January 2016 Print

Vatican II and the Jewish Question

by Fr. Gabriel Billecocq, SSPX

I. History of the Schema at Vatican II

The Background

On June 5, 1960, in the motu proprio Superno Dei Nutu, John XXIII outlined the organizational structure for the preparation of the Council. In addition to the eleven commissions he instituted, three secretariats saw the light of day, one of which was to promote the unity of Christians. This secretariat was presided by Agostino Cardinal Bea, assisted by Fr. Johannes Willebrands. The first function of the secretariat was to invite non-Catholic Christians to send observers to the Council, and to help them follow and understand the discussions. But in 1962, the secretariat was, by a decision of John XXXIII, given the same status as a conciliar commission with the authority to draft texts and present them in the aula.1

Considering its name, it might seem strange that this secretariat should be occupied with the Jews. In reality, even before the secretariat was ranked as a commission, Pope John XXIII, at the suggestion of Jules Isaac, had already verbally commanded Cardinal Bea in 1960 to draw up a schema treating of the Jews. That is how the Jewish Question came to be assigned to that secretariat.

The Genesis of Nostra Aetate

The cardinal met with several leading Jews at the same time that he began to work on the initial draft of a decree. In June 1962, after bitter discussions, a text forty-two lines long was written and then had to be examined by the central preparatory commission. But a leak to the press raised a commotion over the initiative to have Jewish observers at the Council. The news caused a crisis: the Jews were divided, the Arabs saw in it an implicit recognition of the State of Israel by the Vatican, and the Oriental patriarchs were worried about the consequences for their communities.

So the text was simply withdrawn.

Looking for Another Context

But Cardinal Bea submitted a request to the pope, arguing that the Jewish issue was exclusively religious and absolutely not political. That is why, in the second session, on November 18, 1963, a fourth chapter treating of the Jews was presented to the Conciliar Fathers in the schema on ecumenism.

Cardinal Gabriel Tappouni, the first to take the floor, insisted upon the danger of speaking about Jews. Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, like the others, pointed out that if they were to speak about the Jews, it would also be necessary to speak about the other non-Christian religions. During these discussions, they went so far as to propose inserting the chapter on the Jews in the schema on the Church. On November 21, the part pertaining to the Jews was removed from the schema.

At the third session, a new text was distributed to the Conciliar Fathers. Some expressions had been attenuated (in particular, the question of deicide), chapters on the non-Christian religions had been added, and it was supposed to be an appendix to the schema on the Church in order to clearly indicate that it was a question of a religious vision without any political character. Discussed on September 28 and 29, 1964, the text was then amended and separated from the schema on the Church.

Final Version

Nonetheless, reactions from the Arab countries during the intersession obliged the secretariat to rework the text. Placing greater emphasis on the positive and unifying aspects of these false religions, the paragraph on the Jews became finally the fourth chapter of an independent declaration on the relations of the Church with the non-Christian religions. This text, Nostra Aetate, was voted on and promulgated on October 28, 1965.

II. Towards an Understanding of Judaism and the Jewish People

During the month of October 1961, Pope John XXIII met with a group of American Jews and, alluding to an episode in the Old Testament, said to them: “It’s me, Joseph, your brother.” It is not uncommon nowadays to hear the expression “our fathers [better yet, perhaps, “elder brothers”?] in the faith” applied to the Jews. What are we to make of it?

The Jews in the Old Testament

After the fall of our first parents, God foretold a Messias to come. We recall how carefully God chose Abraham and made of him the father of a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and promised him the land of Canaan for his posterity (Gen. 12:7). Jacob and his twelve sons constituted the chosen people.

But this people had a theological vocation: to bring forth the Messias. This was its unique vocation and at the same time a unique vocation in the history of the human race: There is no other people whose finality is essentially supernatural and Messianic. This people as a people is inseparable from its Messianic vocation.

The Jews and Our Lord

The circumstances of the coming of the Messias were not unknown to the rulers of the priests. They knew the Scriptures, and particularly the prophecies. In fact, when the Three Kings went to be informed as to the place where the Saviour was to be born, they obtained a clear answer.

It was the high priest’s duty to officially recognize the Messias. The question of Caiaphas is moreover quite explicit: “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the Christ the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63). The Lord’s response left no doubt.

