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American Catholics have favorable views of Jews

But many remain unaware of church teachings on Jews and Judaism nearly six decades after Second Vatican Council rejected antisemitism
Two Jews wearing traditional kippah (skull cap) talk to each other while standing near the wailing wall in Jerusalem

Two Jews wearing traditional kippah (skull cap) talk to each other while standing near the wailing wall in Jerusalem. (Photo: Canva)

Published: March 29, 2023 05:33 AM GMT
Updated: March 29, 2023 05:38 AM GMT

A new study shows that American Catholics largely have favorable or at least neutral opinions of Jews, but many Catholics remain unaware of church teachings on Jews and Judaism almost 60 years after the Second Vatican Council explicitly rejected antisemitism, and after extensive post-conciliar teaching has called for a deepening of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

The results of "American Catholic Attitudes toward Jews, Judaism, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" were unveiled March 22 during a panel discussion with the study's authors, hosted by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Discussing their findings were IJCR co-directors Philip Cunningham and Adam Gregerman, both professors of theology; Kirill Bunim, dean of graduate studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts; and Mordechai Inbari, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Bunim and Inbari had conducted similar research in 2021 on American evangelical Christian views of Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and compared several aspects between the two studies during the presentation.

Of the 1,241 U.S. Catholics surveyed for the newly released project, 54.2% had "good" or "very good" overall opinions of Jews. Another 41.5% described themselves as either "neutral" or uncertain, and 4.3% said they had "poor" or "very poor" opinions.

Asked for more theologically nuanced perspectives on Jews, close to 36% of Catholic respondents said Jews "enjoy a special relationship with God."

Almost 42% of the respondents said God's covenant with the Jews remains intact, echoing what Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed following the Second Vatican Council, which saw St. Paul VI’s promulgation in 1965 of "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time"), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. The text was the Catholic Church's first formal denunciation of "hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone," while affirming the "spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews."

That language marked a seismic shift from centuries of what French historian Jules Isaac had called a "teaching of contempt" toward the Jewish community by numerous Catholic and Christian theologians who over the centuries denounced Jews as accursed, blaming them for rejecting and killing Jesus Christ.

In accord with church teaching, most of the survey participants did not assign blame to the Jews for Jesus' crucifixion, with 41.6% citing "the sins of humanity" and 28.2% pointing to Rome or Pontius Pilate.

A significant majority (61.7%) of the respondents said that Catholics should discuss religious beliefs without seeking to convert Jews, also aligning with post-conciliar church teaching. In 2015, for example, the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," called for dialogue between the two faiths to deepen their knowledge of each other; to work together for justice, peace and freedom; and to combat antisemitism.

Social contact with Jews improves Catholics' perceptions of them, said the researchers, who also found that 61.7% of respondents were more likely to have Jewish friends, to regard Jews as having a special relationship with God, and to believe that salvation is not exclusive to Christians. The Catholic Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 846) that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head, through the Church which is his Body," while acknowledging that Christ can make salvation possible to those of other or no faiths, without diminishing what St. John Paul II termed in his 1990 encyclical "Redemptoris Missio" ("The Mission of the Redeemer") "the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation."

But culture, rather than catechesis, appears to be at work in the above data point, since several of the survey's results indicated uncertainty or lack of awareness regarding church teaching on Jews and Judaism -- which 61.3% of the respondents admitted, saying they were "somewhat" (39.3%) or "very unfamiliar" (22%) with this teaching.

Just 42.5% of those surveyed said they did not know if God's covenant with the Jews was still intact, with 15.8% responding it had ended or had never existed. Regarding responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion, some 19% were equally split over "no one is to blame" and not knowing; another 11% said the Jews were responsible.

Slightly less than 21% described Judaism as "a non-Christian religion," almost 28% said they were unsure about their beliefs regarding Jews, and 13.3% said Jews were "cursed by God" or "used to be the Chosen People."

While the survey did not focus specifically on respondents' demographics, researchers did observe that those under 30 were less likely to be aware of God's ongoing covenant with Jews (and in fact more likely to believe it had ended), and also less likely to be more seriously concerned about antisemitism.

Paradoxically, the survey data showed anti-Jewish sentiments were more likely among more engaged Catholics than the less engaged. Anti-Jewish sentiments were 19.5% more likely among those who claimed great familiarity with church teaching; were 15.6% more likely among those who said their political, social and moral values were influenced by the church; and were 19.2% more likely among regular churchgoers than infrequent churchgoers.

The survey also explored how familiarity with the Bible impacted Catholic perceptions of Jews, finding that the majority of Catholics were less likely than evangelicals to read Scripture and probably less familiar with the Old Testament, which contains numerous references to God's covenantal relationship with Jews.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Catholic respondents were neutral (35.1%) or uncertain (18.7%), while the majority of U.S. evangelicals from the previous survey voiced strong support for Israel (although most participants from both surveys said they were not very knowledgeable about the conflict). For Catholics, the responses mirror the Vatican's approach of urging both sides to work for a just, equitable resolution. At the same time, Catholics supported Israel (34.8%) over the Palestinians (13.4%).

Bunim, Cunningham, Gregerman and Inbari agreed that expanding their research to include Catholics in other parts of the world would yield a fuller picture of how well Nostra Aetate and post-conciliar teaching has been received among faithful in a variety of cultures.

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