CHURCH COUNCILS, ecclesiastical assemblies ranging from synods of the lower clergy of a single diocese to ecumenical gatherings of the upper clergy representing the Church as a whole and presided over by the pope or his representative. All but ecumenical councils meet at stated intervals to decide on matters of immediate concern to local Christians. Ecumenical councils are called together when major matters of faith and policy require definition and decision. The first eight ecumenical councils, recognized also by the Roman Church, were summoned by the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and were held in various places of the eastern Mediterranean; the
Many councils – diocesan, provincial, national, and ecumenical – have dealt with matters that concerned the Jews. The very first ecumenical council, that of Nicaea (325), called primarily for the purpose of defining the nature of Jesus, also had before it the problem of transferring the day of rest from the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday, a problem not solved for a long time after. Even before Nicaea, a council in Elvira (Spain) in c. 305 had tried to keep Jews and Christians apart by ordering the latter not to share a meal with Jews, not to marry Jews, not to use Jews to bless their fields, and not to observe the Jewish Sabbath. These objectives remained constant for centuries. For example, the prohibition against sharing a meal with Jews was repeated at Vannes (465), Epaon (517), Orleans III (538), and Mâcon (583); mixed marriages were prohibited at Orleans II (533), Clermont (535), Orleans III (538), and Orleans IV (541). As Jews entered commerce, pagan and Christian slaves became a subject for conciliar legislation. The trade in slaves was not forbidden, but Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves and, especially, not to convert any slave to Judaism. These prohibitions were enacted and repeated at Orleans III (538), Orleans IV (541), Mâcon (583), Mâcon (626–27), Rome (743), Meaux and Paris (845–46), and – with less frequency – even later, down to the period of the Crusades.
In the meantime, a series of councils held at Toledo, Spain, during the seventh century adopted the more radical goal of seeking to uproot Judaism entirely. King Reccared (586–601) of Visigothic Spain, after he had abandoned the Arian heresy in favor of Catholicism, gained the complete support of the bishops. At Toledo III (589), it was decreed that children of a mixed marriage had to be Christians, that Jews could not be appointed to positions of authority, i.e., hold public office, and were not permitted to circumcise their slaves. These blows at the social and economic position of the Jews were not enforced by Reccared's immediate successors. King Sisebut (612–620), however, not only reintroduced these laws, but decreed for the Jews of Spain either conversion or exile. Perhaps under the influence of *Isidore of Seville, his successor King Swinthila rescinded the decree and even permitted the converts to revert to Judaism. But reaction came at Toledo IV (633). While condemning conversion by actual force, the council also condemned a return to Judaism. It dissolved mixed marriages, reinstated the regulation against Jews holding public office, applying this even to the descendants of Jews, and forbade slave-holding by Jews. A circumcised slave gained his freedom without compensation to his owner. This attempt at the total solution of the Jewish problem was reinforced at Toledo VI (638) which confirmed the expulsion from the country of the persistent Jews and ordered those already converted to make public confession of their adherence to Christianity. In 653, Toledo VIII reaffirmed all this legislation, as did Toledo IX (655), arranging for the converts to remain under the watchful eye of local priests and bishops. Yet in 681 King Erwig was still complaining (at Toledo XII) that there were Jews in his kingdom, and the council gave him even more authority. Finally, Toledo XVII (694) capped the series of laws by reducing to slavery all those in the Visigothic kingdom still found to be practicing Judaism. Their children were to be taken away to be brought up by Christians and to be married off to Christians. Property owned by declared or suspected Jews was confiscated. Only the Muslim conquest of Spain (711) restored Jewish life there.
The Visigothic experience proved that conciliar canons could be enforced only with the cooperation of royal authority. But such cooperation was not forthcoming in the rest of Western Europe at that time, where the Jews were still an indispensable economic factor. About a score of local councils were held in the 7th to the 11th centuries whose regulations concerning Jewish life have come down to us. With some slight modifications, they dealt with the same subjects: slave-ownership by Jews, social contacts with Jews, and Jews in public office. The council of Clichy (626–627) added that a Jew who accepted public office must be compelled to undergo conversion. For the most part the decisions remained ineffective. The provincial council of Meaux-Paris (845–46) showed an awareness of the situation. Under the influence of *Amulo, the zealous bishop of Lyons, this council repeated most of the existing restrictions and added some new ones on the subject of greater conversionary efforts and domestic service to Jews by free Christians. It then urged Emperor Charles the Bald to ratify this body of law. It was a clear attempt by the council to give the state a unified base along the lines of Visigothic Spain of the seventh century. However, the emperor disregarded the council's request, so that the Church canons continued to be violated. They were, however, incorporated in collections of canon law to be used later, when the state was more amenable to Church direction.
