The Catholic bishops of the U.S. are playing a risky game with America’s Jews. In their attempt to heal old wounds caused by bigotry aimed at Jews, they run the risk of patronizing them, and weaving an ugly new form of anti-Semitism, through subtle, malign neglect. In their recent accord reached with leaders of liberal Jewish congregations, Reflections On Covenant And Mission, a subcommittee of the U.S. Catholic Conference cites the liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper, to declare that initiatives inviting conversion and baptism “are not appropriately directed at Jews.” On its face, this seems to break with 2000 years of Christian faith and tradition by renouncing the mission to Jews — and it has exploded into a controversy.
This accord is unlikely to satisfy those Jews who see Christianity primarily as an ongoing, anti-Semitic enterprise, which must be criticized and hemmed in at every turn, and driven out of the “public square.” In the August/September issue of the ecumenical journal First Things, the Jewish writer Allan Mittleman documents how the (well-grounded) fear of anti-Semitism led many Jewish organizations to support the radical secularization of America’s public schools and other institutions — something which now dismays Orthodox Jews, who’d rather not see the Ten Commandments torn down from courthouses, and who’d prefer to put up a menorah in the park than tear down a Nativity Scene. Jews who see in the face of Christ only the old hatred perpetrated by Christians will not be satisfied by this new piece of paper.
The accord has achieved something, however: It has ignited a firestorm of condemnation by faithful Catholics — leading a theologian at the usually temperate Eternal World Television Network to say the following about the document:
“[P]arts of it strike me as contrary to divine revelation, and I predict that it will not be approved by the Vatican, or perhaps the bishops themselves. As I understand it, this draft was put together by a committee, and it does not have approval by the body of bishops. It is an embarrassment, lacks any teaching authority, and serves to reveal the thinking of some people who hold powerful positions in the national conference. If a document such as this gains approval, as it currently stands, I will seriously consider the prospect that we are moving into one of the signs of the end times, namely, apostasy.” —Father John Paul Echert.
I’m not sure that’s too strong a response. Christians are called to evangelize all human beings, especially the proper heirs of the Old Testament; the first people on earth to accept the truth that there is but One God; the people who endured millennia of abuse and persecution for cleaving to that God; the first and irrevocably chosen People of God — the Jews. It is awfully ironic that the very bishops who have covered themselves with “glory” in their treatment of pedophiles now feel empowered to revise the most fundamental mission of the Christian religion. You’d think they might sit back for while, preserve a decent silence, and wait for a decade or so before trying to assert their moral authority. Instead, they’ve acted like Bill Clinton, who greeted each “bimbo eruption” by showing up the next day at a black church, hamming it up for the cameras and apologizing for the slave trade.
What is more, by offering to compromise a basic tenet of Christianity, in order to paper over the real religious differences that divide Jews from Christians, the bishops risk undoing the good work this Pope and his immediate predecessors have undertaken to purge Christian culture and theology of anti-Semitism. If Christians come to see that the price of good relations with the Jewish people is abandoning their core beliefs, how likely are many of them to simply dismiss the whole attempt, to decide that the old, anti-Jewish theologies were correct, and revert to a hostile stance? They could well reason: “If (as some say) the New Testament and the attempt to convert Jews to Christ is anti-Semitic, then anti-Semitism must be acceptable.” It’s a serious risk, to which the bishops have clearly not given a second’s thought. The Second Vatican Council and the current pope made enormous strides to disentangle from historic abuses and distortions the true, charitable, respectful (and above all grateful) attitude which Christians should have towards their elder brothers in the heritage of Abraham; I pray that their achievements are not recklessly undone.
Why do I care so much? In part, because my girlfriend is a Catholic of Jewish descent. In part because I know several other Jewish Catholics, whose faith journeys I respect. It helps that I know many other Jews of varying degrees of religiosity, whose friendship I value. I live in New York City, a place immensely enriched by Jewish Americans. In the United States, more Jewish people have lived in safety and well-being for more years than almost anywhere else, and I want this to continue. So I have plenty of reasons to stick my nose into this question—apart from my obvious concern that my bishops not distort the orthodox teachings of my faith.
One excellent summary of that faith comes in the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which Rabbi David Berger sums up fairly and accurately as follows:
The declaration maintains that the salvific grace of God is given only by means of Jesus and the Church. Though "individual non-Christians" can attain this grace in a manner that remains difficult to define, it is a certainty that the process cannot take place without "a mysterious relationship with the Church." (p. 32) This appears to mean that other religions, presumably including Judaism, have no independent salvific power. The text goes on to emphasize (p. 33) that although "followers of other religions can receive divine grace, ... objectively speaking [emphasis in the original] they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." Thus, Jews, if they are included in this assertion, are apparently far less likely to be saved than Catholics.
