From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965
by John Connelly
Harvard, 384 pages, $35
The Jewish religion,” said John Paul II on the occasion of his historic visit to the Chief Synagogue of Rome, “is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” This image of the Jewish people as “elder brothers” and the Jewish religion as “intrinsic” to the mystery of the Church touches”with tenderness and mercy”a wound that has remained open for two thousand years.
John Paul II’s description of the Jews presupposes and interprets the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). Setting aside the tragic legacy of Christian anti-Judaism, Nostra Aetate described the Jews as those whom “God holds . . . most dear.” It affirmed that God’s gifts and God’s election of Israel are irrevocable. Israel is the root from which the Church continues to draw nourishment. Why did an ecumenical council deem it necessary to reflect anew on the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people? Why and how did the theologians charged with drafting the text of Nostra Aetate rediscover the central importance and theological depth of chapters nine to eleven of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans?
John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews 1933“1965 provides indispensable historical context for thinking about these questions. “This book began,” he writes, “as an open-ended study of Catholics who opposed racism and anti-Semitism in the interwar years. I wanted to find out about those who swam against the racist currents of their time.”
Connelly’s extensive research uncovered a surprising fact. “From the 1840s until 1965, virtually every activist and thinker who worked for Catholic-Jewish reconciliation was not originally Catholic. Most were born Jewish. Without converts, the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.” The drama recounted in From Enemy to Brother revolves around the courageous witness of figures such as Johannes Oesterreicher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karl Thieme, Gertrud Luckner, and Annie Kraus.
Confronted by a racist ideology that had made deep inroads in Catholic thinking in Germany and Austria, these converts discovered through bitter struggle that it was necessary to uncover and heal a deeply rooted contempt for the Jewish people. In the first place, this meant overturning the traditional idea that the Jewish people were cursed because they had rejected and killed the Messiah. Secondly”and this idea ripened more slowly”according to Paul, Israel is “holy” (Romans 11:16) and remains beloved by God. The election of the Jewish people is irrevocable. Both insights would bear fruit at the Second Vatican Council.
Connelly shows how this path toward rediscovering the fraternal bonds that link Israel and the Church was anything but straightforward. Not only did these converts encounter resistance within the Church, they were forced to rethink many of their own assumptions about the inscrutable ways of God. The guiding thread of the book is the theme of conversion, a concept that proves more mysterious and more demanding than we might at first expect.
The grace of conversion is embodied in the story of Fr. Oesterreicher. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1904 in what is now part of the Czech Republic, as a boy he was active in the Zionist movement and was elected to represent the Jewish students in his high school. A chance encounter with a book that excerpted Christ’s words from the gospels began a journey that led to his becoming Catholic and eventually a priest. Later in life he would say, “I fell in love with Christ.”
In Vienna in the 1930s, he took over a center devoted to missionary outreach to Jews, and, together with von Hildebrand, he became a leading figure in Catholic resistance to anti-Semitism. With the German occupation, he was forced to flee Vienna in 1938. Hunted by the Gestapo, he escaped to America and eventually settled at Seton Hall University, where he established the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies. During the Second Vatican Council, he played a crucial role in drafting Nostra Aetate , and following the council he became a preeminent figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
As a young convert, Oesterreicher was animated by a missionary zeal to convert Jews. By the end of his life, the ideal of conversion had undergone a profound transformation. In 1970, he referred to a “pre-ecumenical age” in which Christians sought to convert others.
Today, Catholics realize much more their own need to be converted. “Conversion” stands at the threshold of Judaism as well as of Christianity; both ways of righteousness are unthinkable without it. In saying this, I am not thinking of conversion as a change from one religious group or spiritual family to another, or even a turning from a life of sin to one of goodness. I take conversion, in its deepest sense, as a reorientation of one’s total existence in the sight of God.
Connelly argues that Oesterreicher “abandoned his missionary approach . . . for ecumenism,” that “his goal at the beginning was the opposite of what became the end point.” The end point is “not one of Jews becoming Christians, or anything but Jews.”
