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Church Councils

Church Councils are 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 others have been held in Western Europe. Vatican II was the 21st, and met in four sessions in 1962–65.

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 like 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 usury in connection with Jews had been first mentioned by the council of Avignon (1209) and of Paris (1213). Lateran IV took it up and thereafter it remained practically a constant at conciliar gatherings. As early as the 11th century, two local councils (Gerona 1067–68, 1078) demanded that Jews pay to the local churches the tithe on land which had formerly belonged to Christians. Lateran IV repeated this demand, and many local councils which followed in the next two centuries extended it to all land in Jewish possession. But the decision of Lateran IV which had the most baleful influence on Jewish life was the enactment of a rule that Jews must so dress as to be easily distinguishable from Christians. This was soon institutionalized into the Jewish *badge , about which resolutions were passed by more than 40 councils in every part of Western and Central Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. It was another step in creating that separation between Jews and Christians which had begun with the prohibition against sharing a meal with Jews, continued in the enactment against living in the same house (e.g., the council of Breslau in 1266), and ended in the establishment of a *ghetto if not in total expulsion. The provincial councils of Breslau (1266), Vienna (1267), and Buda (1279) enacted complete codes for the guidance of their more recently Christianized populations, enumerating all the anti-Jewish legislation that had developed in the parts of Europe farther west. For the actual body of this legislation was now complete and all that remained for the local councils to do was to reiterate those regulations that needed stricter enforcement.

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.

[Solomon Grayzel]

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 criticized in the press by Jews and non-Jews who also pointed out the dire situation of the Jews of Rome who were still living in a ghetto (abolished only when the city was taken by Italian troops and annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870). Since the council broke up prematurely on October 20, 1870, the postulatum was not discussed.

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:

As this sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.

Thus, the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ – Abraham’s sons according to faith – are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ Our Peace reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself.

The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: “theirs is the sonship and the glory and the convenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4–5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s mainstay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ’s Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews, in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues – such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph. 3:9).

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

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 Irving *Greenberg and David *Hartman have argued against the position of Rabbi Joseph Dov Baer *Soloveitchik regarding interreligious dialogue.

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:

In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official Church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism. These statements have declared, furthermore, that Christian teaching and preaching can and must be reformed so that they acknowledge God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people and celebrate the contribution of Judaism to world civilization and to Christian faith itself.

We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves – an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars – we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity. As a first step, we offer eight brief statements about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another.

Jews and Christians worship the same God.

Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book – the Bible (what Jews call “Tanakh” and Christians call the “Old Testament”).

Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.

Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.

Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. We applaud those Christians who reject this teaching of contempt, and we do not blame them for the sins committed by their ancestors.

The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice. Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.

Hundreds of Jewish scholars and rabbis of all denominations signed this document. It would not have been possible without Vatican II.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)

For developments in Catholic-Jewish relations after Vatican II, see also Catholic Church.


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. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.