Léon de Poncins: The Problem with the Jews at the Council, Part I

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from George F. Held’s translation of a work by Léon de Poncins, a French traditional Catholic highlighting the role of Jules Isaac in bringing about Nostra Ætate. de Poncins focuses on the influence of Jules Isaac whose work emphasized the anti-Jewish themes in the Gospels and in the writing of many of the Church Fathers. Flagrantly anti-Jewish material was indeed central to the writing of the Church Fathers, leading me to propose that the Catholic Church beginning in the fourth century was at the center of an anti-Jewish movement aimed at lessening the economic power of Jews in the late Roman Empire (as seen, e.g., by its vehement opposition to Jews enslaving non-Jews). This material is in Chapter 3 of Separation and Its Discontents (see summary here). Jules Isaac simply gathered this material together and expressed his outrage, then leaped to the conclusion that this Christian tradition was responsible for the Holocaust, a dubious proposition at best. De Poncins, as a traditional Catholic, is angry that a centuries-old tradition has been jettisoned. The new doctrine “rests on nothing! Not a single passage of Holy Scripture, not a single saint, not a single Pope—at least until 1962—has ever supported a similar theory.” It should also be noted that recent research by Prof. John Connelly has also highlighted the role of  Jewish converts in altering Church doctrine on Judaism (see here). All footnotes except #1 are from de Poncins. Part II focuses mainly on Isaacs’ anti-Jewish quotations  gleaned from the writings of the Church Fathers.

Translated by George F. Held[1]



I. Nostra Ætate

II. Origin of the Reforms Proposed to the Council

III. Jules Isaac and Christian Teaching

IV. Jules Isaac and the Fathers of the Church

V. What Jules Isaac Demanded from the Council

VI. The “Judeo-Christian Friendship”

VII. Judaism’s Struggle against the Catholic Tradition

VIII. Only the Monotheism of Israel Is of Divine Essence

IX. Supposing that Jesus Christ Historically Existed

X. Israel and the Revolts of the Mind

XI. Jewish Imperialism

XII. The Divinity of Jesus Christ: Obstacle for Jewish Messianism


One of the most disruptive changes in Catholic doctrine introduced by Vatican II is certainly the Church’s teaching about the Jewish people. Up to forty years ago, in fact, all theologians, relying firmly on the Gospels, on the Fathers of the Church and on the ecclesiastical Magisterium of nearly 2,000 years believed that with the coming of Jesus Christ and the advent of the New Covenant sealed with His Blood, the New Israel of God is no longer the people of the Old Covenant, but all men called to be part of the Catholic Church through Baptism. It was also common opinion that the Jewish contemporaries of the Savior and those who lived subsequently (insofar as they “shared in” their forefathers’ “crucifixion”) were deicides, or that they were stained with the worst crime: the murder of the Son of God and the rejection of His messiahship and divinity.

That was what all Catholics believed at least until 1965, when with the approval of the council’s document Nostra Ætate a new doctrine was introduced according to which the Jews were in fact not responsible for the death of Jesus (unjustly attributed to the Romans, simple material executors of the crucifixion), and therefore had no longer to be considered as cursed by God for their enormous sin. Continuing along this line of thought and action one went even further and proclaimed that the Old Covenant between God and his people was still in force,[2] and thus maintained in fact that God had not rejected Israel because of its refusal of Christ and the salvation offered by Redemption which he accomplished on Calvary;[3] that anti-Semitism was a sentiment fed in the population from pre-council Christian teaching,[4] and that such a sentiment had led to the fierce persecution of Jews put into action by Nazism and in the Holocaust, for which, therefore, the Church would be responsible.

And thus it is that the highest representatives of the Bride of Christ, without blemish and without sin, prostrated themselves and asked forgiveness of Caiaphas’ successors for the crime committed by “Christian peoples” (!?), fomented in their hatred toward the Jews by a “distorted” reading of the Evangelists and by the excessive enthusiasm of some Christian orators of the first centuries. In fact, this council document—one must read it to believe it—is not equipped with any notes, and that is because this far-fetched thesis, imposed on the faithful of the whole Catholic world, rests on nothing! Not a single passage of Holy Scripture, not a single saint, not a single Pope—at least until 1962—has ever supported a similar theory….


