From Enemy to Brother II: The Converts

The background of the German Catholic church, which I outlined in the previous post, is critical to understanding just how far the leaders of the Church had to come between the Holocaust and the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the question one cannot help being haunted by throughout the entire book is just where to draw the line between change in churchmen and change in Church.

Connelly is keep the emphasize that “the times” alone would not have been enough to bring those bishops and theologians who remained silent or even expressed racist views during the Holocaust to a new position. Indeed, for the most part – as he meticulously documents – there was practically no mention of Jews or Jewish issues in the mainstream Catholic discourse of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Bringing the Church to Nostra Aetate, then, took some heavy lifting. The protagonists of Connelly’s are the small group of people who did this lifting – tirelessly, never ceasing to look for new ways to reach minds and hearts.

During the 1930s and 40s, these individuals – John Oesterreicher, Karl Thieme, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and sevearl others, including a number of priests – worked to discredit racism and anti-Semitims in explicitly Biblical and Catholic terms. After the war, they continued to develop ideas about the Jewish people from a Catholic perspective, while also engaging in active dialogue with Jewish intellectuals. Their work put them in physical danger during the Nazi period, and earned them much opprobrium even with the Catholic Church.

Why were these Catholics so committed to the Jewish cause, so unrelenting? Connelly is keen to point out that they had two curious characteristics in common: They were all converts to Catholicism (most from Judaism, some from Protestantism), and they all came from German-speaking borderlands – areas on the border of two or more countries, with disputed heritage and families living on both sides. Connelly writes:

The great majority of Catholics who wrote on the race question were Jewish converts, and virtually every figure of note in the Catholic battle against antisemitism was a convert. But once in the churhc, they were never entirely of the church… Because these Catholics were converts it was difficult to tell them to shun contacts with the outside. The outside, after all, was their homeland…

Showing great insight into the psychology of the convert – the Jewish convert in particular – he adds:

But the irony of conversion, of crossing a border supposedly with no return, is that one never entirely leaves the point of origin. And the scandal of racism was that those expecting security in their new Catholic homes were told that they remained alien, “in fact” racially Jewish.

Much of Connelly’s book is dedicated to documenting the activities and personal relationships of these converts, and the ways in which they ultimately shaped Nostra Aetate. The details are worth reading. In the next and final post in this book review series, I will focus on the major questions they faced in their struggle to redefine the Catholic position on Jews.

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From Enemy to Brother I: German Catholics and Nazis

This post will be the first in a three-part review of John Connelly’s book, From Enemy to Brother. The book is as controversial as it is enlightening, and I have no doubt that many Catholic scholars present a very different view of the history Connelly treats. I’d be grateful for reader comments and references to any relevant literature.

Connelly’s focus is Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council concerning relations with non-Catholic and non-Christian religions. The bulk of this text is dedicated to the Church’s view of the Jewish people, and its central messages are as follows:

  • Acknowledgement of the Church’s spiritual descendancy from “the stock of Abraham”
  • Attention to the words of St. Paul in Romans about God’s abiding love for the Jews and fulfillment of His promises to them
  • Insistence that the Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the death of Christ, nor considered to be under a curse due to their role in His crucifixion
  • Condemnation of anti-Semitism
  • Hope for a day when “all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’”

Both in letter and in spirit, Connelly is keen to point out, Nostra Aetate stands in sharp contrast with the behavior and de facto teaching of the Catholic Church in the 1930s and 1940s. He paints a distressing picture of Nazi-era German Catholicism. Even while Nazis persecuted Catholics because of the Church’s treatment of humanity as universal and equal, Catholic leaders in German-speaking lands failed to articulate a stance against Nazi anti-Semitism and racism.

Indeed, many did just the opposite.  Connelly’s book abounds with examples of German Catholic support for the Nazi agenda. For example, the Jesuit Muckermann was an advocate and professor of eugenics, preaching the superiority of the “Nordic race.” Yet he was called upon by the Vatican to help the Church formulate teaching with regard to “race science.” Karl Adam, a widely read and popular Catholic theologian, advocated for a church as “a community that was alive and vital,” not stifled by hierarchy, and sought ties between German Catholic and Protestant communities. At the same time, he “portrayed Nazi-orchestrated boycotts of Jewish business as the fulfillment of Christian charity, acts of ‘Christian-German self-assertion’ aimed at stemming the ‘Jewish deluge.’”

