Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Appreciating Vatican II: Nostra Aetate

Lest we ever forget, Jesus was a Jew, as were his Apostles.
As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock…

…The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: "theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people. -- Nostra Aetate

One of the main reasons I started this blog is because I have detected among Catholics on the web, and in most of Catholic blogdom in particular, a real lack of appreciation for Vatican II. Most Catholic blogs appear to me to be ultra-traditionalist. Among these traditionalists are some people too young not only to remember the pre-Vatican II Church, but too young to remember Vatican II as well. They are nostalgic for the image of a Church that they never knew. Since Pope John Paul II’s death, I’ve detected a shift, some of it subtle, some of it not so subtle, of directing blame for the state of the Church from those who somehow committed abuses in the name of Vatican II to the Council itself. I think this is a huge mistake. It is my view that the Second Vatican Council was a true gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to the world. If we have failed to put it into practice, or if we have since made matters worse by retreating from it in fear, that is hardly the fault of the Council or of the Holy Spirit that guided it. In my opinion, the Council happened at the last possible moment it could have; barely in the nick of time. Without it, I doubt there would be much left to save.

What has most caused me to distance myself from the traditionalist movement on the web has been the crude and disgusting anti-semitism that has been shown by the more extreme elements, and a reluctance to condemn it on the part of the less extreme elements.

One of the wonderful documents of the Council was Nostra Aetate – The Declaration On The Relation Of The Church To Non-Christian Religions. After the Second World War, the Church clearly had to come to terms with the Holocaust and what role the manner of speaking about Jews for centuries in Europe and in the Church had to do with it. The document stated unequivocally:
Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

Last year, Hurricane Katrina disabused us of the notion that this country has completely freed itself from its legacy of racism. In a speech given to a group of Jewish community leaders in Boston in May, Cardinal O’Malley shared an anecdote in which he was confronted with anti-semitism quite unexpectedly, and shows that we still have a legacy of our own to wrestle with as well.
Let me share with you an experience I have many years ago working with immigrants in Washington D.C. I was visited in my rather dingy offices on Mount Pleasant Street by two gentlemen from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, who came to speak to me about anti-Semitism in the Hispanic community. I felt completely blindsided. I said to the gentlemen, “Most of our people are from very remote, rural villages in El Salvador and other central American countries. Most of them have never met a Jew, and probably don’t know who you are. The only exceptions would be, those whom we placed in Jewish homes and businesses, through our employment agency, and they were unanimous in their praise and affection for their Jewish employers, who universally treated them with generosity and respect.”

I assured the men that they were barking up the wrong tree, and sent them off with that “don’t call me, I’ll call you” complimentary close. A couple of days later, at a meeting with my parishioners to plan Holy Week, one of the people said, “Padre, this year on the Sábado de Gloria, let’s have a burning of the Jew.”

I was horrified. I thought I didn’t understand what he was saying, and in disbelief, I asked him again and again to repeat. I finally realized that in many of the villages were he’d come from, Holy Saturday was like a Catholic Guy Fawkes Day. As the English say, “Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,” and then they burn the pope in effigy on the anniversary of the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. The scriptures describe the suicide of Judas, who sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It says that he hanged himself, and his body burst open. Accordingly the folkloric custom arose of hanging Judas in effigy and filling the dummy with fireworks. The atrocious practice was dubbed, “la quema del judio.” The burning of the Jew.

I ran back to my office, rifled through my desk, looking for the business card of the gentlemen from the Anti-Defamation League; luckily, I throw nothing out. I was very embarrassed, but I explained what happened, and asked for their help to educate my parishioners. They came up with the idea of a Seder meal, and produced a wonderful Argentine Rabbi, Leon Klenicki, who came and conducted a Seder meal in Spanish. We had it on Holy Thursday, the night of the last supper, the night when Jesus celebrated his Seder meal. The whole community was fascinated to see the connection between the Seder meal and Eucharistic celebration of the mass. After that no one asked to burn any Jews.

The whole affair reminded me that Cervantes had dealt with anti-Semitism in one of his famous works. In the Spain of Alfonso el Sabio, Jews, Moors and Christians lived in peace. But that peace was shattered, and there was much persecution of those who were not Christians. Cervantes, who was very possibly from a conversos family himself, wrote a book called, El Retablo de las Maravillas, sort of a Spanish version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. And in the work, he describes a group of actors who traveled from village to village and put on plays in the public square. And when they would assemble the whole crowd, people would come. They would announce the name of the play and then tell them that this was a magical play and the only ones who would be able to see it, were those who had pure blood. There was great obsession with what the Spanish call, “limpia de sangre.” In other words, no Moorish or Jewish blood, only old Christians could see the play. And then they pulled back the curtain and began the music. The people would laugh and applaud and cheer, and of course there was nothing on the stage.