The irony of Connelly’s narrative is that it is only because of the gifts of converts that the Catholic Church has renounced (he believes) the missionary hope that others will enter the Church. But the final irony is more paradoxical. Connelly is writing as a historian and, for the most part, he seeks to avoid direct engagement with theological debates. It is, however, impossible to reflect on the historical setting and the significance of Nostra Aetate without touching on one of the thorniest questions confronting the Church. How can we hold together the universality of Christ’s saving work and God’s perduring election of the Jewish people?
It is not quite accurate to claim, as Connelly does, that the Second Vatican Council “entreated [us] to think of other religions as sources of truth and grace.” The carefully chosen language of Nostra Aetate is that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” The same text goes on to affirm that “it is the duty of the Church . . . to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and the fountain from which every grace flows.”
Connelly’s own solution tends to short-circuit the tension between universality and election. He gives his blessing to a theory of two covenants and thus two complementary paths for salvation. Catholics are exhorted to “take the final step of imagining Jews outside of a narrative dictated by Christianity.” The ideal would seem to be a “dialogue” that eschews hope for the “conversion” of one’s interlocutor.
Yet Connelly himself cannot renounce the hope for conversion, even if his missionary hope takes a more hidden form. The driving force of From Enemy to Brother is a desire to correct or change patterns of Catholic thinking that continue to emphasize the universal salvific mediation of Christ and the Church. He writes:
Because Catholics fail to appreciate the change that took place in the 1960s, they continue to return to pre-revolutionary patterns of thought without knowing it. The church of our day claims to understand the Jews in the terms provided by Nostra Aetate, but its leaders keep reverting back to the pre-Vatican II period in their pronouncements.
It is not entirely clear what he means by this, though one example of “pre-Vatican II” thinking he has in mind is Pope Benedict XVI’s revision of the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews in the 1962 Missale Romanum. What Connelly seems to find objectionable in the revised text is an affirmation of the universal salvific mediation of Christ.
Whatever one may think of this ambiguity, Catholic theologians owe a debt of gratitude to John Connelly for retracing a painful but fruitful period of theological reflection. Anyone who draws close to Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karl Thieme, and Johannes Oesterreicher will be given fresh eyes for the sources of theology and a reverence for the mystery ?of Israel.
In fact, rereading these theologians makes the basic questions all the more difficult. How can God’s covenant with the Jewish people remain in force yet be “fulfilled” in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is Israel truly (in flesh and spirit) present in the Church? If yes, then what do we say about that part of Israel that has not yet accepted the gospel? God’s election and God’s gifts are irrevocable. If no, have we not introduced a subtle form of Marcionism? Is not Mary Jewish in flesh and spirit”embodying the faith and the hope of Israel?
Connelly is wary of patterns of thinking that continue to imagine the Jewish people “within a narrative dictated by Christianity.” The Catholic response is that the deepest ground of the unity between Jews and Catholics is God, the God of Abraham and Isaac who spoke on Sinai and who has revealed himself as love in Jesus Christ. This love is universal and patient. Is it possible to discover in this love an appropriate language for speaking with our ?elder brothers?
In my opinion, Fr. Roch Kereszty, writing in Communio, points the way forward by returning, once again, to Paul. The Church cannot renounce her mission to evangelize everyone, he writes, and he asks if God allows Israel’s resistance “because we have ignored the significance of historic Israel, the noble olive tree into which we Gentile-Christians have been grafted and in whose rich sap we share (Romans 11:17–18).”
This leaves the question of what we should say to Jews who think that the conversion of a Jew to Christianity is a loss for the people of Israel. The answer, he continues, is that Jesus’ death removed the wall that separates us and united Jew and Gentile in to his own Body. “An Israel that would die to its own refusal of Christ would be exalted to a new life in Christ.”
It would not lose its identity but rather discover its own transcendent perfection and dignity. It would look upon its privilege of being the firstborn son of God as a service for all the nations. Its great joy and pride would spring from the fact that “the fullness of the world is elevated to the dignity of Israel” ( Prayer of the Easter Vigil in the Roman Rite ). Then it would discover in the face of Jesus its own deepest mystery, the face of the eternal Israel of God.
Nicholas J. Healy Jr. is assistant professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.