I: Nostra Aetate

… Here is an extract of the declaration Nostra Ætate concerning this issue, voted by the Council of the Fathers on November 20, 1964:

Since the spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews is so great, this sacred council wants to foster and recommend a mutual understanding and respect among them, which is obtained above all through biblical and theological studies, and through a fraternal dialogue. And if Jewish authorities along with their followers did their best to achieve the death of Christ, nevertheless what was done during His passion cannot be charged either indiscriminately to all Jews then living, or to the Jews of our time. And if it is true that the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected by God, nor as cursed, though that may seem to emerge from Sacred Scripture. Let all therefore take care that in the teaching and the preaching of the word of God one does not teach anything that does not comply with the truth of the Gospel and the Spirit of Christ. The Church, moreover, which detests all persecutions against any man, which is mindful of the patrimony that it has in common with the Jews, and which is not driven by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, regrets the hatred, the persecutions and all the manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone. In reality, Christ, as the Church maintains and has always maintained, by virtue of His immense love, voluntarily submitted to His Passion and death because of the sins of all mankind and in order that all people attain salvation. The duty of the Church, in its preaching, is therefore to announce the cross of Christ as the universal sign of love of God and as a source of every grace.[5]

At first glance, this motion would seem consistent with the perennial doctrine of the Church, which, while trying to oversee the Christian community and to protect it from Jewish influences, has always condemned all persecutions…. In reality, the motion voted on in Rome demonstrated on the part of many Fathers a deep misunderstanding of Judaism. It seems that they were concerned with just the humanitarian problem, cleverly presented by the spokesman of the Jewish world and in a manner inspired by Israeli elements.

II: Origin of the Reforms Proposed to the Council

In fact, at the origin of the reforms proposed to the Council in order to change the conduct and the secular doctrine of the Church towards Judaism and Freemasonry were several Jewish personalities and organizations: Jules Isaac Marx (1877–1963), Label Katz, President of B’nai B’rith, Nahum Goldmann (1895–1982), of the Jewish World Congress, etc. Among the above cited Jewish figures, there is one who played a preeminent role: the writer Jules Isaac, a Jew from Aix-en-Provence, a former General Inspector of French Education, author of classic texts and of L’Histoire de France (Ed. Malet-Isaac), and a member of B’nai B’rith. During the Council, where he found support among the progressive bishops, Jules Isaac was the principal theorist and promoter of the campaign against the traditional teaching of the Church concerning Judaism. We now see the position which he took to make prevail his thesis. After the loss of his wife and daughter, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, he spent the last twenty years of his life on the critical study of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and devoted to this study two important books: Jésus et Israël (Jesus and Israel), published in 1946 and reprinted in 1959; Genèse de l’antisémitisme (Genesis of Anti-Semitism), published in 1948 and reprinted in 1956.

Here is the crux of the thesis maintained by Jules Isaac. It is necessary at last to bring an end to anti-Semitism, the result of which was the massacre of European Jews at Auschwitz and in other extermination camps during the Second World War. The “Christian anti-Semitism,” with its theological basis, is the most fearful anti-Semitism.[6] Indeed, the attitude of Christians towards the Jews and Judaism has always been based on the story of the Passion which has been reported by the four Evangelists, and on the teaching which the Fathers of the Church have made: in particular, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Agobard, etc. Jules Isaac tried to demolish this fundamental theological basis by challenging the historical value of the evangelical accounts and by discrediting the arguments advanced by the Fathers of the Church to protect it from the influence of the Jews, who were accused of feeding subversive intentions against the Christian order.[7] Immediately after the war, he began to organize meetings with national and international philo-semitic Catholic personalities favorable to his thesis…. [Here he provides many names of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant religious figures.] On June 13, 1960 he was received by John XXIII, from whom he asked condemnation of the “contempt” and advised the creation of a subcommittee charged with the study of this problem. Later, Jules Isaac “had the joy of knowing that his proposals had been taken into consideration by the Pope and had been transmitted for study to Cardinal Bea,” who then created, within the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians, a group of experts specifically charged with examining the relations between the Church and Israel. In 1964, the matter was submitted to the Council, which led at last to the vote on November 20, 1964.

