Throwback Thursday: Catholic church celebrates 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” but let’s not forget its anti-Semitic past

Last month, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz even while we’re concurrently witnessing a rising trend in populist, anti-Semitic violence. For this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on October 29, 2015 and has been revised.

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The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences
By Anthony J. Sciolino
iUniverse, 2012, 270 pp.

On October 28, 1965, pope Paul VI issued Nostra Aetate (Latin, “In our Time”), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. The document was a RADICAL change in the “unchanging” Roman Catholic church’s approach to “non-Christian” religions. Instead of viewing Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as false religions, as it had in the past, with this document Catholicism declared there was a certain amount of truth in all religious faiths and that it was possible for people of other works-righteousness creeds to earn their salvation as well. Nostra Aetate took an especially conciliatory tone towards the Jews.

In October, 2015, many Jewish leaders commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration with its startlingly dramatic change in church policy. Regrettably, many of today’s Catholics are entirely unaware of the church’s long history of militant anti-Semitism. Jews throughout Europe were harassed and persecuted by the Catholic population over the centuries. Intolerance was often incited and encouraged by the Catholic clergy. Jews were the victims of involuntary baptisms, enforced segregation, boycotts, exclusionary quotas, pogroms, massacres, and expulsions. When European anti-Semitism reached its culmination in the 20th century Holocaust, Adolf Hitler defended himself by appealing to church history:

“As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic church has adopted for fifteen hundred years, when it has regarded the Jews as dangerous and pushed them into ghettos, etc., because it knew what the Jews were like.” – Adolf Hitler

In “The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences: How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism,” family court judge and Roman Catholic deacon, Anthony Sciolino, objectively examines how the Catholic church’s systematic, anti-Semitic policies led to Hitler’s Holocaust.

But this ex-Catholic has a question regarding Catholic anti-Semitism: If the RC church has always been guided by the Holy Spirit and is the “foundation of truth” as Catholics claim, and if the Catholic popes have been infallible in vital matters of faith and morals as they also claim, then how could the church have been SO TERRIBLY WRONG, for century after century, when it came to its anti-Semitic policies and practices? Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all officially apologized for the anti-Semitic policies and practices of their predecessors. What does that say for the claims of a divinely-led Magisterium?

I praise the Lord daily that He has freed me from the chains of the worldly-minded Catholic church and saved me by His grace through simple faith in Jesus Christ alone. Contrary to Nostra Aetate, God’s Word says salvation can only be found in Jesus Christ.

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” – John 3:18

But we reach out to the lost with the love of Jesus Christ, not with hatred.

Hunting the “Christ-killers” in Catholic Poland

We’ve seen several instances of murderous anti-Semitism here in America in the last eight months. Anti-Semitism has a very long legacy and, sadly, was perpetuated by institutional (c)hristianity for sixteen-hundred years. Also, sad to say, we see contemporary examples of people claiming to be born-again believers spewing anti-Jewish hatred. For this post, I’m going to focus on just one example of historical anti-Semitism.

Recently, brother Wally has been posting a series of devotions based on the Book of Esther. Good stuff. See here for just one example. Anyway, the series got me to thinking back about something I stumbled upon many years ago. Not to beat a dead horse, but when I become frustrated with “churchianity” back in the 90s and walked away from the Lord for a long “season,” I had to fill my spiritual vacuum with something, so I poured myself into studying Polish history and culture (I’m 50% Polish) and eventually concentrated on the controversial history of Polish-Jewish relations, which might be better referred to as Polish-Jewish “non-relations.”

We’re going to get to the Esther connection, but first, some background. Back in the Middle Ages, Jews were having a very rough time in Western Europe. They were routinely persecuted (pogroms, forced baptisms, ghetto quarantines, etc.) and even driven out of Catholic kingdoms whenever the intolerance peaked. Whereas other kingdoms had a developing merchant/burgher class, Polish society largely consisted of the nobility and the peasantry. Consequently, Polish monarchs began welcoming Jews to Poland beginning in the 13th century because of the expertise of some in the financial/merchant spheres. Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz in 1264 which granted unprecedented liberties to Jews, resulting in Jews from all over Europe flocking to Poland. Subsequent monarchs continued the relatively magnanimous treatment of Jews (it should be noted that at the beginning of World War II, half of Europe’s six-million Jews resided in Poland, making up ten percent of that nation’s population).

However, the influx of Jews into Poland was not without problems. The Polish nobility often appointed Jews as their financial middlemen (i.e., landlords, innkeepers, moneylenders, commercial agents, etc.) and the Polish peasantry increasingly resented these “foreigners” lording it over them. Stoking the resentment were the priests and prelates of the Polish Catholic church, who regularly railed against the Jewish “outsiders” as the “Christ killers.” Myths of Jews abducting Catholic children and using their blood in the manufacture of Matzah bread (aka “blood libel,” see here) were widespread and accepted as factual.

Okay, with that tense historical background in mind, we’ll cut to our Book of Esther connection. The Jewish communities in Poland regularly celebrated “Purim” (Hebrew, meaning: “lots” as in “casting lots”), a festival occurring in early-March, which commemorated the saving of the Jewish people from Haman as recorded in the Book of Esther. As part of the celebration, some Jews would reenact the story of Esther with an effigy of Haman being hung at the conclusion. The Polish Catholic clergy and peasantry did not take kindly to this reenactment. They interpreted the hanging of the Haman figure as a provocation against Gentiles and the Catholic church. In retaliation, as part of the annual Easter ritual, Poles across the kingdom would fashion a figurine with stereotypical Jewish physical features and clothing and hang it in the town square and subsequently burn it. The figure was meant to represent Judas, the betrayer of Christ, but on a broader scale, it also symbolized the hated Jewish “Christ killers.” The excitement rarely failed to whip Polish crowds into a frenzy of hatred and they would scour Jewish neighborhoods looking for victims. Polish Jews barricaded their doors and windows during the Easter celebration.

In the future, we’ll take a look at several other examples of Polish anti-Semitism, but without the lengthy historical introduction featured in this post. Below are some recent news headlines that underscore the continuing popularity of anti-Semitism in Poland, even though almost all of Poland’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust:

Polish Town Celebrates Easter with Anti-Semitic Effigy
https://www.newsweek.com/anti-semitic-judas-effigy-satans-blamed-idiotic-pseudo-religious-chutzpah-1403445

Polish Bishop Delivers Thinly-veiled anti-Semitic Sermon
https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/polish-bishop-insinuates-jews-attempted-to-divide-and-slander-the-catholic-church-1.7195027