Vatican II: Catholics and Jews
We continue our Monday and Saturday flashbacks to Vatican II, concluded fifty years ago this autumn.
On September 28, 1964 the Council took up discussion again on the Declaration on the Jews. The management of this document was poorly handled and caused considerable scandal, particularly in the United States, and while the product was satisfactory, the process was one of the more troubling stories within the Council. The majority of bishops clearly endorsed Cardinal Bea’s schema as presented on this date. But Bea had sailed rough waters behind the scene to get the document this far. There was opposition to the document in Arab countries and even among some bishops in Arab lands. The political scene of the Middle East, baffling then as it is today, brought extra media scrutiny to this particular discussion within the Vatican and the Council.
In the first instance, there was considerable mystery as to why this document had been postponed from discussion in the previous session of 1963. Xavier Rynne’s hypothesis that Pope Paul’s unannounced upcoming visit to Jerusalem may have been a determining factor in holding back the discussion is probably as good a reason as any. No one could really say how the Pope would be received in Israel or Jordan immediately after release of a conciliar document written expressly to enhance Catholic and Jewish relations. But there was considerable concern in the Curia about the content of the draft aside from the matter of the pope’s trip.
Like many other conciliar working papers, the Declaration on the Jews represented a significant reversal in both popular devotion and traditional theology. I went to my daily Mass missal (copyright, 1956) and looked up the Good Friday “Great Intercessions,” a solemn rendering of we know today as the Prayer of the Faithful. I found the petition I was looking for: “Let us pray also for the perfidious Jews: that our Lord and God would remove the veil from their hearts: that they may also acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ.” This formula, used for centuries, was still an official part of the Church’s liturgy as the fathers worked through Vatican II. The new Roman Missal or Sacramentary would not appear till 1970, though provisional texts amended the Good Friday rite prior to the release of the new missal.
It may seem hard to believe today that in the post-Holocaust era my local church (and every other in communion with Rome) worshipped in those words without flinching. In fact, I have to admit that anti-Semitism was a “given” in the culture of my youth and even to some degree in the seminary. Among Catholic theologians and bishops at the Council the dispute took a form. The traditional theology of the time had put great emphasis upon Matthew 27:25, where the Jews cry out to Pontius Pilate, “Let his blood be upon us and our children.” This text of ownership of the crucifixion came to receive a technical theological term, deicide, or the killing of God.
On the Council floor, a determined minority sought to stop the majority from eliminating the word deicide from Catholic parlance. The public argument went something like this: if the Church discontinues the concept and teaching of deicide, it is calling into question the historicity and accuracy of its revered evangelist Matthew, and for that matter, the historical dependability of the entire Bible. Rynne correctly observes that in listening to the debate, it was not hard to distinguish between bishops who were conversant with developments in scripture study, and those who clung to Trent’s outdated definition of the nature of Biblical revelation. Some years earlier (1943) Pope Pius XII had permitted Catholic scholars to take advantage of new concepts of Scripture study, including what we know today as redaction criticism, the principle that evangelists, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rearranged earlier texts like Mark’s or created teaching moments within their narratives for the sake of their theological overview. (Matthew 27:25 may be an editorial insert.) Such a modern approach would be anathema to the old school.
Consequently, most contemporary scholars and theologians at the Council had personally discarded a literal understanding of Jewish guilt on the matter of deicide. But before the schema reached the floor of the Council, rumors were reaching the press that the Jewish statement would call for wholesale conversion to Catholicism. In fact, the draft had been changed in that direction during the summer of 1964 by the Curia, but the deed was discovered by no less than Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis. With the tactic discovered, the Curia realized the game was up, but there would be noise on the Council floor nonetheless. Cardinal Ruffini, now the chief spokesman for the Curial old guard, argued that a favorable statement toward the Jews would endanger Christians living in the region as it would be received as an affront to Moslems. Ruffini was rebuffed by the heavyweight progressives Ritter, Meyer, Cushing, and Montreal’s Leger.
Ruffini was not finished, and he proceeded with another argument that pushes casuistry to a new dimension. He announced that he was in favor of striking the word deicide because, in his words, “no one can kill God.” He then put forward a series of quid pro quo arrangements, among them were acknowledgement (from the Jews?) that “we” had saved many from the Nazis, that Jews be expected to love Christians, that anti-Christian passages be expunged from the Talmud, and in a convoluted way seemed to demand that Jews disengage from Masonry, which he blamed for European anticlericalism.
The remainder of the speakers endorsed Cardinal Bea’s schema. One speaker made a point that many had been thinking privately: a brotherly document toward the Jews might salvage the reputation of Pius XII’s wartime record. In 1963 a play entitled The Deputy was gaining considerable attention for its portrayal of Pius XII’s alleged insensitivity toward Nazi crimes against the Jews. (There is a massive volume of research on this point that continues to be published to the present day.) In 1964, however, the Cardinal Bea schema, which would be voted upon later after another rewrite, is one of the key theological and pastoral statements to come from the Council.
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