Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In August 2002 the Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs released a statement, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” , which espoused a two-fold or “dual covenant” path to salvation—the Jews through their adherence to the Mosaic covenant, Christians (and/or) gentiles through Christ. Its assertion that “campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church” was thus interpreted as a demand that Christians cease any attempt to share their faith with, or pray for, the conversion of the Jewish people. The ensuing criticism, both evangelical and Catholic , obliged the USCCB to distance itself from the document, acknowledging that it was not to be taken as the formal position of the U.S. Bishops’ conference but rather ” represents the state of thought among the participants of a years-long dialogue between the Church and the Jewish community .”

Seven years later, the USCCB has released a formal correction in its Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission , reasserting the Church’s authoritative teaching:

The document correctly acknowledges that “Judaism is a religion that springs from divine revelation” and that “it is only about Israel’s covenant that the Church can speak with the certainty of the biblical witness.” Nevertheless, it is incomplete and potentially misleading in this context to refer to the enduring quality of the covenant without adding that for Catholics Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God fulfills both in history and at the end of time the special relationship that God established with Israel. The Second Vatican Council explained:

The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy, and to indicate its meaning through various types.

The long story of God’s intervention in the history of Israel comes to its unsurpassable culmination in Jesus Christ, who is God become man.

Reflections on Covenant and Mission provides a clear acknowledgment of the relationship established by God with Israel prior to Jesus Christ. This acknowledgment needs to be accompanied, however, by a clear affirmation of the Church’s belief that Jesus Christ in himself fulfills God’s revelation begun with Abraham and that proclaiming this good news to all the world is at the heart of her mission. Reflections on Covenant and Mission , however, lacks such an affirmation and thus presents a diminished notion of evangelization.

In August 2009, the Vatican gave its formal recognition to a requested change by the USCCB to its United States Catholic Catechism for Adults :
The change clarifies Catholic teaching on God’s covenant with the Jews. The first version, in explaining relations with the Jews, stated, “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” The revised text states, “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his Word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’ (Romans 9: 4-5; cf. CCC, no 839).[ . . . ]

The clarification reflects the teaching of the Church that all previous covenants that God made with the Jewish people are fulfilled in Jesus Christ through the new covenant established through his sacrificial death on the cross. Catholics believe that the Jewish people continue to live within the truth of the covenant God made with Abraham, and that God continues to be faithful to them. As the Second Vatican Council taught and the Adult Catechism affirms, the Jewish people “remain most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues.” ( Lumen Gentium , no.16).

David Schütz ( Sentire Cum Ecclesia ) provides an analysis of these events and reaction on the part of participants in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in “On the Jewish Question: ‘There’s no confusion – it’s both/and’” (9/17/09).

Michael Forrest and David Palm have also provided a helpful presentation in All in the Family: Christians, Jews, and God ( Catholic Lay Witness July / August 2009).

* * *

In a recent editorial, Abraham Foxman reacted with typical umbrage and hyperbole, describing the USCCB’s decisions as “a precarious moment in Catholic-Jewish relations” . Regarding the “Note on Ambiguities in ‘Covenant and Mission’, Foxman asserts that it

rejected a clear statement that there can be no attempts to convert Jews as part of the interfaith dialogue. Instead the U.S. bishops approved language that Catholic-Jewish dialogues could explicitly be used to invite Jews to baptism. They told us the change was directed by the Vatican.

This is simply not the case , as there is nothing in the document that would indicate the USCCB now embraces means of proselytization that it has otherwise and persistently deplored. Rather, it is the understandable concern of the USCCB’s doctrinal committee that Reflection ‘s treatment of evangelization is confined to individuals in such a manner that it “fails to account for St. Paul’s complete teaching about the inclusion of the Jewish people as whole in Christ’s salvation”. Even further, it
renders even the possibility of individual conversion doubtful [by the implication that] it is generally not good for Jews to convert, nor for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion because it threatens to eliminate “the distinctive Jewish witness”: “Their [the Jewish people’s] witness to the kingdom, which did not originate with the Church’s experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.” Some caution should be introduced here, since this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.

Foxman then describes the Bishop’s revisions to the American Catechism as follows:
On Aug. 27, the bishops announced that the Vatican had officially affirmed its decision to jettison a teaching in the American adult catechism that the “covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had several options to update its adult catechism, but chose instead to no longer affirm the validity of the Sinai covenant.

Again, this is simply not the case. Rather, by locating its acknowledgement of the Sinai covenant in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (9: 4-5; cf. CCC, no 839), it places it in biblical context, precisely as a guard against the erroneous interpretation that Foxman himself holds . It would seem that for Foxman, as for perhaps other authors of “Reflections on Covenant and Mission”, nothing less would suffice than the outright and wholesale dismantling of the Church’s claim to the unicity and universality of Jesus Christ as savior of the world—in whom “there is neither Jew nor gentile.”

* * *

Finally, on the matter of how we are to conduct ourselves in dialogue with our elder brothers and sisters, I find no better response than that of the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, for whom “it is not Christian imperialism but fidelity to revealed truth that requires Christians to say that Christ is Lord of all or he is not Lord at all.” ( “Salvation is From the Jews” ( First Things , November 2001):

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace. The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politesse of mutual respect for positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend. It is the story that begins with Abraham who in the eucharistic canon we call “our father in faith.”

There is no avoiding the much vexed question of whether this means that Jews should enter into the further fulfillment of the salvation story by becoming Christians. Christians cannot, out of a desire to be polite, answer that question in the negative. We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion; we can and must say that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing in a way that demeans the other; we can and must say that Jews and Christians need one another in many public tasks imposed upon us by a culture that is, in large part, in manifest rebellion against the God of Israel; we can and must say that there are theological, philosophical, and moral questions to be explored together, despite our differences regarding Messianic promise; we can and must say that friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in shared love for the God of Israel; we can and must say that the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which—for both Jew and Christian—conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship is deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God—a people of God for which there is no plural.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles