- Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations by Rabbi James Rudin
Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor to the American Jewish Committee, describes the role played by three U.S. cardinals in transforming Jewish-Catholic relations during the second half of the twentieth century. At Vatican II Richard Cardinal Cushing and Francis Cardinal Spellman were influential in promoting the approval of Nostra Aetate, the council’s revolutionary declaration on the positive relationship of Jews and Catholics. Rudin also pays tribute to John Cardinal O’Connor, Spellman’s second successor in New York, for “mak[ing] real the interreligious promise” of Cushing and Spellman in the 1980s when the euphoria of the council was beginning to wane.
Rabbi Rudin traces the positive attitude of all three cardinals to the Jewish people to their earlier contacts with Jews. In the case of Cushing, it was a family matter, since his sister Dolly’s husband was Jewish, Richard Pearlstein. As Rudin says in a delightfully perceptive comment, Cushing made no pretense of being a theologian, but, “If God loved Dolly, as Cushing believed, and Dolly loved Richard, then God must also love his beloved sister’s husband, his people, and their religion.” Cushing’s views on religious tolerance were also shaped by his long and bitter dispute with Father Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit priest in Boston whose narrow interpretation of the dictum, “no salvation outside the church,” brought condemnation not only from Cushing, but also from the Society of Jesus and the Holy Office. [End Page 67]
In Spellman’s case one of his main contacts with the New York Jewish community was through his friendship with Charles H. Silver, a successful businessman and philanthropist who for thirty-five years served as the chairman of the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, a major political event in New York City and a lucrative fundraiser for Catholic charities. In 1949 Silver asked Spellman to issue a public statement supporting Israel’s petition for admission to the United Nations. Spellman demurred, since he habitually preferred to operate behind the scenes on almost any issue, rarely even appearing in the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. However, Spellman promised Silver that he would “do something that may mean a great deal more.” He was as good as his word. He privately appealed to the U.N. delegates from Latin America and the Philippines to support Israel’s admission to the United Nations. The roll call vote to admit Israel to the U.N. was 37 to 12 in Israel’s favor with nine abstentions. More than half of the affirmative votes came from Latin America and the Philippines.
At Vatican II Augustin Cardinal Bea, the German-born president of Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, played a more important role than any American cardinal in shaping the text of Nostra Aetate through several revisions and successfully shepherding it through many pitfalls before its approval by the Council Fathers on October 28, 1965, by a vote of 2,221 to 88. Rudin gives due credit to Bea, but he believes that “a final push was required, and that Cushing and Spellman provided it.”
Rabbi Rudin, a former United States Air Force chaplain, traces John O’Connor’s friendly attitude to Jews to his twenty-seven years as a United States Navy chaplain when he rubbed shoulders with people of many faiths and none and rose to become the Chief of Navy Chaplains with the rank of Rear Admiral. A personal friend of O’Connor, Rudin details the many ways in which O’Connor reached out to the New York Jewish community and won their trust and confidence. A curious omission, however, is Rudin’s failure to mention the warm friendship that developed between Cardinal O’Connor and Mayor Ed Koch, who even collaborated on a book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, in which they explained their differences over matters of public policy...