From IV Lateran Council to II Vatican Council – 800 Years of Catholic Attitudes towards Judaism

Speech delivered on 9th of November 2015 at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

by ,

The task I took upon myself could easily be accomplished by stating that the relations between Catholics and Jews underwent a dramatic change the better since 1215. As much as this statement is correct, the answer is still unsatisfactory. We are dealing with an enormous span of time exceeding more than 26 generations, almost the age of Methuselah.  Historians rather often avoid passing moral judgements. The study of Humanities was perceived in the 19th century as a science which required understanding (Verständnis), whereas Natural sciences required explanation (Erklärung). Understanding became almost the sister of excusing. Literature provided us early evidence of the interdependence of understanding and pardoning. In Goethe's play "Torquato Tasso", written in 1790, the following quotation appears: "was wir verstehen, das können wir nicht tadeln". In free translation: "What we understand, we cannot condemn.[1]"  It would be a mistake to refrain from moral judgment while discussing what happened in the relations between Catholics and Jews at the period of the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which took place here around the corner 800 years ago and by the same token in the 2nd Vatican Council, which was concluded in 1965- only fifty years ago. The way I am going to proceed today will be as follows: The first part will be dedicated to Innocent III and the 4th Lateran Council. At first the main actor will be discussed: the Pope. Secondly, the historical-political environment in which he acted. Thirdly, in brief the Council itself. The last section of this part will evaluate the relations of Latin Christianity with Judaism, emerging before and after the canons of the 4th Lateran Council. The second part will be dedicated to the 2nd Vatican Council and will be structured in a similar way, as far as it is possible.

Part One – The 4th Lateran Council

Lotario di Segni (1161- 1198) Becomes Pope Innocent III (1198 -1216) and the Political Climate of His Age

Lothario dei Conti di Segni came from a family of counts which established itself in the area of Anagni in Latium. His scholastic way of thinking was formed in Paris and his legal mind in Bologna, where he studied from 1178 until 1187. Consecrated as subdeacon in 1187, he became the youngest cardinal in 1190. He was elected Pope in 1198 at the age of 37. He was probably elected because it was time to choose a younger candidate with  political clout in addition to his religious zeal. His claim to historical fame emerged from being the embodiment of an autocratic personality by birth, having a practical mind by profession as a lawyer and being a diplomat by political instinct. Innocent saw himself not only as successor to Peter, but also as the Vicar of Christ. Innocent is considered as the pope who shaped the central authority of the papacy. During the early Middle Ages, it was far from  clear that Rome would be able to sustain its claim to primacy within the Christian world. After Innocent passed away, the primacy of the Rome was not questioned any more until the Lutheran Reformation. Innocent tried to enlarge the territorial extension of the Patrimonium Sancti Petri in central Italy.  The Papal States were the secular expression of the political power of the papacy, through which the pope was integrated in the feudal network as a Lord to his vassals. A close look at his historical record cannot confirm that he aspired sovereignty over secular rulers as a pope. His sovereignty over secular rulers was always in situations where they put themselves under his protection (such as Sicily, Aragon, Hungary or King John Lackland of England). They owed him fealty as vassals to a feudal lord, but not because he was the pope. What was claimed by Innocent was that in case of a conflict among secular rulers and in order to prevent a sin, he would have the right to intervene ratione peccati (because of sin). Innocent tried to curb corruption in the Curia by establishing fixed sums for clerical services, but he knew that old habits are not likely to die out.  Some historians regarded his curial administration as a nucleus of a modern state to come. They were obviously impressed by the prevailing culture of literacy in the curia within the widespread general illiteracy. I rather follow here the judgment of the British historian Geoffrey Barraclough[2]: Innocent neither had enough financial resources in order to employ salaried clerks nor had he an army of his own in order to coerce his political will. Innocent’s political fate was extremely fortunate. This speaks for his political instinct and diplomatic skill. In 1198 he was exploiting the imperial vacancy and became the warden and the feudal Lord of the small 4-year-old Frederic who now became king of Sicily after Emperor Henry VI had died. At the 4th Lateran Council the same Frederic was designated as emperor. Innocent convened this council because he wanted to promote the reform of the church and to renew the crusade in order to liberate the Holy Land. 

