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The Catholic Church is huge. It has 1.2 billion members. There are more than a million people employed in Catholic institutions. The attitude of the Pope to the Jews is of vital importance. One leading candidate for the papacy is anti-Semitic.

Not many Jews are aware, but over the last fifty years, there have been dramatic changes in the Catholic position on the Jews as the Chosen People.1 There has been a clear rejection of supersessionism, the notion that Christianity has replaced Judaism because the Jews have sinned and a new Chosen People, the Christians, took their place. “God’s covenants are not broken,” stated the new Catholic position, referring to God’s original covenant with the Jews. “The church has not ‘replaced’ the Jewish people”. The new thinking meant that there is a kind of dual covenant – God chose both the Christians and the Jews. “In light of Scripture which testifies to God’s repeated offer of forgiveness to Israel, we do not presume to judge in God’s place.”2

As a result, the Catholic Church as well as (especially German) Protestant groups have ceased missionary activities towards the Jews, because the “old covenant” remains in existence and Jews therefore have a relationship with G-d that does not require the intercession of Jesus.

The Catholic Church’s new attitude acknowledges the Jewish origins of Christianity. It no longer views Judaism as a fossil but as a living faith. The last pope (Pope John Paul II) termed the Jewish people the “elder brother” of Christianity. He went so far as to say that G-d’s covenant with the Jews remains valid.

This change in attitude began with Vatican II, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962.3

This was a huge overhauling of Catholic doctrine involving many thousands of church leaders. It provided the official Church response to many contemporary issues including economics, war, abortion, etc. Vatican II produced a document that said, “the Jews remain very dear to G-d.” Jews should not be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. The council deplored “all hatreds, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.” Shortly before his death the Pope composed a prayer of atonement for the Church’s accusation of deicide against the Jews: “Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. …”4

In 1974, the Vatican produced the Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (the 1965 declaration). Here the church added references to the “rich” developments in Judaism in the post-biblical period, and suggested that Catholics should “strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.”

But it was Pope John Paul II (who reigned from 1978 until his death in 2005) who consistently and clearly determined this change of direction. In 1985, the Vatican undermined the anti-Semitic language in some of the Gospels by explaining that they need to be understood “in their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community.”5 The Gospels were “the outcome of long and complicated editorial work … hence it cannot be ruled out that some of the references hostile or less than favorable to the Jews reflect some Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Christ.”

In 1986, John Paul II indicated his hope for reconciliation between Christians and Jews.6 He expressed Catholic remorse for violence done in the name of the Church, especially towards the Jewish people. His visit to Israel was a visible expression of the historic transformation of Catholic attitudes towards Jews, Judaism and Israel. By 1993, anti-Semitism had become “a sin against God and humanity”. Catholic anti-Semitism required Teshuva (1990). The Jewish people “has been crucified by us for too long. … Not they, but we” are responsible for his death, “because we are all murderers of love.” (1998) 7

There were also some apologies made about insufficient Catholic resistance to the Holocaust,8 although the role of the Pope (Pius XII) himself has been vigorously defended. 9 In May 2004, John Paul said Christians and Jews were “united in remembering all the victims of the Holocaust, especially all those who, in October 1943, were torn from their families and their dear Roman Jewish community” and sent to Nazi concentration camps.10

Then on, March 12, 2000, the Pope went further by publically asking for repentance on a Sunday Mass during Lent inside St. Peter’s Basilica itself for all the Catholic anti-Semitism as well as all other injustices of the last 2000 years.11 And, in May 2004, two top ranking cardinals delivered a message from the Pope in Rome’s central synagogue.12 It is not enough to get rid of Anti-Semitism, he stated. “We need to also develop friendship, esteem and brotherly relations with Jews.”

