Excerpt from James Rudin’s Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations

Rabbi James Rudin has been a prominent figure in interreligious dialogue since 1968 and is currently senior interreligious advisor for the American Jewish Committee. In this excerpt from the first chapter of his new book, he introduces us to three Roman Catholic cardinals who “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.”

* * *

Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor
Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor

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.

* * *

What others are saying about Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor:

“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.”
— Raymond L. Flynn
U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican (1993-1997)
Mayor of Boston (1984-1993)

“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.”
— Ed Koch
Mayor of New York City (1978-1989)

Click here to order James Rudin’s Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.