Fifty years ago this fall, Catholic bishops gathered in Rome for a council that would bring the church “up to date” by making it speak more directly to the modern world. After three years of deliberation, the bishops voted on and accepted statements that permitted the faithful to attend mass in their own languages, encouraged lay reading of scripture and entreated Catholics to think of other religions as sources of truth and grace. The council referred to the church as “people of God” and suggested a more democratic ordering of relations between bishops and the pope. It also passed a statement on non-Christian religions, known by its Latin title, Nostra Aetate (“In our times”). Part four of this declaration, a statement on the Jews, proved most controversial, several times almost failing because of the opposition of conservative bishops.
Nostra Aetate confirmed that Christ, his mother and the apostles were Jews, and that the church had its origin in the Old Testament. It denied that the Jews may be held collectively responsible for Jesus Christ’s death, and decried all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism. . . .
The Catholics who helped bring the church to recognition of the continuing sanctity of the Jewish people were converts, many of them from Jewish families.
Most important was Johannes Oesterreicher, born in 1904 into the home of the Jewish veterinarian Nathan and his wife, Ida, in Stadt-Liebau, a German-language community in northern Moravia. As a boy, he took part in Zionist scouting and acted as elected representative of the Jews in his high school, but then, for reasons that remain inexplicable (he later said he ”fell in love with Christ”), Oesterreicher took an interest in Christian writings (Cardinal Newman, Kierkegaard and the Gospels themselves), and under the influence of a priest later martyred by the Nazis (Max Josef Metzger) he became a Catholic and then a priest. In the early 1930s he took over the initiative of the Diocese of Vienna for converting Jews, hoping to bring family and friends into the church. In this his success was limited. Where he had an impact was in gathering other Catholic thinkers to oppose Nazi racism. To his shock, Oesterreicher found this racism entering the work of leading Catholic thinkers, who taught that Jews were racially damaged and therefore could not receive the grace of baptism. His friends in this endeavor included fellow converts like philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and the theologian Karl Thieme and political philosopher Waldemar Gurian. In 1937, Gurian, Oesterreicher and Thieme penned a Catholic statement on the Jews, arguing, against the racists, that Jews carried a special holiness. Though it constituted orthodox teaching, not a single bishop (let alone the Vatican) signed on.
Oesterreicher escaped Austria when the Nazis entered, in 1938, and continued work from Paris, broadcasting German-language sermons into the Reich, informing Catholics that Hitler was an “unclean spirit” and the “antipode in human form,” and describing Nazi crimes committed against Jews and Poles. In the spring of 1940 he barely eluded an advance team of Gestapo agents, and via Marseille and Lisbon he made his way to New York City and ultimately Seton Hall University, where he became the leading expert on relations with Jews in America’s Catholic Church.
Oesterreicher gradually abandoned his “missionary” approach to the Jews and increasingly called his work ecumenical. He and like-minded Christians tried to figure out how to ground their belief in continued vocation of Jewish people in Christian scripture. If the battle before the war was against the superficial assumptions of Nazi racism, after the war it took aim at the deeply rooted beliefs of Christian anti-Judaism.
In Paris, the Rev. Paul Démann, a converted Hungarian Jew, began publishing the review Cahiers Sioniens and, with the help of fellow converts Geza Vermes and Renée Bloch, refuted the anti-Judaism in Catholic school catechisms.
At one critical moment in October 1964, priests Gregory Baum and Bruno Hussar joined Oesterreicher in assembling what became the final text of the council’s decree on the Jews, voted on by the bishops a year later. Like Oesterreicher, Baum and Hussar were converts of Jewish background.
They were continuing a trend going back to the First Vatican Council in 1870, when the brothers Lémann — Jews who had become Catholics and priests — presented a draft declaration on relations between the church and Jews, stating that Jews “are always very dear to God” because of their fathers and because Christ has issued from them “according to the flesh.” Without converts to Catholicism, it seems, the Catholic Church would never have “thought its way” out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism.
The high percentage of Jewish converts like Oesterreicher among Catholics who were opposed to anti-Semitism makes sense: In the 1930s they were targets of Nazi racism who could not avoid the racism that had entered the church. In their opposition, they were simply holding their church to its own universalism. But by turning to long-neglected passages in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, they also opened the mind of the church to a new appreciation of the Jewish people.