Rabbi Writes History of Catholic-Jewish Relations

“Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations” by James Rudin. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2012). 157 pp., $18.

Rabbi James Rudin has been involved in Jewish-Christian relations for the American Jewish Committee since the late 1960s, and his writing reflects both sound research and a wealth of personal experience.

“Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations,” engagingly written for general readership, tells the story of three key American cardinals who, among others in this country and in Europe, profoundly influenced the development and implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s groundbreaking declaration, “Nostra Aetate,” which redefined and set a new direction for Catholic-Jewish relations after nearly two millennia of mistrust.

Rabbi Rudin sets the context for the mid- to late 20th-century story he tells by going back to its beginnings in the New Testament, a collection of books written by Jews for other Jews presenting a Jewish case for the significance of the life and teaching of the Jew, Jesus. The argument for Jesus met with a great deal of success among Jews, as St. Paul noted, and Christianity spread throughout the then-known world virtually wherever there were Jewish communities to receive its “good news.”

Many Jews, however, did not accept what the increasingly gentile church had to say about Jesus, and the fathers of the church shifted their argument from one for Jesus into one against Jews and Judaism. Despite the positive teachings of St. Augustine and many of the popes regarding Judaism, the treatment of Jews in Christian Europe gradually deteriorated over the centuries. Rabbi Rudin commendably does not oversimplify this long and complex history, though he accurately describes the record “overall” as “a bleak one,” laying the groundwork for the Holocaust.

Rabbi Rudin sketches quite well the parallel Catholic and Jewish immigrant experiences in the United States, together excluded from “proper” neighborhoods, jobs and schools. The Irish immigrant background and personal relations with Jews frame their stories and those of many American bishops who were, collectively, in the forefront of the great battles at the council over one of its shortest yet most revolutionary documents. The speech Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston gave at the council, narrated in riveting fashion by Rabbi Rudin, and the behind-the-scenes political activities of Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of Baltimore were, indeed, instrumental in the ultimate, overwhelming passage of the document. Reading this book makes one feel very good about being an American Catholic!

Rabbi Rudin’s story of New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor’s involvement in Jewish-Catholic relations in the 1980s and 1990s is a more personal one, since he knew Cardinal O’Connor well and worked with him on numerous joint projects over the years.

It takes nothing away from Cardinal O’Connor’s important role, nationally and internationally, in Catholic- Jewish relations in the post-Vatican II era to note that a book featuring three other cardinals in that period would be equally appropriate. They are Cardinals John F. Dearden of Detroit, Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago and William H. Keeler of Baltimore. The first two were the architects of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while Cardinal Keeler was for years in charge of the dialogue nationally and a key adviser to the Holy See.

Fisher is a professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.

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