The role of Jewish converts to Catholicism in changing traditional Catholic teachings on Jews

In a previous article, “Benzion Netanyahu: Jewish Activist and Intellectual Apologist,” I discussed the activities of New Christian intellectuals in 15th-century Spain in developing an interpretation of Christianity and Judaism in which Judaism was presented very positively:

These intellectuals presented Jews as a genetically separate religious group composed of morally superior individuals and distinguished by a superior genetic heritage. On this basis, the New Christians argued that they were therefore worthy of being the progenitors of Christ who was born a Jew. (This appeals to Christians who naturally want to believe that Jesus came from a superior genetic stock.)  The basic strategy was to realize that Christianity could serve as a perfectly viable ideology in which Christian Jews could retain their ethnic solidarity, but with a Christian religious veneer.

What I didn’t point out was that some of the the main New Christian apologists, such as Alonso de Cartagena (whose writings are discussed in Chapter 7 of Separation and Its Discontents, p. 210ff), were not only converts from Judaism but also held high positions within the Catholic Church—obviously an ideal position from which alter Christian theology about Judaism. They were quite successful, at least temporarily:

As has undoubtedly often been the case in other eras (see, e.g., the discussion of the Dreyfus case in Chapter 6), the [New Christian] apologists were intellectually far more sophisticated than their opponents, and collectively they dominated the literature of the period. … Their arguments, while necessarily departing from orthodox Christian arguments in their defense of the Jews, are presented in a highly literate, scholarly style that undoubtedly commanded respect from an educated audience. They were highly skilled in developing the very intricate, tortured arguments necessary to overcome the existing anti-Jewish bias of Christian theology. The result of all this intellectual activity was a stunning, if temporary, victory over the Toledo rebels of 1449 … . The rebels were soon regarded by the public as moral, religious, and political renegades; they were excommunicated by the pope, and their leaders were imprisoned and executed. (p. 212)

A new book by John Connelly, a professor  of history at the University of California-Berkeley, shows a similar phenomenon in the 20th century: converted Jews were instrumental in creating the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate which changed the historic position of the Catholic Church toward the Jews (“Converts Who Changed the Church: Jewish-Born Clerics Helped Push Vatican II Reforms“). As with their New Christian predecessors, the technique was to find passages of Scripture that conformed to their ethnic interests in raising the status of Judaism yet remaining within the intellectual confines of Catholicism:

Nostra Aetate confirmed that Christ, his mother and the apostles were Jews, and that the church had its origin in the Old Testament. It denied that the Jews may be held collectively responsible for Jesus Christ’s death, and decried all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism. Citing the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Nostra Aetate called the Jews “most beloved” by God. These words …  staged a revolution in Catholic teaching.

From the Jewish point of view, a revolution was highly desirable.  The article on Judaism in The Catholic Encyclopedia from 1910 — during the papacy of Pius X (who is highly regarded by traditionalist Catholics)— is instructive.  Jews in the time of Jesus are described as a “race” that rejected the call of Jesus for repentance, showing no sorrow for sin, unfit for salvation and rejecting the true kingdom of God in favor of earthly power: “Jesus justly treated as vain the hopes of His Jewish contemporaries that they should become masters of the world in the event of a conflict with Rome.” These views, including the view that Jews are a “race” can be traced back to Christian intellectuals such as Eusebius in the 4th century (see here, p. 106).

[After the resurrection of Jesus,] the Church … took the independent attitude which it has maintained ever since. Conscious of their Divine mission, its leaders boldly charged the Jewish rulers with the death of Jesus, and freely “taught and preached Christ Jesus”, disregarding the threats and injunctions of men whom they considered as in mad revolt against God and His Christ (Acts 4). (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910)

The article portrays Church laws against Jews, such as laws against Jews having Christian slaves and forcing Jews to live in ghettos, as necessary to protect the Christian faith. It accurately portrays the Church in later centuries as at times protecting Jews against popular anti-Jewish actions. However, it asserts that the causes of popular anti-Semitism included real conflicts between Jews and non-Jews that are not explained as being due to Christian religious ideology that the Jews murdered God. In particular, the causes of anti-Semitism are described as follows:

