You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Border Crossers

From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965
By John Connelly
(Harvard University Press, 376 pp., $35)

Across the violent years of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a trial of conscience that ultimately brought about a radical transformation in its official doctrine regarding the Jews. Church tradition had long held that the Jewish people were abandoned by God and condemned to wander the Earth, their religion nullified by the new covenant with Christ. But the Second Vatican Council marked the culmination of a protracted debate among Catholic theologians that brought this teaching gently to an end. The debate was not without controversy, and it is even today not universally accepted.

Vatican II, the conciliar commission that opened under John XXIII in 1962 and concluded under Pope Paul VI in 1965, is rightly seen as a watershed in the history of modern religion. Some praise its spirit of worldly accommodation. Others condemn it as a demystification of the mysterious and an abdication of ecclesiastical authority. It relaxed the Latin-only stricture on the Catholic Mass and allowed for much of it to be conducted in the vernacular, permitting the laity a more immediate access to the highest ritual of the Church. It permitted the even more controversial idea that the genuine power of Christianity “subsists” in the Catholic Church alone while allowing for a truth that can also be found “outside its visible confines.”

But among the most radical innovations of doctrine that sprang from Vatican II was the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” typically known by its Latin title Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Age.” Included in the declaration was a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a revised official teaching on the Jews. The Church decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” While it allowed for the historical claim that a portion of the Jews in the time of Christ had called for his death, it warned that the crucifixion could not be blamed on all Jews without distinction and across all time. No longer accursed by God, and absolved of any collective responsibility for the death of Christ, the Jewish people were now embraced as the “stock of Abraham” (stirps Abrahae). Most astonishing of all, the Church also affirmed that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers” and that “He does not repent of the gifts He makes”—a phrase that seems to allow for the continued validity of Judaism alongside Christianity.

To understand how this transformation came about, an inquiry into pure theology is necessary but not sufficient. The story is too thick with ironies and politics, and it demands a patient and open-minded reconstruction of ideological quarrels that embroiled the Roman Catholic Church during its darkest and most shameful years of compromise. This is a task undertaken with admirable equipoise by John Connelly, a historian of Central and East-Central Europe, in his remarkable new book. It is not a pleasant tale. Connelly resists the temptation of Whiggish self-congratulation that would make Vatican II appear as a foreordained conclusion, driven forward by nothing else than the Church’s soul-searching and its turn to the higher light of its own universalist ideals.

The truth is that the Church did not reform itself without struggle. Even today many Church officials still lapse into modes of Christian triumphalism and implicit anti-Judaism that were supposed to have been corrected decades ago. Indeed, it is one of the central lessons of Connelly’s book that the bonds of empathy that made Nostra Aetate a historical possibility are far more fragile, and less expansive, than one might care to imagine. The detailed history of its genesis reveals a singular fact: most of the architects of the Catholic statement concerning the Jews in 1965 were themselves, either by descent or practice or public definition, Jews who had converted to Christianity. A handful were Protestants. The drama of this discovery deserves emphasis (the italics are Connelly’s): “Without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.

This is indeed a bitter and complicating truth. The history of Nostra Aetate, writes Connelly, may stand as an instructive lesson on both “the sources but also the limits of solidarity.” A certain tone of disillusionment pervades the book—as if the historian could not wholly abandon the ahistorical (and perhaps religious) expectation that the Church should have lived up to its own ideals. “Christians are called upon to love all humans regardless of national or ethnic background,” Connelly avers, “but when it came to the Jews, it was the Christians whose family members were Jews who keenly felt the contempt contained in traditional Catholic teaching.”

The narrative is hardly straightforward, since Connelly has committed himself to the most painstaking reconstruction of diverse strands of theological argumentation and political history, anchored in the 1930s and ending in the conciliar debates surrounding Vatican II. The complex story returns again and again to the striking fact that nearly all of the major innovations embedded in Nostra Aetate were the consequence of quarrels among a diverse group of rival theologians who, though they disagreed on many points of doctrine, shared in common an unusual distinction: most of them were, in Connelly’s phrase, “border-crossers,” that is, converts from families of Jewish (or, less often, Protestant) descent.

