Subterfuge required to start discussion on Jews, liberty

June 3, 2013

The draft version of the Decree on Ecumenism presented to the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in November 1963 had two chapters that never made it into the final version of the document.

Indeed, it would seem that there was never any intention that the chapters on the Jewish people and on religious liberty be approved as part of the ecumenism decree. Their appearance in the decree in 1963 was mostly a matter of internal Church politics.

A statement on the Jews had been prepared prior to the opening of the council, but was set aside because of fears that Arab nations would see any positive statement about the Jews as an intervention in the complex politics of the Middle East.

This was not an idle fear. The Catholic hierarchy in the Middle East were most concerned about the fallout for Christians in the region if the Church were seen as taking the side of Israel.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Augustin Bea, head of the Vatican’s Christian Unity Secretariat, felt it was imperative that the Church not ignore the Holocaust, which was still a very recent memory, and acknowledge the role of Christian anti-Semitism in giving rise to the persecution of Jews.

Also needed, in Bea’s view, was a clear Church statement rejecting any idea that the Jewish people were and are collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

However, there was resistance. More than a few prelates had not rejected the claim of Jewish deicide and also maintained that Catholics must work for the conversion of Jews, who were seen as adherents to a religion that was incomplete because it did not acknowledge Jesus as the messiah.

Pope John Paul II greets Rabbi Elio Toaff at Rome's main synagogue April 13 1986. The meeting marked the beginning of a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. It was the first time a pope had entered the Rome Synagogue.


Pope John Paul II greets Rabbi Elio Toaff at Rome's main synagogue April 13 1986. The meeting marked the beginning of a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. It was the first time a pope had entered the Rome Synagogue.

If the statement on the Jews were a stand-alone document it would be sent to the council’s Doctrinal Commission, headed by the indefatigable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, which would almost certainly find reasons to squelch it.

So, the proponents of the statement on Jews added it to the Decree on Ecumenism, which had to pass through Bea’s Christian Unity Secretariat, as a way of getting it discussed on the floor of the council.

The story of the chapter on religious liberty is similar, although more complex.

In 1864, Pope Pius IX had published the Syllabus of Errors whose goal it was “to exterminate evil opinions” that had arisen in the modern era. Seven of the 80 “evil opinions” in need of extermination had to do with religious liberty. The Church, it was argued, had a clear and inviolable teaching on the matter.

However, Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), had argued that respect for religious liberty is a matter of human dignity and “has always been desired by the Church.” Pope Paul VI underlined that view in his talk opening the council’s second session in September 1963.

Complicating the matter further was the opposition of the Spanish and especially Latin American bishops, who were even then being vexed by an influx of American evangelicals. Some Latin American governments had denied Protestants the right to their own churches and schools.


The statement on religious liberty that had been prepared for the council was deemed as being of poor quality by the American John Courtney Murray, the foremost exponent of the matter. But even Murray wanted the schema brought to the council where it could be debated and revised.

However, the religious liberty statement kept disappearing into a black hole at the Doctrinal Commission from which first Bea and then the American bishops had to rescue it.

It was on this issue that the American bishops made their clearest mark on the council, pushing strongly for a document on religious liberty. It eventually took New York Cardinal Francis Spellman who had an audience with Pope Paul who then ordered Ottaviani to convene the Doctrinal Commission and send the document to the council fathers.

Finally, on Nov. 19, chapters four and five were introduced to the council fathers – the section on the Jews by Bea and the chapter on religious liberty by the Belgian Bishop Joseph De Smedt. De Smedt successfully convinced many of the bishops that a declaration in favour of religious liberty did not represent a break with past teaching, properly understood.


Those two chapters were never discussed at Vatican II as part of the Decree on Ecumenism. In the nine months between the second and third sessions of the council, they were carved off and became separate documents.

The document on the Jewish people was expanded to include all non-Christian religions. The statement on religious liberty still had to undergo many vicissitudes and much controversy before the fathers finally approved it the day before the conclusion of Vatican II in 1965. The final product, Pope Paul stated, was “one of the greatest documents of the council.”