Once and for all, we too must expose racism and anti-Semitism for what is - a fraud, a lie, an affront to humanity.


crystal said...

That's interesting, Jeff. I had no idea that there was such a tradition as the burning of Judas. When publicity for the gospel of Judas started, there was a news story about how the Vatican was making an effort to rehabilitate Judas - a good thing, I think - link

Liam said...

Judas was always one of the focuses of Christian anti-semitism (as if Jesus himself and the rest of the apostles weren't also Jews!). Medieval illustrations of Judas usually show him to have an exaggerated hook nose and wear distinctively Jewish headgear.

You are also right about the anti-semetic aspect of the anti-Vatican II wing. When people think of the SSPX, they think of liturgical questions, but they are also a haven for those who can't stand to see the pope reaching out to Jews and even holocaust revisionists.

Vatican II was momentous -- I think it's one of the most important turning points of the Church and I feel sure that it was moved by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it seems that the true spirit of Vatican II has gone out of the Church, but I think that what we are experiencing now is a temporary reaction to great changes. Forty years is nothing in a historical process like this one.

Joe may or may not agree with me, but I was shocked at the amount of anti-semtism I found in Spain.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Thanks for the link, that's a fascinating article (the whole issue of the "Dhimmi" churches is one I'm entirely unfamiliar with. I'm going to have to look into it). The whole Gospel of Judas flap, however, must have spooked Benedict, because it doesn't look like Mgsr Brandmuller's efforts panned out. In his Holy Thursday Homily Pope Benedict said:

For Judas, only power and success are real; love does not count.... And he is greedy: Money is more important than communion with Jesus, more important than God and his love. He also becomes a liar, a double-crosser who breaks with the truth

I was a bit surprised by that strongly-expressed traditional take on it, because I had seen the recent trends pretty much the way you had. Most representations of Judas that I had seen in the last couple of decades, from 'Jesus Christ Superstar" to recent biblial scholarship, had tended to portray Judas as a revolutionary zealot who becomes disappointed that Jesus was not the military, Davidic Messiah that he had expected, and who turns Jesus in after some intense, inner moral stuggle (at least that's the way I always portrayed him in the three amateur productions of Godspell I've been in).

Whether Judas was a disappointed revolutionary or a greedy double-crosser, I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but the danger arises when Judas becomes the archetype for Judas/Judah/Jew... the epitome of the "perfidious, greedy, money-grubbing Jew".


I'm not sure what Joe will say, but I'd be interested in his take on it too. I think Europeans in general still need to come to terms with the Holocaust. I think anti-semitism is still rife. It is difficult to separate out how much of that is a reaction to Israeli policies (which quite often deserve strong criticism and condemnation), and how much of it is historical. Israel really does seem friendless outside of the USA.

crystal said...

Speaking of anti-semtism, I was surprised by some of the homilies of John Chrysostom ... I've read that they were used by Hitler to try to justify the killing of Jews to German Christians.

Joe said...

Actually I have found somewhat the opposite. (Though obviously these are just my impressions). When I arrived in Spain in '89 the Spaniards talked with me and asked about the "prejuicios" (prejudisms) of the Americans especially against afro-americans and other minorities. (Not so much against jews as they perceived a pro-jewish orientation through our external media and politics.) They were pretty surprised at the racism and bigotry they observed through media, film, etc. and asked me about it. While I think I have no tolerance for racism and bigotry I usually explained this "phenomenon" by saying that is flourishes in places where people are actually confronted- face to face -with this ugly human trait of hating what is different. (i.e. places where there are actually large mixtures of race, beliefs, etc). Other places "were no racists or bigots" mostly because they were not directly confronted with the test on a large scale, not because they are inherently more tolerent. Up until a few years ago there were very few non-Spaniards in Spain. (Though attitutes toward the Gitanos/Gypsies has always been derrogatory.) And while Spain has a fabulous history of coexitence in places like Toledo and Cordoba, Spain has also been nearly exclusively catholic for many, many years. The decline of the jews after their abolishment in 1492 was absolute and only disguised remnants remain. The result is the same as described above: very little anti-semitism largely because there are just no Jews (in the 17 years I've been here, I might have met 2 Jews.)

To the history of the story you referenced Jeff I had a comment (Don't laugh Liam!)... but I couldn't help but ask myself in a semi-serious way, could they have been referring to "quema del jodio" (ie Andaluz accented way of saying "jodido") The word is not just the crass translation of the "F" word, but it is the name they give a person who is in truly the direst of straits. Maybe not, but it at least crosses my mind...

