Review of John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Gene Zubovich
It may seem strange that a nearly four-hundred page book would be dedicated to fifteen sentences of the proclamation Nostra Aetate, a Vatican II document of 1965 dealing with the relationship between Catholics and other religions. But the subject matter is by no means small: these paragraphs changed the official Catholic teaching on the Jews that had prevailed for 1,700 years. Indeed, John Connelly does not shy away from the word “revolution” in the title of his book, From Enemy To Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965.
Connelly, an historian of East-Central Europe whose first book dealt with the transformation of higher education under Stalinism in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, began this research a decade ago, setting out to find Catholic resistance to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews during the 1930s. Much to his surprise he found Catholic critiques of antisemitism largely absent. When appeals on behalf of the Jews did appear they lacked a concrete moral language and were full of anti-Judaic assumptions. Catholics, particularly German-speaking Catholics, were part of an intellectual tradition that could not accept Jews as anything other than a cursed people who were destined to suffer for their historical rejection of Jesus.
Connelly does not claim that Catholics didn’t help Jews during the 1930s and 1940s, but he does argue that those who helped Jews most—like women’s groups—were farthest removed from theological disputes (42). It was the theological absence, the lack of clear statements by bishops or the Vatican, that Connelly sees as the church’s biggest failure.
What, then, happened between the 1930s and the Vatican II proclamation of 1965 that declared the Jews to be the “older brothers” of Christians who ought not be converted to Christianity? Connelly argues that the roots of the proclamation came from a small group of Catholics in 1930s Vienna who were concerned with the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  Vienna proved to be a fertile ground for men like Karl Thieme and Johannes Oesterreicher, who formulated a specifically Catholic argument against antisemitism. Thieme, Oesterreicher, and nearly all of the other anti-racist activists in their circle were converts to Catholicism from Judaism and Protestantism. They eschewed nationalisms and freely moved about from place to place without a feeling of rootedness. Without such border-crossers, as Connelly calls them, Catholicism could not have found a new language to speak about the Jews. Without them, he argues, “the Catholic Church would never have ‘thought its way’ out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism” (287).
Connelly’s early chapters discuss the prevalence of antisemitism within the Catholic Church during the first half of the twentieth century. He points to German-speaking lands as particularly prone to racist assumptions. The border-crossers of Vienna had to contend with a German-language theological tradition in which words—like “Volk” and “Erbsünde” (“inherited sin” instead of “original sin”)—trapped theologians in a biological and racial understanding of theological problems. The chief task of the border-crossers was to root a critique of antisemitism in Catholic theology and to provoke Catholic officials to speak clearly on behalf of the Jews.
At the moral and intellectual center of the battle against racist acquiescence to Nazi policy was an Austro-Jewish convert named John (“Johannes” prior to 1940) Oesterreicher, who became the primary architect of the Vatican II statement on the Jews. Here the book approximates a bildungsroman, as we follow Oesterreicher’s (and by extension the Catholic Church’s) intellectual and spiritual growth. We witness his quixotic attempt to get Pious XII to speak out clearly on behalf of the Jews during the late 1930s (he asked the Pope to free Catholic soldiers from their oath to Hitler) and his desperate attempt to formulate a Catholic anti-racist theology based on the sparse statements of past popes and councils. He broadcast sermons into Nazi territory that referred to Hitler as the anti-Christ and called on Germans to oppose the Nazi “enemies of the Lord” (161). All the while he continued to believe that the Jews were a people destined to suffer until they turned to Christ. In fact Oesterreicher continued his missionary activities to the Jews until he narrowly escaped arrest and near-certain death by boarding a ship to New York City in 1940.
His parents were not so lucky. His father died in a concentration camp, “thank God, of pneumonia,” he wrote to a friend. “My poor mother, however, was taken to Poland; I need not tell you what that implies” (232-3). This profound personal loss moved Oesterreicher to search for new ways to talk to and about Jews, but the basic missionary impulse remained. Six months after he arrived in the US, Oesterreicher was preaching in New York City and began missionary work amongst New York Jews. Many of the harsh words like “curse” “deicide” and “enemies of God” that had been used by Catholics, including Oesterreicher, in the prior decades disappeared from Catholic discourse during the 1940s and 1950s along with much of the racist antisemitism, but the missionary impulse and anti-Judaism remained intact.
