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.