Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Meeting, 2015

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 1 (March 2016)

Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Meeting, 2015

By Robert Ericksen

“‘Ein neues Klima’: Rezeptionsgeschichte des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils in Ost- und Mitteleuropa”

A conference took place on December 3-4, 2015 at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in the premises of the Bundesinstitut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa. This meeting, organized and hosted by Professor Andrea Strübind and the Institut für Evangelische Theologie at Oldenburg, met in conjunction with the Editorial Board of the journal Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte. The papers from this conference are expected to appear in the Fall 2016 edition of that journal.

This meeting took place in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II. The main focus, as explained in introductory comments by Professor Strübind, involved the assumption that the Second Vatican Council opened a new spirit of religious freedom within the Catholic Church as it faced the very changed circumstances of the Post-WWII world. Pushed especially by Catholics from the United States, in Strübind’s view, Vatican II created important changes within Catholicism—the mass in the vernacular, for example—and also changed the Catholic point of view toward other religions. Most famously, perhaps, Vatican II by way of Nostra Aetate dramatically modified Catholic teaching about Jews. This Council also opened to Protestants and to Eastern Orthodox churches new ways to understand and anticipate ecumenism within the Christian community.

Stanislaw Krajewski, a professor of philosophy at Warsaw University with an interest in Jewish-Christian relations and a connection to the Jewish-Christian institute at Cambridge, opened the conference with a paper on Jewish-Christian relations in Poland. One of the very few Jews growing up in postwar Poland, he noted that about ten percent of Polish Jews—some 350,000—survived the Holocaust, but that most of them, often returning from the USSR, fled the country as quickly as possible. Krajewski then gave his assessment on steps leading toward Nostra Aetate and the impact of that statement over time. Precursors, such as a Christian statement from the Seelisberg Conference in 1947, were so controversial they were not accepted by either Protestants or Catholics, and the Seelisberg statement itself could not be published at the time. Krajewski also noted John Connolly’s recent book, From Enemy to Brother, with its argument that primarily Jewish (and some Protestant) converts to Catholicism were the ones able to push in the direction of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. This points toward a more deep-seated antisemitism among those born into Catholicism. Krajewski also suggested that the Holocaust would seem to have provided a strong push toward Nostra Aetate, but he claims that 2,500 bishops who responded with comments and advice never mentioned the Holocaust as a precipitating factor in this doctrinal change. Then, noting that Abraham Heschel called conversion “spiritual fratricide,” he argued that most Jews,  even with Nostra Aetate,were suspicious of residual Christian hopes for conversion in the new Catholic stance. As for Polish reactions to Nostra Aetate, Krajewski pointed out the mono-ethnic nature of postwar Poland and suggested that most Poles were very pleased with this concentrated Roman Catholic Polish identity. Among other things it meant there were few Jewish partners for dialogue after Vatican II. In the 1970s, however, some young Poles, thinking their own culture somewhat insipid, began to look to the past and see pre-Holocaust Jewish culture as especially creative and exciting. Residual antisemitism lingered; yet now, Krajewski says, the atmosphere is very different. Since the 1990s, January 17 has been celebrated as a “Day of Judaism,” with clergy in some areas hosting inter-religious events. Jewish-Catholic dialogue takes place, though Krajewski thinks it still falls short of deep, doctrinal reconciliation, a situation he thinks true outside Poland as well. Finally, he says that antisemitism is unacceptable in today’s Poland, even though the depth of this change among the laity cannot be fully known.

Katarzyna Stoklosa gave a second paper on Poland, beginning with a description of the somewhat fraught relationship of Poland toward Vatican II. The Polish people seem to have been relatively unaware of and/or suspicious of this council. Some even considered any reconciliation with Judaism a “poisoning” of the Catholic faith. The government also was suspicious of Vatican II, fearing among other things, that any Polish priests who attended might not return. One bishop led a pilgrimage to Rome, which pushed the government into a limited cooperation. In the end, 250 Polish priests attended, rather than the higher figure of 1500 that once had been considered. Among the most important outcomes may have been the chance for Polish and German bishops to spend considerable time together and establish the basis for future contact.