III: Jules Isaac and Christian Teaching

Jules Isaac has devoted two books to criticizing and breaking down the two pillars of Christian teaching in regard to Judaism. In the first of these two works—Jésus et Israël—published in 1949 (596 pages), and reprinted in 1959,[8] Jules Isaac criticizes the Evangelists, and especially St. John and St. Matthew. “The historian has the right and the duty—the absolute duty—to consider the evangelical accounts as factious testimonies (against the Jews), with this aggravating circumstance that they are the only witnesses and all four go in the same direction; we have neither Jewish testimonies (of a certain value) nor pagan testimonies to compare with the first and wherewith to refute them…. But the four Evangelists, unanimous on this point, affirm that Jesus Christ was delivered into the hands of the Romans by the Jews; only because of irresistible pressure from the Jews did Pilate, eager to present Jesus as innocent, condemn him to torture. So, not on the Romans, simple executors, but on the Jews lies the responsibility for the crime; this weighs upon them, with a supernatural weight which crushes them […]. Only Matthew (27: 24-25) knows and says that the prosecutor Pilate washed his hands, according to Jewish custom, to rid himself of responsibility for the innocent blood which he was forced to shed. Only Matthew also notes that “all the people” exclaimed: “Let His blood fall on us and on our children.” Mark, Luke and John know nothing, and say nothing, about the washing of the hands or the terrible exclamation. This verse, which has caused so much harm, and which has been exploited to the detriment of the Jewish people for so many centuries and by so many Christian authors, is only in the Gospel of Matthew, which makes it close then to the apocryphal gospels, and not corresponding at all to historical truth.[9] In brief: in the story of the Passion revised and corrected by Jules Isaac, the Evangelists appear as arrant liars, of whom the most poisonous is without a doubt Matthew. “To him the palm for having launched with his hand the poisoned dart that cannot be extracted.”[10] Jules Isaac peremptorily concludes by saying: “Never does the tendentious nature of a story, never its concern ‘to make a point’ appear with greater obviousness, an obviousness that bursts forth and culminates in these verses (24-25), generating conviction in every free spirit. No, Pilate did not wash his hands according to the Jewish custom. No, Pilate did not display his innocence. No, the Jewish crowd did not exclaim: ‘Let his blood fall on us and on our children.’”

[1] * The English translation is based on the Italian translation of de Poncins’ tract that was originally written in French. An asterisk * here and below marks notes added by the translator.

[2] That the New Covenant replaces the Old, now devoid of any saving power and made useless by the sacrifice of Christ, Christians have sung this for centuries in the very beautiful Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo, in which in fact it is said that “the figures of the Old Covenant yield to the truth of the new rite” (“Et Antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui”). [*More accurately, “yield to the new rite.”]

[3] However, about the rejection of Israel by God, the Gospel speaks a language that leaves no room for doubt: “Jesus issued a loud cry, and expired. And behold the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:50-51). The God of Israel has abandoned the Temple of Jerusalem in order to inhabit every soul in God’s grace.

[4] In fact, anti-Semitism had been condemned long before Vatican II. On March 21, 1928, at the end of a plenary meeting, the most Reverend Fathers of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office prepared a document that condemned “all feelings of hatred and animosity between peoples, and especially hatred against the people at one time elected by God, that hatred which today is vulgarly designated with the word ‘anti-Semitism’” (cf. La Civiltà Cattolica, 1928, vol. II, pp. 171-172).

[5] Cf. I documenti del Concilio Vaticano II (The documents of Vatican Council II), Ed. Paoline, Rome 1979, pp. 577-578.

[6] That this corresponds to the thinking of many Jews, we conclude from an anecdote: in 1938, Austria was annexed to Hitler’s Germany. The Jew Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who in those days was in Vienna, was urged by one of his close collaborators to leave the city in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. The father of psychoanalysis responded with these words “The Nazis, I do not fear them. The enemy is religion, the Catholic Church” (see E. INNOCENTI, Critica alla psicoanalisi, Sacra Fraternitas Aurigarum in Urbe, Rome, 1988, 115 pages).

[7] For further confirmation, here is a short excerpt from an article published in February 1936 in the London magazine Catholic Gazete, which contains some excerpts of conversations of Parisian Jews in the course of secret meetings: “We have already done most of our work, but we cannot say that we have reached the goal of our operation (opera). We still have a long way to go before being able to overthrow our main enemy: the Catholic Church. We must keep well in mind that the Catholic Church is the only institution that is set to block our route and will remain so for however long its existence will last. The Catholic Church, with its methodical work and its educational and moral teachings, forms in its own children such a mindset that will keep them too proud of themselves to submit to our domination and to kneel at the feet of the future King of Israel.” Shortly thereafter, the Parisian weekly Le réveil du peuple reported that these statements were made during a meeting of the Masonic Order B’nai B’rith (cf. Chiesa viva, nº 178, October 1987, p.16).

[8] Cf. J. ISAAC, Jésus et Israël, Nouvelle Edition Paris, Fasquelle 1959.

[9] Cf. J. ISAAC, L’einsegnement du mépris (“The Teaching of Contempt”), p.141

[10] Cf. J. ISAAC, Jésus et Israël, p. 483.

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