Jeff said...


Yes, that's regrettable about Chrysostom, because he wrote so much other stuff that was really beautiful. He wasn't using the legendary "Golden Mouth" very well in pursuit of that purpose. I've heard people say in his defense that this was polemic that he was using not so much against Jews themselves, but against "Judaizing" Christians, although I think the distinction is minor and the defense is weak. At the time, the competition was intense, and the Talmud had some rough things to say about Jesus too. Many of the Christians in the East were still attending synagogue services and still co-mingling with the Jewish community. It was driving Chrysostom crazy, and this is what he was trying to combat.

Did Hitler use him to defend what he was doing? I know the Nazis used the writings of Martin Luther, who also wrote vicious anti-Jewish polemics, to justify themselves. There are few Christian groups with completely clean hands in this legacy.


You make a good point about the SSPX, and that group is pet peeve of mine. They have gotten some mileage out of portraying themselves as nothing but the representation of the pre-Vatican II Church, but that isn't true. They never reflected the pre-Vatican II Church. They are the direct heirs to a small group of anti-modernist fanatics who descibed themselves as "integrists" during the pontificate of Pope Pius X, and ran a group of informers called the Sodalitium Pianum... That is a post in and of itsef for another time.


Good post, although I'd just add that ignorance and unfamiliarity can sometimes breed contempt as much as familiarity can. I know from being in Ireland for example, that I was sometimes taken aback and stunned by careless, off-the-cuff anti-Jewish remarks thrown casually from people who had never met a Jewish person in their lives.

"Quema del jodio". Could that be anything like "Me cago en diez", where they thrown in "10" for "Dios"?

Liam said...

I experienced racism and anti-Semitism in different ways in Spain. Racism exists, even more so now that African immigration to Spain is very visible. It's the same all over Europe (and here, of course) and I think it is mainly confined to people on the rightward fringe.

What surprised me about anti-Semitism in Spain is that it seems to reach across the ideological spectrum, left to right. On the right, you get the same kind of classical anti-Semitism you find anywhere: Franco used to talk about a "Judeo-masonic" world conspiracy. My ex-mother-in-law (who LOVED Franco) owned a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and believed it.

On the left, I found that reasonable criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians seemed to allow people to indulge in general anti-Semitism. There was no difference between "Israelis" and "The Jews," and Israel is powerful because "The Jews" control world finance and Hollywood, among other things.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this is a general idea throughout Spain. I was just surprised that people who, when speaking about most other things, were open-minded and liberal, talking about Jewish conspiracies. A Spanish friend who agreed with me about this mentioned how some people use the expression "una judiada" (hard to translate -- perhaps "a Jew kind of thing") to refer to something nasty that one person might do to another.

Another anecdote. Someone told me he knew a Jewish-American exchange student who was visiting village that the family she was staying with was from. One of the older family members asked if she would show them her horns.

joeh said...

John Chrysostom was no anti Semite. If you read proper translations you would see that translations of "Against the Jews", rather than what he actually wrote, "Against the Judaizers", which is the rendering the most up to date translations are now using. By this adjustment, sermons intended by the saint to be polemics against those in 4th century Antioch who would try to Judaize the Christians.
The Catholic Church teachings call us to study. I note a tone on this site that is toward the liberal side of belief where there are no solid truths to follow and beleive. We have truths which have been a gift handed down to us by the Church where we believe that the Holy Spirit has guided the Pope in matters of faith and morals. Some fail to listen when JPII says definitively that the Church has not authority to ever have women as priests and this is a matter to that must be believed. This should have ended the debate but many on the left do not accept this as now solid teaching of the church which cannot change. The same is true of those who support politicians who they know will go to Washington and support the abortion industry continuing murder of innocent children. Many of these try to use social justice reasons for their vote but this is poor logic because there are many ways to help the poor. Ending welfare helped the poor while the left plan of giving them money rather than helping them find a job has now proven to be the right way.

joeh said...

Also, trying to change the truth of the gospel in regard to Judas is amazing. Only the left would try to make a hero out of Judas or find some mitigating circumstances for his betrayal of the Lord who he betrayed with a kiss. He took his 30 pieces of silver. These things are fact, not theory.

Also, JPII was right to stop priests from getting involved in liberation theology which is support of communism. I would say the JPII knew far more about this so called theology than any of the liberal professors or priests who wanted to dabble in it because they thought the poor would be better off under communism. No, you do not have to agree with JPII on everything, but I would trust his judgement in an area where he had so many years of practical experience.