The Jews and Vatican II: From November 30, 1963

The long-awaited, triple-barreled question of Catholic-Protestant, Catholic-Orthodox and Catholic-Jewish relations finally reached the floor of the Vatican Council on November 18. At the close of the formal presentation of the schema on Ecumenism in St. Peters, a sustained burst of applause broke out among the bishops in tribute to the work of one man, Augustin Cardinal Bea. As head of the Councils Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the venerated octogenarian was responsible, more than anyone else--excepting, of course, Pope John XXIII himself--for having thus far safely steered this delicate project through dangerous waters. From now on, the work is in the hands of the Fathers of the Council.

Some critics question the logic of including detailed consideration of the Jews in a document aimed primarily at the problem of the unity of Christians. There is a peculiar appropriateness, nevertheless, in the decision to bring up the Jewish question at this time. Without prejudice to later study of anti-Semitism as a problem of human relations, it seems vital that the Council should establish the theological foundations of the Christian attitude toward the Jews and, in the process, set the stage for an entirely new perspective.

On November 8, the Bea Secretariat had already released to the press a summary of the major points in chapter four of the schema, which deals with the Jews. This preview called attention to the fact that the project is not an afterthought of the Secretariat but has been under consideration for the past two years. Various Jewish organizations, it can be added, and important American spokesmen contributed their comments in the process of elaboration. The press release also stressed that the draft is religious in its content and spiritual in its purpose. The Council, it said, considers the Jews "not as a race, or a nation, but as the chosen people of the Old Testament." The document, it warned, in a plea against political interpretations, has nothing to do with Zionism or anti-Zionism.


The part of the fourth chapter that stirred most attention deals with the issue of the responsibility of the Jews in the crucifixion of Christ. Newspapers, in their desire to convey the point as strikingly as possible, were not always felicitous in their brevity. The schema states that "the responsibility for Christs death falls upon sinful mankind." In other words, the blame falls on both Jew and Christian. The part the Jewish leaders of Christs time played in bringing about the crucifixion does not exclude the guilt of all mankind. In addition, the personal guilt of these leaders cannot be charged to the whole Jewish people either of Christs time or today.

There is a practical conclusion to this. According to the November 8 release: "It is therefore unjust to call this people deicide or to consider it cursed by God."

The Bea groups draft now before the Council does not enunciate any new doctrine. But it does remove the source of a ghastly ambiguity. Down the centuries, this ambiguity has allowed the popular mind to associate Christianity with some of the most lamentable episodes in human annals. How many Christian fanatics, surely not moved by the spirit of Christ, fed upon the legend of the "Christ-killer" in the belief they were doing the will of God. How many were there who, caring little for Holy Writ or the liturgy, were all too ready to quote it sanctimoniously to justify their passion, their hate or their greed! The most despicable kind of anti-Semitism is that which invokes the sacred Passion of Christ. The time had already come, even before the Nazi excesses, for the Christian world to banish this scandal.

The expression "Christ-killer" or "deicide" is heard less in some parts of the Christian world than in others. But wherever it is used, the draft declares: "The sacred events of the Bible and, in particular, its account of the crucifixion, cannot give rise to disdain or hatred or persecution of the Jews." We think that the president of the American Jewish Committee was right, along with others who made the same commentary, when he concluded: "Acceptance of this decree will make it impossible for anyone to instigate hatred for Jews and claim sanction or support in Christian teaching or dogma."

At a time when Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI have invited us to probe our consciences as to the causes of the unhappy split with the Protestants and the Eastern Christians. It is entirely natural for Catholic Christians to re-examine, in the same spirit, their relations with the Jews. It would be a sad blow to all who hope for a long leap forward in human relation if the fourth chapter of the schema on Ecumenism should be sidetracked in the Council.

The danger is real, and it comes not from within the Council but from without. Every effort, as already indicated, has been made to preserve this fundamentally religious and spiritual issue from association with political controversy. But this is not entirely within the Councils power. It is earnestly to be hoped that the responsible political leaders who might otherwise be strongly tempted to make political capital, one way or the other, directly or indirectly, out of this great moment in history, will not compromise by indiscretion a good work well begun.

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