During the period prior to the start of the Second Vatican Council, there was no pressure for or interest in issuing a conciliar statement on relations between Christians and Jews.
The idea appears to have been that of the man who convoked the council, Pope John XXIII, who in September 1960 asked Cardinal Augustin Bea, who was in charge of Catholic relations with other Christian churches, to take on the added task of writing a document on relations with Jews to be considered at Vatican II.
Few people were as savvy about Church politics as Bea. He had lived in Rome since 1924 and had served as the personal confessor to Pope Pius XII. He was a leading Scripture scholar and a Jesuit to boot.
Nevertheless, after Bea’s secretariat had prepared a draft document on the Jews in August 1961, word leaked out that such a document on the Jews would be considered at the council. That proposal was immediately met with opposition from the Arab states, which considered that any rapprochement between Catholicism and Judaism would involve an endorsement of the state of Israel.
The World Jewish Congress poured fuel on that fire when it appointed an Israeli as its representative to Vatican II. The fact that the Church had not invited the Jewish congress to send anyone and in fact had no intention of inviting any non-Christian observers to the council did not cool the controversy.
CNS PHOTO | RONEN ZVULUN, REUTERS
Pope Benedict XVI observes a moment of silence after laying a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem May 11, 2009. During his trip to the Holy Land, the pope reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is committed to the path chosen at the Second Vatican Council for reconciliation between Christians and Jews.
The Arab opposition to a conciliar statement aroused the fears of Eastern rite Catholic churches based in the Middle East who believed that such a statement could spark persecution of Middle East Christians.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, then immediately pulled the Jewish question off the council agenda. Like many others, Cicognani did not see the need for a statement on the Jews and believed that the most loving approach to Judaism would be to welcome all Jews into the Catholic Church.
It was attitudes like those of Cicognani that Bea had to combat. St. Paul’s claim that God had not rejected the Jewish people and that their covenant with God is irrevocable (Romans 11.1-2, 29) had made little impact on them.
In December 1962, Bea met with Pope John and had the Jewish issue restored to council’s agenda.
For Bea, the key theological issue was that Christian preachers had often accused the Jews of deicide – murdering God – and that such accusations had long been used as an excuse to launch the most vile persecutions of Jews.
For Cicognani, in contrast, a document that absolved Jews of the crucifixion of Christ would be anathema. Nevertheless, the secretary of state eventually came to the opinion that again removing the document from the discussion table at the council could not be done.
Others took a stiffer stance than Cicognani. Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, the popes’ personal theologian from 1955 to 1989, maintained that the death of Christ was due to “the envy of the leaders of the Jewish people.”
Ciappi also rejected the view that crucifixion may not in any way be imputed to the Jewish people of today; that implied, he said, that Jews were acting in good faith in rejecting Christianity.
Father Victor-Alain Berto, theological advisor to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, saw Jewish-Masonic influence in mere discussion of the Jewish question.
“The Jews are so skillful that they have succeeded in dividing Christians in regard to them,” Berto wrote to Cardinal Luigi Carli.
Carli went on to publish two articles maintaining that the New Testament and tradition showed that the Jews bore corporate responsibility for Jesus’ death.
The deicide issue became the major sticking point as the declaration on the Jews wound its way around and around the various bodies that had input on the document.
One could say that the final statement in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, was a compromise. It would be better to see it as a clear statement which did a lot to erase the traditional basis for Christian anti-Semitism.
Nostra Aetate did not, as Bea wished, explicitly condemn the view that Jews committed deicide.
What it did state was: “Even though Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during [Christ’s] passion.”
Despite strong opposition throughout the council, when the final vote came, the declaration was approved with only 88 negative votes.