Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations

Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations

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by Rabbi James Rudin

Highlights the legacy of three amazing, influential Roman Catholic cardinals

In this highly recommended book, Rabbi James Rudin describes how the vision and commitment of Cardinals Richard Cushing, Francis Spellman, and John O'Connor helped to transform Jewish-Catholic relations in the second half of the twentieth century. Two introductory chapters


Highlights the legacy of three amazing, influential Roman Catholic cardinals

In this highly recommended book, Rabbi James Rudin describes how the vision and commitment of Cardinals Richard Cushing, Francis Spellman, and John O'Connor helped to transform Jewish-Catholic relations in the second half of the twentieth century. Two introductory chapters contextualize their actions and reveal the extraordinary nature of these cardinals' actions.

Pithy and accessible, this book will spark lively discussion among church and synagogue study groups. It will also add compelling case studies to seminary courses on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue -- regardless of any given group's position on the ideological spectrum.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Raymond L. Flynn
-- U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican (1993–1997)
Mayor of Boston (1984–1993)
An insightful and riveting book about Catholic-Jewish relations . . . Jim Rudin's book captures the vision and commitment of Cushing, Spellman, and O'Connor. For students of Jewish-Catholic history, this is a must-read.

Ed Koch
-- Mayor of New York City (1978–1989)
"I was privileged to be mayor of New York City in 1984 when John Cardinal O'Connor came to our city, ultimately to become Cardinal, and was blessed and rewarded with his friendship. This book is a wonderful read."

Reviews in Religion & Theology
“Offers a well-written and compelling history of the interfaith work of three American born cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church and how they changed the face of Jewish-Christian relations.”
Congregational Libraries Today
“An insightful presentation that highlights the courage, vision, and commitment of the three cardinals. . . . This brief history merits the attention of all people of faith.”

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt

Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor

The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations
By James Rudin

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 James Rudin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6567-0

Chapter One

Surprise! Surprise!

* * *

This is the remarkable story of how and why an unlikely trio of American-born Roman Catholic cardinals — Richard James Cushing (1895-1970), Francis Joseph Spellman (1889-1967), and John Joseph O'Connor (1920-2000) — unexpectedly used the power of their high ecclesiastical positions and their personal charisma during the second half of the twentieth century to permanently transform Christian-Jewish relations and thereby change both Christianity and world history. That transformation remains the three cardinals' lasting historic legacy.

These events began with the efforts of Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, and Spellman, the archbishop of New York, during the Second Vatican Council in Rome, which took place between 1962 and 1965. They culminated a generation later with O'Connor, when he served as New York's archbishop. Even now, years after the deaths of the three cardinals, their extraordinary success continues to astonish many people, just as it did when they were alive.

Despite a shared commitment to build a new, constructive relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, the cardinals differed from one another in many ways, especially in their personalities and individual leadership styles. But, taken together, their achievements personify the Church's encounter with both modernity and with America's religious pluralism and demographic diversity.

Cushing was the gruff-voiced, earthy spiritual leader of the Boston Archdiocese from 1944 until his death twenty-six years later. Spellman served as New York's imperious, ambitious archbishop between 1939 and his death in 1967, and because of his global fame and religio-political power, which stretched from the White House to the Pentagon to the Vatican, he was often called "America's Pope." O'Connor, a career United States military chaplain, mistakenly believed the major part of his life's work had ended when, after retiring as a Navy admiral, he was appointed bishop of Scranton in 1983. But in fact O'Connor's most enduring accomplishments only began a few months later when Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of New York, a position he held for sixteen years, beginning in 1984 until brain cancer took his life at age 80.

Their achievements in Catholic-Jewish relations were particularly surprising given their backgrounds. Cushing and O'Connor were both children of Irish parents who had immigrated to the United States in the latter nineteenth century, and Spellman was a grandson of Irish immigrants. All were theological conservatives who grew up in a militant, triumphalistic church that over the course of nearly 2,000 years had developed a tortured and mainly negative history of relations with Jews and Judaism.

The cardinals were successful because they skillfully used a potent combination of personal audacity and a fervent dedication to ridding their church of the anti-Jewish bigotry that had poisoned millions of Catholics for centuries. In their efforts, Cushing, Spellman, and O'Connor were buttressed by an America whose longstanding ideals include religious liberty, interreligious amity, and freedom of conscience.

At two critical and defining moments in recent history, the three cardinals figuratively threw their red hats, visible symbols of their holy office and their individual prestige, into a series of major political and religious controversies that changed the Church's tangled, hostile relationship with Jews and Judaism. But it was not easy.

The dramatic and decisive interventions of Cushing and Spellman took place during the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, when over 2,300 Catholic bishops from all parts of the world came together to reform and renew the Church in response to the challenges of the modern world. The most controversial issue at the council focused on the Church's relationship with Jews and Judaism. Both Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) and his successor, Paul VI (1897-1978), strongly supported the passage of a groundbreaking declaration that addressed the issue. But despite papal efforts, by mid-1964 the effort was faltering as clerical foes of the proposed statement worked to block its adoption.

