For Catholics, the era in which it was possible to espouse any theory that the Christian Church has “superseded” or “replaced” the Jewish people as God’s Chosen People in the history of salvation ended definitively on October 28, 1965. On that day the world’s Catholic bishops, together with the bishop of Rome, Pope Paul VI, signed the declaration, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), of the Second Vatican Council. Nostra Aetate took the first official, authoritative look at the various supersessionist theories of earlier ages in the centuries-long history of the Church. Though these theories were presumed by many Christians over the ages, no previous Council or Pope ever declared them official Church teaching.

The Council Fathers, rejecting any sense of collective guilt of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, established a stringent official hermeneutic (principle of biblical interpretation) for all subsequent Catholic theological understandings of Jews and Judaism: “The Jews must not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from Sacred Scripture.”1 Since the entire structure of the ancient “teaching of contempt” against Judaism was posited on the erroneous notion that God had “repudiated” the Jews because of their so-called failure to accept Jesus as the Christ, one can no longer denigrate the Jewish people or the Jewish faith using Christian theological premises.

Indeed, the Council went further, insisting that Jews remain God’s people today no less than before the coming of Christ. A recent summary of the conciliar teaching issued by all the bishops of Poland summarizes succinctly the message of the Second Vatican Council for the world’s 900 million Roman Catholics:

“The Church, as God’s people of the new election and covenant, did not disinherit God’s people of the first election and covenant of the gifts received from God. As St. Paul teaches, the Jews, because of their forebears, are the subject of love (Romans 11:28) and therefore, the gift of grace and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). To them belong also ‘the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises’ (Romans 9:4). God thus has not revoked his selection of the Jewish people as the chosen people, but continues to bestow his love. He and only He, the almighty and merciful God, knows the day ‘when all people will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder.’”2

Subsequent statements of the Holy See, such as the 1974 Guidelines and 1985 “Notes,” as well as numerous papal statements, have made the Catholic doctrine on these points even sharper and clearer for Catholic teachers and preachers.3

The 1985 Vatican “Notes on the Correct Presentation of Jews and Judaism,” for example, speaks of the “permanence of Israel” and its “continuous spiritual fecundity” as “a sign to be interpreted within God’s design,” insisting that

“the history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. It continued, especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness—often heroic—of its fidelity to the one God and to ‘exalt Him in the presence of all the living’ (Tobit 13:4), while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the heart of their hope (Passover Seder). Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in Biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship.”4

This section, which goes on to mandate catechetical consideration of the Shoah (the Holocaust) as well as the State of Israel, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of the major elements of supersessionism. The destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora are not to be utilized polemically as a proof of divine punishment for Jewish “failure” to “recognize” Jesus. Rather, the Jewish “no” is properly understood as a “yes” to God’s continuing call to them. Jewish refusal to convert to Christianity is not to be understood as anything less than a faithful witness to God. (The “often heroic” that is used here is in Catholic terminology a way of saying “martyrdom,” so the “Notes” suggest that those Jews killed by Christians for refusing to convert under threat of death should, like the Holy Maccabees, be venerated by the Church today as authentic Martyrs for the faith!)

In a recent statement, Pope John Paul II, citing from the Miqra and the Bavli as well as Catholic sources, gave this authoritative interpretation of the Council:

“The universal openness of Nostra Aetate is anchored in and takes its orientation from a high sense of the absolute singularity of God’s choice of a particular people, ‘His own’ people, Israel according to the flesh, already called ‘God’s people’ (Lumen Gentium 9; cf. Nehemiah 13:1; Numbers 20:4; Deuteronomy 23:1ff). Thus the Church’s reflection on her mission and on her very nature is intrinsically linked with her reflection on the stock of Abraham and on the nature of the Jewish people (N.A., 4). The Church is fully aware that Sacred Scripture bears witness that the Jewish people, this community of faith and custodian of a tradition thousands of years old, is an intimate part of the ‘mystery’ of revelation and salvation.”5

Clearly, such language, though not resolving all outstanding theological issues, indicates how far Church teaching on the official level has come from anything resembling supersessionism or the old “replacement” theologies of the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. No Catholics who wish to consider themselves in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church can espouse or countenance such views today.

The statements made by Professor John Strugnell (now, I understand, hospitalized) are classically anti-Semitic. They deserve to be condemned publicly for what they are: not only sick, but sinful.