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

IV. Jules Isaac and the Church Fathers

In the second of these works—Genèse de l’antisémitisme—published in 1956, Jules Isaac strove to discredit the Fathers of the Church. It is impossible to summarize in a few words a volume of 350 pages. Let us limit ourselves to mentioning some of its most characteristic passages:

It is true that in the pagan world there was a strong current of anti-Semitism, much earlier than Christian anti-Semitism; it is equally true that this anti-Semitism has at times sparked bloody conflicts or ‘pogroms.’ Just as there was a pagan anti-Semitism, whose origin dates back to the divine commandment, in what would Christianity find its justification for having inherited it (after having been itself a victim of it for a long time), and even more, after having pushed to paroxysm its virulence, malignity, calumnies and mortal hatreds? Against Judaism and its followers, no weapon has been more fearful than the ‘teaching of contempt,’ especially inculcated by the Fathers of the Church of the fourth century; and in this teaching no thesis was more harmful than the ‘deicide people.’ The Christian mentality is still steeped in the depths of its subconscious. . . . To fail to recognize this and not to stress it is equivalent to ignoring or disguising the largest source of Christian anti-Semitism.”[1] . . .

The ‘teaching of contempt’ is a theological creation.[2]

The blind violence of the ignorant masses is intimately linked to the cold science of the theologians. A fundamental accusation to which is linked the theme of capital punishment, of the terrible curse that rests on the shoulders of Israel, explaining (and justifying in advance) its unfortunate fate, its most cruel trials, the worst violence committed against it, torrents of blood flowing continually from its open and living wounds. . . .

So that through a skilful manipulation, alternately, of doctrinal judgments and popular anger one makes fall back on God what, when viewed from the terrestrial sphere, is without doubt the result of human wickedness, this perversity, skillfully exploited in different ways from century to century, from generation to generation, and which culminated in Auschwitz, in the gas chambers and crematory ovens of Nazi Germany.[3]

We must acknowledge with sadness: almost all the Fathers of the Church took part, each with his own stone, in these feats of moral lapidation (not without material consequences): St. Hilary of Poitiers (315–367) and St. Jerome (347–420), St. Efrem (306–373) and St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose and St. Epiphanius (315–403), a Jew by birth, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and I say no more. But in this illustrious court, venerable from other points of view, two names, among all, have the right to a special mention: the medieval sculptural allegory exalts the Greek orator St. John Chrysostom (Greek for ‘mouth of gold’; N.d.R.) for the abundance and ferocity of his invectives, and for the overflowing of insults; and the great doctor of Latinity, St. Augustine, for his wonderful and (perilous) ingenuity in the development of a coherent doctrine.[4]

After this global overview of the Church Fathers,[5] we shall now proceed to the individual cases, citing some passages of the study which Jules Isaac devoted to the great Doctors: St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great and St. Agobard.

St. John Chrysostom

In 386, St. John Chrysostom (345–407) began to preach at Antioch, where there was a Jewish community. He first produced eight homilies against the Jews, whose tone [according to Isaacs]

is often of an unheard-of violence. Therein are gathered together all the prejudices and all the insults.[6] . . .

We say now: whatever was the purpose he pursued, this excess in outrage and slander is revolting in a sacred orator. These seeds of contempt and hatred are forever sprouting. Nice work, beautiful harvest; beyond the holy rhetoricians of the fourth century, piously working to drag their enemies into the mud, I see emerge in future centuries the countless legion of theologians, of Christian preachers, of teachers and writers, intent to embroider on the impressive themes of the carnal Jew, of the lecherous Jew, of the greedy Jew, the demonic Jew, the cursed Jew, the Jew the killer of prophets, the killer of Christ, the deicide; and they conscientiously applied themselves, in good faith, to make these dangerous, deadly and false notions penetrate into receptive minds; they were ready also—a logical consequence—to admit, with Chrysostom, that if the odious Jew had inherited exile, desperation, slavery, misery and shame, this is just (the justice of God); he has repaid for his misdeeds.”

Today, at a distance of about one thousand six hundred years, if you want a clear conscience, you must convince yourself that one is dealing here with figures of speech. . . The rhetorical figures have taken on a vital and virulent consistency and have become encrusted in millions of souls. Who would dare believe that the Christian soul is free of them today? Who can say if it will ever be free of them? And after the Christian preachers, see, come the shameful slanderers, the “Streicher Nazis.”[7]

St. Augustine

Jules Isaac writes that St. Augustine (354–430) is less violent than the Greek orator.

