Monsignor George Higgins, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Zachariah Shuster, and the Declaration on the Relation between the Church and Non-Christian Religions


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Useful web resources

1. Historical context of the source

Two traditions have characterized Catholic attitudes toward Jews since the beginning of Christianity, one accepting and protective, and one overtly oppositional. The first attitude is articulated in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which speaks of Christians as being engrafted onto the olive tree of Israel planted by God. Here, Judaism and Christianity are positively linked, rather than antagonistic, and several Catholic popes have served with this outlook toward Judaism.  Callixtus II, for example, issued a papal bull in 1120 condemning the forced baptism of Jews, acts of violence against them, and the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In 1233, Gregory IX demanded that Jews in Christian countries be treated humanely. But alongside this tradition of acceptance is one of separation, contempt, and hostility. St. John Chrysostom articulated this latter position in 387 in a series of sermons to the earliest Gentiles. The Jews, Chrysostom said, ‘are possessed by demons, they are handed over to impure spirits … Instead of greeting them and addressing them as much as a word, you should turn away from them as from a pest and a plague of the human race.’ Throughout the millennia the position of the popes toward the Jewish faith has, as Frank J. Coppa notes, oscillated between ‘paternal protection and overt persecution.’

With the French and Industrial Revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the popes often found themselves at odds with the liberal and nationalist ideologies sweeping across Europe.  Early nineteenth century anti-Judaism evolved in the context of the Church’s revolt against the modern liberalism that undermined its power.  As racial antisemitism emerged in the late nineteenth century, the Church’s anti-modernism and rejection of religious liberty often put Catholics on the side of the antisemites.  Pius IX might have used the emancipatory spirit of the period to reform the church’s official attitude toward Jews, but he ultimately chose not to do so, believing it would weaken his authority.  This attitude prevailed into the early twentieth century, as the popes also came to associate Jews with the rise of Communism in Europe.  The disinclination to recognize Judaism as a legitimate faith thus combined with a suspicion that the Jews were de-Christianizing Europe.

One result of the popes’ loss of worldly power by the 1920s and 30s was the adoption of a more reactive mode of collaboration or resistance to antisemitic acts and regimes.  Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958) recognized that the dehumanization of Jews by the fascists, in both Italy and Germany, was anti-Christian and dangerous, but this did not prevent them from signing treaties with the leaders of those countries. Pius XI was clearly the more resistant to Nazi persecution of the Jews than was Pius XII, as the former’s commissioning of the writing of the encyclical condemning antisemitism, Humani Generis Unitas, suggests.  In a tragic manner, Pius XII would choose not to issue the encyclical after his predecessor’s death, fearing retaliation by the Nazis.

Catholic teaching has fueled opposition and contempt toward Jews throughout Christian history in a variety of ways, inculcating Catholics with anti-Judaic views and promoting antisemitic activities.  Several scholars have examined the ways that religiously inspired Christian anti-Judaism created a context for a range of racially-motivated anti-Semitic activities, most egregiously the Nazi anti-Semitism that informed the Holocaust.  Theologically, liturgically, and culturally, Catholicism has possessed a strain of anti-Judaism, and this served to inform attitudes toward Jews in all of Western civilization.

It was into this tangled and often tragic history that Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) announced that an ecumenical council would convene.  The purpose of the ecumenical council is to convene all of the bishops of the church in order to discuss and settle matters of doctrine and practice; the first had taken place in 325, summoned at Nicaea by Emperor Constantine.  Pope John XXIII called the 21st such Council, the Second Council held at the Vatican, and it would address the Catholic Church’s relation to the modern world.  Announced in 1959, the Council opened in October 1962 and annual sessions of nine weeks each were held over the next four years.  Vatican II was a meeting of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, amounting to the largest gathering of bishops in the history of the church, with more than 2,600 present.

Among the many matters the Council would address was the Church’s relation to non-Catholic religious groups, including those of the Jewish faith.  Catholics of the United States were especially interested in Catholic-Jewish relations, in part because of their shared experiences of urban immigration, and of religious and ethnic exclusion in the U.S.   In general, U.S. bishops favored a positive statement on the relationship of Catholicism to Judaism.