These examples, Connelly argues, stemmed from an unholy alliance between Catholic and Nazi interests.  He writes:

Historians have long recognized an overlap of German Catholicism and Nazi racism that was grounded in joint concerns: anti-Marxism, anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, and the resulting attraction to a communitarian ethos.

These ideas inspired the large German Catholic youth movement, its communal life, and its push for liturgical reform. Furthermore,

The most seductive element of the racist syndrome that took root in German Catholicism, the word Volk, evoked blood kinship dating back to time immemorial, and took on particular resonance during World War I; as the hold of throne and monarchy on the German people waned, Volk became a new locus of political legitimacy. It grew especially dear to German Catholics who for decades were accused of loyalties divided between the Vatican and Berlin…. Volk stirred the Catholic imagination by mixing religious, ethnic, political, and cultural connotations in a radically new way.

At the forefront of this new German Catholic spirit was the idea of Church as a mystical body – a single, unified, sensual body that became identified with nationhood, and the German nation in particular. This focus on the body of the nation led to a peculiar understanding of Christian love. Connelly writes about the prominent Jesuit Provincial Georg Bichlmair:

According to Bichlmair, Christ had presented self-love as love’s highest form, and that was also true for ethnic groups. When Germans started thinking of themselves first, they would see that the Jewish question was a ‘question of right’ – their right…

It’s worth noting that Bichlmair was not, relatively speaking, a serious anti-Semite. Indeed he was persecuted by the Gestapo for assisting Jewish converts to Christianity. Similar views were expressed by other Catholic writers, such as the Swiss Jesuit Mario von Galli, and received little to no criticism from the reading public.

Connelly is clear that, while the Vatican did not propagate such teachings, it did little to disavow them or silence the speakers. He identifies two primary reasons for this. The first was that, in the early decades of the 20th century, racism and eugenics was widely regarded as a science, not only in Germany, but in much of the Western world – including the USA, where the eugenics movement was gaining influence. (Modern-day treatment of contraception and abortion as scientifically-based “health care” “comes to mind as an easy parallel.) The Church had had its run-ins with science a few centuries prior, Connelly points out, and did not wish once again to be so clumsy. Moreover, the Church’s own scientists, such as Muckermann, promoted the racist view, moderating it just enough to steer clear of the Church’s condemnation of forced sterilization and similar practices.

The second reason for the Vatican’s silence, Connelly argues, was a lack of appropriate language. The Nostra Aetate statement explicitly condemns the centuries-old understandings of the Jews as accursed murderers of Christ. This disavowal was necessary, and controversial: prior to Vatican II, the Church had not spoken about the Jews in any other way. Indeed, an encyclical prepared by Pius XI as late as 1938 (never released) included lines such as this: “Jewry… has frivolously sacrificed its exalted historical calling once and for all… lost the enveloping communal life in race by turning against its own precious blood and calling it in vengeance against itself and its children.”

This negative theology of the Jews was exacerbated by the German language itself. As Connelly points out, the German word Erbsünde, signifying original sin, “literally means ‘hereditary sin,’ passed from generation to generation.” The effects of this interpretation of original sin are evident in the case of Dr. Albert Niedermeyer, a leading German Catholic gynecologist. Both in his writing and in his medical practice, Nidermeyer staunchly opposed eugenic practices grounded in racism, which ultimately landed him in a concentration camp. Connelly writes:

Niedermeyer’s engagement with “the problem of racial hygiene” has led to a serious examination of the most central elements of Christian morality. In contrast to Karl Adam, Niedermeyer read the Thomist principle of grace presupposing nature in a way that permitted grace some independent power. Even those who were “severely retarded” could prevail over illness with the help of grace. […]

But when it comes to the Jews, Nidermeyer’s tune is rather different:

A Christian had to place Christ at the center of any thoughts on the Jews… If one really believed that Christ was God, then the magnitude of Jewish guilt for his crucifixion was “beyond imagining”… “The sign of Cain marks the awful treachery of this once noble people that is now despised among the peoples… even the most honest efforts cannot deny the basic fact that Jews have become repugnant, indeed frightening and sinister for other peoples.”


Niedermeyer condemned Jews who tried to escape punishment for killing Christ by “dishonestly” becoming Christians, and he demanded special scrutiny for converts. It was a delusion to think that baptism could suddenly erase Jews’ guilt for killing Christ.