[This Father of the Church] is not less passionately hostile to Judaism and the Jews; he is no less concerned to combat their persistent influence in order to preserve the faithful, and to forearm them with a complex of valid arguments in view of disputes with these stubborn men, these reprobates. The method is the same; very similar are the points of view and the interpretations of Sacred Scripture well before the coming of the Savior. Judaism is gradually corrupted, desiccated, made stale; after the revelation of Christ, it has no other inspirer than Satan. Those who once were the privileged children of God, now have become the children of the devil.[8]

In this passionate teaching that has defied the centuries and still today dares to raise its voice, there is no more respect for biblical truth than for historical truth. One does not fear to make oneself a cruelly sharp soul in order the better to strike to death the old Israel by making use of the regrettable crucifixion and the diaspora.[9]

I have not yet said the essential thing, St. Augustine’s own doctrinal contribution, [something] characteristic of his spirit: . . . the doctrine of the ‘witness people.’ . . . If, in spite of everything, there are still Jews who have refused to believe in Christ, it is because it is necessary that they exist; because God wanted thus in his supernatural wisdom to testify to the Christian truth. In fact, they prove it through their sacred books, along with their diaspora. . . . Right now, we see the radical difference that distinguishes the Christian system of debasement from its modern imitator, the Nazi system; blind and ignorant are those who do not recognize their profound bonds! Nazism was a stage, a short stage that preceded the mass extermination; that other, in contrast, entailed survival, but a shameful survival in contempt and decadence. It was therefore made to last, to harm, and slowly to torture millions of innocent victims.[10]

St. Gregory the Great and St. Agobard

We consider now the Church’s teaching in the high Middle Ages. There cannot be found such a perfect expression of it except in the masterpiece of St. Gregory the Great (540–604), who lived between St. Augustine and St. Agobard, at the end of the sixth century.

After the Fathers of the Church, no work has been more echoed and more welcome, especially in Christianity and Catholicism in the West. No example can be more convincing, because we know already, by having seen him act as head of the Church and as head of the State, that, far from being a fanatic, this great Pope is immortalized for outstanding qualities: generosity of heart, moral elevation, fairness and humanity.

Drunk with pride, the Jews have put all their energy to close their intelligence to the word of God’s messengers. By losing humility, they have lost the understanding (intelligenza) of truth.” This is the theme of the carnal people, closely connected to the previous theme (of Judaism degraded by the coming of Christ).[11] “Imitating the fourth Evangelist, St. Gregory continually abuses the word “Jews” by using it to describe the party of the opponents of Jesus Christ, and that means dooming the entire Jewish people to the contempt and hatred of the faithful:

“The Jews have delivered the Lord and have accused him. . . Not even the best examples were sufficient to lead this rough nation to serve God out of love, and not fear. . . . It was faithful only to the letter of the divine precepts . . . and sought in the divine words not a means of sanctification, but an occasion for pride.”[12]

“The theme of the ‘carnal people’ is infinitely dangerous, because it leads with a fatal crescendo to the people of the “Beast,” of the “Antichrist,” and of the “devil,” inspired by a perverse, diabolical hatred against God and his defenders.”[13]. . .

“It’s too simple to believe, or to let it be believed, that the worst acts of verbal violence are harmless, as if they did not risk generating the worst acts of actual violence. Between the mouth which outrages and the arm which strikes, which is the more culpable? Let us therefore leave St. Agobard, in spite of the apologists, his part and the weight of his responsibility.”[14]

“And so, by a methodical infiltration, a Christian man, who is not an angel, is irresistibly led to dream of punishment, vengeance and blood. If the occasion comes, whether it be the crusade, the plague or famine, or held back anger, accumulated in the bottom of hearts, easily reinforced in the popular belief by absurd calumnies inherited from paganism (the accusation of ritual homocide), the anger explodes, and there is always some fuse to set it off, and there follows the thousand and one “pogroms” of the Middle Ages, which pious eloquence and theological knowledge will know how to elevate to the plan for “providential punishment” and “divine vengeance.”[15] . . .

