EVENTS “Abating Antisemitism in the Wake of the Holocaust Recent Efforts by the Catholic Church”

euare-lawBy Dina Porat*

Started in Bologna last December on initiative of the Foundation for Religious Sciences Giovanni XXIII (Fscire), the European Academy of Religion has organized “Ex Nihilo – A Zero Conference on Research in the Religious Fields”.

For five days, in Bologna, hundreds of delegates coming from the whole world have tested the idea of a European Academy of Religions which is both a shared platform for research and a useful network.

Under the guidance of Professor Alberto Melloni, historian and secretary of the Fscire and thank to the work of many scholars and collaborators, EuARe – acting under the patronage of the European Parliament and the Italian representation of the European Commission – since December has grown to prove how much the original idea responds to a much-felt need.

More than a thousand accredited participants, about one hundred and fifty panels organized in more than two hundred work sessions have been hosted by various institutions, and have shown the variety and diversity of topics and disciplines that deal with the religious experience.

Many have been the sessions with a Jewish theme or organized by a Jewish institution, and Dina Porat, the Israeli historian, has given a very appreciated lectio – a recurrent appointment to close the days of Ex Nihilo – entitled “Five Popes – four visits – two statements: The Israeli-Jewish Perspective on the Changes in the Vatican towards the Jewish People”.

Following, the full text of her speech:

On December 10, 2015, at a press conference held in the Vatican, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued an unprecedented declaration of utmost historical importance, titled “‘For the Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’: A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations.” It marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), the 1965 declaration that was at its time a watershed in Jewish-Christian relations.

Yet it should be noted that prior to the issuing of this declaration, “a very special general audience” was organized, according to the wishes of Pope Francis, on October 28, 2015, exactly on the day Nostra Aetate was promulgated. A major conference, with hundreds of participants, held on that day in the Pontifical Georgian University in Rome, was addressed by the pope, who spoke quite emphatically about inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Why was there a need to issue the December declaration, in addition to the very warm and clear address the pope delivered barely a few weeks before?

Let us first take a close look at the Nostra Aetate document of 1965, and at subsequent documents issued by the Catholic Church, and then present the December 10th Pontifical document in light of our topic: the recent efforts of the Church to abate antisemitism.

Nostra Aetate is the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, proclaimed at the end of the second synod, better known as the Second Vatican Council. Initiated by Pope John XXIII, formerly Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, this impressive gathering took place over a period of three years, from 1962–1965, and was attended by some 3000 cardinals and bishops from all over the world. Before becoming pope, Roncalli, in his capacity as the Vatican’s delegate in Istanbul, had met members of the rescue delegation from the Yishuv, the Hebrew community in Palestina/E.I under the British Mandate and learned about the horrors of the Holocaust from them. Roncalli, a warm and open person, was deeply moved and brought to tears when he heard about the sinking of the Struma, the loaded refugee boat that was denied access to Turkish ports, and even more so when he was presented with the Auschwitz Protocols. He did his best to extend help, wrote intensively to Pope Pius XII and to heads and religious leaders of German occupied European countries with whom he had contacts, in an attempt to alleviate the plight of their Jewish communities. After the war, when the establishment of a Jewish state was at stake, Roncalli became instrumental in the behind the scenes diplomatic efforts to gain UN members’ votes by facilitating audiences and meetings between Zionist activists and high level Vatican officials.

Once Roncalli became pope, he did not forget the Holocaust, or its implications for the Jewish people. At the Second Vatican Council, he initiated a revolution in the ways of the Church at large, and the short document contained in the volume published in its wake, known as “the Jewish Document,” or Nostra Aetate, marked a theological revolution and a watershed in Christian-Jewish relations. The importance of the declaration’s wording, which served as a basis for subsequent papal documents published in succeeding years, is underscored when we explore its most significant parts as follows. “The Church . . . cannot forget that it received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant.” And, “Maria, and her son Jesus, were Jews,” the text goes on, and the Church “also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ’s Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.” Moreover, “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod [the Second Vatican Council] wants to foster and recommend” mutual understanding and respect.
Having said that as an introduction and background, the text then presents three points, each of which had been awaited for almost two thousand years by Jews, as individuals and as a nation. The first states that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” The second one is no less surprising, taking into account the centuries-long persecution of Jews and the thoroughly ugly and demonic image of them fostered by the Church: “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” The third and final one “decries hatred, persecutions and displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Such words were unheard of throughout the long history of Christian-Jewish relations and ran contrary to deeply-rooted popular Christian beliefs. The charge of deicide was finally revoked, the right of the Jewish people to continue God’s covenant in a manner equal to that of God’s new people, the Christians, was reinstated, and antisemitism in all times and forms was denounced unequivocally.

