“The Overlooked Revolution” -a seminar at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By: Dr. Andrew Davis

Every summer the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, sponsors a week-long seminar for seminary and religious studies faculty. Last June I participated in this year’s seminar entitled, “The Overlooked Revolution: The Shift in Catholic Teaching on the Jews since Vatican II.” The seminar brought together twenty-five professors to discuss the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which, as the title of the seminar indicates, revolutionized Catholic teaching on Jews and Judaism. We were led by Professor John Connelly, whose book From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard University Press, 2012) was the foundation of our discussions. The book looks at trends in Catholic theology before World War II as a way of setting the stage for Nostra Aetate; it skips over the war years and picks up again in the 1960s with Vatican II and all the twists and turns that led to the final document.

The seminar was full of rich conversations, not only because its topic was a subject of great interest to me but also – perhaps, more so – because its diverse assemblage of faith traditions and academic specialties. There was a good balance of Jews and Christians, specializing in Christian theology, Jewish studies, European history, genocide studies, and biblical studies (my own field).

There is not enough space here to rehearse the entire seminar, so let me instead note the parts of the seminar that have stuck with me the most these weeks later.

• I already had a strong sense of the anti-Judaism that has pervaded Christian theology for centuries (and centuries) and which provided a theological framework for the extreme and deadly anti-Semitism that erupted in the years leading up to World War II. What I had not fully appreciated was how deeply this anti-Judaism was influenced by the Nazi racism and pseudo-science. By the end of the seminar most were convinced that there is really no way to separate theological anti-Judaism from racial anti-Semitism. Though some still make the distinction, the two are inextricably linked.

• There were of course some exceptions to this long history of anti-Semitism, and Connelly’s profile of these exceptional figures is illuminating. For example, the most important thinkers pushing for a reassessment of Catholic teaching on the Jews were Jews who had converted to Christianity. Their Jewish past compelled them to push the Church to find a new perspective on Judaism. (From my reading on Abraham Heschel, however, it’s clear that he and the American Jewish Committee felt the Vatican should not rely only on converts from Judaism but that Jews themselves should have significant input.) Connelly also notes that many of the voices pushing for change that came in Nostra Aetate were from border regions, and he argues that their experience in “border-crossing” enabled them to empathize with Jews in a way other Christians could not.

• The theological category that has framed (and continues to do so) much Christian thinking on “the Jewish question” is eschatology. If at the end of time all creation is to be gathered into Jesus Christ, what does that mean for Jewish-Christian relations? For the centuries before Nostra Aetate it meant that Christians should seek the conversion of Jews as a preparation for the last days. This view was pervasive even among Christian thinkers who were friendly with Jews and Judaism. Nostra Aetate addresses this issue by underscoring the permanence of God’s love for Jews as Jews, stating that God “does not repent of the gifts [God] makes or of the calls [God] issues.” Furthermore, the text here footnotes Romans 11:28-29, where Paul writes that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” However, Nostra Aetate is not unequivocal on this issue since just before this affirmation of the Jewish faith, we find this statement: “the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself.”

This tension between universal salvation of Christ and the call to regard with reverence the truth found in other faiths is not resolved in the document, in the council (cf. Ad Gentes), or even in the years since Vatican II. Nonetheless, Nostra Aetate set forth important parameters for Christian thinking on Judaism. Its effect can be seen most recently in Pope Francis’s first public remarks to a gathering of Jewish organizations, where he acknowledged the significance of Nostra Aetate, calling it “a key point of reference for relations with the Jewish people” and quoting explicitly its use Romans 11:29.

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Dr. Andrew Davis is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.

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