Enter Cushing and Spellman. Alarmed by the anti-Jewish attitudes and beliefs on display at the council, the two American cardinals made unexpectedly strong public and private interventions that guaranteed the council bishops would approve a positive statement. That declaration, called Nostra Aetate, Latin for "In Our Time," was ultimately adopted on October 28, 1965, by an overwhelming vote of 2,221 in favor and 88 against passage. Today, nearly a half century later, the Vatican Council's action grows in impact and importance.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a generation after Cushing and Spellman, and at a moment in history when the spiritual, psychic, and physical energy among many Catholics and Jews was on the wane after the initial early burst of excitement following the council reforms, it was John O'Connor who made real the interreligious promise of his two predecessors. He provided the world with the image and the reality of a prominent cardinal who placed positive relations with the Jewish people, Christian commemoration of the Holocaust, the fight against anti-Semitism, the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and support for Israel's security and survival among his highest priorities.

O'Connor stood on the shoulders of Cushing and Spellman and he became an international champion of improved Catholic-Jewish relations. O'Connor spoke often from the pulpit of New York City's famed St. Patrick's Cathedral about the radical evil of the Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the need to stand with Israel. One of O'Connor's greatest successes came in late 1993 with the establishment of full and formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, something he had advocated for many years.

But to appreciate the three cardinals' achievements, it is necessary to remember the way these two ancient faith communities —Catholics and Jews—had warily viewed one another for nearly twenty centuries, years filled with animosities and mutual suspicions. These American cardinals, each in his own way, had to confront and expose a long record of Christian hostility that included teaching, preaching, liturgy, hymnology, church architecture, and art directed against Jews and Judaism.

The three men publicly repudiated that dark underside of Christianity, the layers of bigotry and prejudice embedded within the Church that had for centuries been taken for granted by millions of people. Fairly common among these was the belief that Catholicism had fully replaced Judaism in the divine economy. Beyond this, there were aspects of religious anti-Semitism whose most obscene manifestation was the charge that Jews were a "Christ-killer" people, forever cursed by God as punishment for the "crime" of killing Jesus.

Challenging that negative tradition and seeking its elimination from the life of the Church required commitment and courage, attributes Cushing, Spellman, and O'Connor possessed in large supply. They needed those qualities and many others, including a generous dose of chutzpah — the Yiddish term for cheeky nerve or assertiveness — to achieve their difficult goals. Fortunately, the three cardinals enjoyed an ample amount of chutzpah as well.

Chapter Two

The Way We Were: Catholics and Jews in History

* * *

The fact that Richard Cushing, Francis Spellman, and John O'Connor were able to transcend traditional anti-Jewish teachings and move their Church and themselves into a new relationship with Jews and Judaism is a remarkable testimony to their leadership abilities.

But as youngsters growing up within the burgeoning Roman Catholic community in the United States, all three encountered a basic Christian teaching that developed nearly two thousand years ago during the early years of the Church: Christians had replaced Jews as the authentic "people of God." The ancient Hebrews and Israelites had once been a great spiritual people during the period of the "Old Testament," the Christian term for the books of the Hebrew Bible, but their divinely ordained task had been fulfilled and completed with the coming of Jesus and Christianity. In order to better understand this narrative, and why it is a false and dangerous one, this chapter looks at Catholic-Jewish relations over the course of history, starting with what we find in the Bible and continuing into the modern era.

The Bible: From Abraham to Paul

Beginning with the patriarch Abraham as described in the book of Genesis (12:1) and continuing with Moses, the Hebrew prophets, and the 150 Psalms, the biblical people of Israel were the first to bring the concept and worship of the one God—what scholars of religion call monotheism—to the world. Central to the monotheism of the people of Israel were the Ten Commandments, a list of religious and moral laws meant to provide a framework for their worship of God and their treatment of one another. Pope Benedict XVI stressed the Ten Commandments as an important bridge between Christians and Jews in his address in the Great Synagogue in Rome in early 2010. He also said:

[Today there are] increasingly close relations between Catholics and Jews.... [I]n the course of my Pontificate, [I] have wanted to demonstrate my closeness to and my affection for the people of the Covenant.... It is in pondering her own mystery that the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant, discovers her own profound bond with the Jews, who were chosen by the Lord before all others to receive his word.... The [Second Vatican] Council gave a strong impetus to our irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship, a journey which has been deepened and developed ... through important steps and significant gestures.

The Jews, as the people of Israel were known at the time of Jesus, provided the necessary religious environment, the required spiritual milieu, for his life and ministry, and later for the birth of a new religion, Christianity, whose roots go deep into Judaism. In his own teachings Jesus emphasized two other great commandments of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5); and "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself " (Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus was born, lived, and died as a Jew in first-century Israel (3 BCE-30 CE?), and his early followers were all Jews, including his mother and father, his apostles, his brother James, and the first fifteen bishops of the Christian Church. Jesus was executed in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire's occupation authorities, headed by Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region. For Christians, who revere him as savior and Son of God, Jesus was the Jewish people's single greatest gift to the human family. His life on earth was a divine reward for being faithful to the God of Israel—but once that gift was given two millennia ago, Judaism itself became a surplus religion.

