Vatican II—the Catholic Church’s commission that liberalized many Catholic practices—was a watershed for Jews, too. The most famous Jewish-related doctrine to come out of it, “Nostra Aetate,” bluntly denounced anti-Semitism, and perhaps most significantly, said that Jews today, and throughout history, should not be held responsible for Jesus’ death. Most often, Vatican II is celebrated by Jews as a great turning-point for Catholics, and something of a mea culpa for the Church’s problematic relationship with the Nazis. But the new book “From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965,” by Berkeley historian John Connelly, throws cold water on Vatican II’s cheerleaders.
According to Peter Gordon’s review in The New Republic, Connelly’s main argument is that most of the Catholic leaders who wrote “Nostra Aetate” were Jewish or Protestant converts to Catholicism. They were thus naturally more sympathetic towards Jews. In addition, some of the philo-semitism reflected in Vatican II was less noble than it seemed. John Oesterreicher, the Jewish-born German and convert to Catholicism, who was a leading figure on the pro-Jewish parts of Vatican II, didn’t soften the Church’s position on Jews out of pure magnanimity. Oesterreicher, Gordon writes, “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. “
Oesterreicher would later abandon that proselytizing zeal. Yet one can’t help but see the parallel with some ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who after the Holocaust, also repeated the gross notion that Jewish suffering was in some way a lesson from God. Connelly’s book also goes into the stiff resistance to change expressed by many Vatican priests in the lead up to Vatican II, as well as the vociferous reaction against it by Catholic priests outside of Rome, after the decrees were issued. It all serves to raise the question: how much did Vatican II really achieve, and especially for the Jews?