Anti-Semitism and the Evolving Catholic Conscience

Martin Menke on John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews
John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965, Harvard University Press, 2012, 384pp., $35.00

New histories of the Shoah provoke a range of responses: continued outrage and incredulity regarding the horrors of the Holocaust; scholarly dread about yet another work on the topic; and fear that this work, too, will simply offer a few more detailed examples illustrating well-rehearsed arguments but nothing fundamentally new. The field is well-plowed. Excellent works by Peter Longerich, Saul Friedlander, and Christopher Browning explore the gravity of the Shoah, illuminating the scope and depth of Nazi persecution and annihilation of the Jews.

While the Nazis’ quest to annihilate the Jews constitutes an agonizing chapter in the history of the west in general, for Christians in particular the question of how this tragedy could occur in largely Christian societies and cultures provokes painful but no less necessary reflection. The debate about the role of Christians and Christian anti-Semitism in the Shoah continues to rage in heated exchanges. Scholarly consensus seems only a distant possibility.

In From Enemy to Brother, John Connelly leaves these debates behind to focus instead on the origins of dramatic changes in Catholic teaching about Jews, specifically the adoption of chapter four of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate. At the council, which ran from 1962 to 1965, the Catholic Church renounced its supercessionism — the claim that Christianity had replaced the Jewish covenant detailed in the Hebrew scriptures. It also renounced its accusation that Jews were spiritually blinded, or worse, Christ-killers, and it modified anti-Semitic portions of the General Intercessions of the Good Friday Liturgy. Occurring twenty years after the demise of Nazi Germany, these changes seemed more than timely and, at first glance, a straight line seems to have run from the Shoah to Nostra Aetate. Connelly shows this is not the case.

Drawing on extensive archival research and demonstrating an impressive command of the scholarship, Connelly first addresses anti-Semitism’s permeation of twentieth-century Catholic culture and belief. After the Nazi rise to power, Catholic anti-Semitism and Nazi racism intertwined, and Connelly concludes that despite all claims and hopes to the contrary, it is impossible to argue that the Church opposed Nazi racism. As evidence, he quotes one of the Nazis’ vociferous Catholic opponents, Father Jakob Nötges, who saw no contradiction in condemning the Nazis for their heretical teachings while justifying the Church’s passive response to the Final Solution by arguing that each race must look after its own first.

Connelly’s argument proves somewhat problematic, however, for no bishop or other Church authority would admit to sanctioning racism. Despite their appropriation of the Nazis’ racist vocabulary, I would argue that Church leaders did not consider their anti-Semitism to be racist. Instead, Catholic bishops and others insisted that racism and anti-Semitism were different, one heretical, the other licit.  In the mind of the Church, anti-Semitism represented an age-old Catholic tradition in response to the role Jews played in Christ’s crucifixion. Racism in all forms, on the other hand, was rooted in social Darwinist — and therefore modern — thinking, which the Church condemned as contrary to its teachings. Catholics such as Nötges certainly were both racist and anti-Semitic by today’s standards. Yet it is crucial to distinguish their self-perception from today’s understanding of their attitudes and actions.

Nötges, for example, defends Christianity in Katholizismus und Nationalsozialismus by claiming an individual could be an anti-Semite without discarding the Old Testament, but then he also states that Nazi racial theory and Catholic moral teaching are incompatible since the Nazis violate the Christian commandment to love one another as brothers. Nötges simply did not perceive the contradiction between his anti-Semitism and his rejection of Nazi racism. Connelly explains this apparent contradiction by pointing to the fact that the theological handbooks of the era ranked Jews among the least of brothers to Catholics in Central Europe. Once the Nazis came to power, it was easy for Catholics and others to adopt the new racial anti-Semitic language and then increasingly neglect the Catholic safeguards against the murder of any of God’s children. In the beginning, Catholics never imagined that anti-Semitism could turn genocidal. Earlier, Catholics had to defend at least Jewish survival as a matter of Christian charity if not as an act of recognizing the face of God in all God’s children. As the regime radicalized, it might have become increasingly easy to imagine oneself still engaging in traditional anti-Semitism rather participating, condoning, or tolerating mass murder. Here there is room for further research.