The 4th Lateran Council, 1215

The council was convoked in a papal bulla on the 19th of April 1213 and was convened on the 11th of November 1215, precisely 800 years minus two days ago here at the Lateran Palace. Among its high-ranking participants were 71 patriarchs, 412 bishops and 900 abbots and priors. In addition, many secular rulers sent their representatives. It was the most frequented assembly in the Middle Ages, overshadowing any other Church council until the First Vatican Council in 1870[3]. (To compare: The Council of Basel, in the 15th century, had 3300 registered participants, but its duration was almost 18 years.) The main result of the IV Lateran Council was its decisions, which were published in 70 canons regulating theological and ecclesiastical affairs of the Church. During the pope’s tenure, however, the crusade was aimed also against non-Muslims, such as the Albigensians in southern France.  But before dwelling on Innocent’s attitude towards Jews it is important to know the relations with Jews before Innocent III, as expressed in the papal bulla Sicut iudaeis.

Sicut iudaeis and the Protection of Jews in the Middle Ages 

The papal bull Sicut iudaeis was issued for the first time by Pope Calixtus II (1119- 1124). It is considered as a document which granted protection to Jews. Actually it is a document which preserved a status quo in attitudes towards Jews on a lower level than their original legal status during the late Roman Empire. The process of constant deterioration was due to the emergence of Christianity as official religion[4]. A somewhat benevolent attitude emerged from a circular letter of 1063 sent by Pope Alexander II (1061- 1073) to the bishops in Spain[5]. Here are some highlights: “You have protected the Jews who live among you, that they should not be destroyed by those who went against the Saracens in Spain. Inspired by stupid ignorance or perhaps out of blind cupidity, they wanted to kill them in their rage, though divine piety might have predestined them to salvation; for since the loss of their freedom and fatherland they live dispersed in all parts of the world, condemned to lasting penance for the crime of their fathers in the effusion of the Saviour’s blood. There is a difference between the case of the Jews and that of the Saracens. It is just to fight those who persecute Christians, while these people [Jews] are ready to live in servitude”.   In spite of papal admonition, crusaders committed severe atrocities to Jewish communities on their way to the first crusade. The text of the original Sicut Iudaeis is preserved in the Bulla of Alexander III (1159 - 1181) of 1179. Here are the main points: granting papal protection, no compulsory baptism, prohibition to kill or hurt Jews without trial, or to take their money or property. No one should disturb their cult or coerce them into slavery.  Whoever would infringe this decree would lose his position and retinue or may be excommunicated, unless he apologise and correct his transgression[6].  The penal clause for Christians who harmed Jews was rather weak. This text became the standard text for protecting Jews, to be repeated by almost all popes in the Middle Ages throughout the 13th and 14th century on the occasion of the inauguration procession on their way to take possession of their throne in San Giovanni in Lateran. This text became ritualised routine which devalued somehow its content. In some letters of Innocent we are witnessing bigger hostility towards Jews.  

Innocent III and the Jews in His Letters

Innocent threatened in 1205 to excommunicate the Count of Nevers if he continued to protect the Jews. Here are some highlights from his letter[7]: "The Jews, like the fratricide Cain, are doomed to wander through the earth as fugitives and vagabonds, and their faces must be covered with shame. They are under no circumstances to be protected, but are to be condemned to serfdom. It is discreditable for Christian princes to receive Jews into their towns and villages, and to employ them as usurers in order to extort money from Christians. The princes arrest Christians who are indebted to Jews, and Jews are taking Christian castles and villages in pledge; the Church in this manner loses its tithes. Grapes are pressed by Jews according to Jewish religious precepts. It is a still greater sin that this wine should be used in the Church for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.” Believing that the spread of the heretical sects in southern France was due to Jewish influence, Innocent aimed to humiliate the Jews so that Christians should shrink from associating with them. But there are more letters like this. In his letter to the King of France Philippe II Augustus of the same year, Innocent III referred to rumors about a poor Christian student whose corpse was found dead in a latrine at a Jewish home[8]. He included this story in order to insinuate how dangerous it might be for Christians to be hosted by blood-thirsty Jews within his effort to isolate the Jews from society. He stressed how Jews are insulting Christians by mocking the crucified Jesus, an attitude which existed indeed, as both sides were deeply engaged in polemics against each other. Innocent was one of the few popes who took the common accusation of ritual murder as a fact, whereas most of the popes condemned such rumors, knowing which violent waves against Jews were caused by them. He reprimanded the French king for allowing the Jews to possess land property and employ Christian servants and nurses. In this hostile spirit towards Jews, the canons of the 4th Lateran Council were drafted by Innocent and also accepted by its participants. 

