2016-06-30
Dissident Catholic theologian Hans Kung recounts, in the present tense, what happened in autumn 1964, when a Vatican II committee hammered out a statement [read Chapter 4 of Nostra Aetate] on the Roman Catholic Church's attitude towards other religions. Reprinted from My Struggle for Freedom with permission of Eerdmans Publishing.

[A] highly explosive question is linked with the theme of religious freedom: the question of the relationship between the church and the Jews. It seems too much to many traditional Catholics - especially in the Roman Curia - to ask for a new attitude to Judaism. As early as 23 February 1964 my friend Gregory Baum (Toronto), who with the distinguished Monsignor John Oesterreicher (Seton Hall University) is the decisive champion of a declaration of the Jews in the Secretariat for Unity (he likewise has a Jewish background), had written to me: `The opposition to Chapter IV on the Jews is quite great: the bishops of Arab countries fear unpleasantnesses and those from the mission countries are militating against preferential treatment for the Jews. But many bishops have also reacted positively. Remarkably, not a single German bishop has written to the Secretariat about Chapter IV. I personally think that a scandal.' Gregory Baum had had to emigrate as a child with his parents from Berlin in the 1930s.
After the painful curial delaying actions of the second session, the Declaration on the Jews had again been on the agenda for the third session in 1964. On 23 September, Cardinal Augustin Bea presents the report on the `Declaration on the Jews and the Non-Christians' in a calm and measured way - there is demonstrative applause at the beginning of his speech and even more at the end. Happily, the German bishops had previously made a statement supporting the planned Council document and at the same time recalling the crimes perpetrated on the Jews in the name of the German people. Indeed this is the first ecumenical council after Auschwitz. And the world pricks up its ears when it perceives that after long centuries of an open or concealed anti-Judaism within the church, the Catholic Church wants to correct deeply-rooted religious prejudices against Israel, God's old people: the Jews are not God's murderers nor are they accursed by God. However, there is no will to adopt a standpoint on political questions, in other words on the state of Israel. But the curial obstruction had continued even after the conclusion of the Council discussion, which is very positive - only a few negative voices can be heard alongside that of Cardinal Ruffini. On Friday 9 October 1964, towards the evening, our group of French and American bishops and theologians in the Villanova receive news from Cardinal Bea's Secretariat for Unity that Papa Montini has yielded to political pressure outside and inside the church and decided to block the declarations on the Jews and on religious freedom in the Council and submit them to bodies dominated by the Curia for further checking. Speed is of the essence.Immediately we organize the resistance. On Saturday morning Bishop Elchinger mobilizes the French Cardinals Lienart and Joseph Lefebvre (Bourges) and the Americans cardinals Meyer and Ritter. I myself telephone Joseph Ratzinger in the Anima so that he can immediately put Cardinal Frings in the
Picture, and Karl Rahner, so that he can make contact with Cardinals Konig and Dopfner. The cardinals mentioned meet in the Anima as early as Sunday, at the invitation of Cardinal Frings; Alfrink, Silva Henriquez and Leger are also there (Suenens is in Belgium for the elections). They compose a protest letter to the Pope with the opening words `magno cum dolore - with great pain'; it finally goes to the pope with the signatures of thirteen important cardinals. At the same time I take personal responsibility for breaching the secrecy imposed on us and putting the public in the picture. On Saturday I telephone the correspondents of the Roman Messagero, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitnng (Schmitz van Vorst) and Le Mande (Henri Fesquet), all known to me, who are quite unsuspecting, and brief them on the scandalous machinations against the two declarations, the main figure behind which is General Secretary Felici (as can be ascertained afterwards). The result early on Monday morning is major reports on the front pages of these newspapers and an indescribable storm in the international press. Unfortunately, however, the director of the Latin American information center, Antonio Cruzat, loses his job because he is responsible for handing on the letter by the thirteen cardinals to the press. Personal interventions by Cardinal Bea and Frings with the pope follow. The result is that both schemata remain on the Council agenda. And in the basic vote that is at long last allowed on 20 November 1964, 1770 bishops will vote for the draft of the decree on the Jews and only 185 against. So resistance resolutely organized can achieve something with this pope.

Now two completely independent declarations on the Freedom of Religion and on Judaism have been worked out for the fourth and last session of the Council in 1965. The latter is also extended to the Muslims - as Eastern bishops require; indeed on the basis of Asian interventions it finally becomes a declaration on the world religions generally. So some good has finally come out of evil.

