Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The 1960s were a time of upheaval for Western society, including for the Catholic Church, which engaged in a surprisingly frank examination of its relationship with the Jews during the ecumenical council known as Vatican II.

Was Pope Pius XII indifferent to Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews? When the 1963 play The Deputy answered that question with an empathic yes, it stirred up a controversy that reverberated throughout Europe and the United States – and even penetrated the walls of the Vatican.


While today historians agree that the play painted too black a picture of the Holocaust-era pope, there is no doubt that the public uproar it caused put pressure on the Church to radically change its relationship with the Jews. But, in fact, the Church had already begun a process a self-examination, which was to result in Vatican II, the first ecumenical council held in nearly a century. The document that emerged in 1965, after two years of intense debate, was Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), and is still having an impact on Jewish-Christian relations today.


Respect Versus Contempt

It started with a question. French historian and Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac didn’t understand how Christians could have participated in Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews, whether actively or passively. After a deep study of Christian texts, he found his answer. An early misinterpretation of the Gospels had led to a “teaching of contempt” on the part of the Church. This contempt had allowed, and even encouraged, Christians to persecute the Jews. But the time had come to replace it with a new and more accurate teaching: a teaching of respect.

A meeting with Pope Pius XII in 1949 to discuss his findings led nowhere. But Isaac, who was a founding member of the Paris-based Amitié Judeo-Chrétienne – a group devoted to improving relations between Christians and Jews – found a more sympathetic listener in Pius’s successor, Pope John XXIII, whom he met a decade later. Pope John XXIII had already called for the convening of an ecumenical council, which became known as Vatican II. The purpose of the council was to discuss the Church’s relations with the modern world. While much of the council’s work would be concerned with internal affairs, such as modernizing various rites and rituals, the pope insisted that the council also address the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.

The task of formulating a policy and, later, drafting a formal declaration fell to Cardinal Augustine Bea, but he didn’t work alone. Helping him were several individuals who had a curious stake in the matter – Jews who had converted to Christianity and had seen their faith in their adopted religion shaken during the Holocaust.

The most prominent member of this group was John M. Oesterreicher, who had been born to a Moravian Jewish family but converted to Catholicism when he was twenty and became a priest a few years later. He was forced to flee Europe in 1938 due to his anti-Nazi activities. His parents were murdered in a concentration camp. After the war, he settled in the United States, where he sought to improve relations between Christians and Jews. In 1960, he and fourteen other priests asked the pope to take on the issue of anti-Semitism during Vatican II, which led to his being asked by Cardinal Bea to help draft Nostra Aetate.


The Times They Are a Changin’

More than 2,000 bishops from more than 100 countries, as well as thousands of interested onlookers, attended the four sessions in Rome that comprised Vatican II, which opened in October 1962. Pope John passed away in 1963, but his successor, Pope Paul VI, continued the work, which resulted in 116 documents by the time the council concluded in December 1965. The one-page document Nostra Aetate, or at least its fourth paragraph, was perhaps the council’s most controversial document.

In just seventeen sentences, Nostra Aetate overturned more than 2,000 years of Church dogma. It stated that Christianity had its origins in the Torah and that its early leaders were Jews. It denied that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, and said that Jews should not be presented as “rejected or accursed by God.” It also spoke out against hatred and anti-Semitism. And, quoting from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, it stated that the Jews are “most beloved” by God.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the change. Conservative bishops from Italy, Spain, and Latin America objected that Nostra Aetate contradicted the rulings of previous Church teachings and ecumenical councils, without providing adequate sources for the proposed change. “Prove these tenets from tradition,” they demanded, a charge that some believe the Church never adequately answered.

Bishops and patriarchs from Arab countries objected that the Church was showing support for the “Zionist enemy,” and some demanded that the paragraph concerning the Jews be deleted; to this the Church responded by omitting any reference to the State of Israel. Bishops from Asia and Africa asked why people who were neither Christians nor Jews weren’t included in the document; in response to them, a paragraph was added about the Church’s relations with people of these other faiths, such as Islam and Hinduism.