During these years little was said by Catholic theologians on Christian-Jewish relations. The few statements that were made came mainly out of interfaith conferences organized by the American occupation forces and were based on the model of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. For the first time, at least in the twentieth century, Catholic and Jewish leaders in Europe began talking to one another. And it would be through dialogue with Jews that men like Oesterreicher would change their views. His friend and sparring partner Karl Thieme, for example, would ultimately call for an end to a mission to the Jews after a Jewish author pointed out the antisemitic language he had used his book published in the 1930s (198). But these conversations had limited impact on the Church at the time—those who engaged in conversations with Jews did so despite Vatican warnings against interfaith conferences.
Behind the indifference of the Catholic Church toward relations with the Jews was a subtle shift that is described by Connelly but needs further elaboration. Catholics became less likely to read worldly events as providential, demanding acquiescence to God’s work. They did not want to say that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the Jews. Instead, “a new way of reading the signs of the times” meant “rejecting as presumptuous the idea that any human can know whether and how God might punish humanity” (173). How this change came about is solely attributed to the Holocaust but there were certainly other developments that helped propel this momentous change, which seems underemphasized in this book. The earlier reading of events was a major theological presupposition of those (including Oesterreicher) who believed that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was part of a curse resulting from deicide. After the Holocaust, Catholics came to see worldly events as something that required ethical action.
But things were slow to change. Oesterreicher founded an institute at Seton Hall University that he described as “missionary” in 1953. Yet, somehow, his attitude began to shift in ways he would never fully acknowledge. By the late 1950s he began describing his work at Seton Hall as “ecumenical” and began turning away entreaties from missionaries interested in working with Jews. He came to emphasize—based on a passage from Romans 9 through 11—that missionary efforts ought to be directed at Catholics themselves and that the eschatological expectations of Jewish conversion en masse would remain mysterious and uncertain. Based on these passages of St. Paul’s writings, as well as the thinking of his Austrian cohort, Oesterreicher found new ways to talk about Jews as “older brothers,” words that would find their way into the Vatican II statement on the Jews.
The book concludes with the developments of Vatican II. Connelly makes clear that the new statement was by no means inevitable. In fact, he argues, the theological implications of De Judaeis (the statement on the Jews) went further than many of the bishops who voted for it were comfortable with. Early drafts of the proclamation had absolved Jews of ancient charges of deicide and spoke of the Jews as clearly loved by God. This new way of talking about the Jews was opposed by some Catholic leaders but also by several Arab states in the Middle East. Catholic bishops working in Muslim lands worried about repercussions of the statement. Indeed, the Syrian and Jordanian governments protested against the absolution of Jewish guilt for Christ’s crucifixion (250). The conservative Roman Curia, the theological center of Catholicism, shortened the draft to exclude any mention of deicide and expressed hope that Jews would one day join the church. But reports of the early draft had already been leaked to the press and the ensuing controversy, including a statement by Holocaust-survivor Rabbi Abraham Heschel that he would prefer Auschwitz over conversion, meant that backtracking would be impossible without severe humiliation. In the end the statement lacked any mention of the Holocaust or the Church’s own responsibility for antisemitism. But the refutation of the deicide charge was reinstated and the statement spoke in positive language that God continued to love the Jews. Many contemporary observers complained that the statement was mild and should have been made long ago. But Connelly is persuasive in showing what a major departure this was from just decades earlier.
Specialists in American intellectual history will note that liberalism plays no role in the story told in From Enemy To Brother. The United States is one of the settings for Connelly’s story and he notes the more tolerant atmosphere of US Catholicism in comparison with that of Europe. But the roots of the Vatican II proclamation on the Jews are found in an Austro-fascist context, where many of the protagonists adopted a form of personalism that had much in common with fascist corporatism. Connelly stresses that the conditions of Austria were ripe in creating border-crossers and that there were advantages to thinking through specifically Catholic arguments in that context. But all this begs the question: why did American Catholics and Protestants, who began talking to Jews well before their Europeans counterparts, not develop a more accommodating theology?