A Dutch symposium in 1958 on Catholic attitudes toward the Jews drives this point home: it included prominent Catholic representatives from France (Paul Démann), Germany (Karl Thieme, Gertrud Luckner), Israel (Abbot Leo Rudluff and Father Jean Roger Hené), the United Kingdom (Irene Marinoff), and the United States (John Oesterreicher). All of these individuals were converts from either Protestantism or Judaism. Even the protagonists of Connelly’s tale who were not converts in the literal sense nonetheless lived at the symbolic crossroads of national and religious affiliation, as children who had grown up in the polyglot and multiethnic territories of East-Central Europe, where confidence of an integral identity was always uncertain. It is only thanks to these border-crossers, Connelly suggests, that the Church came to revise the official doctrine and, by fits and starts, moved to embrace a vision of Christianity that granted full legitimacy to the earlier selves the converts had left behind.

IF ONE RECALLS the unbroken record of prejudice and persecution that stained the earlier history of Roman Catholic relations with their Jewish neighbors, the change is nothing less than astonishing. Medieval authorities, drawing upon passages such as Matthew 27 (“let his blood be upon us and on our children”) had taught that the Jews were fated to suffer for having tormented the Savior who was born in their midst. The supercessionist notion that Judaism was a religion made obsolete by the new covenant with Christ—what the historian Jules Isaac called the “teaching of contempt”—remained a fixture of Catholic dogma well into the twentieth century. Nor was it only a theological principle. In the medieval and early modern world, the idea that Jews suffered for their metaphysical culpability served as a formal warrant for ecclesiastical and state-sanctioned policies of persecution—the legal proscription on rights of settlement and land-ownership, measures against the location and height of synagogues, the royal imposition of special taxes (otherwise reserved for livestock)—that worked in a vicious circle to ensure that the Jews would bear the mark of visible debasement for their imagined guilt.

Historians of this troubled past often wish to distinguish between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism is the doctrinal view, articulated in certain passages of the New Testament (though contradicted by other passages), that with the coming of Christ, the law was rendered obsolete and divine favor passed irrevocably from carnal Israel (the Jews) to spiritual Israel (the Christians). According to this view, Jews who stubbornly cleave to rabbinic law are in denial but will one day (with the parousia, or Christ’s second coming) be awakened to the Truth. Returned from exile to the Holy Land, the Jews’ conversion will herald the end of days and the world’s ultimate redemption.

Anti-Semitism, by contrast, is usually taken to be a modern and secular ideology, which historians typically trace only as far back as nineteenth-century theorists such as the French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau, author of the infamous Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, according to whom the Jews were a nation and an ethnic-racial collective. The idea of a nation as defined chiefly by a common language and culture represents an intermediary step. For the truly modern anti-Semite, the Jews are identified not by a distinctive faith or religious practice or national culture, but by racial traits that even conversion cannot undo.

Historians sometimes argue that only the modern species of fully racialist anti-Semitism can be blamed as the ideological groundwork for the Holocaust, because it alone rendered the metamorphosis of personal identity a conceptual impossibility. The great historian Jacob Katz observed that Christian anti-Judaism “had redeeming features” insofar as its millenarian hope for the Jews’ ultimate conversion “kept open an escape hatch for Jews who would accept Christianity.” Christian anti-Judaism may be obnoxious and even at times lethal—Jewish martyrological texts from the time of the first Crusades record burnings of the pious along with the scrolls of their Torah—but it is not genocidal (a term which is itself a twentieth-century neologism). Before the modern era, it is said, the comprehensive and unqualified drive to annihilate the entirety of the Jewish people would have been unthinkable. After all, the evangelical prospect of universal salvation through conversion was Christianity’s raison d’être.

HATRED IS A THEME with many variations. The historian’s customary distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism should serve as a heuristic for marking out the way that prejudice can lay more or less explanatory stress on certain factors. But unfortunately it is a distinction that poorly describes the actual modalities of modern persecution. The Nazis, after all, were never as consistent as race-theory would seem to require: they may have described their victims as a race, but they nominated the objects of extermination by combing through records of synagogue attendance. Notwithstanding all of the elaborate talk of a Jewish race, the records of a grandparent’s baptism could still decide the difference between survival or deportation, life or death. Historians such as Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann have characterized the Third Reich as a “racial state,” a phrase that dramatizes an apparent break between pre-modern and modern modes of persecution, but the broader ideology of the Third Reich was rarely so consistent. One could even argue that it is wrongheaded to expect consistency in an ideology whose main function was to serve as an instrument of political terror.