The view that conversion to Christianity did not wash away the hereditary sin of killing Christ, Connelly emphasizes, was far from unique to Niedermeyer. Even the Jesuit Bichlmair, who was active in Catholic ministry to Jews and Jewish converts, held to it.

This belief in the Jewish curse, Connelly also points out, prevented Catholics –laymen, priests, and Vatican clerics alike – from taking a stance against Nazi anti-Semitic violence. If the misfortunes of the Jews are visited upon them by God, it cannot be the place of the Church to intervene – apparently, even when God’s will is being embodied by the Nazis, enemies of Catholicism.

How, then, did the Church’s thinking about the Jews change – too late, perhaps, but so significantly? Who changed it, how, and why? More on that in the next installment of this book review.

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A Song of Praise

I have written here before about Philip Rosenbaum, an Eastern Catholic author who also happens to be of a Jewish background.

When he is not writing on family and spirituality, Rosenbaum is creating poetry. He has taken up the classic form of the sonnet, and applied it to a purpose (among others) that is simultaneously innovative and even more classic – imaginative exegesis of the Bible.

Rosenbaum’s poetry, which will be published soon in e-book format, is thought-provoking and challenging. I struggled to choose a poem to share – they are very different, each compelling in its own way. Instead, I thought I’d direct you to his website, where you can get a foretaste of the book.

A section of particular interest to those thinking about Jewish-Christian themes, rich in interpretation of the Old Testament, is “The Wedding Party”:

In The Wedding Party the saints in Heaven are answering the Bridegroom’s riddle, “Why do I choose this Woman for My Bride?” (Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is His Bride.)    

        The Song of Noah’s Wife

         The Song of Caleb

         The Song of Samson

         The Song of Naaman’s Wife

Enjoy, and let me know what you thought!

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Do This In Memory Of Me

More this week from Richard Calderon:


 The God of Israel is intensely interested in His children, and like all parents He loves to remember milestones in their moral growth, be these moments of covenant surrender, of repentance, or of generosity to the poor and the infirm.  God repeatedly reminds Israel that He is forever mindful of such milestones, which move Him to forgive trespasses.  The technical Israelite term for a vivid and forgiveness-inducing memory in the mind of God is ‘a memorial before the Lord’ or more simply ‘a memorial’—in Hebrew zikkaron.  The Bible provides multiple instances of these ‘memorials’ such as:

  • In Exodus 30: 16, God declares that financial contributions towards the construction of the Tabernacle and furnishings constitute ‘a memorial of the donors before the Lord.’
  • Ecclesiasticus 35: 8-9 states that ‘the sacrifice of the just is acceptable, and the Lord will not forget the memorial thereof.
  • Generous pagans are also capable of making ‘memorials.’  In Acts 10: 3-31, an angel visits Cornelius and informs him that ‘thy prayers and alms are ascended as a memorial in the sight of God.

Especially in times of distress, the Israelites will implore God to forgive them for the sake of His beloved prophets and patriarchs.  The word ‘memorial’ in English suggests something past, an event that is preserved by some faded memento, or awakened by a dimly remembered emotion.  But for ancient Israel, ‘memorials’ are vivid and alive to God.  Presenting a ‘memorial’ to God stimulates in Him a willingness to forgive and to bless.

The technical Septuagint Greek term for a ‘memorial in the mind of God’ is anamnesis, a bewildering concept for pagans, who eagerly inscribe their names as patrons on theaters, temples, sculptures and public baths as memorials to fellow citizenry.  But the wind, the waves and other deified forces possess no memory, are mindful of no one and recall nothing.

Nevertheless, anamnesis is the technical term correctly used in the New Testament and in the writings of the first Church Fathers.  The Eucharist service of the Church is an ‘anamnesis’ offered by the Mystical Body of Christ, an ‘anamnesis’ which bestows eternal life, forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the power of Satan.  The earliest surviving Christian liturgy to remind God of His Son’s supreme sacrifice uses the term ‘anamnesis’ explicitly in this sense.

Taking bread and giving thanks to Thee He said:

‘Take eat: This is My Body which is broken for you’.

Likewise the cup saying:

‘This is My Blood which is shed for you

Whenever you do this,

You [will] make My Anamnesis’ [i]

(The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus IV: 9)

[i]  Gregory Dix, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, 8


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Guest Post: Words of Blessing

Today I would like to share with you the work of a fellow parishioner, Richard Calderon. Richard is studying the Hebrew and other early origins of the Catholic liturgy. Below are some of his findings.


The essence of sacrifice is glad surrender to God.  Ancient Israel expresses such surrender repeatedly in prayer.  All creation proceeds from God, all creation belongs to God and men bless a thing – Hebrew berakah – by acknowledging God.  In formally blessing a thing, or recognizing that it comes from and is consecrated to Him, men thereby thank God.

The twin ideas of God’s ultimate ownership of all created things and the gratitude men owe Him are so close in Israelite thought that to ‘bless’ a thing or to ‘thank God’ for a thing is considered the same action.  Saint Paul expresses this mindset well:

Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when it is taken with thanksgiving, since it is consecrated by the [creative] word of God, and by prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

Contrary to the norm, in which Israelite culture develops a larger spiritual vocabulary than that of pagan neighbors, Greek translators of berakah have two options:

  • Eulogia = a blessing in which the focus is on the object, or
  • Eucharistia = a thanksgiving in which the focus is on God.

A Greek will not confuse these two words, but casual oscillation between Eulogia / Eucharistia in the New Testament are telltale clues about the antiquity of the texts.  Contrary to modernist claims that the New Testament is a compilation of second and third century ‘midrash’ – in plain English the daydreams of depressed Gentile slaves – the New Testament authors are Jews and think in Hebrew rather than in Greek.  In sequential verses, Mark 14: 22-23 notes that Christ successively blesses – eulogesas – the bread and gives thanks – eucharistesas – over the wine, as Saint Mark is actually thinking berakah in both cases.  Then again, Saint Paul in Corinthians 10: 30, 10:16 uses eucharistein or thanksgiving over meat purchased in the market, but eulogein or blessing about the Eucharist itself.  He too is thinking berakah about both.

Ultimately, Eucharistia or Thanksgiving becomes a technical term for a) the prayer of the liturgical officiant b) the Mass as a whole, and c) the consecrated elements.  The reason for selecting eucharistia rather than eulogia has much to do with the celebrant’s invitation to open the Canon:

Celebrant:      The Lord be with you.

Response:       And with your spirit.

Celebrant:      Lift up your hearts.

Response:       We have lifted them up to the Lord.

Celebrant:      Let us give thanks (Eucharistia) to the Lord our God.

Response:       It is fitting and right to do so. [i]

[i] Gregory Dix, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, 7 and Shape of the Liturgy, 78-79.  Dix has fun with these Greek words, noting how narrowly Christians escaped having to ‘attend Eulogy at 8’ or ‘receive Eulogy at 10.’

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Those of you reading this blog regularly know that Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism is my other big interest. A good article on that topic by Father Laurent Cleenewerck, courtesy of Orthocath blog.

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Eery Reminders of Evils Past

Is Germany sure – I mean, are they really sure – that it has learned its lesson about racial superiority and anti-Semitism?

This most recent ruling by a German judge suggests that many Germans might be ready for a re-play of the early twentieth century.

A court in Germany has sparked outrage among both Jewish and Muslim communities in that country and elsewhere in Europe after it ruled earlier this week that circumcision is illegal. The ruling has been a source of encouragement, however, among growing numbers of opponents of circumcision.

The district court in Cologne ruled that circumcision inflicted physical harm against newborn babies and what it ruled to be “irreversible damage against the body.” The court also determined that freedom of religion and the rights of parents cannot justify the practice.

Not only that, but apparently 60% of Germans equate circumcision with genital mutilation.

As with Nazi anti-Semitism, so with this, it is clear that the repressive attitudes (in Germany, but also in places like San Francisco) are not just about the Jews – and not even just about Muslims, which is an even more tempting explanation in German’s case –  but ultimately about faith, and about God Himself:

“This ruling has enormous significance for doctors,” Professor Holm Putzke, an expert on law from Passau University in Germany told the newspaper. “For years there has been a call to ban circumcision for religious reasons. The court, as opposed to many politicians, was not afraid of criticism that its ruling was anti-Semitic or harmful to religion,” he said. Putzke added that the decision “may not only influence future rulings, but also bring about a change in the worldview of religious people regarding basic rights of children.”

Which is a good reminder that much of the world had drawn all the wrong conclusions from the Holocaust. The Nazis’ crimes against man and God have been equated with religiously motivated persecution (“weren’t the Nazis Christians?”, my mother asked me recently), and the cause of their victims with secularism. No wonder that, as evidenced by this ruling, the real evil has not been eradicated.

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