Yet despite the protests, only 88 out of the more than 2,000 bishops dissented when the document’s final draft was proclaimed on October 28, 1965.


Is It Good for the Jews?

While working on the document, Cardinal Bea had sought the input of Jewish leaders – and was introduced to the complexity of twentieth-century Jewish society.

The Conservative theologian Avraham Joshua Heschel was an active participant, insisting that any accusations of deicide by the Jewish people be eliminated, as well as references to the supposed cessation of Hashem’s covenant with the Jewish people. Heschel was also adamant that any reference to converting the Jewish people be deleted, and insisted that a Jew must be acknowledged as a Jew, and not as a potential convert to Christianity.

Representatives from secular Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and World Conference of Jewish Organizations also gave their input. But the Orthodox world stayed away.

While the council was still being debated in Rome, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the dominant authority in the Modern Orthodox community, delivered a lecture to the Rabbinical Council of America in 1964 called “Confrontation.” In this lecture, he stated that while interfaith dialogue might be appropriate for discussing social and moral issues, all theological debate should be avoided. Rabbi Soloveitchik also expressed a concern that the Church might expect reciprocity; now that they had changed their stance on Judaism and the Jews, the Jews should make a similar move with respect to Christianity. He therefore warned that we must not “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith.”

A more general response within the Orthodox community was that Nostra Aetate was too little too late. For example, while the document stated the Jews were no longer collectively responsible for crucifying Jesus, it did still mention that certain Jews living at that time were to blame. Therefore, some Jews were still being blamed, and exonerating other Jews of a crime they hadn’t committed was condescending.

Other objections centered around the fact that no mention was made of the Holocaust and the State of Israel, even though these two events had had a profound impact on the Jewish people – and any attempt to understand the Jews had to take them into account. Many also agreed with Rabbi Soloveitchik, who had warned that the “honeyed words” of the document were really just evangelical propaganda, while the real intent of the Church remained the same: convert the Jews.

The reason for the wariness was perhaps summed up best a century earlier by Benjamin Disraeli, a prime minister of England whose Jewish father had him converted when he was thirteen: “The Jews are a nervous people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have taken a toll.”


Fifty Years Later

In 2015, Nostra Aetate celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Naturally, scholars and theologians weighed in on what had been accomplished during that time.

For one thing, the seventeen-sentence section dealing with Jewish-Christian relations has since been supplemented with several documents including the 1985 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” and the 1998 “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which discusses the role of Catholic teachings in paving the way for the Holocaust.

Popes have also sought to teach by example. For instance, in 1986 Pope John Paul II became the first sitting pope to visit a synagogue. He was also the first pope to visit Auschwitz, and he intervened when Carmelite nuns tried to erect a cross at the camp.

Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome for over 50 years, in 1986.

In 1993, the Vatican finally established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II paid a visit. While Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit Israel, his eleven-hour 1964 tour was a cold affair in which he refused to acknowledge the existence of the state, always referring to it instead as the Holy Land. In contrast, during Pope John Paul II’s five-day visit, he met with religious and political leaders, as well as Holocaust survivors, and left a note at the Kotel. In 2015, the current pope, Francis, told World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder, “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism. But an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.” Pope Francis also closed a circle during his visit to Israel in 2014 when he laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl. Readers of this series will recall that when Herzl met with Pope Pius X in 1904, his efforts to obtain papal support for a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael were rebuffed.

Two issues that have been harder to implement are the changes regarding supersession, or replacement theology, and conversion of the Jews. For 2,000 years the Church taught that Christians were the “New Israel” and that one of its missions was to turn Jews into Christians. But the 1974 “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No. 4” stated that Nostra Aetate created a new theological framework in which a replacement or supersession theology “is deprived of its foundations.” That same document stated that since Jews believe in one God, efforts should not be made to convert them.