Other papers included one on Switzerland by Franziska Metzger of Fribourg. She described the Swiss postwar circumstances as a time in which social questions grew in importance, both in terms of how the churches could nurture the holding on to moral values and how they could adjust to modernization. Vatican II represented a moment of change, so that by the 1970s churches in Switzerland began looking toward questions of equality, pluralism, social change and social justice, a direction that has continued since then.

Gerhard Besier, speaking about Vatican II and ecumenism, noted that Catholics had been resistant to ecumenical efforts in the late-1940s and 1950s. The World Council of Churches finally got Catholics to participate in the 1961 meeting in Delhi. He sees an ongoing difference, perhaps especially in Germany, in which Protestants see ecumenism as a willingness to live with differences, but Catholics see in ecumenism the goal of eventual unity. This has led to a certain amount of “phantom” discussion, according to Besier, and a discussion not accessible to the laity. As for the laity, Besier sees a Germany in which most people are less and less concerned with the arguments and goals of church leaders as they seek contentment in this life. One example? In Germany today the children of mixed marriages are supposed to divide by gender, with boys taking the religion of the father and girls that of the mother. In practice, according to Besier, fathers are likely not to press their “advantage,” nor are any in the family likely to attend church on a regular basis.

Mikko Ketola, speaking about the reception of Vatican II in Finland, similarly described a very broad change, in this case from the early to the late twentieth century. Starting with the recognition of the nearly universal dominance of the Lutheran church in Finland, Ketola noted a population of only 999 Catholics in 1940, a similar number to Jews. In the 1920s a Lutheran bishop had described Catholicism and Bolshevism as “the two greatest threats” to Finland. An analysis of Finnish attitudes toward Catholicism in 1959 described a “prejudice resting upon a firm foundation of ignorance.” Suspicion greeted Vatican II in the 1960s. However, the rapid modernization of Finland which began about that time, along with specific leadership on these issues, resulted by the 1980s with a Finland transformed, by then a “model of ecumenism.”

Hans Hermann Henrix reported on the impact of Nostra Aetate in three Eastern European nations: Russia, White Russia, and Ukraine. In all cases this reception was influenced by 1) the impact of Soviet policy through 1989, 2) the small number of surviving Jews after the Shoah, and 3) the small number of Catholics in relation to the dominance of Eastern Orthodoxy. Nostra Aetate was first translated into Ukrainian in 1996, into Russian in 1998, and first published in White Russia in 2009. In each case the Catholic Church is a small part of the population, as few as 600,000-800,000 among the 140 million Russians, for example. Also, the post-Shoah Jewish population is very small, although Ukrainian independence led to something of a Jewish “rebirth,” with a population today of 400,000. In all cases there have been efforts at Jewish-Christian dialogue and at developing Catholic respect for the Jewish faith in line with Nostra Aetate. These efforts are quite recent and often center around attempts to celebrate January 17 as a “Day of Judaism.” St. Petersburg, for example, has held such a festival in 2012, 2014, and 2015. A similar Ukrainian celebration took place in 2013 and 2014, although it failed to take place in 2015, due to the political crises that year. White Russia has been a place of Jewish-Christian dialogue since a large international conference in Minsk in November 2009.

Robert Ericksen moved outside the Middle and East European orbit of this conference to give a report on the North American discussion of Nostra Aetate. American bishops considered themselves natural leaders in the post-Vatican II discussion, especially because of the large number of Jews living in the United States by the 1960s, and also because of certain American ideas about respect for religious freedom. In March 1967, the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops published their “Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations,” taking very seriously the radical nature of Nostra Aetate with its insistence that Catholics could no longer teach Christian supersession in God’s eyes or Christian contempt for Jews and Judaism. Ericksen showed the assertive nature of Jewish voices in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, voices of individuals such as Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim. He also described the increasingly substantive trajectory of change within the Christian-Jewish relationship to be found in the recent work of Catholic figures such as Father John Pawlikowski.

Tobias Weger completed this conference with a presentation on new church architecture in Poland and Germany and its reflection of Vatican II. One aspect involves a greater emphasis on lay participation along with a less rigorous assertion of the priest’s authority as the voice of God. This can be seen in the placement and style of furnishings in relation to the altar. Another emphasis is upon local history and aesthetic preferences, so that there is no single style to which a Catholic church must conform. In all cases, the discussion of Vatican II at this conference involved a recognition that it pointed in the direction of significant change. Furthermore, these changes continue to mark the Catholic Church and the Christian world in our day.