Many different papal documents were written in the years that followed, continuing in the spirit, and echoing the wording, of Nostra Aetate. The insistence on the same spirit and wording by a number of popes and Vatican committees shows that the change in Catholic attitudes toward the Jewish people was not a momentary event that accompanied a well-attended meeting such as the Second Vatican Council, but rather a long and genuine process. Indeed, in 1974, during the papacy of Paul VI, the Papal Committee for Relations with the Jews issued directives and suggestions aimed at helping the faithful internalize Nostra Aetate. This was a milestone in the history of Jewish-Christian relations, said the committee members, a milestone that was influenced by the memory of the persecution of the Jews and their annihilation in Europe before and during World War II. The committee reminded the believers that the spiritual and historical ties that bind the Church to Judaism denounce every form of antisemitism and discrimination as contrary to the spirit of Christianity and strongly recommended that Christians strive for a better knowledge of the components of Jewish tradition. These words are indeed a new phenomenon, reflecting a profound change in thinking: antisemitism as a phenomenon contrary to the Christian spirit.

In 1985, the same committee issued a much longer and detailed document on the “Correct Way” to present Jews and Judaism in Catholic education and preaching. The text relies again on Nostra Aetate and emphasizes that the uniqueness of the Jewish people is exemplary, that Jesus was and remained a Jew in Jewish Palestine in the first century, and—again—that any form of antisemitism and discrimination is contrary to the very spirit of Christianity. This document was issued during the long papacy of John Paul II, who insisted time and again on rapprochement between the two religions and advanced it in a variety of ways. Just as the Holocaust had affected John XXIII, it had a deep impact on John Paul II’s conduct as pope. Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) witnessed the disappearance of his childhood Jewish friends from his home town in Poland and was a member of the Polish underground during the war.

Among the many speeches, addresses, and papal documents issued during this long papacy (1978–2005), some stand out with special significance and reflect continuing change. The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews carried on its work, and in March 1998, on the eve of the third millennium, published the pope’s letter to the faithful, “‘We Remember’: Reflections on the Holocaust.” This address, now considered one of the most powerful expressions of its kind, outlines the long history of Jewish-Christian relations. While some parts of the pope’s thoughts and some of the historical facts as he presented them might be debatable, the following are beyond doubt: he depicts the Holocaust as a merciless indelible crime, a tragedy beyond words, never to be forgotten; he appeals to the Jewish people to hear Christians with open hearts, despite the fact that many Christians did not protest against the persecution and killing of their Jewish neighbors; and, he expresses the Church’s genuine remorse about the mistakes and failures of the faithful. The letter, it should be noted, does not mention the collaboration of many Christians with the Germans in the actual round-ups and killings. The address reminds its readers that Jesus was a descendent of King David, that the Jews “are our very beloved brothers,” if not elder brothers, and warns against the evil seeds of anti-Judaism and antisemitism that should never be rooted again in any human heart.

The Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel, signed in 1993—a historical milestone in and of itself, includes a commitment by both sides to appropriate cooperation in the struggle against antisemitism in all its forms and against all types of racial and religious intolerance. The Holy See used this opportunity to reiterate its denunciation of hate, persecution, and other expressions of antisemitism directed against the Jewish people and against Jews as individuals at any time or place.