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners implies that the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 demolished the anti-Semitic structure of Catholic-Jewish relations. Connelly makes a very different argument. Anti-Semitism in Europe and in the Church remained alive and well after World War II and, more importantly, outsider Catholic thinkers had already begun to demand a new understanding of Catholic-Jewish relations during the interwar period despite pervasive anti-Semitism.

Karl Thieme and Johannes Oesterreicher, for instance, ardently advocated reconciliation between Catholics and Jews based on a new understanding of Jews and Christians as equal children of God. Significantly, Connelly argues, the originators of these new views were converts to Catholicism, and therefore comprehended the burdens of multiple identities: Oesterreicher converted from Judaism, Thieme from Protestantism. Each respected and cherished their non-Catholic roots but understood better than most an individual’s ability to radically and fundamentally change her or his identity. Both also hailed from the edges of German-speaking Europe, from places where minority ethnic groups of various languages and cultures lived next to each other. Furthermore, by emigrating during the war, Thieme and Oesterreicher developed yet another layer of identity.

Building on these experiences and identities, Thieme and Oesterreicher argued before, during, and after the Shoah that it was time for the Catholic Church to jettison anti-Semitism. Thieme believed that Christ continued to love Jews after the resurrection, while Oesterreicher broadcast into Germany the identity of the Nazis’ real victims: the Jews. While the two men differed on the question of whether or not Christians should continue to convert Jews, they agreed that the Church needed to renounce once and for all the charge of deicide.

Thieme’s and Oesterreicher’s views came to the attention of Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J., and Father Robert Leiber, S.J., both prominent German Catholics in the Vatican. Leiber had been a close assistant to Pope Pius XII; Cardinal Bea was, among other things, director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and later director of the papal Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. After World War II, Bea reflected deeply on the question of collective guilt, concluding that if Germans bore no collective guilt for the Shoah, then there could be no collective Jewish guilt for the death of Christ. For his part, Thieme reasoned that rejecting the deicide charge against the Jews required Christians to reinterpret Jewish suffering in the Shoah as Jewish martyrdom. In time, the Second Vatican Council also rejected the deicide charge in Nostra Aetate, despite some vehement opposition.

The following question, however, still lingered: If Jews were innocent of deicide and their covenant remained valid, should the Catholic Church continue to call for the conversion of the Jewish people? The answer was a clear “no.” Rather than waiting for the day the Jews joined the Church, Cardinal Bea’s committee drafted a text in which the Church waited for the day when all people “will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve Him shoulder to shoulder.’”

 In the end, Connelly convincingly argues that anti-Semitism language and thinking survived the war almost entirely intact and that there was therefore no change of consciousness that would explain Nostra Aetate without reference to Thieme, Oesterreicher, Leiber, and Bea. Taken together with the context of the early sixties, it was their work that led to Nostra Aetate and not a wave of abhorrence of the Shoah alone.

In addition to addressing the Catholic Church’s evolving teachings regarding the Jews, Connelly’s book also speaks to ongoing debates regarding the extent to which the Church has taken responsibility for the role of Catholics in the Shoah. Defenders of the Church’s growth and development in this area point to the changes in the Good Friday liturgy, to Nostra Aetate, and more recently to Pope John Paul’s statement “We Remember.” Others criticize the Church for failing to offer a clearer apology for two millennia of anti-Semitism and for the failure to oppose the Shoah clearly and loudly. In an effort to highlight backtracking and a lack of sincerity in Catholic attitudes, they stress Benedict XVI’s revitalization of the Tridentine Mass and his participation in the creation of the document “Dominus Iesus,” both of which have been seen as overturning some of the ecumenism promoted by Vatican II.

Yet anti-Semitism is no longer accepted as a constituent element of Catholic identity or a tolerable belief in Catholic theology. The movement away from anti-Semitism that Connelly documents has not ended, but he shows both that it is well underway and why.  Two thousand years of error are difficult to eradicate, but the recognition of Jews as God’s children who lived in a covenanted relationship with God and in whose faces Catholics must recognize the face of God is incontrovertible. As Connelly shows, it is wrong to wait for Church councils or papal statements to lead Catholics to better relations with Jews. Catholic grass roots leaders and voices must take up the leadership roles Vatican II urged them to take, just as Thieme and Oesterreicher took up in such difficult times. John Connelly has created both a fitting monument for these men and a call to continue their work.

Also Recommended from MRB: