Reflections on Anti-Semitism and the Church

 Cardinal William H. Keeler 

June 6, 2004


Cardinal Keeler is the Archbishop of Baltimore and the Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This address was delivered at a Jewish-Catholic dialogue sponsored by the Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishop in Salvador, Brazil.


The Church and Anti-Semitism

The first half of the 20th Century was arguably the most violent and tragic period in human history.  Two World Wars devastated much of the globe. Advances in technology enabled totalitarian regimes to destroy entire populations.  Indeed, a new vocabulary with words such as "genocide" and "Holocaust" had to be developed to describe the horrors visited on whole peoples in so many parts of the world.

The second half of the 20th Century saw new beginnings and renewed hopes as new nations arose and democratic principles began to spread to lands long suffering under oppression.  Among Christians, the ecumenical movement articulated the deep longing for unity.  Between Christians and people of other religions, dialogue began to replace disputation, a quest whose spirit was embodied in the gathering at Assisi in 1986 of the leaders of the world's great religions to pray for reconciliation and peace.  Similarly, the prayerful visit of Pope John Paul II to the Great Synagogue of Rome earlier in the same year vividly exemplified the Church's attitude of respect for the Jewish People and for Judaism, as did his Liturgy of Repentance in St. Peter’s in Rome and his subsequent visit to Yad va Shem and the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem in 2000.

For Catholics, the impetus for involvement in these movements of the Spirit came chiefly from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, which condemned both anti-Semitism and Christian theological polemics, and called for "fraternal dialogues" with Jews.[1]   The Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was established after the Council to implement this vision, and has issued three major statements.  Also, it has co-sponsored a series of international dialogues with representatives of the Jewish people.[2] 

At the same time, episcopal conferences around the world have issued statements and guidelines to foster understanding of Jews and Judaism among Catholics.  Central in all of these official Catholic reflections, including Nostra Aetate, as the 1985 Notes affirmed, has been the necessity to preserve "the memory of the persecution and massacre of Jews which took place in Europe just before and during the Second World War."

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called upon Catholics "to see where we stand" in our historic relationship with the Jewish People.[3] In doing so, we must remember how much the balance (of these relations) over two thousand years has been negative.[4]  This very long period, "which we must not tire of reflecting upon in order to draw from it the appropriate lessons,"[5] has been marked by many manifestations of anti-Semitism and, in the last century, by the terrible events of the Shoah.[6]  In meeting with Jewish leaders at the beginning of his September 1987 pastoral visit to the United States, the Pope referred to the Shoah and called for the development of "common educational programs" to "promote mutual respect and teach future generations about the Holocaust so that never again will such a horror be possible.  Never again!"[7] 

There is no future without memory."[8]  Memory and memories are crucial for understanding Jewish-Christian relationships in the past and for the future.  They need to be approached with great sensitivity and care for the truth, which is often complex and ambiguous.  How did European civilization, largely Christian for so many centuries, reach the point where there could emerge and prevail such a profoundly un-Christian and, indeed, anti-Christian idea as dividing the one human race, into groups perceived as subhuman?  “Anti-Christian” I say, because of the Christian teaching that every man and woman is infinitely precious as made in “the image of God.”  And then slate those groups for elimination as though they were less than human?  Why the fanatical focus on the Jews?  Why was the opposition of civil, intellectual and religious leaders so ineffectual? Why did the rest of the world look on and, with very few exceptions, refuse life-saving refuge? Why did the genocidal hatred against God's People, the Jews, emerge in the 20th Century and not before in medieval times when the Church had more political power? 

These and many other questions are raised by the history of the past centuries.  They still concern us today.  They concern the whole of humanity.  They concern the Church.  It is greatly encouraging to note, in this context, the development of so many centers and institutions of Christian-Jewish studies, many connected to Catholic universities, both in Europe and the United States.  These have joined to form the Council of Centers of Jewish-Christian Relations, which will enable them to share research and respond to new developments.[9]


The Relationship of Christian Teaching to the Development of Modern Racial Anti-Semitism

One of the reasons for the urgency of confronting the Shoah in Catholic thinking today lies in the question of whether there exists a relationship between the modern racial anti-Semitism propounded by National Socialism in the 1920's and '30's, and the negative images of Jews and Judaism that had encrusted themselves on Christian teaching itself over the centuries.  And if there is a relationship, we ask, how ought it to be understood?  And how do we inoculate future generations of Catholics against its reemergence?

The great French Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, was one of the first to study this issue in a systematic way, beginning his studies even as he hid from the Nazis during World War II.[10]  His work showed that very early in the history of the Church passages of the New Testament originally written in the context of what was then an internal Jewish controversy between the Evangelists, who were Jewish, and other Jewish leaders, were taken out of that context by gentile Christians of subsequent generations, embroidered with already existing Greco-Roman anti-Jewish rhetoric, and then "read back" into the New Testament creating a systematic distortion that he aptly called "the teaching of contempt" against Jews and Judaism.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in introducing the 2001 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible asks the question:  "Did not the presentation of the Jews and of the Jewish people, in the New Testament itself, contribute to creating a hostility to this people which the ideology of those who wanted to suppress it has encouraged?"  This document and that of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (We Remember, 1998) candidly admit the historical link between the ancient and modern forms of anti-Semitism. The Biblical Commission states that many passages in the New Testament that are critical of the Jews "served as a pretext for anti-Jewish sentiment and, effectively, have been used for this purpose" (n. 87), while the latter acknowledges that "sentiments of anti-Judaism in some Christian quarters, and the gap which existed between the Church and the Jewish people, led to a generalized discrimination" towards the Jews over the centuries, in particular in Christian Europe.[11] 

Over the centuries the anti-Jewish teaching was refined, developed, and made ever more negative until, in the 20th Century, the majority of Christians in Europe had such a negative (and false!) understanding of Judaism and such a negative attitude toward Jews that they became easy prey for the Nazi racial categorizations that rationalized genocide.  Within Christianity, Pope John Paul II has noted, "erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relative to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people. That contributed to the lulling of many consciences, so that when Europe was swept by the wave of persecutions inspired by a pagan anti-Semitism that in its essence was equally anti-Christian, alongside those Christians who did everything to save those who were persecuted, even to the point of risking their own lives, the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity expected from Christ's disciples."[12]

It needs to be noted that this framing of the issue, while acknowledging fully the historical link between Christian anti-Judaism and Nazi anti-Semitism, also acknowledges the distinctions between them.  Distinctions are necessary for the historical record.  Christian anti-Judaism was not racial in character.  It adhered, for example, to the teaching of Genesis on the oneness of humanity in the divine image.[13]  It sought a vision of the Church itself in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile would be overcome by baptism.[14]  History, too, shows the difference.  Historian Yosef Yerushalmi asked why, if genocide had been latent in the Christian teaching of contempt, no such attempt was made in the Middle Ages when the Church held sufficient political power within "Christendom" to implement such an idea: "There is no question but that Christian anti-Semitism through the ages helped create the climate and mentality in which genocide, once conceived, could be achieved with little or no opposition.  But even if we grant that Christian teaching was a necessary cause leading to the Holocaust, it was surely not a sufficient one.  The Holocaust was the work of a thoroughly modern, neo-pagan (secularist) state. . .The slaughter of the Jews by the state was not part of the medieval Christian world order.  It became possible with the breakdown of that order."[15]

One of the great graces of my life was to attend the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  It seems like yesterday to me that Cardinal Augustin Bea rose, on November 19, 1963, to introduce what evolved into Nostra Aetate, telling us that Pope John XXIII wished the Council to make clear that Christian Scriptures and teachings should not be twisted to anti-Semitic ends, much less used as an excuse for violence against the Jewish people.[16]

It does not diminish the failures and sins of Christians on all levels in Church and society over the centuries to acknowledge the multiplicity of causes that lead to the unthinkable becoming reality in the 20th century.  Today we must, for the sake of future generations, confront all the causes that led to the Holocaust so that, in understanding them, we can effectively ensure nothing similar can ever occur again, whether to Jews or to other peoples.  It is vital to continue the work of the Second Vatican Council to reject and to eliminate from Catholic teaching anything that might be used to present the Jews "as repudiated by God or accursed, as if this followed from Sacred Scripture."[17]  As the pope has said:

