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Author Singles Out Two for Role in Healing Catholic/Jewish Rift

 John Connelly
Photo by Leo Sorel

The idea that Jews need to be baptized Christian if they want to make it into heaven is widely understood today to be preposterous.

This wasn’t always the case though, and on March 4, John Connelly, Ph.D. professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley argued that two men, Karl Thieme and John Oesterreicher, deserve credit for convincing the Catholic Church to change its ways.

It did so via Nostra Aetate, a declaration passed at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that explicitly repudiated the belief in the collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion.

“We often think of religious tolerance as a virtue, and it is. Intolerance has caused humanity immeasurable suffering throughout history. But this new teaching was about more than tolerance. It’s about recognition, even reverence,” he said.

“This was not an act of charity, but rather a necessary result of careful and faithful reading of Christian scripture.”

Connelly spoke at the Lincoln Center campus along with Susannah Heschel, P.h.D., the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, as part of  “From Enemy to Brother: What Changed?” sponsored by theFordham Center on Religion and Culture.

His talk was based his book From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews(Harvard University Press, 2012).

Several factors contributed to the Cardinals’ change of heart at the Second Vatican Council, Connelly said; not least of which was a sense of distress that Catholics had not spoken forcefully enough in the defense of Jews during the Holocaust.

But it was Thieme, a German theologian who wrote for the anti-Nazi journal Die Erfüllung in the 1930s, who found a sound theological basis for accepting Jews within St. Paul’s Letter in Romans 9:11. It is here that Paul asserts that God would never enter into a covenant with Israel and then break that covenant. Rather, he said that covenant was unbreakable.

“In his view, Romans was Paul’s only direct pastoral statement to followers of Christians about . . .his kinsfolk, that is, about the Jews. Romans 9:11 was the only place in the New Testament where the question is posed about what to make of the fact that most Jews did not become followers of Christ,” Connelly said.

John Oesterreicher, who edited Die Erfüllung and who initially disagreed with Thieme, took his arguments to the Second Vatican Council. Their work, Connelly suggested, was nothing short of a silent revolution.

“The changes confirmed in Nostra Aetate, though they may seem to be common sense, required lots of hard work and a difficult, costly, painful struggle—so painful that Karl Thieme and John Oesterreicher stopped talking to each other entirely in 1960,” he said.

“What is interesting to me is how a relatively small group operating at margins long ignored by the hierarchy could ultimately shape the thinking of the church as a whole.”

Susannah Heschel and John Connelly
Photo by Leo Sorel

Heschel lauded Connelly’s book for highlighting the works of people who “pushed through the constraints of their education and things that were assumptions for so long,” and drew the faiths closer together.

“What greater theological intimacy could exist than between Judaism and Christianity, two relations, to have the founder of one be a pious member of the other? We’re so bound up together. We share a Bible, scripture, history, a covenant, [and]many central ideas,” she said.

The arguments resonated personally with her, as her father was a theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“I can tell you that during those years in the 60’s, when I was growing up, I heard the name John Oesterreicher often from my father, but in very negative terms, because of the fact that he had converted and had in fact advocated mission to the Jews.”

Heschel also wondered if the fact that both Thieme and Oesterreicher were converts to Catholicism, from Protestantism and Judaism, respectively, made it easier for them to think about racism and Judaism beyond the normal constraints of the time.

Connelly agreed there was something to that notion.

“What was different about my people is they transcended the margins. . . into the realm of the other, whether it was linguistic, cultural or religious,” he said. “I call them border crossers.”


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