Indeed, the U.S. Bishops and their advisors strongly influenced the statement on Jews and other non-Catholics that emerged from the council, Nostra Aetate (Latin for ‘In Our Time’), also known as the ‘Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,’ and the U.S. Bishops would do more than many other countries to implement the Declaration.  The Declaration said that the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in non-Christian religions, noted common ground between Christians and Muslims, called for an end to antisemitism, and insisted that Jews not be presented as rejected or cursed by God, saying that neither all Jews of Christ’s day nor the Jews of today can be considered guilty of Christ’s passion and death.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created a Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish relations, which issued ‘Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs’ toward guiding implementation of the Declaration.  Dioceses across the country held workshops and interfaith activities, as a result of Bishops’ initiative and of their own volition.  In short, the Declaration kicked off a new era of Christian-Jewish relations in the U.S.

2. Source

Letters reproduced from the Monsignor George Higgins papers courtesy of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Correspondence (pdf)

3. Discussion of the source

‘They were among the best friends I ever have had, and it makes me feel old and a bit sad to realize that, one by one, they have all passed away.  We in the Catholic community are going to miss them very much.  May they rest in peace.’  So wrote Monsignor George Higgins (1916-2002) in ‘Remembering Marc Tanenbaum, an American Pioneer’ on the occasion of the man’s death in 1992.  Also mentioned as one of this group of ‘best friends’ was Zachariah Shuster.  Tanenbaum and Shuster were leaders of the American Jewish Committee’s efforts to promote interreligious understanding and both were present during the deliberations that took place around the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’ (Nostra Aetate), issued on October 28, 1965.

Monsignor George Higgins, who served on the staff of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (later renamed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) from 1944-1980, is known mostly for his work in the U.S. on behalf of organized labor.  However, he was also a critical figure in the area of American Catholic-Jewish relations in the second half of the twentieth century, though this activity is less well-known.  Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum (1925-1992) served as Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee from 1961 until 1983, and became the International Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).  He would serve with the American Jewish Committee for nearly 30 years, strongly shaping its course and becoming a well-known advocate for open dialogue between Christians and Jews. Zachariah Shuster (1903-1986), who served as Director of the American Jewish Committee’s European Office from 1948 to 1974, directed programs to rebuild and secure Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa.

The three men shared a talent for reconciling different viewpoints in the context of strongly emotional and intellectually thorny circumstances.

Higgins, a Chicago-born priest who became intensely interested in labor issues while a graduate student in Economics at Catholic University in the 1940s, was skilled in labor arbitration, mediated dozens of labor disputes, and served as a key figure in resolving the U.S. United Farmworkers Strike, headed by Cesar Chavez in the late sixties and early seventies.  Higgins’ interest in Catholic-Jewish relations, according to Eugene Fisher, arose in the context of the shared experiences of Jews and Catholics in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class immigrant communities in the U.S.  Catholics and Jews had worked together in organized labor activities throughout the early twentieth century, and, from this set of experiences, Higgins found interfaith work would follow naturally.

Baltimore-born Tanenbaum suffered anti-Jewish discrimination as a young man when he was rejected for admission at Johns Hopkins University because the set quota for Jews had been reached; he decided to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the rabbinic school of Conservative Judaism.  He was ordained in 1950, and accepted a post as Director of the Synagogue Council of America (SCA) in 1952.

Shuster, a native of Poland, migrated to the U.S. in 1927, and began working for the AJC during the Second World War.  He served on a delegation to the United Nations in 1945, and began heading the European Branch of the AJC, headquartered in Paris, in 1948.

Higgins’ involvement in social issues with members of the Jewish community gave him insight into their institutional operations, and made him someone that Jewish leaders would turn toward when he became a ‘peritus’, or expert advisor, on the role of the laity and social justice issues, as well as the U.S. Bishops’ English language spokesman at the Second Vatican Council.  Eugene Fisher contends that Higgins ‘functioned through the years of the Second Vatican Council as a link, and perhaps the most crucial link, between world Jewry and the council fathers.’

Tanenbaum was deeply committed to Judaism, but rejected what he called ‘narrow and repressive’ versions of the faith, which he found hampered his work at the SCA.  With a special interest in interreligious activity toward ending antisemitism, he sought to promote dialogue between the National Council of Churches and the Synagogue Council, finding the work difficult due to internal disagreements among members of the Council.  Shuster’s post at the European Office of the AJC, and his longstanding interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue, uniquely situated him to represent the AJC at Vatican II.  Hence this trio formed the friendship that so deeply impacted each of them, as well as the proceedings around the Declaration, and to which Higgins refers in Tanenbaum’s obituary, quoted above.