One can also mention the declarations, “Antisemitism: A Sin Towards God and Humanity,” made in September 1990, and “Antisemitism: A Wound to Be Healed,” made in September 2003, along with a host of other declarations and statements. In March 2000, during his visit to Israel, Pope John Paul II placed a moving personal note between stones of the Western Wall, in which he asked God, the God who chose Abraham and his offspring, to bring His name to all nations and to forgive those who caused suffering to God’s children. Pope Benedict XVI echoed Nostra Aetate in his three volume biography of Jesus, in which he discussed the Jewish identities of Jesus and the disciples and the exoneration of the Jews from the accusation of deicide that embittered their lives for centuries.

The above-mentioned documents form an incomplete list, and one could go on quoting additional speeches, addresses, letters, and the like. This brings us back to our initial question: why was it necessary for Pope Francis to issue another emphatic declaration in December 2015 after Nostra Aetate and other documents written since 1965, especially after his own moving address in October 2015 marking its 50th anniversary? A closer look at Pope Francis’s December declaration might perhaps provide an answer.

The more than 30-page document was first issued in Rome on December 10, 2015, and its abstract was brought to Tel Aviv university a few days later by Cardinal Kurt Koch, who leads Jewish-Christian Relations in the Vatican. Cardinal Koch presented it at the opening of a special conference attended by the heads of most religious denominations in Israel, emphasizing that it was the pope’s wish to have it presented in the Holy Land after it was first published in Rome. This is a unique document that summarizes all the documents preceding it, and it continues to depict Jewish-Christian relations in an unprecedented manner, imbued with deep respect toward the Jewish people in a clear and unequivocal way.

This declaration takes Nostra Aetate as its starting point, yet it “broadens and deepens” its principles while recalling the Jewish roots of Christianity, the first of which is that “Jesus and his early followers were Jewish, shaped by the Jewish tradition of their time.” This is a study document, explained Cardinal Koch, “whose aim is to deepen the theological dimension of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.” Koch went on to state that this dialogue has a good chance of success now, since “from enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers” in recent decades. Moreover, a very close and unavoidable familial relationship has developed, so much so that the present dialogue is not inter-religious but rather an intra-familial one. Koch also pointed out the indispensable harmony between the two Testaments, Old and New, and the special relationship between the Old and New Covenants: “the covenant offered by God to Israel is irrevocable . . . the new Covenant has its basis and foundation in the Old one . . . the New Covenant is neither the cancellation nor the replacement but the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant.”

Both the original document and its abstract do not ignore difficult questions, such as how can Jews be part of God’s salvation if they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah? This, says the pope, as the abstract states, “remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” Another thorny issue is that of the traditional Christian wish to convert the Jews. According to the document, “[t]he Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” while it may be directed at members of other religions. This is another revolutionary change, as Christians prayed for the conversion of Jews for centuries, for example in the Good Friday prayer, and forcibly converted Jews as well. Moreover, the document states that if Christians approach Jews to explain the principles of Christianity, or if they are still reciting the Good Friday prayer, they should do so in “a humble and sensitive manner” because the Jews are the bearers of God’s word, and because they have undergone the great tragedy of the Shoah. Notably, the declaration’s specified a wish for a common struggle against all manifestations of discrimination against Jews and against all forms of antisemitism has become the traditional ending for subsequent papal documents.

The December declaration includes many important statements that were not included in the abstract. For example: Christians can never be antisemites because of the Jewish roots of Christianity; mutual respect is both a pre-condition for inter-religious dialogue and its larger purpose; and, that a dialogue may help Jews and Christians to better know each other. Regarding this last point, the following is an inspiring sentence, one that should be cherished: “one can only learn to love what one has gradually come to know, and one can only know truly and profoundly what one loves.” Repeated emphasis is placed on the Holocaust as the starting point for change in the Vatican: it was the terrible dark shadow of the Holocaust over Europe during the Nazi era, says the declaration, that has led the Church to re-think its ties with the Jewish people.

The documents discussed here reflect an enormous change—a revolution—in the attitudes of the Catholic Church, from centuries-long hostility and antisemitism in a variety of forms, to expressions of friendship, kinship, and respect. The change is of utmost importance: there are more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, and such papal declarations, coupled by the visits of the popes to Jerusalem, are bound to have a positive impact. Also, the manner and tone— et c’est le ton qui fait la musique—in which the change is introduced is essential to its reception by audiences in various countries. Indeed, it is both the warm and open personalities of Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis, and their personal contacts with Jews, that made the music. All three had close friendships with Jews—Roncalli with the rescue delegation members in Istanbul, John Paul II with his childhood friends, with whom he maintained contact throughout his life, and Francis with his close friend Rabbi Avraham Skorka whom he befriended when he was Cardinal of Buenos Aires. Indeed, the three of them, more than other popes during and after the Holocaust, initiated and maintained a revolutionary change in attitudes toward the Jewish people.