It was because He affirmed His divinity and the fulfillment of the prophecies that Jesus Christ was condemned. If the Catechism of the Council of Trent affirms that we have all crucified Our Lord, St. Thomas brings out the theological nuances of this truth: Surely, it was our sins that put Christ to death. But this death came about at the instigation of the Jews, and in particular of the rulers of the priests. That is why the Angelic Doctor affirms that “their ignorance did not excuse them from crime, because it was, as it were, affected ignorance. For they saw manifest signs of His Godhead; yet they perverted them out of hatred and envy of Christ; neither would they believe His words, whereby He avowed that He was the Son of God.”2 A little further he adds: “Affected ignorance does not excuse from guilt, but seems, rather, to aggravate it: for it shows that a man is so strongly attached to sin that he wishes to incur ignorance lest he avoid sinning. The Jews therefore sinned, as crucifiers not only of the Man-Christ, but also as of God3.”4 As Cajetan wrote, they could have known, and they ought to have known.

Our Lord Himself utters these terrible words in their regard: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin....If I had not done among them the works that no other man hath done, they would not have sin: but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father” (Jn. 15:22, 24).

As for the multitude of the Jews, they did not know the Scriptures and were seduced by the leaders. Their fault is therefore less.

The Jews in the New Covenant

The death of Our Lord on the Cross marked the end of the Old Covenant: the veil of the temple was rent in two. The Epistle to the Hebrews is quite explicit: “There is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof” (Heb. 7:18). For it must be understood that the chosen people had not been faithful to its vocation; that is why God reproved it as a people. Its vocation no longer exists. The Old Alliance having concluded, the Jewish people lost its specificity (the Messianic vocation) and its religion is null and void. It was superseded by Catholicism.

That is why today’s Judaism (under the New Covenant) is necessarily defined as the antithesis of Catholicism. It only exists in opposition to and negation of Catholicism, for it has become empty and purposeless. Judaism is the rejection of the Messias,5 of Jesus Christ whom the Jews put to death,6 and therefore of the Church. By refusing the Messias and the Church, modern Judaism separates itself from the Judaism of the Old Testament, the vocation of which it repudiated. Judaism therefore refuses itself and denies itself. It is inherent contradiction, perhaps the worst blindness7 possible.

Catholicism, on the contrary, if it is opposed to the Judaism of the New Covenant, does not have the same relationship with that of the Old Covenant. The Catholic Church puts an end to Old Testament Judaism, but it assumes it by perfecting it. There is a certain continuation from one to the other with completion (in every sense) of what had only been imperfect.

One may say by way of comparison that Catholicism is to the Judaism of the Old Testament what the butterfly is to the chrysalis: a perfection of life, whereas the chrysalis is henceforth a dead work.

Contrariwise, modern Judaism is not and cannot be the continuation of the religion of the Old Testament: it is even its negation, since it pretends to keep alive that which is nothing more than a past shell, exterior and dead, of the true religion. That is why modern Judaism is death-dealing in every sense and is opposed both to Catholicism and to ancient Judaism.

If, then, we can speak of “our fathers in the faith” among Jews, it is uniquely in reference to the saints of the Old Testament. But in no case can contemporary Jews be spoken of as fathers [or “elder brothers”] in the faith in regard to the same saints, for they have rejected their vocation. It is a lamentable fraud. Consequently, Abraham not being their father in the faith, they are not and cannot be our brothers in the faith. Unless they convert purely and simply to Catholicism...

“So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free” (Gal. 4:31).


The decree Nostra Aetate, drafted in collaboration with Jews, notably Jules Isaac, is absolutely revolutionary: it calls into question all of the theological conclusions on the subject, introduces confusion in the relations between the Church and Judaism, going so far as to put the latter in a position of honor. The visits of the recent popes to synagogues have added unprecedented, ignoble scandals to the theological errors—a manner of denying the work of Our Lord.


III. Analysis

The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, is the shortest of all the Council documents. Comprising five sections, the first announces the purpose of the document. The second treats of several non-Christian religions, while the third and fourth speak specifically about the Muslim and Jewish religions. Finally, the text concludes with a few lines that can be summed up by an editorial heading: Universal Brotherhood Excluding All Discrimination.

The Preamble

The document clearly states that the Council “is giving deeper study to her relationship with non-Christian religions.” She does so in order to fulfill “her task of fostering unity and love among men, and even among nations.” This is an aim that appears noble. But what unity is meant? What sort of love do they intend to foster?