Yet an ideology is no less lethal for its incoherence. Indeed, it may be the very purpose of ideology that it manages divergent interests without true reconciliation. If the language that animated Nazism’s policies of Jewish persecution resists categorization as pre-modern or modern, religious or scientific, this is chiefly because in reality it fused together explanatory schemes of both secular racism and apocalyptic religion, combining them into a paradoxical motivational structure that Saul Friedländer has accurately called “redemptive anti-Semitism.”

But the corollary is also true: Christianity in mid-twentieth-century Central Europe rarely proved resistant to strains of modern racism. It is among the more stunning arguments in Connelly’s book that we can only understand the genesis of Vatican II if we start out in the 1930s, at the moment when the Catholic Church in both Germany and Austria succumbed to an unusual species of racially tinged anti-Semitism. The influential Tübingen theologian Karl Adam extolled the “blood unity” of the German Volk, and in 1933 he was prepared to praise Hitler as a savior who would heal the “diseased national body.” German Catholicism, Connelly observes, proved unusually susceptible to this sort of racist syndrome, which crafted its idea of national-racial unity from the traditional idea of the church as Christ’s mystical body. “Read in the racist spirit of the time,” Connelly explains, “this meant that the church as the body of Christ lived actually and mystically in a union of blood manifested in God’s Volk.” Karl Adam went so far as to describe Christ as a heroic “fighter” who had survived the six-hour march to Jericho only thanks to his “top-fit human body.”

There were of course exceptions. Connelly is clear that the racist syndrome emerged specifically in Central Europe (unlike France, for example, where it gained little traction). He also hastens to explain that typically German Catholic theologians were less drawn to overtly racist language than their Protestant counterparts, who (despite the remarkable courage of individuals such as Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who spearheaded the anti-Nazi “Confessing Church”) all too often joined the ranks of the pro-Nazi movement of the so-called “German Christians.” We should also not forget the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, or With Burning Care, which was read on Palm Sunday in 1937 in nearly all of the 11,500 parishes across Germany, a statement that is usually praised as condemning “the idolatric doctrine of the race.” But Connelly notes that Pius XI refrained from a full denunciation of all racism and attacked only its most extreme forms. A year later Pius XI admitted that there was “room for special races” and that “some races are more fitted and others less gifted”—arguments that were harmonious with the widespread eugenicist language of the time (popular also in the United States) but permitted his Catholic audience a certain latitude for anti-Semitic interpretation.

In Connelly’s view, this racist syndrome reached a point of near “schizophrenia” insofar as it contradicted the deepest Christian principle that all humanity bears the potential for redemption. But the cultural appeal of racial thinking did not bow to principles, and a skeptical reader may even be tempted to ask if the charge of schizophrenia can still retain its validity absent some knowledge of Christianity’s transhistorical essence. Joseph Eberle, an important Catholic intellectual in the 1930s and the publisher of one of the most popular Germanlanguage Catholic journals of the day, declared without fear of self-contradiction that “blood and race are not erased by baptism.” During the war itself, the Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar, who would later emerge as a Catholic theologian of great prominence (much admired by John Paul II), insisted on the validity of racial categorization, and as late as 1943 he saw the Jews as a racial group since their identity came from “somatic factors deeply rooted in a Jew’s being.” The racial syndrome was widespread and proved hard to resist—at least for Catholics in German-speaking Europe who had no added reason to suspect its legitimacy.

HENCE THE significance of the “border-crossers.” Johannes (or Hans) Oesterreicher was born into a Jewish family in 1904 in northern Moravia (toward the eastern side of the Sudetenland annexed by the Third Reich in 1938). In his youth he felt himself drawn to Christianity, and in 1924 he was baptized in Graz and shifted from medical school to the seminary, from which he graduated in 1927. The priest Oesterreicher, later known as John when he moved to America, would turn out to be one of the pivotal figures in the theological debates out of which Nostra Aetate first became a doctrinal possibility. He was joined by Karl Thieme, originally a Protestant, who was so outraged by the blasphemies of his church that, along with colleagues in what became known as the “Thieme circle,” he wrote Pius XI to request entry into the fold of Roman Catholicism, explaining in a letter that Jesus had “loved his Jewish people, even if unbaptized, with burning heart, as we love our own.” Thieme, Connelly writes, “was probably the first Christian theologian in modern times” who was willing to countenance the revolutionary idea that “Christ the Jew loved the Jewish people of the post-biblical era.”

