- Created: December 10, 2015
- Written by Cardinal Kurt Koch
On Wednesday, October 28 of this year, according to the desire of Pope Francis, a very special general audience was organized because on that same day fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate was promulgated. Representatives from many different religions attended the audience. Their presence is explained by the fact that the conciliar text marked a turning point in the attitude of the Catholic Church toward other religions and should be understood as a call for interfaith dialogue. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate took place on October 26-28 this year with a major international conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University. The more than four hundred people present there also attended the papal audience on 28 October, which therefore represented the culmination of the commemoration. On that occasion, the Holy Father stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue and collaboration between the various religions in the face of the serious problems and great challenges of the present time: "The world, looking to us believers, exhorts us to cooperate amongst ourselves and with the men and women of good will who profess no religion, asking us for effective responses regarding numerous issues: peace, hunger, the poverty that afflicts millions of people, the environmental crisis, violence, especially that committed in the name of religion, corruption, moral decay, the crisis of the family, of the economy, of finance – and most importantly, the crisis of hope."
For the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the reoccurrence of this anniversary is a good opportunity to present a new document that takes up the theological principles of the fourth section of Nostra Aetate." It broadens and deepens them where they affect relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism. While it is true that, throughout the history of the Church, there have been official statements in relation to Judaism or to coexistence between Catholics and Jews, it is also true that Nostra Aetate (§4) presents, for the first time, the decisive theological position of a Council concerning Judaism. The Declaration expressly recalls the Jewish roots of Christianity. Jesus and his early followers were Jewish, shaped by the Jewish tradition of their time; only in this context, therefore, is it possible to understand them properly.
Today I wish to present the document that is titled "'For the Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable': Reflections on Theological Issues Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations." This is an explicitly theological document that intends to summarize and clarify issues that have emerged in the recent decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Prior to this text, no other document in a strictly theological mold had been published by our Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews – the three preceding documents concerned concrete topics, the practicalities of dialogue.
To allude briefly to the history of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, I wish to recall that it was established by Blessed Pope Paul VI on October 22, 1974. In that same year of its foundation, the Holy See's Commission published, on December 1, 1974, its first official document, entitled "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (§4)." The main purpose of this document and its innovative approach was to get to know Judaism in the way Judaism understands itself. The document was primarily concerned with the practical implications of Nostra Aetate (§4) in different contexts. Eleven years later, on June 24, 1985, the Holy See's Commission published a second document entitled, "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church." Although this text already has an exegetical and theological character, it is mostly in a practical mold, focusing on the way in which Judaism is presented in Catholic preaching and catechesis. A third document of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was presented to the public on March 16, 1998. It deals with the Holocaust and is titled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." This document was much desired by our Jewish partners given the centrality of the tragedy of the Shoah in their long history of persecution.
Compared to these three first documents, the [present] document has a very different character and orientation. The context which provided a good opportunity for its preparation has already been mentioned: the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate (§4). What is the reason that motivated its writing? What are its purposes?
The preamble emphasizes that this is not an official document of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, but a study document of our Commission, whose aim is to deepen the theological dimension of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The document does not therefore wish to present definitive doctrinal statements, but to provide inspiration and stimulation for further theological discussions. An important objective of Pope Francis and our Commission is indeed the deepening of religious and theological dialogue between Jews and Catholics. Already Nostra Aetate (§4) had mentioned theological issues that required further consideration. And it is precisely to such reflection that this document wants to make a contribution. It calls on theologians and, more generally, all those who are interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue to understand, to consider. and to discuss the various points outlined in the document.
The document consists of 7 sections:
- A brief history of the impact of Nostra Aetate (§4) over the past 50 years;
The special theological status of Jewish-Catholic dialogue;
The revelation in history of the "Word of God" in Judaism and Christianity;
The relationship between the Old and New Testaments and between the Old and New Covenant;
The universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the never revoked Covenant between God and Israel;
The mandate of evangelization with regard to Judaism;
The objectives of the dialogue with Judaism.
The first section briefly presents the history of Catholic-Jewish dialogue over the last fifty years, summed up in §10 in the following words: "During that time, much has been achieved; the former opposition has turned into successful collaboration, the previous potential for conflict into an efficient management of conflicts, and past coexistence marked by tension has been replaced by solid and fruitful mutuality. The bonds of friendship that developed over the years have proved to be stable and have made it possible to address even controversial subjects together without the danger of permanent damage to the dialogue."
These words correspond to what was stated by Pope Francis during the general audience of October 28: "Deserving of special gratitude to God is the veritable transformation of Christian-Jewish relations in these 50 years. Indifference and opposition have changed into cooperation and benevolence. From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers." As evidence of this, the first section mentions the activities and initiatives in Catholic-Jewish dialogue undertaken by the last three Popes, as well as those of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, on which we cannot dwell in detail.