The United States, after all, had a strong tradition of religious tolerance that expressed itself in the “tri-faith” or “Judeo-Christian” concepts. And individual figures developed promising ideas about the Jews earlier than in the European context. Reinhold Niebuhr, a major theologian during the middle of the twentieth century, is a particularly good example of someone arising out of the liberal tradition and developing positive attitudes towards Jews. As late as 1923 Niebuhr had argued for a mission to the Jews but just three years later he changed his mind in an article that praised Jews for their ethics and theological tradition. In the same article he sounded like a modern-day pluralist when he disavowed the need for Jews to convert and encouraged Jews to perpetuate their own communities. This would later lead Niebuhr to become one of the first and most prominent religious figures to sound warnings about Nazi treatment of the Jews and to urge government aid. He would also become a life-long supporter of Zionism.
Niebuhr’s thought on the Jews was largely ignored by his peers, much like Oesterreicher’s, and it was not until Vatican II that Protestant denominations would reconsider their positions on Jewish conversion. Indeed the story of Protestant inaction on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust parallels the Catholic one. In the US the leading Protestant journal The Christian Century expressed skepticism toward atrocity stories. The Federal Council of Churches, the united voice of ecumenical Protestantism, sponsored a Day of Compassion in 1942 but it ended in embarrassment because of low participation and general indifference. Moreover, Niebuhr himself did not fully develop his thoughts on the Jews until the 1960s and 1970s, largely in response to Vatican II.
As it turns out, many of the critiques of racism and antisemitism produced by Protestants and Catholics during the mid-century were more often rooted in political liberalism than in theology. Leading protestants often spoke confidently, prior to the 1960s, as spokesmen for the American liberal tradition and they saw little need to tackle issues of pluralism from a theological standpoint. American Catholics had a more tentative relationship with American liberalism prior to Vatican II. But figures like John Courtney Murray were working in the 1940s and 1950s to reconcile the two. And when American Catholics spoke out on behalf of Jews, as they did in the wake of Kristallnacht, they usually spoke the language of political liberalism.
Perhaps recourse to political liberalism created an atmosphere in which difficult theological issues could be avoided. Why bother reconciling the book of John with Romans when you could appeal to the Bill of Rights or the principle of equality of all peoples? Connelly, however, makes it clear that there is a special relationship between Catholics and Jews that could not be done away with through appeals to universal equality (248). One simply could not simultaneously affirm equality of all peoples while believing that Jews lived under a curse.
From Enemy to Brother should become required reading for historians interested in modern religion, cosmopolitanism, and pluralism. The book provokes difficult questions about the American liberal tradition and its relationship to religion. How did American theologians reconcile the affirmation of universal equality with the kinds of theological problems described by Connelly? Were the kinds of arguments against antisemitism produced by American theologians who affirmed the notions of “Tri-Faith” or “Judeo-Christian” America less tenable and convincing than those produced by Oesterreicher and other border-crossers? Did Protestants coexist as easily with the American liberal tradition as they believed they did?
From Enemy to Brother is a powerful and moving account of the origins and passage of the 1965 statement on the Jews that changed centuries of official Catholic teaching. It is a book that pushes historians to explore new avenues in intellectual and religious history. For specialists in American intellectual history in particular Connelly’s book raises important questions and opens up new subject matter for discussion.
 On the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism, a distinction Connelly uses but does not fully accept, see George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003)
 Connelly acknowledges the scholarship on French Catholic thought on the Jews and discusses the work of Leon Bloy and Jacques Maritain. He contends, however, that the German-language Catholic group went further than the French, since the latter group never moved beyond its anti-Judaic assumptions. He further argues that the German-language thought is more relevant to the discussion of Vatican II
? At the time “inter-faith” was the most common way to describe relations between Christians and Jews, which implied a much clearer separation than “ecumenical”. On the notion of “interfaith” see Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Postwar Catholics and Jews Held America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
? Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Schultz, Tri-Faith America. William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
?[ 4] On the Day of Compassion, see Marty, Modern American Religion, Volume 3, pp. 61-62. On Protestant indifference toward Jewish suffering see Robert W. Ross, So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews; also David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust. The major exceptions were the historical Peace Churches (Quakers, Brethren, etc.) and the Unitarian Church.
? On Niebuhr as a product of the liberal theological tradition see Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985) and Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2008); see also Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism and Modernity, 1900-1950 (New York: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
?  On the interrelationship between political and theological liberalism see Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, ed., American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012).
? John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, ed. Maria Mazzenga (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Gene Zubovich is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is completing his dissertation on Protestant social thought during the 1940s.