The age of the Crusades brought a vast increase in Church influence as well as a change for the worse in the status of the Jews. The results were to be noted in new emphases in the regulations passed by all councils and in the growing importance of ecumenical councils over local councils, which in most instances merely accepted guidance from above. As Jewish involvement in international commerce decreased, for example, the problem of Jewish-owned slaves was mentioned hardly at all, whereas the question of employment of Christians as domestics and wet nurses recurred constantly after the ecumenical *Lateran III (1179). The same ecumenical council revived and adjusted to its own time two provisions that dated back to the Code of *Theodosius and had received only occasional mention in previous local councils, namely the use of Jewish witnesses in lawsuits between a Jew and a Christian and a convert's inheritance rights. A number of local councils took up these regulations, insisting that witnesses must be equally balanced between adherents of the two religions and that a convert ought not be disinherited.
The ecumenical Lateran IV (1215) extended the anti-Jewish enactments in a number of directions. The subject of
The ability of councils to enforce their regulations was limited. In some instances they could rely on the confessional, i.e., they could declare social contacts with Jews sinful. The use of a Jewish physician, for example, was a sin which called for confession and penance, as laid down in the councils of Trier in 1227 and Magdeburg in 1370 and in a dozen other councils between those dates. When the forbidden activity depended on the Jews, like moneylending at interest, where the Church found it impossible to enforce its prohibition directly, many councils resorted to the threat of imposing on the Christians a boycott of economic relations with the Jews. But there were still other regulations – like the appointment of Jews to public office, or acceptance of their testimony in a civil lawsuit – which could be enforced only with the aid of the civil authorities. In such cases, a threat of excommunication was made against the offending king, noble, or town official. By the end of the 15th century, the status of the Jews had so deteriorated that the problem solved itself, since the state willingly enforced the regulations of the Church. Thus the important ecumenical council of Constance (1414–18) discussed a variety of restrictive enactments against the Jews, but these remained, for political reasons, unratified by the newly elected pope. The next ecumenical council, that of Basle-Ferrara-Florence (1431–45), passed an inclusive code of anti-Jewish regulations. Since these were enacted while the council did not enjoy full papal approval, they also remained without full papal confirmation. No real confirmation was needed, however, for the regulations contained almost nothing that had not been mentioned in previous conciliar decrees and that the states of Central Europe were not ready to enforce; they were, in fact, already moving toward the establishment of ghettos.
The area of Jewish cultural and religious life received scant attention from Church councils. The prohibition against Jews having more than one synagogue in a town, and against their enlarging and decorating it, dated from the Theodosian Code (438). It was revived by several important councils (Oxford, 1232, and again in 1287; Chichester, 1245; Breslau, 1266; Vienna, 1267; Zamora, 1313; Prague, 1346, and again in 1355). However the attempts to interfere with synagogue worship had been few: *Agobard and Amulo of Lyons had tried in the ninth century; King James I of Aragon after the *Barcelona disputation had made attempts to force the Jews to listen to conversionary sermons, which were very soon discontinued. The ecumenical council of Vienne (1311–12) urged the introduction of Hebrew and Arabic into the university curriculum in order to train men for conversionary preaching. At the irregular ecumenical council at Basle (1431–37) bishops were asked to compel Jewish men and women to hear sermons on Christianity. With this in view, Basle repeated the enactment about teaching Hebrew at the universities. At the time, almost two centuries had passed since Gregory IX had initiated attacks on the Talmud and other rabbinical works (1239). The councils of Béziers (1255) and Toulouse (1319), both in southern France, echoed the papal policy by urging the proscription of this literature. On the whole, however, the matter was left to the popes. It became a very live issue again early in the 16th century as a result of the *Reuchlin-*Pfefferkorn controversy, although the ecumenical council Lateran V did not raise the proscription at its sessions. The ecumenical council of Trent (1545–48, 1551–52, 1562–63) was expected to forbid the reprinting of the Talmud, but was with great difficulty prevailed upon not to legislate on the subject since the Jews consented to permit a thorough censorship. Nevertheless, at the instance of Pope Paul *IV, while still a cardinal, the Talmud had been burned in Rome in 1553, and in the Papal States at least its possession and study were normally prohibited down to the 19th century.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries legislation about the Jews was hardly needed. Besides, other problems loomed larger for the Church in such Catholic lands as still harbored Jews.