The second section, from a theological point of view, does not offer a new concept but reiterates the fact that Christianity derives from Judaism, has Jewish roots and can be understood properly only within this context. Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jew; also his first disciples and apostles, the pillars of the Christian Church, are situated in continuity with the Jewish religious tradition of their time. However, Jesus transcends it, since, according to Christian belief, he cannot be considered only as a Jew, but also and above all as the Messiah and Son of God. The document states: "The fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity is how the figure of Jesus is to be evaluated. Jews are able to see Jesus as belonging to their people, a Jewish teacher who felt himself called in a particular way to preach the Kingdom of God" (§14). Although the Jew Jesus is perceived differently by Christians and Jews, from a theological point of view one can speak however, with regard to relations between Christians and Jews, of a very close and unavoidable family relationship. In fact the document describes the dialogue between Jews and Christians in the following words: "Therefore the Jewish-Christian dialogue can only with reservations be termed ‘interreligious dialogue’ in the true sense of the expression; perhaps one should instead speak of a kind of ‘intra-religious’ or ‘intra–familial’ dialogue sui generis (§20).
The third section deals with the revelation in history of the "Word of God." Jews and Christians believe that the God of Israel is revealed through his Word, to offer people a lesson on how to live successfully in right relationship with God and neighbor. This Word of God can be identified by the Jews in the Torah; for Christians, it is incarnate in Jesus Christ. (John 1:14). In this regard, Pope Francis has said, "The Christian denominations find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews the Word of God is present mainly in the Torah. Both faith traditions have their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who is revealed to people through His Word. In seeking a proper attitude toward God, Christians turn to Christ as the source of new life, Jews to the teachings of the Torah" (Address to the International Council of Christians and Jews, June 30, 2015).
The fourth section focuses on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and between Old and New Covenant. "With the existence of the Old Testament as an integral part of the one Christian Bible, there is a deeply rooted sense of intrinsic kinship between Judaism and Christianity" (§28). Certainly, Christians interpret the Old Testament Scriptures differently than Jews since the event of Christ is for them the new interpretive key to understanding them. Augustine summarized it this way, "The Old Testament is shown in the New and the New is hidden in the Old." And Pope Gregory the Great defines the Old Testament as "prophecy of the New" (cf. §29). Christians basically start from the premise that the arrival of Jesus Christ as the Messiah was already contained in the Old Testament prophecies. In light of this "concordia testamentorum" or indispensible harmony between the two Testaments, one also understands the very special relationship between the Old and New Covenant. "The Covenant offered by God to Israel is irrevocable ... The New Covenant does not revoke previous covenants, but fufills them ... For Christians, the New Covenant in Christ is the culmination of the promises of salvation of the Old Covenant and, to that extent, it is never independent of it. The New Covenant has its basis and foundation in the Old, since it is the God of Israel who forges the Old Covenant with the people of Israel and makes possible the New Covenant in Jesus Christ" (§27). It must therefore be borne in mind that there can be only one story of the covenant between God and his people, and God has always renewed his covenant with his people Israel. The New Covenant is within this framework, although it carries a special relationship with the above: "the New Covenant, for Christians, is neither the cancellation nor the replacement, but the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant" (§32).
The fifth section discusses the thorny issue of how to understand the fact that Jews are saved without believing explicitly in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. "Since God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation. ... Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith as does the confession that the one and only God, the God of Israel, has revealed himself in Jesus Christ" (§35). "The Christian confession of a single path to salvation does not lead to the conclusion, however, that the Jews are excluded from God's salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. ... God entrusted Israel with a unique mission, and He does not bring his mysterious plan of salvation for all peoples (cf. 1 Tim 2:4) to fulfilment without drawing into it his 'first-born son' (Ex 4:22). God gave Israel a unique mission and never will accomplish his mysterious plan of salvation for all peoples (see 1 Tm 2.4) without involving his 'son' (i.e. 4.22) ... The fact that Jews have a part in the salvation of God is theologically beyond question, but how this is possible without an explicit confession of Christ is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery" (§36).
Another thorny issue is raised in the sixth section which asks: what should be the attitude of Christians on the question of evangelization in relation to Jews? In this regard, we find the following statements in the document: "The Church is therefore obliged to view the evangelization of 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).
Finally, in section seven are set out, from a Catholic point of view, the objectives of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, which until now had never been expressed in a document so explicitly. Of course, the main purpose is to allow Catholics and Jews to know and appreciate each other more fully. Among the objectives to be pursued, however, there is also cooperation in the field of exegesis, or the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, which Jews and Christians have in common. And also: "a major goal of the Jewish-Christian dialogue is undoubtedly the common commitment for justice, peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation around the world" (§46). "Justice and peace, however, should not simply be abstractions within dialogue, but should also be evidenced in tangible ways. The social-charitable sphere provides a rich field of activity, since both Jewish and Christian ethics include the imperative to support the poor, disadvantaged and sick" (§48). The document adds that, in the field of the training of the younger generation, we should strive to make known the results and progress made in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Finally, referring to anti-Semitism: "another important goal in Jewish-Catholic dialogue consists in the common struggle against all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and against all forms of anti-Semitism" (§47).
With this brief overview of the contents of the new document, I have tried to highlight the fact that the dialogue with Judaism, after fifty years, now rests on solid ground, because much has been achieved in this period. Of this we must be grateful to God, without whose help we would not have arrived where we are now, "Unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain" (Ps 127:1). We are of course grateful for every effort on the part of both Jews and Catholics to the promotion of our dialogue. It is equally important to remember, however, as the document points out, that especially from the theological point of view we are only at a new beginning and many questions remain open and require further study. For this reason, I hope that this document is well received by all those engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, or that it is interesting and can provide them with stimulating input for reflection, for conversations and for future exchanges.