Although not of all this filtered down even to the bishops,13 these were cataclysmic changes. Other problems remained. The Church also established the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz, the canonization of Edith Stein, a nun who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and perished in the Holocaust, and the Pope received and honored Kurt Waldheim. The Church continued to condemn Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem (though it dropped its call for the internationalization of the city). It often issued statements singling Israel out, ignoring any Palestinian role in the failure to resolve the conflict and ignoring other current conflicts which often involved acts of huge slaughter and genocide.14 Notably, it never took note of Israel’s outstanding record at safeguarding the religious freedom of the Christians, in contrast to many Moslem countries. Finally, in 1993,15 it established diplomatic relations with Israel, though it maintained a clear stance of favoring the Palestinians over the Israelis for the future occupation of Christian sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and elsewhere.16

In March 2000, the Pope visited Israel. On arriving in Bethlehem, he stated: “No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades.” In the Pope’s message, only the Palestinians suffered. Terrorism did not exist in the papal rhetoric.17

In October 2000, Pope John Paul II declared the beatification of a controversial 19th-century pontiff, Pius IX (1846 to 1878) who presided over the 1858 Church seizure of a young Jewish boy so that he could be raised as a Catholic against his parents’ wishes.18 A senior Vatican official who advocated Pius IX’s cause said in a nationally televised debate that he would still “find it beautiful” for a child to be baptized without his parents’ knowledge, as Edgardo was. The “good of the eternal life” supersedes any “natural good,” including the rights of a parent over a child, said the Rev. Daniel Ols, an official of the Congregation for the Promotion of Saints.

Nevertheless, the overall trend towards a more positive approach to Jews and Judaism has been dramatic.19 The Vatican made a real effort to filter these ideas down in practice. In America, the church has produced several books (in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith) aimed at teachers and students in Catholic schools, expressing these ideas. A comparison of the 1970 and 1986 versions of the New American Bible, the version most likely to be found in schools, homes and rectories showed the following changes in headings: “Israel’s present rejection” was changed to “Jews and gentiles in G-d’s plan”; “grief for the Jews” is replaced by “Paul’s love for Israel”; “Israel’s unbelief” is now “the remnant of Israel.” On January 17, 2002 the Vatican basically stated that the Jews’ wait for messiah is validated by the Old Testament.20 The new document also says Catholics must regard the Old Testament as “retaining all of its value, not just as literature, but its moral value.”

So, too, some leading bishops have followed the Pope’s lead: On December 8, 1999, the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor expressed his “abject sorrow” for harm committed by the Catholic Church against the Jews, in a letter reprinted as a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times.

“I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way,” John Cardinal O’Connor wrote in the letter, which was dated September 8.

Ash Wednesday “has been specifically set aside as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium,” O’Connor’s letter said. “We most sincerely want to start a new era.”

On March 6, 2005, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice stated to nearly 100 Jewish and Catholic leaders in New York, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – like the God of Jesus Christ – is the living God who maintains close and salvific relations with his people.”

Pope John Paul died on April 2, 2005 and was succeed by Pope Benedict. He confirmed Vatican II’s 1965 teachings about the Jews. He prohibited missionary attempts to convert the Jews. Benedict referred many times to the Jews as the Chosen People, affirming that their covenantal relationship with God remains intact. He upheld the legitimacy of Jewish approaches to the Bible – he even encouraged Catholics to learn them.

Like his predecessor, Benedict visited Israel, inserting a prayer for peace at the Western Wall. This was seen as an official acknowledgment of the holiest Jewish site, a dramatic change from the times when the Catholics made the Temple Mount a garbage dump. He visited Yad Vashem and Auschwitz.

Benedict’s record was not as good as John Paul’s, in part because he was more focused on the internal unity and theological coherence of the Church. Thus, he revived a Latin prayer calling “for the conversion of the Jews,” and has described Jews as having veiled hearts and being blind and in darkness. (2007). But all he was trying to do was to reach out to conservative factions in the Church and issued a revised Latin prayer, removing the insulting language.21

This is also the explanation of his offer to lift the excommunication of the Society of St. Pius X, which had rejected the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. (2009) One of those bishops was a Holocaust denier and another of whom had referred to Jews as “enemies of the church”. The Vatican quickly condemned his words. He moved to canonize Pope Pius XII as a saint before fully clarifying his role in the Holocaust.