With the rise of Christianity, Jews as a people — past, present, and future—were soon negatively portrayed as members of an oppressive, static community, burdened down by a heavy yoke of religious law, spiritually exhausted, and drained of religious vitality. It was widely believed among Christians that the Jews had performed their preordained mission of setting the stage for Jesus and his appearance in history. At the same time, Christianity presented itself as a universal religion that was free of Jewish "law." Instead, the new faith stressed the concepts of "love," "grace," and "compassion" in place of a supposedly repressive and discredited Judaism.

It was from the very outset an unfair comparison, a dangerous false dichotomy that produced horrific results in history. Instead of peaceful coexistence between two viable faith communities who both worshiped the God of Israel, the large majority of Christians operated on the belief that their new faith had fulfilled the role of Jews and Judaism, even going so far as to appropriate the cherished sacred name "Israel" for themselves. They were the "New Israel," successors to the "Old Israel"; for Christians, the Church had supplanted the Synagogue. However inaccurate, this disparaging view of Judaism resonated for nearly twenty centuries, providing powerful theological justification for negative teaching and preaching about Jews and their religion in churches throughout the world.

All Christians—Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox — revered the biblical Hebrews; they were extolled as exemplary pioneers of religious thought, and as the people through whom God had paved the way for Jesus. But in the nearly two thousand years following his crucifixion (a Roman form of capital punishment, as we will soon discuss) the overwhelming majority of Jews did not convert to the new faith of Christianity, instead remaining loyal to Judaism—which of course was the only religious tradition that Jesus knew.

Scholars believe Jesus was executed by the Romans in Jewish Jerusalem around the year 30. However, only a hundred years after Jesus' death, Christianity was already mostly Gentile, not Jewish, in its membership. The successful missionary work of Paul, known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, permanently shaped the demography of the new faith.

Paul was a Jew born in Tarsus (in what is now southern Turkey) around the year 5 CE, and during his early life he was known by his original Hebrew name, Saul. His father was a Roman citizen, a coveted and important status that permitted Saul to travel widely throughout the vast empire. As a self-proclaimed "Hebrew of the Hebrews," and a student of traditional Judaism, Saul was at first a fierce opponent of Jesus and his Jewish followers. But on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, Saul, who never met or experienced Jesus in human terms, encountered "Jesus, the Christ" (the Greek term for the messiah or anointed one, a redeemer figure long expected by the Jewish people) as a commanding voice from heaven.

His experience is described in the New Testament book of Acts: "Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground" (9:3-4). Because the light was "brighter than the sun" (26:13), Saul was temporarily blinded (9:9), and a voice cried out to him: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ... I am Jesus" (26:14-15).

Saul quickly abandoned his previous hostility to Jesus and for the rest of his life became the new faith's peripatetic leader, preaching the message that faith in Jesus, the Christ, was the way to gain eternal life and religious salvation. He was an ardent believer, and as a result of his conversion experience, he not only changed his name to the Latin Paul, but he also changed the nascent Church, moving it from a sect existing within Judaism into a new, independent, largely Gentile religious community.

Yet while Christianity began to move away from Judaism, the Jewish people continued to use the term Notzrim to refer to the members of the new faith — a term that continues to be used in Modern Hebrew today. This term means "Nazarenes" and is a reference to Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. Notzrim reflects the early Jewish perception of Christians as part of the people and religion of Israel, still members of the "House of Israel."

It was Paul who preached that faith in Jesus negated the religious requirements prescribed by the Torah, particularly ritual circumcision and the kosher dietary laws even though both were integral aspects of the Judaism that members of the Jerusalem-based Church — the original Notzrim — continued to follow. Paul's open rejection of much of Jewish religious tradition and observance made it easier for Gentiles, many of whom were unacquainted with or indifferent to Judaism, to become followers of Jesus. Yet it also made it easier to avoid the spiritual necessity of making the Torah the anchor and mainstay of their new faith commitment.


Excerpted from Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor by James Rudin Copyright © 2012 by James Rudin. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Rudin has been a prominent figure in interreligious dialogue since 1968. Currently he acts as senior interreligious advisor for the American Jewish Committee. He has appeared on numerous highprofile radio and television programs and is the author or

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Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
chucklesCC More than 1 year ago
i had met card. o'connor several times. i had always admired card. cushing. i was not so sure about card. spellman after reading his bio by fr. robt. gannon, sj. rabbi rudin brings them all together to show what the reader probably already knows: relations between the jewish & catholic communities greatly benefited from the work of these three guys with guts. spellman & cushing demonstrated this both at the vatican council and at home in boston & NY. o'connor did his heavy lifting while in the navy as chief of chaplains, in his short stay in scranton, and his career in NY. He especially, in cahoots with his pal mayor ed koch (o felictas memoriae!), not only wrote a book together(his eminence & hizzonor)but by their sheer friendliness for each other showed the way for christians & jews to work together for the common good of Gotham. it took guts then to buck the trends of injustice & antisemitism & still takes guts to do what these three saw: not as payback or payforward, but SIMPLY THE RIGHT THING TO DO. amen.