Precisely. Because Catholics believe this, and because we wish all human beings to follow the easiest and most secure road to eternal union with a loving God, we have an absolute duty to evangelize Jews (along with Protestants and all God’s other children). If we did anything less, it would deny their fundamental humanity. Period.
Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore and the U.S. bishops’ moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations, knows this—and came out yesterday with a statement denying that his subordinates’ document represents an official position of the U.S. bishops. I’m glad to hear it, but the public confusion caused by this document remains.
Even as we recognize that the bishops have got one basic thing dead wrong, we should also recognize what they got right. In the document, the bishops do a good job of recalling and deploring two millennia of anti-Semitic practice on the part of Christians — much of it restrained by Church authorities, but still partly inspired by a flawed, anti-Judaic theology, which the Church corrected finally at Vatican II. They mirror Pope John Paul’s 1999 apology to Jews, in recognizing that social restrictions, discrimination, segregation and physical persecutions aimed by Christians against Jews over the centuries were not simply aberrations, but the natural outcome of the theory held by most Christians that the Church, as the New Israel, superseded the first Israel, nullifying its claims to divine blessing and protection — this despite the clear statement of St. Paul in Romans 11:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery — so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,
"THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION,
HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.
THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM,
WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS."
From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways.
For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN?
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
This passage makes clear — as Cardinal Ratzinger explains in his new book, Many Religions — One Covenant, that Christians should not seek to dissolve the Jewish people through conversion into the Church (as they spent the whole Middle Ages attempting to do through fair means and foul). St. Paul himself teaches that the ongoing existence of a separate Jewish people is part of God’s will, a prophetic witness to His operation in history. And yet Christians are called to invite every soul into the Church. How to square this circle?
This bishops attempt to solve the question by writing off Jews as outside the Christian mission—radioactive, perhaps, too hot to touch, in the wake of the Holocaust. Their solution is well-meaning, but wrong. A better one is offered by—no surprise—a group of Jewish converts to Catholicism, who seek to keep their identity as Jews, the Association of Hebrew Catholics. As they explain:
Until now, the admission of Jews into the Church has been governed by a regime of assimilation. Under this regime, ignoring their special theological status defined by Vatican Council II, as “secundum electionem” (Lumen Gentium, § 16), converts enter a Gentile Catholic Community, where they are progressively alienated from participation in the destiny of their people. Their children, should there be any, grow up to be Gentiles, as daily experience goes to prove. The effects of the regime of assimilation on the families of converts and their brother-Jews are no less destructive. The converts are commonly regarded as traitors to their people, preparing its destruction. In particular, Jews observe with dismay the loss of the children of converts, for if all Jews were to convert only to be assimilated, then the people would, ipso facto, cease to exist. The lessons of history bear out their fears. In turn, Jews, both religious and non-religious, are prompted to make common cause in their opposition to the Christian Mission.
These Jewish Catholics seek to end this unhappy situation, to end “the alienation of Catholics of Jewish origin from their heritage as Israelites. The AHC intends to petition the Holy See to approve the establishment of an Israelite Community in the Church, based on the special registration of converts at baptism and of their descendants. Once constituted, the Community will serve as a sign of the times.”
In other words, the people with the best claim to speak about Jewish conversion — the Jewish converts — are asking Rome not to abandon their fellow Jews, not to establish a “two-track,” “separate but equal” plan of salvation that violates the New Testament and isolates Jews in an evangelical ghetto, but to create for Jewish converts a rite which they may choose (or not) to enter, akin to the 14 other separate rites of the Catholic Church (others include Ukrainian, Coptic, Syrian, Lebanese, along with the well-known Latin rite). Those Jews who wish to convert would be offered the option of maintaining their distinct identity in this rite, or joining some other rite of the Church, as they wish. It would be an entirely individual decision, which should be entirely free from pressure of any kind.
Centuries of coercive attempts to convert the Jews and dissolve them into the mass of Gentile Christendom should teach us to tread very lightly here. Whatever their motives, Christians from the early Middle Ages on demanded of Jews who converted absolute assimilation, and began to treat “backsliding” as a form of heresy. The most infamous examples of this occurred during the Inquisition in Spain — which popes of the day condemned but were unable to control. Repeated statements by popes and theologians — not infallible, but highly influential statements — suggested that the survival of the Jews as a separate entity was a rebuke to Christianity, that their purpose had been served 2000 years before, and they ought simply to convert and disappear into the mass of the New Israel, assimilating without a trace.
Now we have begun to understand that this is not true, that a deeper, more beautiful mystery marks the destiny of Jews and Christians as forever intertwined in God’s love and Western history. I hope that well-meaning but dunderheaded efforts by America’s bishops don’t shove this mystery into a “politically correct” pigeonhole.