For Christians the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance.  Through it we can overcome every form of anti-Semitism and establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Old Covenant.  The Church, mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the Gospels' spiritual love. . .deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source (Nostra Aetate n. 4).  Guilt should not oppress and lead to self-agonizing, but must always be the point of departure for conversion.”[18]

The failure and guilt of that time have a church dimension.  Despite the exemplary behavior of many Christian individuals and groups, most Christians kept on living their lives, in essence turning their back on the fate of their Jewish neighbors, looking fixedly at the threat to their own institutions, and remaining all too often silent.  Though the Shoah was conceived and carried out by a thoroughly "modern" neo-pagan regime, the classical teaching of contempt was a central factor in "lulling the consciences" of Christians, enabling them to remain appallingly indifferent to Jewish suffering, and even in generating popular support among many for the Nazi crimes.  Thus it happened that Jewish men, women and children were systematically put to death without the Christian community as a whole having raised a successful and effective opposition.

The fact that throughout history and during the Shoah many people in the Church, leaders as well as ordinary faithful, did speak up and act in defense of the Jews at the risk of their lives (for example, the convents and monasteries of Italy in which, in response to the personal leadership of Pope Pius XII, thousands of Jews were hidden during the Nazi occupation)[19], does not take away the guilt of those other Christians, leaders as well as ordinary faithful, who committed the sin of anti-Semitism by action or omission.[20]  God will judge them.


The “New” Anti-Semitism

Already in 1988, the Holy See’s Commission for Justice and Peace, in its document, The Church and Racism, noted that “anti-Zionism – which is not of the same order (as anti-Semitism), since it questions the State of Israel and its policies – serves at times as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it.”[21]  Old conspiracy theories and world domination fantasies are being given new life and are exploiting the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

In January of 2004 the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia completed a study, begun in 2002, of “Manifestations of Anti-Semitism in the European Union,” which concluded that while the ‘familiar’ threat by ‘ordinary’ right-wing anti-Semitism is obvious, left-wing, anti-globalization, Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups are backbones of contemporary anti-Semitism as well. 

At the same time, I do wish to note some cautions about the Middle East situation.  One is the fact that Christians living there, living in Israel and under the Palestinian authority, feel themselves under constant pressure.

As Father Drew Christiansen has pointed out, there has been a lack of : 

effective police involvement in protecting Christians and their holy sites in Nazareth and other places.  The lack of police action in Nazareth, whether in protecting Christians against attack or in preventing illegal construction, is a recurrent problem.  When the militants rioted a few years ago, attacking Christians, the police held back for three days before intervening in the fray.  Some time later the police commander for the northern region admitted he had been under orders not to get involved.  With repeated court orders and top government decisions to end the construction in Nazareth, it is hard to comprehend how the authorities could have permitted the protest site to become half completed—under such conditions, you can understand why the Christians of Galilee live in fear.

The vulnerability of Israel’s indigenous Christians is made apparent in the vulnerability of the holy places.  Just like the illegal construction in Nazareth, the occupation and siege. . . [some time] ago of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem revealed the pressures to which the Holy Land’s Christians are now exposed.  In both cases they found themselves and the holy places at the mercy of the worst of their neighbors, along with outside agitators.  Before the al-Aqsa intifada, there were some 50,000 Christians on the West Bank.  Today, as a result of emigration, there are fewer than 35,000.  The ambiguities in police protection, whether by the Palestinian Authority or the Israeli police, including the border police, is a source of grave concern for the future of the Church in the Holy Land.

