Of all the religious non-Jews of my lifetime that I admire, John 23rd ( Pope from 1958-1963) tops my list. He was the first Pope to take a stand against the theological lies and calumnies against the Jews that permeated the Catholic Church for nearly two thousand years.
It was always a cardinal (sic) principle that the Jews were forever cursed for the death of Jesus. This idea of Deicide, killing God/Jesus, was the reason all Jews and their offspring were destined to suffer and to be persecuted until they converted ( and often even afterward). Even if they were not the ones who crucified him. It was based on the New Testament (Mathew 27:25).
“When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing and that instead, a riot was breaking out, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd of Jews and said “I am innocent of this man’s blood, you bear the responsibility. And all the people answered, “ His blood be upon us and upon our children.” So, he released Barabbas and had Jesus flogged and crucified.”
Pope John 23rd was the first Pope to emphasize that this notion had no doctrinal authority, and he was the first to acknowledge the failure of the Church to do more to protect the Jews or even to protest against Hitler. He also urged the allies to do more to mitigate the poor treatment of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were often treated abysmally after the war.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that he saved thousands of Jews during the Shoah, both through issuing false baptismal certificates at a time when converted Jews could avoid the clutches of the Nazis, and through his direct influence on King Boris of Bulgaria’s resistance to Nazi orders. He enabled hundreds of Jews to escape Europe and go to Palestine. As Papal ambassador in France after the war, he played a crucial role in persuading Catholic countries, especially in Latin America, to support the UN decision regarding the establishment of the Jewish state. And he took steps to stop those in the church who refused to hand back Jewish children handed over to them for protection during the war.
He convened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 of which we recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. It set in motion changes in the Catholic Church that brought it out of its rigid Counter-Reformation mindset. The sort of mentalities that animated Pope Pius 9th who approved the kidnapping of the Jewish child Edgar Mortara and refused to hand him back to his parents because he had been secretly baptized by his Catholic nurse. Or Pius 12th who was unwilling to condemn Hitler or the Holocaust.
Most significantly for us the Council followed his inspiration and produced the Nostra Aetate document that was promulgated by his successor Pope Paul 6th in 1965. It lay the groundwork for a dramatic revision of Church teaching and attitudes towards Judaism and Jews. Although it maintained its ambiguous attitude towards Jewish aspirations in the Holy Land. Recognizing Israel when it eventually came, was a political decision, not a theological one.
John 23rd was remarkable precisely because his appointment as Pope in 1958 was seen as a stopgap. No one envisioned he would be such an agent of change. His honesty, humility, and determination to push for change made him arguably the most influential Catholic of modern times in terms of theological change. Inevitably he faced strong opposition from the highest to the lowest ranks of the church. Even to this day, there are powerful conservative elements in the Vatican who oppose change and progress. And at the popular level old habits, ideas and prejudices perpetuate themselves. As indeed they do with our own ranks. But he never wavered
Although he died in 1963, he inspired the four sessions of the Council between 1962 and 1965, which produced 16 documents that are considered the foundation for the Roman Catholic Church as it is known today. And subsequent Popes have all followed his example in establishing close and warm relations with Jewish communities around the world. As the crescendo of voices is raised in the Christian, Muslim, and leftwing worlds against Jews (not just Zionists) it gives me some comfort that there have been others who have tried to remove hatred instead of inciting it
Thank God for John 23rd who chose the path of reconciliation and all those who follow in his footsteps. Ironically nowadays anti Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is more likely to be found in Protestant Churches than Catholic. Interestingly the opposition to Pope John came because any change was regarded then, and still is by many, as detrimental to core Catholic principles. Not unlike the Ultra Orthodoxy that opposed change or modification to the Jewish tradition. If only we had such leaders who are able to see the need for compromise and be ready to make accommodations without sacrificing their values.
As a post-script, the significance of Pope John 23rd is all the more remarkable when one contrasts him with his predecessor Pius 12th.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kertzer is the Paul Dupee University Professor of Social Science at Brown University. His latest book, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler, was published by Random House in the U.S. in June 2022.
The historian found two documents that reveal an intense debate was underway in the Vatican in 1943 when the Nazi occupiers of Rome rounded up more than 1,000 Jews and detained them in a military college 800 yards from St. Peter’s Square before packing them off to the Auschwitz concentration camp. As the German ambassador to the Vatican reported to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the roundup occurred under the pope’s “very windows.” Only 16 of the deportees survived. Pius asked for further advice from his expert on Jewish affairs, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua. According to Kertzer Dell’Acqua replied with a thoroughly anti-Semitic document explaining why he thought the pope should not speak out. He argued that
“ It would be too embarrassing to protest anti-Semitic measures when, over many centuries, ruling popes had confined Jews to ghettos and had forbidden them from practicing professions. He also said ” Jews have caused problems … and threaten a healthy Christian society. So why should the Church be speaking out for them?”
Nevertheless, the good work continues. This week Pope Francis was in Bahrain for an interfaith congress of Christians, Jews, and Muslims that my brother David attended and addressed. Very proud of him. Thank goodness there are still plenty of good people around who can talk humanely with and to each other despite their differences.