New Vatican Statement on Catholic-Jewish Relations

At the Vatican this morning, the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews issued its first document since 1998. Titled "The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable," a quotation of the most important New Testament text for Jewish-Christian relations (Romans 11:29), the document uses the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra aetate as an opportunity to address theological questions that have arisen in the process of implementing that conciliar document's teaching about Jews and Judaism.

The document was written collaboratively over two and a half years. According to this morning's press conference, there were Jewish consultants invited at one point in the process. The document was introduced by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Commission, and Rev. Norbert J. Hoffman, OSB, Secretary of the Commission. Remarks from Jewish perspectives were also offered by Dr. Edward Kessler, Founding Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom and Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

See below for some takeaways from the document and the press conference to start your day:

   Epochal Changes

The document clearly explains the degree and significance of the changes in Catholic-Jewish relations over the past fifty years. For those Catholics and Jews paying attention to such matters, most of the document rehearses what is already known. However, the basics need to be reiterated for at least three reasons. First, the change in official Catholic teaching about the Jews is among the biggest changes in the history of the Church, and it is still not widely known. The shift from the former "teaching of contempt" about Jews to the present-day "complementarity" with "elder brothers" can hardly be overstated. Second, these teachings are not always implemented in the Church, whether through education, liturgy, or preaching. During Rabbi David Rosen's remarks at the press conference, he identified "the most notable challenge" of the new document to be its attention to seminary formation on these matters: "Therefore it is important that Catholic educational institutions, particularly in the training of priests, integrate into their curricula both Nostra aetate and the subsequent documents of the Holy See regarding the implementation of the Conciliar declaration" (45). Third, these teachings ought to be clarified and disseminated whenever possible because most of the world's Christians have scant opportunities to learn about ongoing relationships with Judaism. The fact is, the vast majority of the world's Christians learn about Jews only through the Bible and through modern media's reporting of political news about the state of Israel. The Catholic Church can thus serve an essential educational function, taking moments like the fiftieth anniversary to highlight the important changes since Vatican II.

   Results of Scholarship

Scholars of the Bible and Jewish-Christian relations will be delighted to see in this document how much scholarly work has affected the theological reasoning of this pontifical commission. For instance, the New Testament's Epistle to the Hebrews -- long regarded as a problem text for Jewish-Christian relations -- receives its own paragraph of exegesis in the new document. Many readers of the New Testament point to Hebrews as the beginning of "replacement" or "supersessionist" theology in the incipient Christian church. The new document meets that head-on, arguing that Hebrews "has no intention of proving the promises of the Old Covenant to be false, but on the contrary treats them as valid. ... At issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not the contrast of the Old and New Covenants as we understand them today, nor a contrast between the church and Judaism" (18). The further examples offered may not satisfy all readers in the level of detail, but scholarly readers can see clearly how New Testament scholarship has created an opportunity for the commission to think differently about the rhetorical audiences and purposes of Hebrews in its ancient context.

Even more striking is the document's reference to scholarly conversations about the "parting of the ways" between Christianity and Judaism in late antiquity. Whereas the canonical book of Acts implies that Christianity split from Judaism within the lifetime of the apostles, recent research has pushed the date much later and emphasized a regional approach to the historical question. (The most famous example: John Chrysostom was preaching still in the late fourth century to try to get his congregants to stop attending synagogue on Jewish holidays.) The new document gives credence to currents of historical research: "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" (16). It's hard not to see the influence of sophisticated Jewish historians of Christianity, such as Daniel Boyarin, behind the new document.

The press conference revealed another point at which the scholarly conversation intersects with the official one: the matter of family metaphors as descriptors of the Jewish-Christian relationship. John Paul II famously called Jews "elder brothers," and Benedict XVI cheekily noted, years later, that the older brother in scripture doesn't often fare very well -- perhaps "fathers" would be a more positive metaphor for Jews. Rabbi Rosen and Dr. Edward Kessler exchanged a back and forth this morning on the matter, seeming to prefer the sibling metaphor over the parent-child metaphor. In the background of this conversation is the fact that what is probably Boyarin's most famous intervention on the matter of the Jewish-Christian relationship is a deconstruction of the available metaphors for describing how Judaism and Christianity emerged in late antiquity. Kessler, for his part, all but cited Boyarin in his remarks on the matter of metaphors to describe the Other.

   Unique Relationship

One aspect about which the document is most adamant: the Catholic relationship with the Jews is unique, certainly not just one among many "interreligious" relationships that the Catholic Church maintains, and even more than primus inter pares. Historians of Vatican II have long noted this, since Nostra aetate itself was conceived first as a document "on the Jews" (Decretum de Iudaeis). But the new document takes this point further: "from the theological perspective the dialogue with Judaism has a completely different character and is on a different level in comparison with the other world religions. ... the Jewish-Christian dialogue can only with reservations be termed ‘interreligious dialogue’ in the true sense of the expression; one could however speak of a kind of ‘intra-religious’ or ‘intra–familial’ dialogue sui generis" (20).