4th Lateran Council and the Jews

Among the 70 canons there are 4 concerning the Jews. They are the last canons, from no. 67 to 70. In Canon 67 the Jews should be compelled to pay tithes and offerings of churches which the Christians had supplied before their property was lost to Jews[9].  In Canon 68 the Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province must be distinguished from the Christians through different dress.[10]  This is not much a novelty in this canon, which is regarded as the most far-reaching decision of the council in discriminating Jews. In 1227 the Synod of Narbonne ruled in canon 3 that Jews may be distinguished through an oval badge, the measure of one finger in width and one half a palm in height worn on their garments in the center of the breast. In Canon 69 the Jews are not to be given public offices. Anyone instrumental in doing this is to be punished. A Jewish official is to be denied contact with Christians[11]. In Canon 70 the Jews who have received baptism should be kept from returning to their former faith by the prelates.[12]  How should we evaluate Sicut Iudaeis against these canons?  Some scholars assumed that Sicut Iudaeis reflects not so much the idea of protecting Jews, but rather the desire to draw parity with secular rulers, who regulated their relations with Jews as their serfs (servi camerae).  According to the historian Shlomo Simonsohn, the Roman Jews and the popes maintained a special relationship; that relationship helped the Roman Jewish community to persist virtually intact throughout the Middle Ages, while other communities in Europe were persecuted. The real troubles of Roman Jewry began during the Renaissance and mainly after the Council of Trento. In its essence the Sicut was a contractual document, in which the pope promised protection and the Jews lent him their financial support and promised to be subservient to his rule as the lord of Rome. In that context, the decree of Sicut Iudaeis gained significance as a component of the pope’s expression of temporal and spiritual power over all papal territories. From the theological point of view, these canons reflected a continuity, because their content appeared in previous Lateran councils or in documents which Innocent wrote during his papal tenure. It was no other than Innocent III himself who severed measures in order to discriminate and isolate Jews more than theologically necessary. His way of interpreting the attitudes towards Jews guided many popes who succeeded him. Another question is whether his directives were followed strictly by the bishops. We have reason to believe that directives were sometimes ignored, but sometimes even more severely interpreted, as done by the Synod in Narbonne in 1227. Without trying to excuse Innocent’s motives against Jews, the attitudes towards Jews was not only due to the existing ecclesiastical teachings of contempt, but also to the changes in European society. The growth of cities, the turn to financial economics and the emergence of a new middle class, marginalised the Jews as the traditional city dwellers. They lost their monopoly on money lending the more Christian turned to this trade and became competitors. It was up to the Franciscan theologian Peter John Olivi to question the scholastic prohibition of usury and open up new ethical venues for profitable money lending. But at this point Jews could not be competitors in England or France any more, as they were already expelled from those countries. The endemic conflict between Church and secular rulers throughout the 12th and 13th centuries preoccupied theologians and canonists. A fallout of this conflict was the deterioration of ecclesiastical attitudes towards Jews. Through his relations with the Jews the pope could prove time and again that he is a par to other secular rulers.  Innocent III had a major role in this unfortunate process, which ostracised and marginalised Jews for centuries in Europe- because his motives were twofold: theological and political alike. 

Part Two - The 2nd Vatican Council, 1965

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881- 1958) becomes Pope John XXIII (1958 -1963) and the Political Climate of His Age

Angelo Roncalli was by 40 Years older than Lothario di Segni when he was elected pope. His papal tenure was shorter – almost five years. He was born near Bergamo to a peasant family. His ecclesiastical career was performed mainly as apostolic delegate to Bulgaria, to Turkey and Greece during the Nazi era and as Nuncios in France. He was engaged in rescuing Jews from Nazi atrocities. It is told that his nomination to Paris after the liberation from German conquest in 1944 was initiated upon a request of General de Gaulle. The General asked the Holy See to man its representation in Paris urgently before the Soviet ambassador may become the dean of the diplomatic chorus on the banks of the Seine. This is a reminder that the Cold War began before the end of the Second World War. After the death of Pius XII in 1958, Roncalli was elected in October after 11 ballots to be the new pope, taking the name of John XXIII.  Since the Council of Trent in 1545, it took more than 300 years to convene an ecumenical council again - the First Vatican Council in 1869. Since then the Papal State was decimated substantially.