In reality, it is a matter of a lively tradition, infinitely harmful, of a criminal tradition of which I have already spoken, and which leads—I repeat it—to Auschwitz and other places where six million Jews were murdered just because [they were] Jews!” […]

This is a disgrace not only to the German people, but to Christianity. Without centuries of Christian catechesis, preaching and vituperation, the Hitlerian catechesis, propaganda and vituperation would have been impossible.”[16]

“How can we forget that Christianity, especially from the XIth Century onwards, has practiced against the Jews a policy of debasement and ‘pogroms’ which has lasted, among some Christian nations, up to the contemporary era, of which we still see today the survival in very Catholic Poland, and of which the Hitlerian system is nothing more than an atrociously perfected copy? Until the Christian churches and peoples will have recognized their initial responsibilities, and until they will have the keen desire to retract them, anti-Semitism will retain its virulence. . . .

V. What Jules Isaac Demanded from the Council

After reading the books by Jules Isaac, Josué Jéhouda, Rabi, Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900), Albert Memmi and other contemporary Jewish authors, one understands very well the maneuver and trap set for the councilar Fathers. “The Church, writes Jules Isaac, is the only culpable party; the Jews are completely innocent, free from any responsibility, which falls thence uniquely on the Church, whose teaching is the inexhaustible source of anti-Semitism, the same anti-Semitism that has fermented throughout the centuries until it led to the cursed place: Auschwitz. Only the Church, therefore, must make an act of reparation amending and rectifying its millenary teaching.”

Following these remonstrances, Jules Isaac passed on to the practical realizations. He asked, or rather demanded, from the Council the following assurances:

– The condemnation and the elimination of all racial, religious or national discrimination against the Jews;

– The modification or deletion of liturgical prayers regarding the Jews, and in particular those of Good Friday;

– The assertion that Jews are not responsible for the Death of Christ, for which the responsibility falls on humanity;

– The removal or annulment of those Evangelical passages which mention the crucial episode of the Passion, and in particular that of St. Matthew whom Jules Isaac coldly treats as a liar and falsifier;

– That the Church confess to shoulder all the wrongs that for two thousand years persist in a state of latent war between Jews and Christians and other men;

– The promise that the Church would assume in the future, in a definitive way, an attitude of humility, contrition and forgiveness toward the Israelites, or, finally, that it would make every effort to repair the wrong it caused, by amending and rectifying its traditional teaching according to his directives.

VI. The Judeo-Christian Friendship

Despite the insolence of his ultimatum, and despite his virulent indictment against the Gospels and the teaching of the Fathers of the Church—which finds its foundation in the very words of Christ—Jules Isaac met right in Rome, among modern prelates, powerful support, starting with the many followers of the “Judeo-Christian Friendship.” The edition of January 23, 1965, the weekly [newspaper] Terre de Provence (Land of Provence), published in Aix, published a report of a talk given by Msgr. Robert de Provenchères, Archbishop of that diocese, about the “Judeo-Christian Friendship” at the inauguration of the “Avenue Jules Isaac,” an event which had taken place that same morning. The article in question began in these terms:

“A dense crowd was stuffed into the Ziromski amphitheater to hear the talk which Msgr. De Provenchères was about to give, as part of the ‘Judeo-Christian Friendship’ on the following theme: ‘The Councilar Decree on the relations between Catholics and non-Catholics.’. . .  ‘Speaking of Jules Isaac, he said that since their first meeting, in 1945, he held him in profound esteem, a respectful esteem that soon became tinged with affection. The Councilar schema seemed to be the solemn ratification of that which was their conversation. The origin of this schema was due to a request by Jules Isaac to the Vatican, examined by more than 2,000 bishops.’”[17] . . .

It is very interesting to see with what haughty and contemptuous irony Josué Jéhouda, one of the spiritual leaders of contemporary Judaism, speaks of it [the idea of a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition]:[18] “The current expression ‘Judeo-Christian,’ which points to the Jewish origin of Christianity, has even falsified the course of universal history because of the confusion which it provokes in minds. Abolishing in fact the fundamental distinctions between Jewish messianism and the Christian one, it joins together two radically contrasting notions. Putting emphasis exclusively on ‘Christian’ to the detriment of ‘Judeo,’ it makes disappear the Monotheistic messianism, a valid doctrine on all levels of thought, and reduces it to a purely confessional messianism, preoccupied like Christian messianism with the salvation of the individual soul. The term ‘Judeo-Christian,’ though it designates a common origin, is without doubt the most lethal concept. . . . It unifies, in a single expression, two irreconcilable concepts, and wants to demonstrate that there is no difference between day and night, between hot and cold, or between black and white; it therefore contains a ruinous confusion on which, however, you are trying to build a civilization. Christianity offers the world a limited messianism.’[19] . . .