Still, a number of challenges accompany this development. One of them concerns timing. Pope Francis’s declaration was issued in the midst of a wave of migrants, mainly from Muslim countries, who were flooding into Europe. Both terrorism and antisemitism have been on the rise for the last decade. The Muslim world has been watching the process of rapprochement between the Church and the Jewish people with great concern, and the December 2015 document was another stage in that process. Is it the wish of the present pope to form a sort of a Jewish-Christian coalition that would be a barrier to the violence and terror that may originate in radical Islamist circles, or will he have to find a way to keep a kind of co-existence with the Muslim world as well in order to maintain some balance in the Vatican’s foreign relations?

The other problem concerns politics: half of all Catholics today reside in the developing world, whose political leadership traditionally supports the Palestinian point of view. Moreover, these leaders were under the Soviet umbrella until 1991, and now Putin’s Russia is trying to regain this influence. Is the Vatican taking a political risk when issuing such pro-Jewish declarations? Part of the answer lies in the wish and duty of the Church to defend and protect its faithful in the Middle East, including those who live on Israeli territory. The Christian communities that live as a minority under the threat of the Muslim majority around them are dwindling, and good relations with Israel are required since the Israeli authorities are their main source of support.

Yet, perhaps the answer lies in another direction; since Israel is bound to defend all of its citizens, with or without papal declarations, these declarations may be meant for internal Catholic use as well, to be part and parcel of the internal theological debate taking place among those in the Church’s higher echelons. This debate does not take into consideration the Arab and Muslim worlds, for it is declared and defined as an internal theological debate, not a political one. Although Jewish communities and authorities as well are not direct partners in this internal process, nor do they have any direct impact on the deliberations, Jewish representatives have been members of bilateral committees established by the Vatican since 1980. Moreover, Israel as the state of the Jewish people is not mentioned in the documents, except, naturally, for the basic agreement signed in late 1993 between the two states.

These documents were translated by the Vatican to a number of langauges but are not distributed worldwide so as to be read by non-Catholic audiences at large, since they are part of the internal Catholic processes and discussions. This is at least part of the explanation for the fact that these astonishing documents, imbued with respect and well-wishing for the Jewish world, are almost unknown in Israel or among Jews. This state of affairs also explains why there is no Jewish, rabbinical, or Israeli response to the positive spirit emerging from Rome: it is simply unknown to most Jews.

One wonders how all of these documents have been received by the faithful and what actual impact they have on Catholic attitudes towards Jews in general. Are these new teachings trickling down from the high echelons of the papacy into the Catholic world at large—into congregations and communities, and into the Catholic countries of Latin America and Eastern Europe? How long will it take for the good intentions of the Church to be understood and accepted by large audiences?

Finally, a thought that is entirely my own: let us assume that, indeed, all the documents that have been presented here are of a purely theological nature, serving theological needs and purposes, and therefore do not involve any political risk for the popes who initiate them or go along with them. They could still be interpreted as having political importance, by the Arab and Muslim worlds and by Israelis and Jews. Let us dwell on one possible interpretation: the repeated declaration, since Nostra Aetate through the current papacy of Francis, stating that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable means not only that the Jews were unjustly considered an accursed people but also that the divine punishment of expulsion from the Land of Israel for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah was unjust as well. If this is so, the Jews are entitled to come back to the land of their ancestors and rebuild their national existence. This interpretation is a logical extension of the Church’s new thinking on Jews and Judaism and it certainly has political significance.

The Catholic Church and its leadership deserve recognition for its dedication to four decades of bridge-building between Rome and Jerusalem, stimulated by a new awareness of antisemitism after the Shoah.

*Dina Porat is head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and is Chief Historian of Yad Vashem.