Also, there is the issue of the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah. As Father Christiansen points out:

Patriarch Sabbah is a Palestinian National, but he is also a bishop with responsibilities after Vatican II—and I would add after World War II and the Holocaust—to speak out on issues of justice, peace and human rights.  When asked, he consults with police officials on some security matters.  With the Anglican and Lutheran bishops, both Palestinians, he has gone to Gaza to meet with Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas, to ask him to end suicide bombings.  He has met . . . with Israel’s chief rabbis, in an unprecedented move for a Middle East Christian leader, and he engages in regular bible study with rabbis and priests of the Patriarchate.  Because of this he is shunned, as I was alarmed to discover, by even moderate, secular academics of Muslim background.  . . .When he called for political leaders who could not bring peace to step aside, he once again was criticized by the Palestinian side.  But he is given no credit by Israel.  Instead he is scorned by an [Israeli] official with an important role in interreligious relations as ‘the Islamic Patriarch.’” The issues of fairness and of honest respect deserve to be raised in this context.  Anything that we can do to promote both fairness and honest respect among leaders will help to hasten the day of justice and peace in the land we call Holy."

There has indeed been a huge increase in anti-Semitic speech and incidents in Europe, the latter in the main attributed to young Arabs influenced by anti-Israel propaganda.  European governments, to their credit, are now taking the rise over the last three years quite seriously, though they did not seem to initially.  On April 28, 2004, over 500 representatives from the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe convened in Berlin to formulate an action plan to deal with the growing problem throughout Europe Secretary of State Colin Powell represented the U.S, acknowledging candidly that “regrettably, my own country has its share of anti-Semites, skinheads and other assorted racists, bigots and extremists, who feed on fear and ignorance and prey on the vulnerable.”

One very distressing feature of the new anti-Semitism is the use in Muslim countries of so much of the remnants of Christian anti-Semitism, such as the widespread distribution of translations of the thoroughly discredited classics, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Talmud Unmasked.  Similarly, in some parts of the Arab world, certain elements of the Gibson movie that derive from pre-Vatican II Passion Plays have been exploited for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda.   I would hope that the United Nations, which will hold its first-ever seminar on anti-Semitism on June 21, 2004, will confront the phenomenon not only its “old” but also its “new” form as well.

The Catholic Church takes the rise in anti-Semitism very seriously.  When, some three years ago, the situation appeared on the verge of getting out of hand in France, and the politicians were silent because it was an election year and they seemed unwilling to alienate French Muslim voters, the French Bishops Conference issued a terse, strongly worded statement condemning anti-Semitism that broke the logjam and allowed the politicians to find their own voices and actions.  Last fall, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, felt it necessary to publish in the October 1 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, an article he had written entitled “Anti-Semitism: a Wound to Be Healed.”  Cardinal Kasper reminded his readers to be ever-alert for signs of anti-Semitism and to probe its history and causes even within our own Christian teaching, in order to root it out once and for all. 

It is not only a question of the cultural, social, political or ideological, and in a more general way "secular", dimensions of anti-Semitism which must also be a cause of concern to us, but of a specific aspect of it that was firmly condemned in 1928 by the Apostolic See when it defined anti-Semitism as "odium adversus populum olim a Deo electum" (AAS XX/1928, pp. 103-104). Today, 75 years later, the only modification we feel duty bound to make is the elimination of the word "olim" ("once"):  this is no small thing, because in recognizing the perennial timeliness of the Covenant between God and his people, Israel, we in turn will be able to rediscover, with our Jewish brethren, the irrevocable universality of the vocation to serve humanity in peace and in justice, until the definitive coming of his kingdom. This is what the Pontiff also recommends to us in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa of last 28 June, recalling the ‘relationship which binds the Church to the Jewish people and of Israel's unique role in salvation history’ (n. 56). Pope John Paul II continues, observing that ‘there is need for acknowledgment of the common roots linking Christianity and the Jewish people, who are called by God to a covenant which remains irrevocable (cf. Rom 11: 29) and has attained definitive fullness in Christ. Consequently, it is necessary to encourage dialogue with Judaism, knowing that it is fundamentally important for the self-knowledge of Christians and for the transcending of divisions between the Churches’ (ibid.). Dialogue and collaboration between Christians and Jews ‘also implies that ‘acknowledgment be given to any part which the children of the Church have had in the growth and spread of anti-Semitism in history; forgiveness must be sought for this from God, and every effort must be made to favor encounters of reconciliation and of friendship with the sons of Israel' (ibid.). In this spirit of rediscovered brotherhood a new springtime for the Church and for the world can bloom once more, with the heart turned from Rome to Jerusalem and to the land of the Fathers, so that there too a just and lasting peace may quickly germinate for all and mature like a banner flying in the midst of the peoples.”

