The entry of Christ into history is the greatest blessing the world has ever known, but the beauty of that event is never matched by the practice of Christians. Perhaps nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in Christian conduct toward Jews. The Passion narratives were long abused as part of a polemic against “the Jews,” who were blamed, collectively and of course wrongly, for the death of Christ. The “deicide” myth, as it became known, led to the equally destructive idea that Jews would be forced to wander the earth forever, because they had not accepted Christ.
Simple Christian decency, and better Biblical theology, should have prevented such toxic ideas from ever taking hold, but tragically they spread, and the anti-Jewish polemic took on a life of its own.
The Christian conscience, however, was never wholly absent during these times. When St. Ignatius of Loyola was accused of being Jewish, because of his faithful religious observances, he turned the accusation around, saying he would be privileged to share in Judaism’s heritage: “What? To be related to Christ Our Lord and to Our Lady the glorious Virgin Mary!” It was the perfect Christian reply.
The Council of Trent not only rejected the deicide myth but stressed that we are all responsible for the death of Christ, and Christians even more so, since they profess him Lord and Savior, yet violate his teachings at will.
“If this understanding of the crucifixion had been widely preached and taught,” writes Phyllis Goldstein, an expert on anti-Semitism, “history—particularly the history of anti-Semitism—might have taken a different course.”
A number of Catholic leaders did try to protect the Jewish people—and sometimes succeeded—but their voices were often overwhelmed. Pogroms, enforced ghettos, and insane charges about “ritual murder” continued. In 1858, Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized by his Catholic maid, was taken away by the papal authorities, and raised a Christian, with his parents permitted mere visitation rights.
A few decades later, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in France, was falsely accused of leaking state secrets, and had to wait twelve years before his name finally was cleared. Only a minority of Catholics had the courage to defend him, though Charles Peguy, the most noble among them, did say his country was in a state of “mortal sin” as long as Captain Dreyfus remained framed.
The emergence of a racist (as distinct from religious) anti-Semitism, created an environment more dangerous for Jews than ever before and led, ultimately, to the Holocaust. The Shoah was a pagan—and certainly diabolical—event, but it cannot be denied that many Christians were blind to that fact, and contributed to its creation with their own “teachings of contempt” toward Jews.
It’s very difficult to write fairly and accurately about Jewish-Catholic relations, with all their complexities and sensitivities. But two historians who have are Cecil Roth and Sir Martin Gilbert. Both recount, with unflinching honesty, the deprivations of and crimes committed against the Jewish people—often at Christian hands—but they do so without ever losing sight of what Roth calls “the best teachings of Christianity.” This is particularly true of Catholic rescue during the Holocaust.
“Frequently, the lead was taken by priests and nuns,” writes Roth, in his classic History of the Jews, “following the example set by the Vatican itself.” Sir Martin, a renowned authority on the war years, wrote an entire book honoring such rescuers, The Righteous.
The heroic deeds of righteous Christians, however, cannot blot out the sins of those who permitted it. As the late Cardinal Bernardin said, in a speech at Hebrew University, Catholics “must not minimize the extent of Christian collaboration with Hitler and his associates”—even as we recognize the “Christians” who did so were totally unworthy of the name. “It remains a profound moral challenge,” said the Cardinal, one “we must continue to confront for our own integrity as a religious community.”
Step by gradual step, the postwar Catholic Church began laying the groundwork for a new relationship with the Jewish people. Freed from needless restrictions by Pius XII’s ground-breaking encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Biblical scholars began exploring the New Testament anew, disproving anti-Jewish interpretations of it, and linking Christianity ever more profoundly with Judaism. Pius himself, building upon the good will he had established during the War, had a series of meetings with Jewish leaders, which marked a new chapter in the Holy See’s relationship with Jews, tentative but productive.
His successor, John XXIII removed insensitivities toward Jews in the Catholic liturgy, and famously embraced his Jewish brethren with the words, “I am Joseph, your brother.” Blessed John also convened the Second Vatican Council, which, under Pope Paul VI, promulgated the historic Nostra Aetate declaration (1965), which underscored Christianity’s vital bond with Judaism. The year before that, in his encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, Paul praised Jews for their faith and taught they are “worthy of our respect and love.”
The last two pontificates, of Blessed John Paul and Benedict, have taken the Jewish-Catholic dialogue to new levels of depth and reciprocity. From their respective visits to Auschwitz, to John Paul’s ground-breaking visit to Rome’s synagogue, to Benedict’s acclaimed exegesis of Jews and Christians in the New Testament, their good will and appreciation is recognizable to all. One of their most valuable marks has been to highlight the importance of the state of Israel. For decades, the Catholic Church had a very uneven attitude toward Israel, with some Catholics expressing sympathy and support for it, while others harbored hostility. John Paul and Benedict have made clear that, while people of good will disagree on how best to handle the conflicts in the Middle East, indifference to the security of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people—as well as the Palestinians—is inadmissible. “Spiritually, we are all Semites,” as Pius XI taught.
In one of his last messages to the Jewish community, a year before he died, Blessed John Paul II said: “During the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church clearly and definitely reaffirmed her rejection of all expressions of anti-Semitism.” However, the sincere “condemnation of those hostilities directed against the Jewish people . . . do not suffice; we must also develop friendship, esteem and brotherly relations with them.”
The bond between Jews and Catholics has now become so strong that, whenever tensions do arise—as they inevitably will, even in the best relationships—we can speak to one another frankly, heart to heart, and work out our differences together.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations, edited by Dr. Eugene Fisher and Rabbi Leon Klenicki (2011).
The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents, Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs (2004).
The Holocaust, Never to be Forgotten: Reflections on the Holy See’s Document We Remember, Commentries by Avery Dulles, S.J., and Rabbi Leon Klenicki (2001).
A Convenient Hatred: The History of Anti-Semitism by Phyllis Goldstein (2012).
A History of the Jews by Cecil Roth (Revised edition, 1970).
Cecil Roth, Historian Without Tears: A Memoir by Irene Roth (1982)
The Righteous: the Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust by Sir Martin Gilbert (2003)
Israel: A History by Sir Martin Gilbert (2008)
“Anti-Semitism: The Historical Legacy and the Continuing Challenge for Christians,” Speech at Hebrew University (Jerusalem), by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, March 23, 1995.
Jewish-Catholic Dialogue Since Vatican II by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, May 17, 2012.
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