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The Church’s Relationship with the Jews: Fraternal, Rich, Reflective

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Max Lindenman - published on 12/16/15

The Vatican affirms the Jewish people’s unique role in salvation history

Last Thursday the Vatican issued a document attempting to define Christianity’s unique relationship with Judaism. Headlines like “Catholics Should Not Try to Convert Jews, Vatican Says,” and “Vatican: Jews Can Be Saved Without Christ” hinted at a sudden and drastic rupture with tradition. All too easily, one imagined Pope Francis tossing off something cryptic in one of his daily homilies, following it with a joke — “‘You see,’ the pontiff told his audience, pointing to his zucchetto, ‘I wear a kippah too!’” — and leaving the rest to the pundits.

In fact, the document, titled “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” contains nothing drastic, nor even anything very new, at least by its own account. Issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, and reflecting the work of theologians like Cardinal Kurt Koch and Fr. Norbert Hoffmann, it draws heavily from the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, along with statements made by St. John Paul II and — as its title suggests, the letters of St. Paul. Explicitly renouncing any claim to be a binding magisterial pronouncement, it bills itself modestly as a “reflection” and a “starting point for further theological thought with a view to enriching and intensifying the theological dimension of Jewish-Catholic dialogue.”

Opening with a concise history of Jewish-Christian relations, it depicts two communities that grew apart gradually, with mutual anathemas becoming the rule some three or four centuries after Christ. Only with this hardening of divisions did the Church Fathers propound “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology, which taught that Christ’s arrival effectively cancelled God’s old covenant with the Jews and transferred the status of Chosen People to the Church.

This latest reflection from the Vatican reiterates the point, first made by John Paul, that Christ’s arrival fulfilled the Sinai covenant — and established a new one for Gentiles — without cancelling it. In practical terms, this means that dialogue between Jews and Christians isn’t interfaith dialogue at all but an “‘intra-religious’ or ‘intra-familial’ dialogue sui generis.”

The document presents Christians and Jews alike with a paradox. On one hand, it reaffirms the dogma that Jesus represents the only path to salvation. On the other, it denies that “the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” These two apparently contradictory truths find reconciliation through “an unfathomable divine mystery” requiring “further theological reflection.”

While warning that evangelizing to Jews is “delicate” and “awkward,” and supporting “a principled rejection of any institutional Jewish mission,” the document makes clear that the Church’s relationship with the Jews is a one-off. It does not intend to halt the New Evangelization in its tracks. Also, it never states that the Church should turn away Jews who feel moved to convert on their own. This is welcome news, as the Church could not easily part with the gifts and talents of a St. Edith Stein or a Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (or, for that matter, a Dawn Eden or a Dutch Schulz).

These days, unfortunately, many Muslims see themselves and Jews engaged in a zero-sum contest for world prestige. The New Yorker’s George Packer reports that residents of Paris banlieues perceived a calculated insult in French prime Minister Manuel Valls’ pronouncement that “France without Jews is not France.” Hopefully, Pope Francis’ welcoming stance toward Syrian refugees and his reverent visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, among many other goodwill gestures, will prevent Muslims from interpreting these latest reflections in a similar light.

Even if Catholics forswear evangelizing to Jews, the question remains whether Jews can evangelize effectively to Jews. In its 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center reported that one in five American Jews report having no religion at all; among those born after 1980, the figure rises to 32 percent. Six out of every 10 Jews married since 2000 report having non-Jewish spouses. Though it’s doubtful that Vatican recognition will restore any glamour to Jewish beliefs or halakha in the eyes of the non-observant, it’s just possible that some of their children, pre-alienated from the faith of their fathers, could somehow find their way across the Tiber.

Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He blogs at Diary of a Wimpy Catholic.

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Pope John Paul II
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