Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council, and the Jews

by Gerald Darring

Pope John XXIII. When the cardinals elected Angelo Roncalli pope in 1958, they put on the throne of Peter a man very different from Pius XII. His personality was different, outgoing and personable rather than introverted and reserved. His background was different, for even though it was diplomatic, as had been that of Pius XII, it included extensive contacts with Orthodox and Protestant Christians as well as Muslims and other non-Christians, and it included pastoral experience in Venice. His background also included direct contact with the evils of the Holocaust and efforts aimed at saving Jewish lives. His much less triumphalistic style as pope reflected his view of the role the church should play in the world. And unlike Pius, John was not obsessed with the Cold War. He was capable of writing a social encyclical in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, with no mention at all of the evils of communism and with praise for increased socialization—which infuriated conservative Catholics such as William Buckley—and he welcomed to the Vatican the son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The striking difference between Pius XII and John XXIII showed itself in the meetings they both had with the Jewish historian, Jules Isaac. Isaac had survived the Holocaust, but most of his family did not, and he dedicated his life to combating the Christian antisemitic tradition. It was Isaac who coined the term “teaching of contempt” to describe the history of the Christian approach to Jews and Judaism. Pius received Isaac in audience in 1949 and asked him to reflect on his ideas and consider doing something about the negative attitude of many Catholics toward Jews. The pope promised to consider his proposals, but nothing came of the meeting. Ten years later, Isaac met with Pius’ successor, John XXIII. This time his ideas were welcomed with more enthusiasm, and the meeting contributed directly to the issuance of the document Nostra Aetate by the Second Vatican Council.[1]

The Second Vatican Council. The single greatest thing that John XXIII did was to convoke the Second Vatican Council. The council did several things that would help bring about a sea change in the Catholic approach to Jews and Judaism. It created a new openness to others: to other Christians (in the Decree on Ecumenism), to those of other religions (in the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), and to those others who have no faith at all (in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). The hostility to others that had contributed to centuries of antisemitism was erased from official Church teaching. Indeed, the opposite was embraced, one of respect for the dignity of all people and the freedom of their consciences (in the Declaration on Religious Freedom). The old attitude, which required that everyone follow the one way of the Church and resulted in the execution of Jews for refusing to be baptized, was abolished in favor of an attitude that would respect the right of all people to worship God—or not worship God—according to the dictates of their consciences.[2] The significance of Vatican II for Jews was recognized immediately by Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, the Director of the Interreligious Affairs Department of The American Jewish Committee. He wrote in 1966 that in Vatican II “the Catholic Church has undergone a revolution in terms of not only her self-perception but in her attitude toward non-Catholics and her own responsibility for the welfare of other people,” and that this “larger dimension … should be of as great significance to the Jewish people as the Jewish Declaration itself.”[3]

Nostra Aetate. The major achievement of Vatican II, for our purposes, was the “Jewish Declaration” referred to by Tanenbaum, a document entitled Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, in Latin, Nostra Aetate. In a process which has been described as “alternately interesting and repulsive,”[4] the council statement on the Jews went from being a separate document to being part of the document on ecumenism, to being a tiny mention in the document on the church, to its final position as a paragraph (chapter) in the document on non-Christian religions. The process was torturous, and in the words of one of the drafters of the document, Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, “It is indeed almost a miracle that it was ever passed at all.”[5] Resistance to the document came from the bishops in Arab countries, conservative bishops who did not want to see the church change anything in its teaching and practice, and the weight of centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment and ignorance of Judaism. These forces were successful in changing the document “from one of a fresh, bold proclamation of the Church to that of a nuanced, forceful argument within the Church.”[6]

What came out of the process was seventeen sentences making up the fourth of five paragraphs within a document devoted to non-Christian religions. The section opens with a recognition of the spiritual links with Judaism, the validity of which the council respects while at the same time affirming the Church’s own distinct faith. The section closes with three statements that contain the heart of the council’s message: 1. Jews are not to be held responsible for the death of Christ; 2. antisemitism is unacceptable; 3. the cross should be a sign of God’s love for everyone. In the middle of the section is a call for “biblical and theological enquiry and friendly discussions.” The desire of the council was that Jews and Christians enter into dialogue.

