Two of The Forward editors sent me some questions about the new book on the converts who played a big role in changing the Church’s attitudes. This was basically Q and A exchange: Will this lead to conspiracy theories? Have people heard of this before? Will it now be overturned?It was originally just going to be a blog post on one of the Forward’s blogs. By the end of the process, it became an op-ed.
Two things that did not come out in the piece that are relevant. The first is how much Oesterreicher gave the Jews the willys as a convert. Among Jews, he came off as an ethnic Jew who rejected his people. They saw little good from a conversion. the JTA archive articles are quite negative. I have been told that Rav Soloveitchik was still worried that Oesterreicher wanted to convert his co-religionists. He was not worried about many others. And last year, Rabbanite Prof Judith Bleich told me some less than flattering stories about how they remembered Oesterreicher.
The second point is that the role of converts was not just true about the Catholic-Jewish case but also of the Catholic-Muslim and Catholic-Hindu encounters. To have language to create a commonality took border-crossers and converts, for example Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine priest who lives in India became known as Swami Abhishiktananda.
By Alan Brill
Published The Forward August 06, 2012.
I teach my classes at Seton Hall University in a seminar room known as
the Oesterreicher Suite, in which a photograph of Monsignor John M.
Oesterreicher looks down on the class as it is being held. The room
itself is comprised of glass cases with speeches and documents that
track and illustrate the Monsignor’s path from Catholic convert of
Jewish origin, encouraging others to follow his path of conversion to
a commitment to change the Church’s attitude toward the Jews.
In the 1930s, Monsignor Oesterreicher lived in Germany and belonged to
the Freiberg Circle, which opposed anti-Semitism and sought a
non-racist approach toward Judaism. After World War II, he founded an
institute for the then-oxymoronic concept Judeo-Christian studies and
was an editor for The Bridge, a 1950s journal which allowed Catholic
authors to develop positive approaches toward Judaism. These efforts
bore fruit as the 1961 publication, “Decree on the Jews” to which
Oesterreicher was the major contributor. It took four years of
ecumenical work to produce a fourth draft of the original document,
which became known as Nostra Aetate.
John Connelly, a renowned University of California historian, recently
wrote an excellent work, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in
Catholic Teaching on the Jews, showing the important role that Jewish
and Protestant converts to Catholicism played in the creation of Nosta
Is this a revelation? The answer is no, as all the pieces were known.
Oesterreicher ’s Jewish roots and his role are well known to those
involved in interfaith encounter. Connelly put the material together
in a new way with less emphasis on other figures and greater emphasis
on the converts.
Connelly’s new book focuses on Oesterreicher’s role, as well as Karl
Theme and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who both converted from
Protestantism. It should be noted that the Frieberg circle also
included non-converts who directly opposed the Nazi regime such as the
German Economic Minister Franz Bohm and the historian, Gerhard Ritter.
In this quest, Karl Theme pushed forward and was in dialogue with the
German Jewish thinkers Buber, Adorno, and Schoeps. Oesterreicher
dragged his feet in this endeavor and in discussion with Theme still
envisioned a conversion of the Jews.
Oesterreicher is remembered by many Jews with ambivalence as a 1960s
defender of the Catholic Church. Now, in this new reading, Connelly
agrees with the charitable approaches toward Oesterreicher as the
1960s a mouthpiece for the progressive words and ideas of Karl Theme,
which he used in the drafts leading to Nosta Aetate. Connelly also
shows the importance of the Jewish thinkers such as A. J. Heschel and
Ernst Ehrlich for their influence on Cardinal Bea.
Will this lead to new conspiracy theories focusing on the prominent
role attributed to Jewish-born theologians? Until this book was
published, most of the many online conspiracy theories blamed the
French Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, who in 1947, laid the need for a
change before the Church. The conspiracy theorists also blame the
B’nai B’rith as Freemasons and the American Jewish Committee as
maliciously manipulating the situation.
The conspiracy theorists will never go away, it is just that now, they
may just transfer their theories to the converts to Catholicism. One
might also ask: will it lead to new anti-Semitism? No, to give a
similar answer as before: none of this is new material. More
importantly, most Catholics have already accepted the full gamut of
changes of Vatican II, most are young enough to have never known
The actual start of this process was the 1947 meeting in Seelingberg,
Germany by both Protestants and Catholics who thought that after the
Holocaust, Christianity must relinquish its teaching of contempt
toward Jews. It took a half century of hard work for most Christian
denominations to change their attitude toward the Jews.
The reception of Connolly’s book shows that many Jews are still not
aware of the message of Nostae Aetate. The document was part of a much
larger series of documents of Vatican II, none of which dealt with
Jews, that brought the Church into the 20th century. Nosta Aetate
states that there is a bond that ties the people of the “New Covenant”
(Christians) to “Abraham’s Stock” (Jews). It acknowledges that Israel
received the revelation first, that Jews remain dear to God, and that
Christianity grew out of Judaism. It rejects the deicide charges and
decries all displays of anti-Semitism made at any time by anyone.
One must remember that prior to this document, Jews were seen by some
documents as blinded, the Devil, and false; and that once the Jews
have served their purpose then God has forgotten them. Jesus had
transcended and had nothing in common with his birth religion,
according to this now-outdated view.
It took more than three decades for Pope John Paul II to acknowledge
Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant, to recognize
the Holocaust, and to actively acknowledge the state of Israel. Pope
Benedict XVI has moved the religions closer in Catholic thought by
teaching that Jews and Catholics share one common Abrahamic covenant
based on Genesis 15. Additionally, Pope Benedict strongly rejects the
idea of two separate but equal covenants. Situating Jesus in his
Jewish context is now taken as obvious.
Nostae Aetate was a revolution. But it did not in itself offer
pluralism, recognize Judaism as a separate religion or, even as John
Paul II did, grant continuous validity to Judaism. The document has
both progressive and conservative interpretations.
Current Catholic questions and dividing lines of progressive and
conservative interpretations have to do with how the Jewish covenant
functions, how are Jews saved, and how the Trinity works through the
Jewish people. These debates are not about Jewish self-understanding ,
rather Catholic doctrine.. For those interested in the official
Vatican thinking about Judaism, I would recommend the document
“Building on ‘Nostra Aetate’—50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue,”
by Cardinal Kurt Koch and issued May16, 2012; it contains Pope
Benedict’s definitive legacy on Judaism.
As for the subject of Connelly’s new book, the author considers the
fragile, contingent, and almost accidental nature of this change. As
someone who works in a Catholic university with a seminary on campus,
this change is permanent. It is necessary, and part of the
self-definition of the Catholic mission.
Seton Hall University will be commemorating in 2013-2014 the 50th
anniversary of John M. Oesterreicher’s Judeo-Christian Institute.
There will be speakers, a conference, and translations of
Oesterreicher’s early work.