There are enormous implications to all of this, though we don’t intend to explore that here. For now, we wanted to frame the selection of the next Pope by showing the enormous implications for the Jews.

Further Reading:

  • Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America by Elliott Abrams (May 1, 1999). (Abrams of course does not deal with the 21st Century).
  • Jewish Action Winter ‘93-’94, pg. 20
  • http://forward.com/articles/171377/the-next-pope-could-be-progressive-and-transform-r/
  • http://forward.com/articles/170923/pope-benedicts-jewish-legacy-tarnished-by-ties-to/
  • http://www.pewresearch.org/2013/02/25/u-s-catholics-key-data-from-pew-research/ 

Recent Popes:

  • Pope John XXIII – (28 October 1958 – 3 June 1963), convened the Second Vatican Council
  • Paul VI – 21 June 1963 – 6 August 1978. Improved relations with other Churches.
  • John Paul 1 – 26 August 1978 until his death 33 days later
  • Pope John Paul II – (16 October, 1978 – 2 April 2005)




  1. Some of the antecedents to this can be traced back to the Freiberg circle in Germany in the 1930s which dealt with getting rid of Catholic anti-Semitism. In the 1950s Monsignor Oesterreicher – a Catholic with Jewish roots – founded a journal, The Bridge, to give a forum to Catholics to express positive approaches toward Judaism. He also established an institute for Judeo-Christian studies These efforts, in turn, influenced the 1965 publication of Nostra Aetate as a part of Vatican II which we talk about below.
  2. The contradictions in this position were frankly acknowledged without any attempt to resolve them: “We must acknowledge that the continued existence of the Jewish people who do not confess the lordship of Jesus Christ and who see their Jewishness as incompatible with this confession is, as Paul the apostle declares, a mystery.” This position was somewhat contradicted in September 2000, when the Vatican issued a statement declaring the Roman Catholic Church to be the only “instrument for the salvation of all humanity.” In a bluntly worded 36-page document approved by the pontiff, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserted that non-Christian religions are “gravely deficient” as a means of salvation and that most non-Catholic Christian denominations, because they do not accept the papacy, “suffer from defects” that disqualify them as “churches in the proper sense.” But the overall trend, as we show below, is very much in the direction of greater accommodation. And it has not only been the Catholic Church that has so changed. The 1993 “Statement on Relations Between Jews and Christians”, Christian Church/ Disciples of Christ maintained that “the covenant established by God’s grace with the Jewish people has not been abrogated but remains valid.”.
  3. It continued after his death in 1963 until 1965.
  4. As papal envoy in Turkey during World War II, Pope John XXIII helped save thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis and their collaborators. He was also substantially affected by his personal encounters, especially with the Jewish historian Jules Isaac. The French-Jewish scholar published in 1948 a book entitled Jesus et. Israel, which brought out as no study had done before how closely the contempt for the Jewish people and the vilification of the Jewish religion were linked to Christian preaching, which drew on the Gospels..
  5. Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church produced by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
  6. As well as between Christians and Moslems and Moslems and Jews. The relevant document, In Tertio Millenio Adveniente, related to expectations for the new millennium.
  7. 1998, Pope John Paul II in his Good Friday address. Another priest, Father Cantalamessa, addressing the same event stated that, “anti-Semitism is born not of fidelity to the Scriptures but of infidelity to them.” The timing of the statement for Easter, a traditional time for anti-Semitic outbursts, added weight to the statement.
  8. In 1994, the German and Polish bishops issued a statement saying that “the Church as a whole offered no effective resistance to Nazi persecution and extermination.”In 1998, Pope John Paul II made an apology of sorts for the failure of Catholics to have done more during the holocaust. “Anti-Semitism,” he exhorted, “must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart.”
  9. This was partially buttressed by recent documents released by the Vatican. The Vatican has a policy of keeping all its archives sealed for 75 years.