From the very beginning of the document, Nostra aetate goes about changing the atmosphere in which Catholics would relate to Jews in the future. In the first chapter, the council refers to the Church’s task of promoting unity and love, based on the things we have in common with others, things which draw us together. The problem has always been our focusing on what separates us from Jews, and the way to overcome that problem is to focus on what we have in common: our humanity, our common origin, our belief in God, our common traditions and scriptures, our desire for a world of justice and peace. The starting point of the new relationship is our coming together as members of the same human family to enjoy what we have in common and to learn from what distinguishes us from each other.

The council goes on in chapter two to state that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions, which would include, of course, Judaism. Moreover, the council calls on Catholics to “preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values” found among adherents of other religions, which would include, of course, Jews. This represents a totally different attitude to Judaism and Jews. Instead to probing Judaism to find everything that is wrong with it, the council presents a vision of Catholics probing Judaism to discover truth and holiness in it, and instead of constant criticism of Jews and their actions, the council presents a vision of Catholics actively promoting those Jewish values and actions which are beneficial for all of us. The council had not yet had its say on Jews and Judaism specifically, and already it had completely undermined the adversus Judaios tradition. It is not an exaggeration to call Nostra aetate a unilateral peace treaty, and the document ends with a call for Catholics to live in peace with everyone, which would include Jews. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the war is over.

In chapter four the council turns its attention specifically to the Jews. We are tied together with the Jews in a spiritual bond, and because spiritual ties are stronger than physical ones, the alleged racial differences are unimportant. What counts is that our beginnings can be found among the patriarchs, that our salvation was foreshadowed by the exodus experience of the Jews, and that the Jews gave us our Old Testament. In fact, the council asserts, we are children of Abraham by faith, and since by definition a Jew is a child of Abraham, the council is saying that on the level of faith, we are Jews. That is a remarkable assertion, as is the council’s statement that the Church “draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.” In the eyes of the council, we Christians are fed by our Jewish roots, and by implication, we would dry up if we were to be cut off from those roots.

All of this is based on a recognition of the validity of the covenantal claims of Jews to be God’s people, for God “does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” The council emphasizes this with a quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans in which Paul says that to the Jews belong “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises” and that Christ himself was a Jew. Elaborating on this, the council points out that the Apostles and most of the early disciples were Jews. This line of thinking was destined to open up a whole new focus on the Jewishness of Jesus and his first followers, allowing us to rediscover scriptural perspectives that had been lost for centuries.

It is true, the council points out, that the Jews did not accept the Gospel, but it is also true that “God holds the Jews most dear,” and therefore so should we. Indeed, we should look forward to the day when we will serve the Lord “shoulder to shoulder” with the Jews, and in the meantime we should engage in joint biblical and theological studies as well as friendly dialogues based on mutual understanding and respect. The council vision is one of cooperation and collaboration, implying an end to the confrontation that had characterized Christian-Jewish relations almost from the very beginning of the Christian era.

Having laid the foundation for a new relationship with Jews, the council then addressed the three most pressing issues at the heart of that relationship. In connection with the execution of Jesus, the council teaches that Jesus’ death “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” With those few words, the Church put behind it that ancient charge of deicide, the accusation that the Jews were and are responsible for the death of God’s Son. Jesus died freely because of our sins and because of his great love. There will be no more pointing of fingers at Jews, and this message is to be carried into our education and preaching. No longer are Jews to be presented as rejected or accursed by God, and those that do so must know that they are acting contrary to the teaching of the Church.

The council then takes up the matter of antisemitism, asserting that “the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” There was considerable debate over this statement, and disappointment afterwards that the council had not used the word “condemn” but had chosen instead to use the word “decry.” Nevertheless, the council had taken a stand against antisemitism, and from the moment the document was issued, everyone understood it as a condemnation. There would be no more official ecclesiastical support for antisemitism. The antisemites would have to look elsewhere to support their hatred.

Finally, Nostra Aetate takes up the issue of how to proclaim the cross of Christ. We are to present it, the council says, as a sign of love. The council was wise to make this point, for unfortunately, the cross has been used as a sign of confrontation, of power over Jews in Christian countries, and at times, almost as a sign of hatred. The result has been that the cross is a feared symbol among many Jews, as we saw in discussing the cross at Auschwitz. This is a very brief reference in Nostra Aetate, but it is rich in its implications.