But the opponents in the Curia cannot stop weakening the declaration in a petty way right up to the end: instead of `condemning' (condemnare) hatred of the Jews, persecution of the Jews and antisemitism (which is explicitly mentioned for the first time), they want to content themselves with `deploring' (deplorare). Why? Otherwise one would be condemning former (infallible!) popes. But this doesn't alter in any way the extremely welcome fact that with this declaration, prompted by John XXIII, the Catholic Church has accomplished an epoch-making shift towards Judaism. In the final solemn vote on 28 October 1965, the day of the promulgation, 2312 bishops vote for and only 88 against the declaration Nostra aetate on the relationship of the church to the non-Christian religions. Here for the first time it is solemnly stated that the church is uniquely bound up with the Jewish religion; it too appeals to Israel's patriarchs and holy scriptures. Jesus and the young church emerged from Judaism. Even if the majority of Jews at that time rejected Jesus as Messiah, they are not cursed by God. They remain his chosen people. Jesus's death cannot be attributed to all the Jews of that time, far less to all the Jews of today. Preaching, catechesis, studies and conversations are to help towards reciprocal knowledge and esteem. The church deplores all manifestations of antisemitism. It rejects any discrimination on grounds of race, skin colour, class or religion. It confesses the brotherhood of all men and women under the one Father.

However, for me personally all this will once again have an unpleasant sequel. In my commentaries on this declaration I repeatedly make the statement, `National Socialist antisemitism would not have been possible without the centuries of anti-Judaism in the Christian churches.' This wins me a first official reprimand from the chairman of the German conference of bishops. In a long and furious letter, Cardinal Julius Dopfner - now no longer using the familiar `Du' of the Germanicum alumni but the official `Sie' - asks how the 'Herr Professor' could make such an irresponsible statement. The professor replies to the cardinal with a calm but firm letter and as justification for this sentence refers him to the attached Chapter I, 3 of The Church, which has already been written, as planned on the first visit to the USA. In it the author depicts at length the 'indescribably desperate history of suffering and death, which monstrously culminates in the Nazi mass murder of millions of Jews.'

There is no reply to this letter from Cardinal Dopfner. Presumably the vigorous discussion of Rolf Hochhuth's `Christian tragedy' entitled The Representative, first performed in Berlin on 20 January 1963, had contributed to his rebuke. Like the Curia, German bishops, too, react with apologetics instead of reflection in the spirit of the decree on the Jews. It would have been better for them to follow John XXIII who, according to Hannah Arendt, when asked what could be done against Hochhuth's drama, is said to have remarked: `Do? What can one do against the truth?'

In this fourth and last session on 19 November 1965, there is finally also a vote on the Declaration on Religious Freedom. The result is equally welcome: 1954 yes and 249 no. When I think back - only ten years have passed since my farewell to Rome - how much there has changed! The declaration begins with the fine words Dignitatis humanae. But what is to be different in future? It makes the following core statements:

  • 1. Every human being has the right to freedom of religion and conscience.
  • 2. Every faith community has the right to unhindered public practice of its religion in accordance with its own laws.
  • 3. Religious freedom must be protected and furthered by society, state and church.

    All this is promulgated in the ninth public session immediately before the end of the Council on 7 December, now with 2308 votes in favour and only 70 against. With the Declaration on Religious Freedom the Catholic Church brings about a further reorientation: an epoch-making shift towards modernity, for which freedom of religion and conscience is one of the fundamental human rights.

    At the same time it is becoming increasingly clear that the Second Vatican Council is a fiasco for traditionalist Roman theology. Everywhere in the Council that theology had come up against opposition to the schemata which it had essentially prepared. It could oppose and block in the debates, but it could hardly make a constructive contribution.

    It was now not even at home in the modern world, but in the Middle Ages; even Thomas Aquinas has hardly ever been cited in this Council as an authority, except that again he was once praised by the pope himself at a Roman Thomistic congress immediately before the first session of the Council as a normative teacher of the church - not to mention the minor figures of neoscholasticism who populated our textbooks at the Gregorian. But people aren't deceived, and the few dozen "no" votes of the hardliners make one think that the Sanctum Officium and the reactionary core of the Curia have in no way resigned. And all over the world they have like-minded colleagues and helpers whom they encourage. One of them is the primate of Poland.
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