I am not Catholic, but am grateful for my Catholic siblings in faith. I’ve been strengthened by many Catholic writers over the years, particularly those from the contemplative tradition. I’ve been encouraged by Catholic pro-life activism and challenged by the Church’s commitment to social justice and care for the least of these. I love studying the Bible with Catholic friends.
So much kingdom goodness in these things. These affirmations of goodness also carry deep sorrow with them, an acknowledgement of generations of abysmal history – lousy leaders who let power and wealth rot their souls, toxic theology that led to war, war and terror-a-plenty for all those who didn’t toe the party line. Reform-minded Christians paid the price for hundreds of years with their lives. My Jewish people faced the horrors of forced “conversions”, the Inquisition, expulsions in the name of religion, closed doors and complicit silence leading up to and during World War II, and willful misplaced blame for causing the death of Jesus.
When the Catholic Church issues a document entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” which addresses “unresolved theological questions at the heart of Christian-Jewish dialogue”, I am all ears. This new document was issued on the 50th anniversary of the ground-shifting Nostra Aetate encyclical, which signaled a change in the way in which the Catholic Church’s related to non-Catholic Christians as well as those of other faiths.
“The Gifts and Calling Of God are Irrevocable” offers a helpful summary of history:
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. Thus Jews and Christians have the same mother and can be seen, as it were, as two siblings who – as is the normal course of events for siblings – have developed in different directions. The Scriptures of ancient Israel constitute an integral part of the Scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity, understood by both as the word of God, revelation, and salvation history. The first Christians were Jews; as a matter of course they gathered as part of the community in the Synagogue, they observed the dietary laws, the Sabbath and the requirement of circumcision, while at the same time confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah sent by God for the salvation of Israel and the entire human race. With Paul the ‘Jewish Jesus movement’ definitively opens up other horizons and transcends its purely Jewish origins. Gradually his concept came to prevail, that is, that a non-Jew did not have to become first a Jew in order to confess Christ. In the early years of the Church, therefore, there were the so-called Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, the ecclesia ex circumcisione and the ecclesia ex gentibus, one Church originating from Judaism, the other from the Gentiles, who however together constituted the one and only Church of Jesus Christ. The separation of the Church from the Synagogue does not take place abruptly however and, according to some recent insights, may not have been complete until well into the third or fourth centuries. This means that many Jewish Christians of the first period did not perceive any contradiction between living in accordance with some aspects of the Jewish tradition and yet confessing Jesus as the Christ.
(There are many Jewish followers of Jesus today – including me – who still see no contradiction between maintaining Jewish identity and practice yet confessing Jesus as the Messiah.)
The document affirmed God’s unbroken, permanent covenant relationship with his Chosen People:
The covenant that God has offered Israel is irrevocable. “God is not man, that he should lie” (Num 23:19; cf. 2 Tim 2:13). The permanent elective fidelity of God expressed in earlier covenants is never repudiated (cf. Rom 9:4; 11:1-2). The New Covenant does not revoke the earlier covenants, but it brings them to fulfilment.
It also rebuts replacement theology while raising the question of how Judaism and Christianity are to relate to one another:
This Christological exegesis can easily give rise to the impression that Christians consider the New Testament not only as the fulfilment of the Old but at the same time as a replacement for it. That this impression cannot be correct is evident already from the fact that Judaism too found itself compelled to adopt a new reading of Scripture after the catastrophe of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. Since the Sadducees who were bound to the temple did not survive this catastrophe, the rabbis, following in the footsteps of the Pharisees, who had already developed their particular mode of reading and interpreting Scripture, now did so without the temple as the centre of Jewish religious devotion. As a consequence there were two responses to this situation, or more precisely, two new ways of reading Scripture, namely the Christological exegesis of the Christians and the rabbinical exegesis of that form of Judaism that developed historically. Since each mode involved a new interpretation of Scripture, the crucial new question must be precisely how these two modes are related to each other.
While affirming that Jesus is the only way to God, the document takes a hands-off position when it comes to any sort of evangelism of the Jewish people. The authors of the document express trust that in the end, God will sort it all out:
Another focus for Catholics must continue to be the highly complex theological question of how Christian belief in the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ can be combined in a coherent way with the equally clear statement of faith in the never-revoked covenant of God with Israel. It is the belief of the Church that Christ is the Saviour for all. There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles. Here we confront the mystery of God’s work, which is not a matter of missionary efforts to convert Jews, but rather the expectation that the Lord will bring about the hour when we will all be united, “when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ ” (“Nostra aetate”, No.4).
In the meantime, the Church is disavowing any sort of evangelism directed at Jews because of their irrevocable covenant relationship to God. Catholics should bear witness to their faith, and the Church will continue its efforts toward meaningful inter-faith dialogue:
It is easy to understand that the so-called ‘mission to the Jews’ is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. This question also proves to be awkward for Christians, because for them the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance. The Church is therefore 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, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah…The principle that Jesus gives his disciples when he sends them out is to suffer violence rather than to inflict violence. Christians must put their trust in God, who will carry out his universal plan of salvation in ways that only he knows, for they are witnesses to Christ, but they do not themselves have to implement the salvation of humankind.
The Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism issued a response here. And a group called the Association of Hebrew Catholics has addressed the ramifications of what is, for all intents and purposes, a functional belief in dual covenants here.
I value bridge-building dialogue, and want to testify to the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus to all – with and without words. Salvation belongs to God alone, but he uses his followers to invite others to be reconciled to him. That’s evangelism.
There is much to celebrate in the document entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”. But in the end, I don’t see my Jewish Messiah, himself the fulfillment of his beautiful Torah, telling his own people at any point in his ministry (which was almost entirely focused on them) that none of his works or decision-demanding words applied to them. When Jesus told Nicodemus, a Pharisee, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16), he didn’t write in an exclusion clause that exempted the Jews. His love is big enough to include each one of us.
Have you had an opportunity to look at this document? If so, what stands out to you?