Vatican Councils I and II
At the 20th ecumenical council (Vatican I, 1869–70) an abortive attempt was made to deal with the Jews. The Lémann brothers, who had been born into a Jewish family of Dijon and had converted to Catholicism at the age of 17 and become priests, presented a postulatum, signed by 510 fathers of the council, to the First Vatican Council, in which they asked the council to call upon the Jewish people to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. The call to conversion was sharply
The Second Vatican Council (1962–65), called on the initiative of Pope *John XXIII, also dealt with the attitude of the Catholic Church toward Judaism. A declaration, Nostraaetate ("In Our Time"), on the attitude of the Church toward non-Christian religions, was formulated by Cardinal *Bea and the Secretariat for Christian Unity, and was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It reads:
The declaration in its final form is weaker than its penultimate draft, the result of the deliberations of the fathers of the council in 1964, and some of its formulations are not clear. Nevertheless it has contributed to the general recognition by the Catholic Church of demands for better relations between it and the Jewish people which hitherto had been fostered only by outsiders.
[Willehad Paul Eckert]
The last four decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have been a period of greater harmony and significantly less tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews. The tentative steps undertaken by Vatican II led also to a series of steps that improved Catholic-Jewish relations enormously. The liturgy for Good Friday was changed; so too the scriptural readings. All this translated itself into the classroom and Church catechism, changing the way that Roman Catholic faithful respond to Jews and to Judaism.
The Vatican council led to the introduction of Jewish faculties teaching theology at major American Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, Loyola, Seton Hall, Fordham, and many others. Judaism is taught in the Roman Catholic parochial schools in the United States and teaching of the Holocaust has been widespread within the Roman Catholic school system.
More Church bodies have apologized for acts of omission and commission during the Holocaust. Some statements have been bolder than others, but the general tendency has been to accept a greater measure of responsibility for the past and the future.
Under the papacy of Pope John Paul II, diplomatic relations were established with Israel, the Bishop of Rome prayed in a Roman synagogue for the first time in two millennia and gave unprecedented recognition of Jewish post-Christian continuity by praying at the Western Wall and visiting the offices of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, one religious leader paying a courtesy call on other religious leaders.
While there have been conflicts and outstanding issues, it is clear that relations between Roman Catholics and Jews have dramatically improved and this has drawn a significant response from the Jewish community. Orthodox rabbis such as
No one has articulated the change of atmosphere more clearly than the National Jewish Scholars Project in the United States. It issued a statement on Jewish Christian relations – Dabru Emet – which reads in part:
This document was signed by hundreds of Jewish scholars and rabbis of all denominations. It would not have been possible without Vatican II.
[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)
For developments in Catholic-Jewish relations after Vatican II, see also *Church, Catholic.
J.W. Parkes, Conflict of the Church and Synagogue (1934, repr. 1964); S. Katz, Jews in the Visigothic and Frankish Kingdoms of Spain and Gaul (1937); B. Blumenkranz, Juifs et chrétiens dans le monde occidental (1960); S. Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century (19662); idem, in: Essays… Solomon B. Freehof (1964), 220–45; idem, in: 75th Anniversary Volume of the JQR (1967), 287–311; Roth, Dark Ages, index; M. Serafian, The Pilgrim (1964); X. Rynne, Letters from Vatican City (1963); idem, Second Session (1964); idem, Third Session (1965); idem, Fourth Session (1966); A. Bea, The Church and the Jewish People (1966).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.