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The website CatholicCulture.org reports upset by Jewish leaders in St. Louis over the local Archdiocese’ support for a “Hebrew Catholics” association:

Local Jewish leaders are disturbed by the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s support for the Association of Hebrew Catholics, an organization that works to preserve the identity and heritage of Catholics of Jewish origin within the Church. The association was welcomed into the archdiocese by Archbishop Raymond Burke in 2006; Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann and the rector of the cathedral basilica will offer Mass at the group’s October conference.

“One of the things that the Jewish community knows, or should know, with confidence is that the Catholic church does not proselytize, particularly to Jews,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Ms. Aroesty’s comment illustrates the ambiguity of the word “proselytism” in interreligious and ecumenical relations. While the term is commonly a synonym for any missionary activity, the Church’s Magisterium distinguishes evangelization— the proclamation of the Gospel— from proselytism, defined as the proclamation of the Gospel by unworthy means.

This is mutually dangerous ground. Jews cannot really expect Christians not to want to convert everyone around them, including Jews, for Christianity  is a continuous conversion. As Franz Rosenzweig explained so clearly, the Christian never quite gets rid of an inner Gentile, or (in Michael Wyschogrod’s felicitous term) “dual citizenship” in what Christians believe to be the People of God, i.e. the Church, and the ethnicity of the Christian’s origin. When Christians talk about the need to convert one’s self every day, that is what they mean; how could they not want to convert others?

The existence of the “old Israel” of the flesh—the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah—also constitutes what for Catholics appears to be a schism in Israel. The first post on this blog, entitled “Impassioned Dialogue, reported on a controversial article by the Catholic bioethicist Robert Spaemann (Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, April 20, 2009), arguing that the Catholic Church should actively go out and try to convert Jews. Better minds in the Church take the view of Walter Cardinal Ksspar, who makes clear that the issue of the conversion of the Jews should be left to End Times (which is where we leave the actualization of Zechariah’s prophecy that the whole world will call on “One God with one name”).

If a Jew converts to Christianity, as a handful do, he or she nonetheless is obligated to perform the commandments of the Torah, including dietary and marital-purity laws, Sabbath observance, phylacteries and so forth. For a Jew not to perform these commandments is to be in a state of grievous sin. The Torah states that anyone who rejects God’s commandments “with a high hand,” that is, wittingly and deliberately, “shall be cut off from his people.” There is no retroactive exemption from the mitzvot. This remains an issue between us and Jewish converts to Christianity. Michael Wyschogrod write an open letter to the late Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, perhaps the most prominent Jewish convert in the Catholic hierarchy, informing him that he was required to perform the mitzvot. (Wyschogrod addresses these issues in essays in the collection Abraham’s Promise).

Gentiles of course are not required to perform the mitzvot, except for the basic rules of behavior grouped under the so-called Noahide laws. St. Paul argued that Gentiles should be exempt from the mitzvot, but never once did he argue that he himself, who was born a Jew, should stop performing the mitzvot.

From the Jewish theological reading, by acknowledging an Association of Hebrew Catholics without encouraging its members to remain Torah-obedient, the Church is reinforcing sinfulness in its ranks. That is why observant Jews must feel profoundly uncomfortable with the action of the St. Louis Archdiocese. Proselytism, schmoselytism—we know that Catholics would prefer that everybody  convert. But all Jews have a responsibility to discourage other Jews from sinning.

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