Controversial Word ‘Deicide’ Becomes a Cause Celebre at Council

With the distribution in the council of the amended schema on the Church’s relations with non-Christians, what was rumored widely has now become a certainty: the word “deicide” (God-killing) is no longer used in the text in condemning anti-Semitism.

The word which has become a cause celebre since the document was first introduced was contained in its fourth section dealing with the Church’s attitude toward the Jews. The text termed un-Christian the conduct of Christians who charged — and still charge — the Jewish people with “deicide” because of the Gospel account of Christ’s death.

At the meeting of the U.S. bishops’ council press panel following the distribution of the revised text, regular and guest panelists seemed unanimous in assessing the new text as stronger than the old one in condemning anti-Semitism, including the addition of the word “anti-Semitism” itself. Though “deicide” will no longer be contained in the text if the council Fathers approve the new version, panelists pointed out, it is contained in an explanatory note with a clear explanation for its omission.

Why was it omitted? Father Robert Trisco, Church history professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, said some Fathers wanted it removed to avoid any notion of “collective guilt” on the part of the Jewish people for Christ’s death. Others thought the word is ambiguous, and that it may imply that the Church is abandoning the teaching that Christ was God.

Guest panelist Msgr. John Oesterreicher, director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, Newark, N.J., said the explanatory note points out that the word “deicide” has an ugly ring and must disappear from the Christian vocabulary. The priest, a convert from Judaism, said he was convinced that the new wording is stronger than the former even with the omission of the word.

Father Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., of Milwaukee, an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, which framed the document, said the removal of the controversial word was done after “serious questioning by the secretariat itself whether it would substantially change the text.”

“It is a complex question,” he said. “The word itself has many overtones, and its use is so emotion-packed that some thought it should be eliminated. Others — for the same reason — thought it should be kept. Some thought it indicates the incorrect theological notion that God was crucified [rather than Jesus in His human nature]. Others felt that it was being used as a political club and that its retention would encourage such use.

“The secretariat decided there was not a substantial change in omitting the word. That is why we are putting it to a vote.”

He said that when the council comes to vote on this and other amendments to the text accepted in substance during last year’s council session, it will require a two-thirds vote of the Fathers to accept the new wording. Unless two-thirds of the Fathers vote to remove the word “deicide,” it will remain in the text.

Father Stransky said he felt that “most of us are forgetting that this chapter four on the Jews is only one of five in the schema. Future historians may well judge the document in the light of the other chapters. It is in fact the first time in history that the Church will have recognized officially the good contained in non-Christian religions, such as the Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist and others, and will have attempted to reach out to them as brothers.”

Regarding the reaction of Arab nations to the new wording of the text, Father Stransky said that he thought it was “strengthened and the loopholes eliminated” by the changes. He cautioned, however, that it would be wrong to say that the objections coming from council Fathers from the Near East were politically motivated. “Many of their objections contained valid theological arguments,” he said.

Arab nations have been objecting to the council’s speaking on the Jewish question, generally out of fear that it may strengthen the cause of Zionism.

Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblates’ Rome house of studies, pointed out that the new wording of the anti-Semitism condemnation adds the phrase, “not for any political reasons,” in a direct attempt to obviate Arab objections.

Supporting the argument that the new version is stronger even than the old, Father Stransky said the placement of the anti-Semitism condemnation in the text has been changed so that it follows the Scriptural, historical section. “This strengthens the Church’s stand that anti-Semitism has no Biblical foundation,” he said, adding:

“This is the only one of the council documents in which sharp language is used. Generally the direction of the council has been away from condemnations toward positive approaches. But in this document now there is a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism in any form or under any pretext, even though the tone remains positive.”

The reworded text will be voted on probably within the next few weeks. Eight distinct votes will be taken to decide whether to amend the text from the one passed in general at last year’s session. The crucial voting on the word “deicide” will come in the fifth vote. The sixth and seventh votes will also ask for new wording to strengthen the text and add the explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism. The exact text of the new wording on which these votes will be taken is as follows [unofficial translation]:

“Although the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19,6), nevertheless what happened to Christ in His passion cannot be attributed to all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor to the Jews of today” [vote five].

“Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected by God or accursed, as if this follows from Holy Scriptures” [vote six].

“May all see to it then that in catechetical work or in preaching the word of God they do not teach anything that is inconsistent with the truth of the Gospel and with the spirit of Christ. Moreover the Church, which rejects every persecution against man, mindful of the common patrimony with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, deplores hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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