The letter from the Thieme circle was never answered. But in the longer term Oesterreicher and Thieme proved successful as two of the most important architects of the new Catholic teaching on the Jews that would gain its official imprimatur in Vatican II. The long passage from opposition during the Third Reich to doctrinal victory over twenty years later was not easy, and it was rich with ironies. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in Connelly’s view, was that the Jewish convert to Catholicism Oesterreicher was zealous in his proselytism, which meant that he opposed racism toward Jews chiefly because he yearned for their conversion to Christianity. And he went further: he interpreted Jewish suffering under Hitler as a sign that God was hoping to draw the Jews “toward him.” Nazi persecution of the Jews, in other words, was interpreted within the framework of traditional Christian eschatology.

It took many years for Oesterreicher to abandon the last strands of the supercessionist expectation that the Jewish people should become Christian, and when he eventually did so it was only thanks to themes of complementarity that he had borrowed from Karl Thieme, with whom he had carried on a troubled correspondence until their permanent estrangement in 1960. Their thoughts ran in different directions, but as Connelly explains, it was the dialectic between them that gave birth to the new teaching: Where Oesterreicher was anti-racist, Thieme was “pro-Jewish.” In dialogue with Martin Buber and through a careful re-reading of Romans, Thieme came to the revolutionary idea that God wished the Jews to persist as a chosen people even after the time of Christ. As Connelly notes, with the exception of the Anglican James Parkes, this was “the most sudden and radical shift in a Christian theologian’s view of the Jews in modern history.” Although Oesterreicher never acknowledged Thieme’s influence, the official language of Nostra Aetate that he helped to draft came directly from his erstwhile colleague’s work years before: “The Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve Him shoulder to shoulder.’”

THE NEW TEACHING promulgated by Vatican II implied that the relation between Judaism and Christianity was no longer understood as competitive or successive (with the former a mere preparation for the latter), but complementary. The revolutionary idea of a “two covenant theology” drew upon a variety of theological sources (including Jewish ones, possibly including the medieval writings of Maimonides and the modern writings of Franz Rosenzweig). Connelly rightly prefers to emphasize the Christian sources internal to the actual record of conciliar deliberation, which found support for the new teaching in the idea of Christian humility (as in Romans 11:18: “do not boast, do not make yourself superior to the branches”). As a historian, Connelly tries as much as he can to avoid making theological statements of his own—but occasionally one catches sight of a different scholar, who seems drawn to Scripture as the moral standard by which the actions of the Church may be judged deficient. Connelly never openly acknowledges the use of this higher measure, as it would stand in conflict with the imperatives of modern historicism, for which there can be no transcendent norm. But history is only enriched when it opens itself to other modes of thought. This, too, is a kind of border-crossing, and its conflictual energies may help to explain the considerable drama of Connelly’s book.

The genesis of Nostra Aetate turns out to be a very troubled one: abandoned drafts and disputes from the conciliar meetings reveal that things could have turned out rather differently. Connelly gracefully dismantles the myth that a Jewish lobby dictated the terms of Nostra Aetate. But it is certainly true that more conservative forces in the Church resisted its innovations. Arab states objected that the Vatican was taking the side of Israel—an issue of special delicacy for the Church, given the Christian minorities living in Arab lands. But advocates from within the Church pressed the initiative forward. Cardinal Bea spoke forcefully for the cause, urging John XXIII that “the appalling crimes of National Socialism” required “a purification of spirit and conscience.” Yet even after its official promulgation the new teaching was contested and misunderstood. On the occasion of Lent in 1965, the new pope, Paul VI, came precariously close to reviving themes of supercessionism and collective guilt in his comments on the Crucifixion as “the clash between Jesus and the Jewish people. That people predestined to receive the Messiah, who awaited him for thousands of years and was completely absorbed in the hope ... at the right moment when Christ came, spoke, and presented himself not only did not recognize him, but fought him, slandered him, and injured him; and in the end they killed him.”

