah: "The Church awaits the day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and 'serve Him shoulder to shoulder.'"  Thus the mission to the Jews came to an end, almost 2,000 years after Paul had warned his newly converted Christians against exalting themselves above Jews: "Remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you."

Among other surprising discoveries, Connelly shows that several major Catholic opponents of anti-Semitism were women, at a time when religious controversy was still very much a male pursuit. Irene Harand founded Gerechtigkeit ("Justice"), a very successful anti-Nazi weekly based in Vienna, until it was suppressed by the Nazis after the Anschluss in 1938. Harand refused to print articles that offered baptism as the solution to anti-Semitism: a devout Catholic, she was ahead of her time in rejecting a program of conversion of the Jews. She escaped the Gestapo and died in New York.

One of the most remarkable of these women was Annie Kraus. A Viennese Jew who was not baptized until 1942, she argued in 1934 that Catholics were much closer to Judaism than Protestants. Catholicism was "resistant" to anti-Semitism because, unlike Protestantism, it refused to separate Old and New Testaments, Torah and Gospel. She claimed that Catholics immunized themselves from anti-Semitism by emphasizing good works, grace, and human freedom, in contrast to the Protestant stress on Original Sin (in German "inherited sin"), which morphed all too easily into racism. Kraus's view of the Church was idealistic, but it helped to inspire others to take the crucial step of rejecting not only anti-Semitism but also anti-Judaism. It was precisely those who had been through the painful process of conversion who led the way in persuading the Church to renounce the conversion of Jews: as Connelly puts it, "mission became ministry."

Connelly's is a tale full of such ironies. Not the least of them is the fact that even today Catholics are in denial about the extent to which leading figures in the Church absorbed the racial ideology that permeated European intellectual life between the wars, and which found expression in an embrace of eugenic pseudo-science and a theological justification of anti-Semitism. This was especially true in the German-speaking world, then still intellectually preeminent on the Continent. Connelly shows that it was not so much the German Church that rebuffed the Nazis as the other way round. Hitler was welcomed by Karl Adam, a theologian whose influence Pope Benedict XVI still acknowledges in his life of Jesus, and by many other Catholics who greeted the Third Reich as the fulfillment of the "salvation mission" of the Holy Roman Empire.

Connelly contrasts German Catholic prelates—marginalized by the Protestant majority for generations and in hock to fashionable racist and eugenicist ideology—with their American counterparts, who were confident enough to follow the logic of the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in God's image. Rabbi James Rudin reinforces this point in a short but illuminating study of three leading American Catholics: Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations. Rudin shows how the American cardinals influenced the Vatican Council to make sure that Nostra Aetate made a clean break with the anti-Judaism of the past. In a nation of immigrants such as the United States, Catholics and Jews were more likely to make common cause than in the Old World. Catholics, like others in mid-20th-century America, were not immune to anti-Semitism, but the Catholic hierarchy was determined to embrace an open, cosmopolitan society in which religious pluralism was taken for granted and discrimination was gradually outlawed. The Vatican initially treated "Americanism" as a dangerous heresy, but after the ordeal of Fascist, Nazi, or Communist rule, the American model, with its strict separation of church and state, grew more attractive to Catholics elsewhere. The influence of the American cardinals was mobilized for the Jewish cause after 1945 to considerable effect. Without their support, Rudin argues, neither Israel's election to the United Nations in 1949, nor Nostra Aetate in 1965, nor the breakthrough in diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel would have been possible. Thanks to pressure from John O'Connor, Pope John Paul II did not allow the then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to accompany him on a high-profile visit to the site of Mauthausen concentration camp in 1987.

These interventions by Spellman, Cushing, and O'Connor took place at the level of international diplomacy, both secular and ecclesiastical. Princes of the Church, however, rarely operate at the level of deep thought where the evolution of doctrine takes place. It is this change in the theological climate that is Connelly's main subject. In From Enemy to Brother, however, he does not attempt to resolve the vexed question of Pope Pius XII's "silence" on the Holocaust.

This does not save Connelly from finding himself on the receiving end of an intemperate attack from another Catholic writer, Justus George Lawler. In Were the Popes Against the Jews? Lawler goes out of his way to denounce Connelly for having signed a petition to the present Pope, Benedict XVI, appealing against the canonization of Pius XII. He then rehashes a somewhat arid disputation, conducted in the pages of the Catholic journal Commonweal, over whether or not Connelly "doctored" a quotation from Pius XII's first encyclical in order to accuse the pope of racism. The most that can be said is that Connelly took a single ambiguous papal utterance out of context. But this is as nothing compared to Lawler's dubious attempt to link Israel and its Catholic defenders with the historical question of Pius XII and the Church's conduct in the Holocaust. Lawler not only exonerates Pius ("the greatest pope in . . . four hundred years") of culpable silence and the Church of theological supersessionism (indeed he rejects the very term), but endorses the "commonsense goals . . . of such an organization as J Street" and accuses Israel of "the political ruination of its neighbors' home."  Lawler comes close to accusing Israelis of treating Palestinians as badly as anti-Semites (including Christians) have treated Jews.      

Such incongruous comparisons are of course all too common in public discourse today, but that does not make them any less odious. Lawler claims that it is not only permissible but incumbent on Catholics to denounce Israel, and that such denunciations do not lessen the obligation to accept responsibility for the Christian role in the Holocaust. Yet his own polemics give the lie to this claim: his sole concern is to vindicate the Church and its leaders, as if papal infallibility applied not merely to arcane decisions about doctrine, but to political decisions too.

We can never know what might have happened if Pius XII had spoken out more forcefully and acted more vigorously on behalf of the Jewish people. What Connelly's book shows is that the small network of Catholics who were actively seeking to change attitudes toward and teaching on the Jews, several of whom were themselves baptized Jews, at the time believed that Pius XII could and should have done more. They were acutely aware of the risk of inviting Nazi persecution of Jewish Catholics, of the kind that did take place in the Netherlands after the Dutch bishops spoke out, in which the great philosopher and saint Edith Stein was dragged from her convent and sent to die in Auschwitz. The crude caricature of "Hitler's Pope" that had its origins in Soviet Cold War propaganda is as false as the uncritical dogmatism of those who want Pius XII canonized without a proper scrutiny of the evidence, still only partially open to scholars. Connelly's book, while it has no direct bearing on the papal controversy, hugely enriches its historical context. He shows that there were Catholics who held the Church to account while the Holocaust was taking place, demanded that it abandon the teaching of contempt, and eventually persuaded their coreligionists to adopt a new understanding of the Jewish role in history. Catholics and Jews alike should welcome such a scholarly reappraisal of the most painful chapter in the history of their relationship.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.

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