  10. Nearly 2,100 Jews were rounded up in the neighborhood when the city was occupied by Germany in World War II.
  11. “We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium,”
  12. The Pope himself had visited the synagogue as early as 1986.
  13. Not all the national conferences endorsed the papal denunciation of anti-Semitism. Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Meridiaga, blamed the ‘Jewish media’ for the scandal surrounding the sexual misconduct of priests toward young parishioners. Rodriguez then goes on to compare the Jewish-controlled media with “Hitler,” because they are “protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the Church.” Cardinal Joseph Glemp, the primate of Poland, has blamed the Jews for Polish communism, alcoholism and collaboration with Hitler. He also accused Jews of trying to kill nuns. Other high-ranking priests, especially in Central America and Poland, have leveled similar anti-Semitic accusations against the Jews and Israel. There has been no known censure by the Vatican of these leaders in its hierarchy.
  14. On February 17, 2000, Pope John Paul II made an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The agreement criticized a lack of freedom in the Old City. Not only is the content of the document disturbing but also its timing, just before the papal visit. The agreement gave no indication that Israel and the Palestinians had been engaged in intensive bilateral negotiations since 1993, it made no mention of Israel, of security, or of the need for normalized relations between Israelis and Palestinians. On February 26, 2000, Papal Nuncio Msgr. Pietro Sambi justified Vatican demands for international guarantees for the holy places in Jerusalem by suggesting that Israel was denying religious freedom to Palestinians by not allowing them free access at all times to Jerusalem. “You know that not all Moslems from Gaza can go to the Aksa Mosque and not all Christians from Bethlehem can go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher whenever they want to,”
  15. Three months after the Oslo agreements.
  16. In part, this reflects the fact that most Christians in Israel are Arab, and Arab Christians have also recently been making it to the top of the Christian clerical hierarchy in Israel. By contrast, the Church has been silent on the destruction of all shuls and yeshivas and the desecration of the Mt. of Olives grave site at the hands of the Jordanians during their occupation of East Jerusalem (1948-1967).
  17. The Pope was consistent in the messages he gave during his visits
  18. The Church claimed that the family’s illiterate Roman Catholic maid had baptised the six-year-old boy, Edgardo Mortara, four years earlier when he was gravely ill. That made his upbringing as a Jew illegal under canon law barring the non-Catholic upbringing of any baptized child, and was cited at the time as justifying his seizure by papal police. In Catholic ritual, beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood. In addition to the criticism from Jewish organizations, 19 eminent Catholic theologians from 10 nations wrote recently in the Catholic magazine Concilium that Pius IX was “known for his antisemitic actions,” and asked, “How can John Paul beatify one of the people for whose actions he asked forgiveness?” In addition, he reconsigned Jews to the ghetto, stripped them of property rights and barred them from secondary and higher education. “These measures were acts of self-defense,” Catholic commentators Antonio Gaspari and Alberto Carosa wrote in Pius IX’s favor for the Roman monthly, Inside the Vatican. “They prove only that he was a prudent temporal ruler.”
  19. Witness the German and French Bishops Conferences in 1995 and 1997 respectively asking forgiveness of the Jewish people these documents declared that “Christians were guilty of both an indirect and a direct role in the process which led to the Shoah” for which “the Church bears guilt and co-responsibility.”
  20. The document states that “the Jewish wait for the messiah is not in vain.” The document says Jews and Christians in fact share the wait for the messiah, though, “Jews are waiting for the first coming, and Christians for the second.”
  21. However the title and the petition that Jews come to “recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men” was retained. Subsequently, Cardinal Walter Kasper clarified that this prayer refers to the time of Jesus’ second coming, and not today; this defused this crisis.

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