The Vatican and Two Millenia of Denial

The far-reaching effects of the kind of anti-Semitism fostered by the New Testament-attributing to all Jews of all times everywhere the presumed actions of a few first century Jewish leaders-took an interesting turn with the 1965 action of the Second Vatican Council.


The far-reaching effects of the kind of anti-Semitism fostered by the New Testament-attributing to all Jews of all times everywhere the presumed actions of a few first century Jewish leaders-took an interesting turn with the 1965 action of the Second Vatican Council. This church council took place against the background of a long history of Roman Catholic identification of the Jews as an “accursed people” and a “deicide race.” It absolved, as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, the Jewish people in general from guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus. “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” in the relevant portion, reads:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6); still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new People of God, the Jews should not be represented as rejected by God or accursed, as if this followed from Holy Scripture.

Nevertheless, to give even the most positive interpretation that can be placed on this text cannot rectify or redress centuries of willful wrongdoing instigated and supported by Catholic clergy and laymen against the Jews. This makes all the more reprehensible the fact that nowhere, either in this context or elsewhere in the “Declaration,” is there an admission or confession of those wrongs perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church against the Jews in the past. It is true that later in the “Declaration” it states that the Church “deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, leveled at any time or from any source against Jews,” but this represents at very best only an implicit admission of its own role in fomenting anti-Jewish actions. The lack of a confession by the Church for past malefactions creates the strong impression that the Jews in reality had been guilty up to now.

The proper understanding and implications of the Vatican II “Declaration” on the Jewish religion and people must issue not only from what is present in the document, but also from what is absent. Vatican II’s restraint in self-condemnation for past wrongs was not the full extent of its omission of injustice done the Jewish people by the Church. By not repudiating New Testament passages of collective condemnation of the Jews the Second Vatican Council did not deny or nullify the imputation of a collective and enduring guilt that the New Testament so unjustly enunciated (Matthew 2:25, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). The role played by first century Jews in the events that led to Jesus’ death, as presented in the partisan approach of the New Testament, is never questioned as to its historicity. For that matter the extent of Roman interest in Jesus’ execution is never addressed at all.

A further example of the Vatican failure to acknowledge the presence of anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament and the role of the Catholic Church in the persecution of the Jewish people comes from a three-day symposium on the origin of anti-Semitism held at the Vatican in October 1997. Its purpose was to examine Christian thought for prejudice against Judaism, as well as against Jews. In the text of the Pope’s comments, released by the Vatican, Pope John Paul II condemned anti-Semitism as “totally unjustifiable and absolutely condemnable” and called it a pagan refutation of the essence of the Christian doctrine. He makes no apology for Vatican silence during the Holocaust and for its centuries-old tolerance of anti-Semitism among its clergy and, until the late 1960’s in its liturgy.

The Pope acknowledges that certain Christian teachings helped fuel anti-Semitism but stops short of admitting direct New Testament or church culpability in creating anti-Jewish prejudice. Instead he maintains that certain Christian teachings, based on “wrong and unjust” interpretations of the New Testament, had helped contribute to the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Europe over the centuries. Indulging in culpability shifting the Pope states, “In the Christian world-I do not say on the part of the church as such-the wrong and unjust interpretation of the New Testament relating to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too long, contributing to feelings of hostility toward these people.” He then explains that “These contributed to soothing consciences to the point that when a wave of persecution swept Europe fueled by pagan anti-Semitism-which in its essence was equal to anti-Christianism-next to those Christians who did everything to save the persecuted at the risk of their own lives, the spiritual resistance of many was not that which humanity expected from the disciples of Christ.” (The New York Times, “Pope Ties ‘Unjust’ Teachings to Anti-Semitism,” November 1, 1997, p. A6.)

Once again the direct role of the New Testament and the Catholic Church in the spreading of anti-Jewish feeling among Christians is sidestepped. Pope John Paul II refers directly to those who risked their lives to save the persecuted but makes a judicious statement that “the spiritual resistance of many was not that which humanity expected from the disciples of Christ.” That is a rather innocuous way of describing those that with brutal forethought aided and abetted murder.

In listing the very conditions Vatican Council II and later Pope John Paul II deplore there is no admission of the part played by the New Testament or the Church in creating “hatreds, persecution, [and] displays of antisemitism.” For whatever reason both the Declaration and Pope John Paul II miss the point. The point is not whether one believes today that all Jews, past, present, and future were mysteriously present, demanding that Jesus be crucified, but that this is the message the evangelist intended to convey and the very message the Roman Catholic Church promulgated. As we see from history, they did it very effectively.

© Gerald Sigal