How Catholic Converts Revolutionized the Vatican’s Teachings on the Jews
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.