Revolutions in theology, as in politics, inevitably provoke reaction. The revolution that Connelly describes was so momentous that the slow and uneven pace of its acceptance should hardly come as a surprise. It would not have succeeded at all, however, were it not for the curious phenomenon of border-crossing by which outsiders became insiders who then transformed the Church they had joined. Already in 1946 Oesterreicher was coming to understand that the complexities of his own identity called for a reconsideration of his new faith. “Yes, I have had news about my parents,” he wrote in a letter to an Austrian acquaintance. “My dear father died in Theresienstadt—thank God, of pneumonia. It is some consolation to think that he, who although not Christian in belief was one at heart, to whom the Beatitude of the Peacemakers applied, died a relatively peaceful death. My poor mother, however, was taken to Poland; I need not tell you what that implies.”

WHAT IS A BORDER, and how much of one’s identity is retained in the crossing? When rabbis would introduce John Oesterreicher to their congregation as a “former Jew,” he would object on the grounds that Jews were his “blood brothers” and that he was himself a Jewish-Christian. But this is a nuance that he embraced only after years of struggle. As late as 1960 he vehemently rejected the suggestion from Thieme that he could “represent the Jewish point of view in the church.” Although he readily acknowledged his Jewish heritage, Oesterreicher insisted that his efforts to dismantle Catholicism’s tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice represented the genuinely Christian vision.

But it is the major thrust of Connelly’s book that this was not so: Christian empathy toward Jews did not spring spontaneously from Christian sources, he argues, nor did it spring from Judaism. It emerged instead only from the experience of crossing, such that the other could persist within the new self. The Church, Connelly suggests, would not have been capable of coming to this vision without the curious doubling of identity that was brought into its sacred walls from those who, by birth or by faith, would have once been considered outsiders. And if this is true, then the facts of Oesterreicher’s biography hold stronger explanatory weight than his own statements to the contrary. The transgression of borders may leave marks that even the transgressor will not care to acknowledge.

The Catholic saint Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism who took holy orders and became Sister Teresa Benedicta, and had once studied under Edmund Husserl, is best known beyond Catholic circles as a philosopher of empathy. In 1933, she wrote an urgent plea to Pius XI: “For weeks now not only the Jews, but also many thousands of loyal Catholics in Germany—and I believe the entire world—are waiting for the Church to raise its voice.... Is not this war of destruction against the Jews a cruel insult to the most holy humanity of our savior?” Her question was not answered, and the plea that that Vatican effect a total rupture with the Third Reich was never realized. Stein herself died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, the victim of a policy that, in retaliation for a Dutch Catholic statement against Nazism, specifically targeted Jewish converts to Christianity. Her entreaty to the pope stands as a model of the empathy that she raised into a subject of philosophical speculation.

The phenomenon of border-crossing raises vexed questions of human psychology that a historian—even one as gifted as Connelly—cannot be expected to resolve. They are questions more properly left to the domain of the moral philosopher. What are the true limits of empathy? What are the conditions for its possibility and its growth? How can its boundaries be made to extend beyond the narrow circumference of one’s own family, one’s own nation, one’s own faith? It was the third-century bishop Saint Cyprian of Carthage who first proclaimed the ambivalent truth extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” All such doctrines betray the ideals that they proclaim, reserving the ultimate promise of human salvation for a single community of belief.

One is tempted to agree with Freud (another figure from the Moravian land of border-crossing) who observed that the injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” imposes an impossible demand: if the neighbor is truly a stranger to me and if he occupies no place whatsoever in my emotional life, then I will find this commandment in conflict with the jealousy and instinctual aggression that lie at the very core of my own psychic constitution. True love, for Freud, was therefore always entangled with narcissism: it is not the other whom I love but myself, or at least it is only that quality in the other which resembles me or resembles the person I once was. Connelly has written an important book, an extraordinary work of history, although it is sobering to think that its argument may depend on an original sin in human psychology: that the imperative of empathy resists its universal application and collapses back upon itself, darkening its own promise like an imploding star.

Peter E. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.