Twice the document refers to "complementarity" with Jews (13 and 31), a term that is difficult to imagine in a Catholic theological document about any other religion. In his remarks at the press conference, Rabbi Rosen seizes on the surprising word and offers a challenge to how the Catholic Church means it.

This document further expands the notion of complementarity when it declares that “on the one hand … the Church without Israel would be in danger of losing its locus in the history of salvation”; and then adds “by the same token (!) Jews could…arrive at the insight that Israel without the Church would be in danger of remaining too particularist and of failing to grasp the universality of its experience of God.”

Permit me to note that there is hardly a symmetry in these regards. The former expresses an understanding of the intrinsic character of the Church, while the latter warns against a possible misunderstanding and maybe even abuse of the Jewish concept of election and loss of a sense of universal responsibility. Not only is there a profound asymmetry between the two in as much as the Church’s need for Israel is a matter of Christianity’s foundational self-understanding; but the real danger of ethnic insularity is hardly something of which Judaism was unaware before the emergence of Christianity and for which Judaism is specifically in “need” of the Church. This warning is most prominent in Hebrew prophetic scripture, perhaps most dramatically in the writing of Amos, and is articulated throughout Talmudic and mediaeval Jewish literature.

Rosen goes on to discuss other possible ways of understanding Jewish-Christian complementarity, citing also the recent, appreciative statement of Orthodox rabbis about Christianity. Despite his criticisms, Rosen admits that "the very fact that we can talk about complementarity is itself a powerful demonstration of how far we have come along this remarkable journey of transformation and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews over the last half century."

   Clarification About Evangelism

Finally, the document offers an utterly clear description of the official Catholic stance on evangelism as it relates to the Jewish people. The document is quick to note that the topic is "very delicate and sensitive" for Jews and "awkward" for Christians. (Veterans of Jewish-Christian dialogue will nod approvingly at those word choices.)  It then offers this summary:

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 (40).

This is, to my mind, now the go-to paragraph to explain the complicated balance of the Christian mandate to evangelize and the unique status of Jews in Christian theology. It hits all the right notes with integrity, respect, and efficiency.

At the same time, the document roundly rejects a 'two-track salvation' model, which has been supported by some Christian theologians via exegesis of Paul.

Since God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation. The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith (35).

Instead of prescribing the how and the when of mutual salvation, the pontifical commission follows the lead of its former head, Cardinal Kasper, by highlighting the conclusion of Romans 11 as the most fitting conclusion to any Christian theology about the salvation of the Jews.

That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery. It is therefore no accident that Paul’s soteriological reflections in Romans 9-11 on the irrevocable redemption of Israel against the background of the Christ-mystery culminate in a magnificent doxology: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways" (Rom 11:33) (36).

Kasper developed this theme in a number of speeches over the years, noting that Paul ends his most systematic reflection on the question of Jewish and Christian salvation with an allegory (of the olive tree) and a doxology -- an image to think with and a prayer for the ages. During a 2004 address on the matter, Kasper said:

In the end the relationship of Israel and the church is a mystery of election and judgement, of guilt and even greater grace, which Paul is able to approach only with doxology (cf. Rom 11:33-36). The continuing existence of Israel confronts us inevitably with God’s unconditional faithfulness to his people. The existence of the church is also a mystery, for without deserving it, out of pure grace, God’s covenant commitment has been extended to the Gentiles. So the relationship of Israel and the church is an absolute mystery.

A mystery is not an irrational entity which we are forbidden to think about, instead it is true that: “Fides quaerens intellectum” (Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury). Paul himself in Romans 11 indicates the direction of such an understanding; not a theory but a docta spes, an account of the hope (cf. 1Pet 3:15 f) which is certain that in the end Israel and the church will be reunited (cf. Rom 11:26.32).

As with Nostra aetate before it, the new document gives great emphasis to Romans 9-11 as the centerpiece of Jewish-Christian relations (sections 27, 34, 43). In those chapters, Paul ultimately shows a kind of resignation before the mystery of God’s election, judgment, and grace. That is to say, after eleven chapters of scriptural exegesis and logical diatribe, he nonetheless finishes the piece with different rhetorical forms—an allegorical image and a doxology. The allegory of the olive tree (11:16-24) grants status and life to the “grafted” branches of the Gentiles; at the same time, it resists the Christian triumphalism of fulfilled messianism, since the “root” of Israel cannot be neglected. Then Paul’s last word on the subject of Jewish and Gentile redemption, the culmination of his life’s work, takes the form of an apophatic doxology. Out of faithfulness to his ineffable conversion experience, Paul concludes with certainty that both Jews and Gentiles will be saved but with no precision about how or when. The how of the not-yet redemption is buried in “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God" (Rom 11:33).

In other words, as I often say to my students, if even Paul did not pronounce on the how of Jewish and Christian redemption, then probably no one is in a position to do so.

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The texts released today and all the rich resources of Jewish-Christian relations can be found on Dialogika, the best English-language site for this work.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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