The Second Vatican Council, 1962- 1965

To the general surprise, John XXIII announced already after 3 months of  becoming pope his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council. He is quoted as saying that it was time to open the window of the Church to let in some fresh air. On 11th of October 1962 the Council was opened by John XXIII and closed on 8th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI. Whereas the First Vatican Council dealt with intra- ecclesiastical issues, such as the dogma of infallibility and how to cope with rationalism, liberalism and materialism, the Second Vatican Council aimed also at extra-ecclesiastical affairs, such as the Church in the modern world and its relations with other religions. During three years of Council it was attended by 2625 church dignitaries. 

Church Relations with the Jews After the Shoa and Before 1958

In order to get the right perspective of the changes in attitudes towards Judaism, it is essential to know that right after the Shoa there were at least two attempts to suggest to Pope Pius XII to publish a special declaration condemning Anti-Semitism. The first attempt was by the French Ambassador to the Vatican, Jacques Maritain in 1946 and the second by the Jewish-French historian Jules Isaac in 1949.  Both attempts failed as the Pope had no interest to come out with a special declaration on Anti-Semitism. He rejected any insinuation of Christian guilt in the fatal impact of hatred against Jews. This attitude was opposed to the Teaching of contempt[13] which summarised Jules Isaacs’s studies on the Christian roots of Anti- Judaism and Anti-Semitism. Isaac expressed his findings already in 1947 in the Ten Points of Seelisberg. Here are some essential points: Jesus and his apostles were Jews and acted as Jews. The God of the New Testament is the same as of the Old Testament. To love God and one's neighbor, proclaimed already in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, is binding upon both Christians and Jews in all human relationships. Do not distort biblical or post-biblical Judaism with the aim of praising Christianity. Do not use the term Jews in the exclusive sense as the enemies of Jesus. Do not present the Passion in such a way as to bring the odium of the killing of Jesus upon all Jews or upon Jews alone. Do not promote the superstitious notion that the Jewish people are reprobate, accursed and reserved for a destiny of suffering. These points gained importance, because they were submitted by Jules Isaac to John XXIII in an audience in Castel Gandolfo on 13th of June 1960. Before the two persons met, John XXIII already delivered one surprise. On the occasion of presiding at his first Good Friday liturgy as a pope he deleted from the Missale text of 1570 the term perfidis (= for the faithless Jews), so that pro iudaeis remained. He also deleted judaicam perfidiam (= perfidious Jews) and inserted instead judeos. As Hubert Wolf has shown[14], it was not the first attempt to change the Good Friday prayer concerning the Jews during the 20th century, but the previous one failed in the curia in 1928. During the audience, Jules Isaac requested to constitute a papal committee to study the quaestione ebraica in order to purify Christianity from the teaching of contempt which is anti- Christian and to restore the biblically Christian teaching. John XXIII replied: “I thought of that from the beginning of our meeting. You have reason to have more than hope”. Roncalli referred Isaac to Cardinal Bea, who was just nominated as president of the newly established Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Only in November 1960 in its first plenary meeting were the members of the committee informed about its papal mandate to deal also with the Catholic-Jewish relations sub secreto.  It seems that due to the intervention of the 81-year-old Jules Isaac and the good will of the 79-years-old Pope John XXIII that Jews were discreetly put on the agenda of the coming council. Both personalities did not see the outcome of their efforts, as both passed away in 1963, two years before Nostra Aetate was declared. 

