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Sharing the same soil: A reflection on the recent 2015 Vatican document on Jewish-Catholic relations

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On 10 December 2015 the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews published a new document which reflects ‘on theological questions pertaining to Catholic-Jewish relations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate”’, the decree on the Church’s relations with non-Christian religions. 

The sixteen-page document deals with important issues such as:

  1. the special status of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in contrast to the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions;
  2. the Word of God in Judaism and Christianity;
  3. the relationship between the Old and New covenant;
  4. the universality of salvation in Christ and God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel;
  5. the Church’s call from Christ to evangelise and how this relates to Judaism.

I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with Jewish-Catholic dialogue for about five years now. Recently I became a member of the Oxford Council for Christian and Jews, and I am a member of the Emerging Leaders Delegation in Jewish-Catholic dialogue headed by the above mentioned Vatican Commission, which has released this document. So I take a keen interest in this new document, and would like to share some of my thoughts, especially as this document ‘is intended to be a starting point for further theological thought with a view to enriching and intensifying the theological dimension of Jewish-Catholic dialogue’ (from the Preface of the document).

In times past there has been a tendency to emphasise the blindness of Israel, depicted on the right blindfolded, in contrast with the Church. This is contrasted with a recent statue produced and shown at the top of this blog post, where Synagogue and Church are seen as relating and learning from each other's tradition.

The document draws its title from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). This line from St Paul has set the tone and spirit of Jewish-Catholic dialogue at an official level since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate by Vatican II. The relationship between Church and Synagogue has often, though not without some exceptions, been tense, and even hostile: ‘Jews were often represented as damned by God and blind since they were unable to recognise in Jesus the Messiah and bearer of salvation,’ and Christians ‘were often seen as heretics who no longer followed the path originally laid down by God but who went their own way’ (para. 16). However, since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has sought to engage with Judaism in its various forms on a more positive note. 

Interestingly the document spells out, I think for the first time, that the dialogue between Jews and Christians can only be called ‘interreligious’ by ‘analogy’. The rationale behind this is that Christianity and Judaism have not developed independently of each other ‘or without mutual influence’ (para. 15):

The soil that nurtured both Jews and Christians is the Judaism of Jesus’ time, which not only brought forth Christianity but also, after the destruction of the temple in the year 70, post-biblical rabbinical Judaism which then had to do without the sacrificial cult and, in its further development, had to depend exclusively on prayer and the interpretation of both written and oral divine revelation. (para. 15).

As both traditions in a sense have grown from the same soil, at least from a Catholic perspective, knowledge of Judaism, both of the time of Jesus, and ‘to a degree also the Judaism that developed from it over the ages’ (para. 14) is important for Christian self-understanding. That a Jewish tradition which developed after the time of Christ is important for Christian self-understanding could well be a matter of debate and potential disagreement.   

The document tackles the fundamental issue that at times has bred hostility towards the Jewish people, namely the relationship between the Old and New covenant. As the title of the document suggests, a continued stress is placed on the fact that God’s fidelity ‘expressed in earlier covenants is never repudiated’ (para. 27). The New Covenant presupposes the Old. After all, if the same God who made covenants with ancient Israel makes a new covenant in the person of Jesus Christ, what assurance do we have that this covenant might not be repudiated as well? The document says that the Old Covenant is ‘brought to fulfilment’ (para. 27) in Christ. The practical implications of this fulfilment rather than repudiation is certainly a point of further theological exploration. 

Related to this is how God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel is to be reconciled with the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ. The document reiterates the Church’s rejection of two different paths to salvation, one with and another without Christ: this ‘would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith’ (para. 35). The God of Israel in Jesus Christ has become ‘totally manifest as the God of all peoples’, and ‘the Church must “witness to Christ the Redeemer for all”’ (para. 35; cf document produced by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, no. 1, 7). It is a fundamental part of Christian faith that God wants to save all people, and that it is through Christ that this is accomplished; as is said in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (4:12).

This leads into what I think is one of the key issues which needs to be discussed and resolved on the part of the Church, namely the Church’s mandate to evangelise in relation to Judaism (cf. para. 40). On rereading this chapter I think greater clarification has been given than I perceived on my first reading. The document rightly acknowledges the ‘delicate and sensitive’ nature of the issue of ‘mission to the Jews’. I share with you the paragraph I want to look at more closely:

The Church is… obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner… (para. 40).

Here are some of the key points I want to draw from this exert:

  1. the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews;
  2. there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission;
  3. Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews;

and here are some questions and points of my own which I hope will contribute to ongoing discussions on this matter:

  1. What ‘institutional mission work’ does the Church conduct today? Are there groups of people to whom there is an ‘institutional mission’?
  2. Does a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission mean there are principles behind not having such a mission, or is there a rejection in principle of an institutional mission to the Jews?
  3. In bearing witness to one’s faith in Jesus Christ ‘also to Jews’, does this include a desire that our Jewish friends may freely embrace baptism without any sort of coercion or deception on the part of the Catholic? 

My third point has some bearing on the recent request by the English and Welsh Bishops Conference for the Good Friday prayer for the Jews in the Extraordinary Form, rewritten by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, to be changed as it implies a call for conversion to the Catholic faith. If the Church, whilst not carrying out any ‘institutional mission’ to the Jews, still desires for all people, Jews included, to acknowledge Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who ‘fulfils the mission and expectation of Israel in a perfect way’ (para. 14), does the prayer by Pope Benedict not express this desire?

For Catholics raised and moulded during the pontificates of Pope St John Paul II and his successors, evangelisation has been a key theme. There is much talk about the ‘New Evangelisation’. Holding a spirit of dialogue and a desire to proclaim the Gospel to all is possible, though not always easy to see. The Church recognised this and in order to help produced the documents Dialogue and Mission (1984) and Dialogue and Proclamation (1991). I often perceive a reticence among younger Catholics to engage in interreligious dialogue, in part I believe due to this perceived dichotomy between dialogue and evangelisation, the latter seen as being sacrificed on the altar of dialogue. I hope, therefore, there will be greater discussion and debate on the issue of evangelisation in relation to Jews, in order to help clarify the Church’s position, especially for young Catholics sceptical about engaging in this dialogue.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham is a deacon working in the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Dominic, London | joseph.bailham@english.op.org


Erik Ross OP commented on 19-Dec-2015 08:28 PM
Good article!

You might like these articles of mine: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-paper-menorah/

Or: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-paper-menorah/

Or: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-jewish-food-code/

Be in touch...

Regards from Krakow,

Erik Ross OP

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