Nostra Aetate did not “condemn” antisemitism, as many had wanted it to do; it did not use the word “deicide” in rejecting the notion that the Jews are guilty of the death of Christ; it did not come to grips with the reality of the religious tradition of Judaism; it did not speak of Jews in contemporary, nonbiblical terms; it did not address the issue of the state of Israel; and most importantly for our purposes, it did not refer at all to the Holocaust, the tragic genocidal attack on European Jewry which had taken place only two decades earlier. On the other hand, it also did not call for a conversion of Jews to Christianity. And what Nostra Aetate did was impressive. As noted twenty years later by Gerhart Riegner, Co-Chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress, “the Declaration establishes eight major principles which define the Church’s attitude to the Jewish people.

    1. The Declaration stresses the spiritual bond between the Church and the Jewish people.
    2. It acknowledges that it received the ‘Old Testament through the people with whom God concluded the Ancient Covenant’.
    3. It acknowledges the Judaic roots of Christianity, starting with the Jewish origin of Jesus himself, of the Virgin Mary and of all the Apostles.
    4. It declares that God does not repent of the gifts he makes and the calls he issues and Jews remain ‘most dear to God’.
    5. It states that what happened in the passion of Christ cannot be charged against all Jews without distinction then living, nor against the Jews of today.
    6. It declares that the Jews are not rejected or accursed by God.
    7. It proclaims the Church’s repudiation of hatred, persecution, displays of antisemitism at any time and by anyone.
    8. It fosters and recommends mutual understanding and respect through biblical and theological studies and fraternal dialogues.”[7]

That is a significant accomplishment for a document trying to reverse two thousand years of Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism.

Nostra Aetate did not change much for Jewish people. Most Jews were indifferent to the document, or lukewarm to its message. For some of them it was too little too late: where was the strong Catholic voice when Jews really needed it twenty-five years ago, they would ask. Some Jews were hostile to the whole project. With the deliberations over the document taking place in public view over a span of three years, they felt that Jews were on trial and that the Church had had the audacity to exonerate the Jews. Said Rabbi Henry Siegman, “For all its importance, in the awesome light of Auschwitz, the statement ‘absolving’ Jews from the mythic guilt of deicide revealed a meanness of spirit that constituted its fatal flaw.”[8] For some Jews, the document had not really changed anything.

A careful reading of the document makes it clear that the Jews by their failure to accept the messiahship of Jesus are held in effect to have excluded themselves from the people of God. They remain not without hope because in the fullness of time it is anticipated that they will finally see the light and join the Church. The Jews are declared still to be “most dear to God because of their fathers”—not for what they are in themselves. In themselves, in their present state of unbelief they are in a kind of suspension of divine favor. They have forfeited their once high station but God patiently waits to reinstate them—when they finally acknowledge Jesus as the messiah.[9]

Of course there were also Jews who were favorable to the document and to what was taking place in the Catholic Church.[10] But Nostra Aetate was written for Catholics, and it was among Catholics that the real change took place. Almost immediately there were conferences on Jewish-Christian relations (e.g., Cambridge, England, August 1966; Bogota, Colombia, August 1968; Toronto, Canada, September 1968), statements (e.g., by the Pastoral Synod of the province of Santiago, Chile, September 1967), guidelines and pastoral recommendations (e.g., American bishops, March 1967; synod of the diocese of Vienna, Austria, 1970; Pastoral Council of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, April 1970), and the formation of institutes dedicated to Jewish-Christian dialogue (e.g., Service International de Documentation Judeo-chretienne in Rome, November 1965; Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Jerusalem, 1966; International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Rome, December 1970).[11]

Pope Paul VI. These events were all taking place during the early years of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. Giovanni Battista Montini was elected pope on the death of John XXIII, and he brought to the papacy some rather heavy baggage. Perhaps the heaviest of all was his close association with Pope Pius XII, and there is more than just “guilt by association.” Monsignor Montini, one of Pius’ right-hand men, was directly involved in some of the pope’s actions with regard to the Holocaust. For example, it was Montini who told the American envoy, in justification of Pius XII’s silence, that “the Holy See has received news of severe treatment of the Jews, but cannot check the accuracy of all these reports.”[12] (Montini would later write a stirring defense of Pius XII in a letter that was mailed before and published after his election as pope.[13]) Montini was also a player in the Vatican’s postwar activities regarding fugitives from justice  (Phayer, 165-175). A declassified Army counterintelligence memo of 10 May 1946, for example, implicated Montini in meeting with Croatian war criminal Ante Pavelic.[14] Jews would understandably be cautious about such a man becoming pope, especially after they had just experienced the warmth of their relationship with John XXIII.