“Christianity yet claims to bring into the world the ‘true’ messianism which seeks to convert all pagans, Jews included. But as long as the monotheistic messianism of Israel lasts, . . . the Christian messianism is presented as that which it actually is, that is, an imitation disappears in the light of authentic messianism.”[20] . . .

When Jules Isaac and the other leaders of Judaism came to Rome, they were urged not to recall these passages found in their writings; they spoke of Christian charity, ecumenical unity, of common biblical affiliation, of the “Judeo-Christian Friendship,” of the fight against racism and of the martyrdom of the Israelite people. They had won the game since the 1,651 bishops, cardinals, archbishops and councilar fathers approved the reform of the Catholic teaching according to the directives of Jules Isaac. The leaders of Jewish organizations did not tell the Pope and the Bishops: “Your Evangelists are patent liars. Your Fathers of the Church are counterfeiters and unjust because they spread worldwide hatred against Jews and have unleashed the barbarism of the ‘Beast.’ They were the precursors of Hitler and Streicher, and are therefore the true [persons] responsible for Auschwitz and the six million Jewish victims of Nazism.”

These accusations can be read clearly in the books by Jules Isaac, books that are for sale in all the bookstores, but, as it seems, the Councilar Fathers did not read them, as they have never read the books of Jéhouda, Benamozegh, Rabi, Memmi, and so many others. No, Isaac and the heads of the major Jewish organizations did not say with Josué Jéhouda, one of the masters of contemporary Jewish thought: “Your monotheism is a false monotheism, a bastard and falsified imitation of the only true monotheism, the Jewish one, and if Christianity does not return to Jewish sources, it is condemned without remedy.”

They did not say with the glory of contemporary Jewish thought, the rabbi of Livorno, Elijah Benamozegh: “The Christian religion is just a false religion calling itself divine. For it and the world there is no other way of salvation than to return to Israel.”[21] They did not say with Memmi: “For Jews, your religion is a blasphemy and a subversion. For us, your God is the devil, that is, the essence of evil on earth.”[22] They did not say with Rabi “Conversion of the Jew to Christianity is tantamount to treason and to idolatry because it implies the great blasphemy, that is, the belief in the divinity of a man.”[23]

They were very skilful not to frighten Rome by clearly expressing their thought, and succeeded in having on their side a certain number of progressive prelates who are opposed to what they call fundamentalism. . . . Nevertheless, one can rightly maintain that they constitute a minority. But then, how do you explain the success of the Jews in this quandary? It owes its good fortune to the two following reasons: The majority of the councilar Fathers did not know the role played by Jewish organizations and Jules Isaac in the preparation of the Schema; they, moreover, had never read the works of the latter.[24]

Taken as a whole, the councilar Fathers understood poorly the Jewish question, and easily let themselves be fooled by the Jewish disquisitions, very ably presented with subtle and fearsome “arguments” of the kind made by Jules Isaac.[25]

However it happened, the maneuver was conducted with great skill, and succeeded. The vote confirms this: 1,651 Fathers believed that the story of the Passion, in the version of Jules Isaac, was to be preferred to that of St. John and St. Matthew. These 1,651 bishops, archbishops and cardinals admitted that the teaching St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose and St. Agobard had to be amended and adjusted according to the orders to Jules Isaac, about whom the Jewish writer Rabi recently said: his book Jesus and Israel has been “a successful weapon of war against that particularly harmful Christian teaching,”[26] namely, the codified teaching by the above mentioned Fathers of the Church. By changing the liturgy of Good Friday and eliminating, among other things, the prayer of improperi, these 1,651 bishops gave support to Jules Isaac, who, when speaking of this prayer, said: “It is not easy to say what in it is the most striking, its beauty or its iniquity.”[27]

Apparently, the bishops believed that the iniquity of this prayer exceeds its beauty.[28] In short, the vote on November 20, 1964, behind the appearance of Christian charity, of reconciliation of Churches and of ecumenical unity, is another step on the path of yielding, of abandonment of traditional Christianity, and of the return to Judaism.

[1] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, Ed. Calmann-Lévy, Paris 1956, p. 327.