Unity is forged around a common truth or a common action. In short, there must be a point in common in order to achieve this unity. The document makes the observation that all men have the same origin and the same destiny and that they ask themselves the same questions regarding the meaning of life. But it goes even further, stating that all the religions seek to respond to the “profound mysteries of the human condition.” That is why the Declaration seeks to show that there are things in common to all religions, even non-Christian, placing them on an equal footing and in the same stroke erasing their differences...

Frightful Confusion

The next three sections review the non-Christian religions, Islam, and Judaism. The Declaration honors them by noticing the “profound religious sense” (§2) they instill in the lives of their adherents. Hinduism expresses it “through an unspent fruitfulness of myths” in order to release men from the anguish of our condition. Buddhism helps men “attain supreme enlightenment.” The Muslims “adore one God living and enduring,” “honor Mary, [Christ’s] virgin mother.” The Jews by their origin have “a common patrimony” with the Christians.

Even if the Declaration states that the Church “proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, in whom men find the fullness of religious life” (§2), the words used regarding the non-Christian religions are so eulogistic (respect, esteem, fraternal dialogue) as to imply that all these religions can lead man to his last end, which is God.8

The Declaration brings out better than anywhere else the error underlying the entire Second Vatican Council: a confusion between the natural and the supernatural. For only once is the word grace used at the end of the Declaration, without expressing its absolute necessity for salvation. Either it is possible to be saved without grace, or else grace is so necessary to nature as to be inherent in it and indistinguishable from it. In either case, there is a serious, and condemned, error. But in the Declaration the Council exults in the natural efforts of these religions, which are, whatever happens, incapable of leading man to eternal beatitude. Finally, all religions would lead equally to God, and prayer-meetings of the religions at Assisi (I, II, III, etc.) are merely the concrete application of this teaching.

Truth in Crumbs

As a result of this error, and since only points in common are considered, the differences between the non-Christian religions and Catholicism are no longer expressed as errors in relation to truth, but in terms of more or less, as degrees of truth. In other words, rather than saying what the Church has always said, namely that these non-Christian religions are false religions incapable by themselves of leading men to salvation, the Council, by the honor and esteem it lavishes on these religions, recognizes in them pieces of truth rather than errors. That is why the document speaks only of fullness in relation to Jesus Christ and not exclusivity: “Christ, in whom men may find the fullness of religious life.” In this formulation we find what we have said elsewhere about Lumen Gentium: the Church of Christ is broader than Catholic Church, and one can find scattered everywhere pieces of truths of a nature to lead to salvation. In the name of this principle, every man can find in himself a truth as a way that leads to salvation. In other words, it amounts to announcing that “by his Incarnation, He, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man,” as is taught in John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis. We always find the same confusion between the natural order and the supernatural order.

In Search of a Principle

To give “primary consideration to what human beings have in common” in order to foster unity and love is ultimately to seek the principle common to all religions, which might be otherwise expressed as the common denominator. The last section tells us: men form a brotherhood “in the matter of human dignity and the rights which flow from it.” The religions can no longer be opposed to one another: all men are brothers since they are created in God’s image. Dear human nature...Thanks to it, “any discrimination” is rejected.

For the first time a Council decree looks positively on the non-Christian religions and calls for dialogue in order to convert the false images Catholics have about other religions. The religions can then journey together on a common pilgrimage.

So fie on original sin! Fie on redemption! Fie on Church history! “This most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past” (§3). Let’s all shake hands gladly, peace is at hand! After all, for fifty years, we’ve had ample time to savor it...

Translated from Fideliter, March-April 2015, pp. 90-96. Translated by A. M. Stinnett.

1 Unitatis Redintegratio, Nostra Aetate, Dignitatis Humanae, and Dei Verbum in conjunction with the doctrinal commission.

2 Summa Theologica, III, q. 47, a. 5.

3 Which is what is properly termed deicide.

4 Ibid., ad 3.

5 “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11).

6 “And the whole people answering, said: His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matt. 27:25).

7 “And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (Jn. 1:5).

8 About the Muslims, Art. 3 states: “Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.” The grammatical construction of the sentence is interesting: the subordinate clause and the main clause ought to have been reversed for a Catholic worthy of the name.