Religion Magazine

Radical & Revolutionary Catholicism

Posted on the 03 June 2012 by Cris

What counts as “radical” and “revolutionary” when it comes to the Catholic Church? If this review of John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 is to be believed, Vatican II’s repudiation of anti-Judaism was a momentous event:

Across the violent years of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a trial of conscience that ultimately brought about a radical transformation in its official doctrine regarding the Jews. Church tradition had long held that the Jewish people were abandoned by God and condemned to wander the Earth, their religion nullified by the new covenant with Christ. But the Second Vatican Council marked the culmination of a protracted debate among Catholic theologians that brought this teaching gently to an end. The debate was not without controversy, and it is even today not universally accepted.

I suppose if you are Catholic, this sort of thing might count as radical but for those who aren’t, it doesn’t seem to be the right adjective. No adjective would have worked just as well.

But rather than saying the Catholic Church finally did the right thing, we are told again and again that Vatican II marks a “watershed in the history of modern religion” (really?) and was radical:

But among the most radical innovations of doctrine that sprang from Vatican II was the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” typically known by its Latin title Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Age.” Included in the declaration was a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a revised official teaching on the Jews.

The rest of us might be forgiven for thinking this not radical or innovative, but the review insists this is “astonishing” when considered in light of the Catholic Church’s long and shameful history of Jew hating:

If one recalls the unbroken record of prejudice and persecution that stained the earlier history of Roman Catholic relations with their Jewish neighbors, the change is nothing less than astonishing. Medieval authorities, drawing upon passages such as Matthew 27 (“let his blood be upon us and on our children”) had taught that the Jews were fated to suffer for having tormented the Savior who was born in their midst. The supercessionist notion that Judaism was a religion made obsolete by the new covenant with Christ—what the historian Jules Isaac called the “teaching of contempt”—remained a fixture of Catholic dogma well into the twentieth century. Nor was it only a theological principle.

In the medieval and early modern world, the idea that Jews suffered for their metaphysical culpability served as a formal warrant for ecclesiastical and state-sanctioned policies of persecution—the legal proscription on rights of settlement and land-ownership, measures against the location and height of synagogues, the royal imposition of special taxes (otherwise reserved for livestock)—that worked in a vicious circle to ensure that the Jews would bear the mark of visible debasement for their imagined guilt.

As the review proceeds, what was radical becomes revolutionary:

Thieme, Connolly writes, “was probably the first Christian theologian in modern times” who was willing to countenance the revolutionary idea that “Christ the Jew loved the Jewish people of the post-biblical era.”

What a thought — positively incendiary. The point is emphasized:

Thieme came to the revolutionary idea that God wished the Jews to persist as a chosen people even after the time of Christ. As Connelly notes, with the exception of the Anglican James Parkes, this was “the most sudden and radical shift in a Christian theologian’s view of the Jews in modern history.”

We are then told that this “revolutionary idea” has theological support, but “it is certainly true that more conservative forces in the Church resisted its innovations.” This is true even today. Not to worry, the reviewer assures the reader:

Revolutions in theology, as in politics, inevitably provoke reaction. The revolution that Connelly describes was so momentous that the slow and uneven pace of its acceptance should hardly come as a surprise.

In stunning conclusion, the reviewer informs us that these radical innovations and revolutionary transformations within the Catholic Church raise questions that go beyond history and should be answered by moral philosophers:

What are the true limits of empathy? What are the conditions for its possibility and its growth? How can its boundaries be made to extend beyond the narrow circumference of one’s own family, one’s own nation, one’s own faith?

It could just be me but I don’t think these are difficult questions and one needn’t be a moral philosopher to answer them. Empathy and compassion and treating others as you would be treated is not all that intractable. None of this is momentous, even if Catholic historians and theologians continue to twist themselves in knots over it. It might even strike non-Catholics as absurd.


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