  • The deep and wide racial difference between Jews and Christians which was, moreover, emphasized by the ritual and dietary laws of Talmudic Judaism;
  • the mutual religious antipathy which prompted the Jewish masses to look upon the Christians as idolaters, and the Christians to regard the Jews as the murderersof the Divine Saviour of mankind, and to believe readily the accusation of the use of Christian blood in the celebration of the; Jewish Passover, the desecration of the Holy Eucharist, etc.;
  • the trade rivalry which caused Christians to accuse the Jews of sharp practice, and to resent their clipping of the coinage, their usury, etc.;
  • the patriotic susceptibilities of the particular nations in the midst of which the Jews have usually formed a foreign element, and to the respective interests of which their devotion has not always been beyond suspicion.

These ideas on the causes of popular anti-Semitism are pretty much the same as the ones I emphasize in my overview of historical anti-Semitism.

As with the New Christian intellectuals of the 15th century, the converted Jews who influenced Vatican II managed to attain the intellectual high ground. Connelly:

The problem was, they had possessed no language of their own with which to break the silence. More than most academic disciplines, theology is a complex thicket with each branch guarded by a prickly coterie of experts. Those wanting to grasp the complexities of the church’s relations to Jews had to study eschatology, soteriology, patristics, Old and New Testament, and church history through all its periods. The bishops thus found themselves relying on tiny groups of experts who had cared enough to amass the unusual intellectual qualifications for this task. … The thinkers who did the intellectual work that prepared this revolution were overwhelmingly converts.

As is typical of Jewish intellectual movements, there was a great deal of cooperation among the converts. During the 1930s, converts—the most important of whom was Johannes Oesterreicher—opposed Catholic theologians who argued that Jews were “racially damaged” (a belief quite consistent with the views of The Catholic Encyclopedia mentioned above). Instead, they claimed that Jews “carried a special holiness.”

Although the rise of National Socialism increased the urgency of such movements among Jews, there was a similar attempt at the First Vatican Council, in 1870.

The brothers Lémann — Jews who had become Catholics and priests — presented a draft declaration on relations between the church and Jews, stating that Jews “are always very dear to God” because of their fathers and because Christ has issued from them “according to the flesh.”

A basic argument by the converts was to stress Christian universalism: “In their opposition, they were simply holding their church to its own universalism.”

It’s fascinating that de Cartegena’s argument also boiled down to holding the Church to its own universalism.  “If you really believe in a universalist Christianity where nothing matters except religious belief, then you shouldn’t be upset if a subset of former Jews [i.e., the New Christians] continues to marry among themselves and retains its ethnic coherence, as long as their beliefs are sincere” (see above link).

Again we see the fundamental weakness of the ideology of Western universalism when in competition with a group that rejects a similar ethic.

In conceptualizing the motivation of these Jewish converts, Connelly asks:

What were the impulses behind their engagement after the war? … In Oesterreicher we see an enduring solidarity with the community that once was his, most immediately his family. In 1946 he pondered the fate of his father, who had died of pneumonia in Theresienstad…. Intense love and longing for his Jewish father began opening Oesterreicher’s mind to the possibility that Jews could be saved as Jews.

Well, maybe. But Connelly doesn’t even attempt to make this argument for the other converts, and in any case it’s impossible to discount a lingering sense of ethnic solidarity that goes well beyond filial affection. (Connelly also mentions a bizarre psychoanalytic argument in Peter Gordon’s review in The New Republic.)

From an evolutionary perspective, the Jews who over the centuries have become priests and bishops while advancing Jewish interests are examples of altruism on behalf of their ethnic group. By becoming Catholic clergy they would typically forego marriage and family. But their behavior as insiders in an institution that historically had been generally negative toward Judaism shows that they may nevertheless advance the interests of their ethnic group without personally reproducing.

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