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and things were particularly bumpy during the time of Pope Benedict XVI, who was pope from 2005 until he resigned in 2013. In 2007, he decided that part of a Good Friday prayer could be recited in the original Latin; because the prayer contained language that called for the conversion of the Jews, many Jews were outraged by what they saw as a backtracking from Vatican II. The pope also angered the Jewish people when he sought sainthood for Pope Pius XII. Although the war record of Pope Pius XII wasn’t as bad as was claimed in The Deputy, there were many who questioned if he deserved the Church’s highest honor; to date, he still hasn’t been declared a saint.

Middle East politics have also complicated the picture. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI refused to include Israel in a list of countries struck by terrorist attacks, and in January 2009 his minister for justice and peace criticized Israel’s actions to defend itself from Hamas’s missiles, referring to Gaza as a “big concentration camp.” The German-born pope again angered people when he lifted the excommunication of four bishops affiliated with the controversial Society of St. Paul X (SSPX), including Holocaust denier Richard Williamson. His failure to include any mention of Germans or Nazis during a visit to Yad Vashem that same year was also greeted with ire.

There are also Catholic theologians, albeit a minority, who reject Nostra Aetate entirely, claiming that it has no doctrinal authority. For instance, the Society of Saint Pius X mentioned earlier broke with the Vatican over Vatican II and the rift still hasn’t been healed. Christian clergymen in Eretz Yisrael and the Arab world claim the document’s statements regarding the Jews has no relevance for them because it was a product of European guilt about the Holocaust.

Pope Francis greeting the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni

And then there are the many ordinary Catholics who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of Church dogma and still believe what their grandparents taught them – or what they see in films, such as the controversial Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ.

Christian Palestinianism, which is not exclusively a Catholic phenomenon, is yet another problem in today’s world. In this version of replacement theology, Jesus was a Palestinian and the Jews, who are doomed to permanent exile, have no claim to Eretz Yisrael.


Going Forward

Yet, despite the Christian dissenters and the justifiable wariness of the Jews, there is no question that relations between the Jews and the Church have improved immensely since Vatican II. And while we will continue to disagree about matters of faith, there are social issues that can be better addressed by a “peaceful collaboration.”

The words “peaceful collaboration” appear in a document drafted by representatives of the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, called “Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on Fifty Years of Nostra Aetate.

The document, the first formal statement on Jewish-Christian relations issued by the Orthodox rabbinate, was presented to Pope Francis on August 31, 2017. “Between Jerusalem and Rome” declares that “Despite the irreconcilable theological differences,” they hope that Jews and Catholics can hopefully work together to preserve religious freedom, foster shared moral principles, combat the growing rise of anti-Semitism, combat the rise of radical Islam, and work to improve the lot of the poor and the oppressed.

Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, head of the Conference of European Rabbis, commented at the presentation ceremony, “The time when our two faiths were at war is over! There are many issues we can work together on and I hope that we will be able to use this as a catalyst for greater collaboration.”

From his lips to God’s ears.



“A Historic Declaration: Between Jerusalem and Rome,” Rabbi Arie Folger, Mikolot Mayim Rabbim, August 31, 2017.

“Converts Who Changed the Church,” John Connelly, Forward, July 30, 2012.

“Rabbis Sign Declaration Marking 50 Years Since Catholic-Jewish Reconciliation,” Jenni Frazer, Times of Israel, September 1, 2017.

“The Future of Jewish-Christian Relations,” Philip A. Cunningham, International Council of Christians and Jews, January 6, 2006.

“The Genesis of Nostra Aetate,” Thomas Stransky, America Magazine, October 24, 2005.

“The Interfaith Story Before Nostra Aetate,” a roundtable discussion moderated by Victoria Barnett, PhD, Director, Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), for the USHMM, December 7, 2005.

“The Story Behind ‘Nostra Aetate,’” Paul Baumann, Commonweal Magazine, March 30, 2015.

“Vatican II at 50: Assessing the impact of ‘Nostra Aetate’ on Jewish-Christian relations,” David Berger, Tablet, December 15, 2015.

“Vatican-Israel Relations,” Toni Johnson, Council on Foreign Relations, May 12, 2009.

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