Paul VI allowed the council work on a Jewish statement to continue and it was he who signed and promulgated the final document we know as Nostra Aetate. Nevertheless, that document is associated in most people’s minds not with Paul VI but with John XXIII. Paul certainly agreed with the contents of Nostra Aetate, having taught a year earlier that “the Jewish people … are indeed worthy of our respect and love.”[15] It is hard to understand, therefore, why he said, in his 1965 Passion Sunday sermon, that the day’s lesson was a “grave and sad page narrating the clash between Jesus and the Jews—the people predestined to await the Messiah who . . .did not recognize him, fought him, and slandered him, and finally killed him.”[16] Jewish writers frequently bring up this quote in their discussions of Paul VI, but their most common complaint about this pope was his treatment of Israel during his visit to the Holy Land in 1964. “Pope Paul VI’s 1964 visit to the Holy Land was insulting to Israel, as the pontiff, unwilling to recognize any vestige of Israeli statehood, agreed only to travel from Jordan to Megiddo and back along a specially prepared road, and addressed a thank you note to ‘Mr.’ Salman Shazar in Tel Aviv, although Shazar’s official title was ‘president’ and his residence (and office) was in Jerusalem.”[17]

It cannot be denied, however, that it was Paul VI who shepherded through the council, promulgated, and implemented the most radically transforming document on Jews and Judaism to have ever been produced by the Catholic Church. He could have stood in its way and he could have worked against it, but he did not, and in fact, by the end of his pontificate the Catholic Church’s stance towards Jews, Judaism, the Holocaust, and even the state of Israel, had begun its long journey of radical revision. Everything that has taken place in the Church with regard to Jews since the death of Paul VI owes something to his leadership of the Church during the crucial period following the Second Vatican Council.

Guidelines for the Implementation of Nostra Aetate No. 4. In late 1974 and early 1975, Pope Paul VI’s Vatican took three big steps in improving relations with Jews: the creation of a new Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, an unprecedented private audience with Pope Paul on January 10, 1975 by representatives of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, and the issuance on January 3, 1975 of the Guidelines for the Implementation of Nostra Aetate No. 4. Pope Paul obviously wanted to show his commitment to Christian-Jewish rapprochement and dialogue.

The Guidelines were nine years in coming and represented an advance in many ways over Nostra Aetate. You will not find in the conciliar document, but will find in the Guidelines: —a reference to the Holocaust; —the use of the word condemn in speaking of antisemitism; —a recognition of Judaism as a legitimate religious tradition which did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem; —a challenge to Christians to study not just the Jewish religious experience of biblical times but also how Jews define themselves today in the light of their own religious experience; —an admission that God speaks in both the Old Testament and the New Testament; —a recognition of first-century Judaism as a complex reality; —a rejection of the view of Old Testament religion as “a religion of only justice, fear and legalism,” to be contrasted with New Testament “love of God and neighbor”; —a call for Christian and Jewish scholars to work together in a broad range of areas, including exegesis, theology, history, and sociology; —a call for Christians and Jews to work together for justice and peace.[18]

Most Jewish commentators condemned the Guidelines “for their failure to recognize the central role which land and people occupy in Jewish religious thought.”[19] The absence of any reference to the land of Israel was not the only omission regretted by Jewish commentators. Why was there no acknowledgement of a role for Israel in salvation history, or an admission of Christian guilt for the Holocaust?[20] In spite of these and other objections, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation welcomed the publication of the Guidelines and “the positive response that is to be expected from every segment of the Jewish community.”[21]


[1] See Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, pp. 204-208, and Thomas Stransky, “The Genesis of Nostra Aetate,” America 193:12 (24 October 2005), 8-12

