The Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate was nothing short of a “revolution” in Catholic teaching regarding Jews, according to John Connelly, but Catholics have failed to “appreciate the change that took place” and therefore “continue to return to pre-revolutionary patterns of thought without knowing it” as the church’s “leaders keep reverting back to the pre-Vatican II period in their pronouncements.” First among his sample list of culprits: Pope Benedict XVI (3). Connelly credits such missteps to the “failure to comprehend Nostra Aetate in its historic development” (3) and so seeks to offer a history of this “revolution,” from its beginnings in the 1930s to the “Vatican II revolution” (2) in 1965.
Connelly holds that the “revolution” stemmed from a sort of rediscovery of Paul’s Letter to the Romans 9-11, which, he asserts, had been long neglected. From these three chapters, a few pre-WWII Catholics drew their inspiration as they began to create the intellectual milieu that would eventually lead to Nostra Aetate, employing Paul’s words “against the superficial if popular assumptions of Catholic racism” and after the war “against the deeply rooted beliefs of Christian anti-Judaism” (6). These thinkers who brought Romans 9-11 to the forefront of Catholic teaching and offered a new vision for Catholic-Jewish reconciliation were nearly all converts to the Catholic Church, and most were born Jewish. Connelly’s book, accordingly, is a story of the converts without whom “the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to Jews after the Holocaust” (5) drawing inspiration from Romans 9-11, without which “the church would have had no language to speak to Jews after the Holocaust” (299).
Chapters 1-2 set the scene in interwar Europe, when church authorities frequently condemned Nazism but not always “racial antisemitism,” often falling victim to state ideology and defaulting too hastily to popular (“race”) science. Chapter 3 is a particularly interesting exploration of what Connelly terms the “racist syndrome” that had arisen among many German Catholics, as traditional theological vocabulary (most notably, Volk, Reich and Blut) came to bear new, increasingly nationalistic and racist overtones in the context of the interwar liturgical, political, and biological developments.
Having established the rarity of outspoken anti-racist Catholics, Connelly turns in the next chapter to foreground such Catholics who became politically active in the 1930s apart from the Vatican and outside of Hitler’s reach. “These Catholics, mostly German émigrés, mined Christian thought as well as modern science for arguments that would upset the intellectual bases of Nazi rule” (94). Connelly focuses especially upon Johannes Oesterreicher (a Jewish convert), Dietrich von Hildebrand and Karl Thieme (both Protestant converts) who came to directly and indirectly inspire Nostra Aetate. Chapter 5 catalogs their varied attempts (along with others) to sway wider Catholic opinion, including that of the pope, toward a new vision of Jews at the outset of WWII.
Turning to the postwar period in the next chapter, Connelly’s wide-ranging knowledge of a variety of sources, from small weeklies to major books, enables him to assess well the progressive Catholic reexamination of historical anti-Judaism in light of the recent effects of antisemitism. This reexamination eventually grew into the intellectual debates of the 1950s (chapter 7), as the language and formulations that would be crystallized in Nostra Aetate began to arise, even in the most unlikely of places.
Chapter 8 describes the events, subcommittees, and mandates that directly produced Nostra Aetate in 1965, highlighting the exegetical and theological debates and international and ecclesial politics deeply imbedded in the varied drafts, omissions, and additions that became the final Declaration of Vatican II. Chapter 9, largely through the particular case of Johannes Oesterreicher, surveys the changes in Catholic understandings of Jews that began to take shape in the aftermath of Vatican II.
Connelly is not a theologian, biblical scholar, or historian of pre-modern Christianity, but a historian of the modern period, a careful cataloger of the key sources that come together in his overarching, thoughtfully constructed narrative of the “revolution” in twentieth-century Catholic thought. Despite the fact that his case is sometimes overstated (E.g., his assertion that the second half of the twentieth century was “the first time since the days of Justin Martyr that Jews and Christians had discussed any theological matter other than whether or not Christ was the Messiah”  depends on his twentieth-century subjects and disregards significant patristic and medieval sources that show otherwise), he does well to highlight the shift in Catholic teaching and the danger of neglecting it should Jewish-Catholic dialogue carry on fruitfully. Therefore, while one must look elsewhere for a fuller picture of Jewish-Christian interaction and exegesis prior to the modern period, this book is a welcome exposition of the events surrounding the promulgation from Vatican II and the continuing effect it has had and will have on Jewish-Christian interaction.