When Pope John XXIII announced the Ecumenical Council in 1959, Tanenbaum saw a unique opportunity to improve the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.  Still with the SCA at this point, he believed his efforts were hampered by the organization’s ban on religious dialogue with Christians, a ban that also existed in the Catholic community.  Indeed, the AJC, founded in 1906 to combat antisemitism and promote interreligious dialogue, was one of the few Jewish organizations to take the Ecumenical Council seriously.  When Tanenbaum became the AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, he found a place to put his interests in Catholic-Jewish relations to good use.

Cardinal Augustin Bea (1881-1968), a German scholar of biblical studies and biblical archeology, served as the first President of the newly formed Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity from 1960 until 1968.  In this post, Bea would oversee the drafting of the Declaration.  Bea’s ecumenism and biblical knowledge played a crucial role in the drafting of the document, and it was through his efforts, as well as those of Pope John XXIII’s, that the document was approved by the Council.  The Declaration was officially promulgated by the Pope on October 28, 1965.

Higgins was closely connected to the Declaration, though his role was a largely hidden one.  Higgins was asked by an emissary of Cardinal Bea for advice on which U.S. Bishops would support the Declaration early in the Council, and Higgins eventually held a meeting with Bea himself, as would Tanenbaum and Shuster.  Higgins, moreover, was, as Gerald M. Costello notes, ‘an intimate participant’ in the preparation of the Declaration, ‘never as an actual member of the commission or a drafter of the document, but as a liaison between Jewish observers at the Council and the bishops, and as a writer of speeches for several American bishops who supported it on the Council floor.’ The AJC was asked to submit memoranda to the Secretariat on the image of Jews in Catholic schoolbooks and the Catholic liturgy.  In 1963 the AJC arranged a meeting between rabbis in the U.S. and Cardinal Bea, which was judged successful, with Bea affirming the need for ‘interreligious communication and cooperation.’

Two of those whom Higgins liaised extensively with on these matters were Tanenbaum and Shuster.  Tanenbaum made trips to Rome from the New York office, and ran affairs largely from the U.S., while Shuster met with Higgins and others to confer in Rome.  The correspondence reproduced here takes place between the three men around the drafting of the Declaration, and reveals a behind-the scenes collaboration on the document that amounts to a revolution in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward members of the Jewish faith.

4. Questions for discussion

As you examine the correspondence, consider the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum’s October 2, 1962 letter to Monsignor George Higgins?  What do you think that Tanenbaum is hoping Higgins will achieve?
  2. How would you describe:
    1. Higgins’ October 4, 1962 response to Tanenbaum?
    2. Higgins’ December 12, 1962 letter to Zachariah Shuster?
  3. Zachariah Shuster’s December 29, 1962 and January 23, 1963 letters to Higgins discusses Shuster’s meeting and attitudes toward Cardinal Augustin Bea, the individual in charge of overseeing the drafting of the Church’s Declaration on non-Christian Religions, including those of the Jewish faith.  How would you describe Shuster’s attitude toward Bea?
  4. How would you describe Higgins’s responses to Shuster on the Cardinal Bea matter in his letters of January and February 1963, which are responding to Shuster?
  5. In his May 15, 1964 letter to Tanenbaum, Higgins makes a request for materials related to the Holocaust.  Why is Higgins making this request?  Why would he ask for materials from “Non-Jewish” sources?
  6. The letters between Higgins and Tanenbaum dated from December 14, 1965 and December 30, 1965 represent the final letters of correspondence between the two in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Declaration.  How would you characterize the correspondence?  If you wanted to research the reactions of the two men to the Declaration further, to what sources might you turn?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Banki, Judith H. and Eugene J. Fisher. (eds.) (2002)  A Prophet for Our Time; and Anthology of the Writings of Rabbi Marc. H. Tanenbaum.  New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Coppa, Frank J. (2006) The Papacy, the Jews, and the Holocaust.  Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of American Press.
  • Costello, Gerald M. (1984) Without Fear of Favor; George Higgins on the Record. Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications.
  • Fisher, Eugene A., James Rudin, and Marc H. Tanenbaum (eds.) (1986) Twenty Years of Jewish-Catholic Relations. New York: Paulist Press.
  • Fisher, Eugene J. (2001) ‘Catholic-Jewish Relations.’ U.S. Catholic Historian. Vol. 19 No. 4.
  • O’Malley, John W. (2010) What Happened at Vatican II.  Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University.
  • Wolleh, Lothar. (1966) The Council; The Second Vatican Council.  New York: Viking Press.
  • ‘Zachariah Shuster, Ex-Aide With American Jewish Group’ obituary, New York Times, February 16, 1986.

6. Useful web resources


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s