Wednesday, April 2, 2014

John XXIII Transformed Catholics’ Understanding and Relations with Jews

(Photo by Dr. Leon Skolnick)
By A. James Rudin

Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a rotund, jolly Italian was elected to succeed the deceased Pope Pius XII on October 28, 1958. He was 76, and most of the world believed that the new Pope John XXIII would be an interim leader who would maintain the status quo and permit an entrenched bureaucracy to preserve things as they were during the reign of his predecessor that had begun almost two decades earlier. He was elected on the eleventh ballot, and some even called him an “accidental pope.”

How wrong they were. Just three months after his election, he called for the world’s Catholic bishops to gather for the Second Vatican Council to chart the church’s future in the post-World War II era.

People initially gave his plans little attention. Their awareness changed when he vividly described his plans: the Council would serve, he said, to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.”

Clearly, he was serious about confronting the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the 20th century, the legacy of two world wars, Communism, fascism, and Nazism, and especially the horrific genocidal Holocaust. He wanted Catholics to face up to that dismal history – and Christians’ role in it – and make changes vis-a-vis Jews and Judaism.

In October 1962, more than 2,000 bishops began complex deliberations that concluded in 1965. During that time, many ecclesiastical reforms were debated, none more important than the Catholic Church’s often negative and turbulent relations with Jews and Judaism.

Indeed, Catholic-Jewish relations became a central topic of what became known as Vatican II. In the midst of the Holocaust, Roncalli had written: “We are dealing with one of the great mysteries in the history of humanity. Poor children of Israel. Daily I hear their groans around me. They are relatives and fellow countrymen of Jesus.”

Before and during the war, Roncalli served as the Vatican’s top diplomat in Turkey and Greece; in 1944, he went to Paris as the Vatican ambassador to France. The future John XXIII used his Vatican credentials to save thousands of Jews in Europe. The pope wanted his church to officially change its teaching, preaching, liturgy and beliefs about Jews and Judaism. He and other Catholic leaders, including many U.S. Catholics, desired a new relationship with “the relatives” of Jesus – one built upon mutual respect and understanding.

It was no small thing for a global church to eradicate the long-standing pathologies of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that were embedded in the hearts and minds of many throughout history. Deicide was never an official doctrine of Catholicism, but the obscene and lethal charge of “Christ killers” had been hurled against Jews for nearly 2,000 years. To transform the Church’s encounter with the Jewish people and Judaism stood as an enormous challenge. But John XXIII’s leadership – followed by that of his successor, Paul VI – inspired Catholic clergy and laity to work together to achieve purposeful change throughout the church.

After many drafts and sometimes bitter debates, the now historic declaration Nostra Aetate, (Latin for “In Our Time”) was adopted by the bishops in October 1965 by a vote of 2,221 to 88. The declaration, less than 1,600 words in length, specifically denounced anti-Semitism, urged “mutual understanding and respect” and the establishment of “biblical and theological studies” as well as “fraternal dialogues” between Catholics and Jews.

While the term “deicide” does not appear in the final text, Nostra Aetate effectively served as a formal rejection of the charge of Jewish culpability for Jesus’ death. In the 50 years since Vatican II, much has been accomplished in building a new relationship between Catholics and Jews, even as more work is required. However, what John XXIII began represented the beginning of the end of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism within the Catholic Church. That is why the achievements of the “accidental pope” will forever be a permanent and positive chapter of Jewish history.


Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”

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