[2] See Michael McGarry, “Nostra Aetate: The Church’s Bond to the Jewish People: Context, Content, Promise,” Jewish-Christian Encounters over the Centuries: Symbiosis, Prejudice, Holocaust, Dialogue, Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, eds.,New York: Peter Lang, 1994, pp. 389-403

[3] Rabbi Marc. H. Tanenbaum, “A Jewish Viewpoint,” in John H. Miller, C.S.C., ed.,  Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal, Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, pp. 359-360

[4] Michael Patrick O’Connor, “The Universality of Salvation: Christianity, Judaism, and Other Religions in Dante, Nostra Aetate, and the New Catechism,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 33:4 (Fall 1996), p. 498. For descriptions of the process of producing Nostra Aetate, see John M. Oesterreicher, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: Introduction and Commentary,” Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3, Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, pp. 1-136; F.E. Cartus, “Vatican II and the Jews,” Commentary 39:1 (January 1965) 19-29; Thomas Stransky, “The Genesis of Nostra Aetate,” America 193:12 (24 October 2005), 8-12

[5] Cardinal Franz König, “It Must Be the Holy Spirit,” The Tablet, 21 December 2002, http://www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi‑bin/archive_db.cgi?tablet‑00695

[6] Thomas P. Stansky, C.S.P., “The Declaration on Non-Christian Religions,” in John H. Miller, C.S.C., ed.,  Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal, Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, p. 344

[7] Gerhart M. Riegner, “Twenty Years of Nostra Aetate,” Christian Jewish Relations, 18:4 (1985), p. 19

[8] Rabbi Henry Siegman, “Ten Years and Two Documents: Their Significance,” SIDIC 8:3 (1975), p. 6. See also Solomon Zeitlin, “The Ecumenical Council Vatican II and the Jews, The Jewish Quarterly Review 56 (October 1965), pp. 93-111.

[9] Ben Zion Bokser, “Vatican II and the Jews,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 59 (October 1968), p. 149. Jews were not the only ones critical of Nostra Aetate. For a Christian critique, see James W. Douglass, "André Schwarz-Bart and Vatican II," Continuum 4 (Autumn 1966), pp. 399-408

[10] For Jewish reaction to Nostra Aetate, see “The Jews on the Declaration,” Month 35 (February 1966) 90-92, and Rabbi Marc H. Tannenbaum, “A Jewish Viewpoint,”  in John H. Miller, C.S.C., ed.,  Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal, Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, pp. 362-363

[11] See “Jewish-Christian Relations 1965 to 1975,” SIDIC 8:3 (1975), pp. 13-20

[12] Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope, New York: Paulist Press, 1993, p. 170

[13] “Pius XII and the Jews,” letter to The Tablet, July 6, 1963; reprinted in Commonweal (28 February 1964) 651-652

[14] http://www.vaticanbankclaims.com/paul.htm

[15] Ecclesiam Suam, encyclical letter of August 6, 1964, art. 107

[16] “È una pagina grave e triste. Narra, infatti, lo scontro fra Gesù e il popolo ebraico. Quel popolo, predestinato a ricevere il Messia, che Lo aspettava da migliaia di anni ed era completamente assorto in questa speranza e in questa certezza, al momento giusto, quando, cioè, il Cristo viene, parla e si manifesta, non solo non lo riconosce, ma lo combatte, lo calunnia ed ingiuria; e, infine, lo ucciderà.” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/homilies/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_hom_19650404_it.html

[17] Leslie Susser, “Eminent Embrace,” The Jerusalem Report, April 21, 1994, http://www.jrep.com/Pope/a.html

[18] Jacqueline des Rochettes notes some of these advances in “Evolution of Vocabulary: A Sign of Hope?” SIDIC 8:3 (1975) 21-24

[19] Rabbi Henry Siegman, “Ten Years and Two Documents: Their Significance,” SIDIC 8:3 (1975), p. 10

[20] Karl J. Kuschel, “Ecumenical Consensus on Judaism in Germany? A Theological Analysis of Recent Catholic and Protestant Statements on the Jewish Question,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 20:3 (Summer 1983) 379-395

[21] “Statement by the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations in Response to the Issuance of the Vatican Guidelines on Catholic-Jewish Relations,” SIDIC 8:1 (1975), p. 41