[2] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, Ed. Calmann-Lévy, Paris 1956, p. 327.

[3] Cf. J. ISAAC, Jésus et Israël, p. 351.

[4] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p. 161.

[5] St. Gregory of Nyssa apostrophizes the Jews thus: “Murderers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies of God, men who hate God, adversaries of grace, advocates of the devil, race of vipers, descendants of the Pharisees, synagogue of Satan, sinners, perverse men, stoners, enemies of all probity”(cf. Oratio in resurrectionem Christi).

[6] According to St. John Chrysostom, the Jews, after the death of Jesus, gave themselves over to committing the greatest evils and therefore “God hates them” (in the sense that he hates the evil they commit). With him, St. Atanasio (295-373), another Father of the Church, says that “the Jews are not the people of the Lord, but the heads of Sodom and Gomorrah” (cf. De Incarnatione, 40, 7).

[7] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, pp. 162-164, 165-166. Isaac refers to Julius Streicher (1885-1946), a teacher in Nuremberg appointed by the Führer, in 1925 to be Gauleiter of Franconia, who conducted for two decades a very ferocious anti-Semitic campaign that ended with his hanging at the Nuremberg trial on October 16, 1946.

[8] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p.166.

[9] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p.167.

[10] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, pp. 168, 172, 267, 289.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p. 289.

[13] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p. 290.

[14] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p. 285.

[15] Cf. J. ISAAC, Jésus et Israël, pp. 365-508.

[16] Cf. J. ISAAC, Jésus et Israël, pp. 365-508.

[17] Cf. Terre de Provence, on January 23, 1965.

[18] Cf. J. JÈHOUDA, L’antisémitisme, miroir du monde (“Anti-Semitism, mirror of the world”), Ed. Synthésis, Geneva 1958.

[19] It is no coincidence that Jèhouda cites in its favor the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), whose relations with the Jewish Càbala, and the consequent continuous return to cabalistic teaching in his theses, are known to all the scholars of this special area (cf. for example, J. MEINVIELLE, Influsso dello gnosticismo ebraico in ambiente cristiano (Influence of Jewish Gnosticism in Christian Environment), Sacra Fraternitas Aurigarum in Urbe, Rome 1988, pp. 184-189.

[20] Cf. J. JÈHOUDA, op. cit., p. 155.

[21] Cf. E. BENAMOZEGH, Israël et l’Humanité, Ed. Albin Michel, Paris 1961; the first edition of this goes back to 1914.

[22] Cf. A. MEMMI, Portrait d’un juif (“Portrait of a Jew”), Ed. Gallimard, Paris 1962.

[23] Cf. RABI, Anatomie du judaisme français (Anatomy of French Judaism”), Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1962.

[24] *However, copies (in Italian or Spanish) of the book Plot Against the Church (Complot Contra La Iglesia) were, “following the first Italian edition, distributed in the Fall of 1962 among the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.” So we are told in the first paragraph of the “Introduction to the Spanish Edition” of this book; the same point is made in the last paragraph of the “Introduction to the Italian Edition.” Cf. http://www.catholicvoice.co.uk/pinay .

[25] *For such a “subtle and fearsome” argument by someone other than Isaac, cf. “Rabbi Heschel sent a statement to the Vatican stating, in part, ‘Since this present draft document calls for “reciprocal understanding and appreciation, to be attained by theological study and fraternal discussion,” between Jews and Catholics, it must be stated that spiritual fratricide is hardly a means for the attainment of “fraternal discussion” or “reciprocal understanding.” A message that regards the Jew as a candidate for conversion and proclaims the destiny of Judaism is to disappear will be abhorred by Jews all over the world and is bound to foster reciprocal distrust as well as bitterness and resentment.’ Heschel concluded with these now-famous words, ‘As I have repeatedly stated to leading personalities of the Vatican, I am ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostra_Aetate#_note-3

[26] Cf. RABI, op. cit.

[27] Cf. J. ISAAC, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme, p. 309.

[28] Here is the text of the incriminated Holy Friday prayer, eliminated from the Roman Missal by John XXIII: “We pray also for the perfidious Jews, in order that the Lord our God remove the veil from their hearts, so that they too with us recognize our Lord Jesus Christ”; one should note that etymologically the term “perfidious” (from Latin pérfidis) means “without faith,” and therefore, far from being an offensive word, it corresponds well to the Catholic doctrine expressed in this beautiful prayer.