The Second Vatican Council and the Jews – the Long Road Toward Nostra Aetate

The Jewish file was kept sub secreto because John XXIII knew that within the curia, within the oriental churches, where one had to learn how to survive as Christian minority among Muslim majority, and not the least within Arab countries themselves, any favourable measure towards Jews would be faced with fierce opposition. A subcommittee drafted a proposal for the document on Jews which was submitted in June 1962 to the Central Preparation Committee in spite of Arab protests. The protests expressed Arab fears that the Vatican intended to recognise the state of Israel and that the Church would lend Judaism a preferential status over Islam in the dialog. Unfortunately, in the same month Nahum Goldman, the President of the World Jewish Council (WJC), announced that Haim Vardi, an official of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, would be sent as an observer of the WJC to the 2nd Vatican Council. This move increased the suspicions raised by Arab officials and Catholic dignitaries from the Oriental churches. The preparatory committee decided therefore to remove the draft proposal on Jews from the agenda of the Council, which was opened on the 12th of October 1962. It was Cardinal Bea who convinced John XXIII to express his will to reshape the relations with the Jews in a letter to the Council fathers. Supported by this letter, Cardinal Bea succeeded in securing the 4th chapter in the official draft (Schema) on Ecumenism for the Jewish declaration.  Critical voices from the traditionalists accompanied the deliberations in the Council, claiming that the Jewish issue is alien to the idea of Ecumenism which is an intra-church matter, and thus should be removed from the agenda. The oriental Catholics demanded the removal as well and claimed that if the Jewish question is addressed in a declaration, all non-Christian religions should be addressed as well. The Secretariat of Church Unity resented this idea for a long time, since it lacked expertise on other religions. Facing such a dissent in the Council, the Secretariat of the Council delayed any debates on the Jewish issue in December 1963, referring them to a later session, and downgraded the proposed text to an annex of the ecumenist declaration. In the meantime, the new Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land. In the summer of 1964 the draft proposal of Bea’s Unity Committee had been rewritten, in order to meet the demands of the several critics. This third draft caused an even larger dissent when the supporters of a rapprochement with Jews claimed that the new draft strengthened the claim of Jewish collective guilt for deicide and that it watered down the rejection of substitution theology. An amended draft which took the pro-Jewish claims into account again caused a harsh protest from the Arab side and the traditionalists. At the end, Paul VI lent his support to a separate declaration about Church relations to non-Christian religions which also included a text on Jews. The draft proposal was approved by the Council fathers with an overwhelming majority on the 20th November 1964. In the following year the adversaries to a Jewish text fought a long battle of retreat. A chapter on Islam was added consequently, in order to satisfy Arabs claims. All in all, the Vatican, being backed by the Council fathers, withstood the political pressure. The final vote produced an overwhelming majority of 2221 yes to 88 no. On the 28th October the declaration was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI.               

Text and Significance of Chapter 4 in Nostra Aetate

The final text and its placing are the result of long continuous debates, whose motives were probably more political than theological. At the end, the theological considerations gained the upper hand.  I will refrain from reading the full text, although the whole Nostra aetate is with its 41 sentences the shortest statement of the Council. Of these 41, the Jewish text in chapter 4 is the longest – it is made up of 17 sentences. I would like to focus my attention on the most significant points for Jewish concern, most of them have incorporated the spirit of the Seelisberg Points in one way or another.         

1.   Divine Alliance with Jews is valid and was not substituted:  God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes.

2.  Implied delay of the Conversion of Jews to the end of days:  The Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord.    

3.  Parameters of dialoging with Jews: Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

4.  Jews are not guilty of deicide: what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.

5. Rejection of the teaching of contempt:  Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. In catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.      

6 .Rejection of Anti-Semitism:  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.

It speaks for the Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac that their ideas were implemented at the Council by others after they had passed away. The change of hearts in the Catholic Church was due to the spiritual crisis which the essential Christian European civilisation has experienced while it was not able to avoid Nazi atrocities. Without Nostra aetate the dialog with Jews would be unthinkable. It removed anxieties on both sides and paved the ground for building up mutual confidence. I would like to end my discourse with an example of mutual trust. It is said of Martin Buber that within an interfaith meeting he remarked that both Jews and Christians are waiting for the Messiah. For the Christians he already came once. For the Jews he has not come yet. Buber suggested to his Christian friends that both of them will wait together. Buber requested that when and if the Messiah will come, no one will ask him whether he came for the first or for the second time.

Editorische Anmerkungen

Mordechay Lewy is Ambassador ret. of Israel to the Holy See