Finally, Ecclesia in America, the post-Synodal Apostolic Constitution promulgated by Pope John Paul II in Guadalupe, Mexico, in January 1999 says,

American society also includes Jewish communities, with which the Church has fostered increasing cooperation in recent years.  The history of salvation makes clear our special relationship with the Jewish people.  Jesus belongs to the Jewish people and he inaugurated his Church within the Jewish nation.  A great part of the Holy Scriptures, which we Christians read as the word of God, constitute a spiritual patrimony which we share with Jews.  Consequently any negative attitude in their regard must be avoided, since 'in order to be a blessing for the world, Jews and Christians need first to be a blessing for each other. [Ecclesia in America, N. 50.]



[1]. "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," Nostra Aetate, no. 4 (28 October 1965).  "Fraternal" or "brotherly" here is intentionally theological, to show the intimacy of the Church's relationship with the Jewish people.

[2] Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration, Nostra Aetate n. 4 (1 December 1974), Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (24 June 1985), We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (16 March 1998).  Cf. International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana & Libreria Editrice Lateranense, 1988).  Such dialogues provided the basis for the statements' understanding of Jews and Judaism.

[3]. Cf. for instance his address to the Delegates of Episcopal Conferences and Other Experts in Catholic-Jewish Relations (6 March 1982).

[4]. 1985 Notes, n. 25.

[5]. Pope John Paul II at the Great Synagogue of Rome (13 April 1986).

[6].  In 1995 the German, Polish, Dutch and U.S.Bishops, for example, issued statements on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  On 30 September 1997 the French Bishops issued a remarkable "Statement of Repentance" on the occasion of the 57th anniversary of the enactment of anti-Semitic laws in wartime Vichy France.  The French bishops argued there that the Catholic Church must confront the past with integrity since "conscience is formed in remembering."

[7].  Pope John Paul II to Jewish Leaders in Miami (11 September 1986).  It is heartening to note the many academic programs and institutes which have developed, especially within the past decade, to foster Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust education.

[8].  Pope John Paul II, Prayer of the Angelus, 11 June 1995, cited in We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, March, 1998, section I.

[9]  See

[10].  See Jules Isaac, Jesus et Israel (Paris, Fasquelle Editeurs, 1948; New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1971).  The story of Professor Isaac's meeting with Pope John XXIII on 13 June 1960 and its subsequent influence on the decision to include a schema on the Jews in the Second Vatican Council is well known.

[11]  Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, 16 March 1998; ORE, 18 March 1998, n. III, p. 6).  

[12].  Address to the Vatican Symposium on "The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu," 31 October, 1997

[13]. Genesis 1:27.

[14].  Galatians 3:28-29.  The exception of the Spanish principle of limpia de raza or "purity of blood," with its tragic consequences in the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Spanish Inquisition over the succeeding centuries deserves special study.

[15].  In Eva Fleischner, editor, Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (New York: KTAV, 1977) p. 105.

[16]   Council Daybook, Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2, pp. 282-284.

[17]. Nostra Aetate no. 4.

[18].  John Paul II, “Address to the New Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Holy See,” November 1980.

[19].  Yad VaShem in Israel preserves the memory of many more of these "righteous gentiles."

[20].  Pope John Paul II first characterized anti-Semitism as a sin in his address to Jewish representatives in Sydney, Australia on 26 November 1986: "For the Jewish people themselves, Catholics should have not only respect but also great fraternal love for it is the teaching of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that the Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.  No valid justification could ever be found for acts of discrimination or persecution against Jews.  In fact, such acts must be held to be sinful."  The General Directory for Catechesis, issued by the Holy See's Congregation for the Clergy in 1997, emphasizes that "In particular, an objective of catechesis should be to overcome every form of anti-Semitism" (no. 199). 

[21]  The Church and Racism, no. 15.  Text and commentary can be found in Anti-Semitism is a Sin by Eugene Fisher and Leon Klenicki (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1990).