- Created: November 30, 2009
- Written by USCCB Office of Media Relations
WASHINGTON—Catholic and Jewish leaders agreed at a fall dialogue that proselytism understood as coercion or manipulation is a corruption of authentic witness to one’s faith.
“Any effort to lead a person to faith that tramples on human freedom betrays a lack of respect for human dignity,” said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
The USCCB and the National Council of Synagogues (NCS) of America held their fall consultation at Jewish Theological Seminary, November 11, in Manhattan. Rabbi Alan Brill of New Jersey’s Seton Hall University and Father Arthur Kennedy of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, spoke on the theme: “dialogue and witness in the perspective of our faith traditions.”
Rabbi Brill said witness is a less significant category in Jewish theology than it is in the Christian tradition. Where it does appear in early sources, it means a public proclamation about a special event or fundamental teaching of Judaism, such as the Sabbath—which is “a witness to Gods’ creation,” Rabbi Brill said.
Jews generally prefer “education” and “continuity” as terms that define how faith is passed on within families and cultures. Only recently with authors such as Emil Fackenheim and Elie Wiesel has the idea of witnessing to the faith become operative within Jewish circles, and generally in response to the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.
Catholics, however, have understood witness as integral to the faith. “Commitment to witness means uniting one’s life with Jesus Christ, even sacrificing one’s life as a martyr,” said Father Kennedy. Within the Catholic tradition witnessing to the truth, both in word and deed, is a fundamental duty.
Since the Second Vatican Council issued its landmark decrees on non-Christian religions (Nostra aetate) and religious freedom (Dignitatis humanae), Catholics have distinguished authentic witness from a kind of proselytism that Father Kennedy described as “forced, manipulative, coercive, intimidating and cajoling.”
Father Kennedy cited Catholic-Jewish dialogue as a model for interreligious witnessing that involves mutual respect for one’s another beliefs and a desire to understand one another’s core religious convictions. Anticipating future dialogue topics on human rights and natural law, he invited consideration of how the two communities could foster an “I-Thou relationship” in the sense promoted by the Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber. Father Kennedy went on to explain that this is a dialogue “across the divide of religious belief that maintains a sense of God in our midst.”
Jewish NCS President and co-chair Rabbi Alvin Berhkun lauded his Catholic counterpart, Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop Emeritus of Baltimore. The meeting marked the final dialogue session in which Cardinal Keeler would serve as co-chair and USCCB Moderator for Jewish Affairs. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York assumed both roles.
Tributes were also paid to Cardinal Keeler by longtime dialogue partners, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of Washington, Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal of Needham, Massachusetts and NCS staff, and Judith Hertz of New York. Archbishop Gregory thanked Cardinal Keeler on behalf of the U.S. bishops for his wise and generous service to reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish community.
Participants also discussed the June 18 USCCB Note on Some Ambiguities in Reflections on Covenant and Mission which contained a sentence that disturbed Jewish partners. The original document Reflections (2002) was authored by scholars involved in the USCCB-NCS consultation and evoked theological concerns within the Catholic community.
To clarify perceived ambiguities in the earlier statement, the USCCB committees for doctrine and ecumenical/interreligious affairs had stated in their Note that “Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.”
Through subsequent correspondence with Jewish partners and further internal discussions, the bishop-chairmen of the two committees, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, chair of the Doctrine Committee, and Archbishop Gregory, joined with USCCB President Cardinal Francis George, Cardinal Keeler and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York in re-issuing the Note without the controversial sentence. The bishops also issued a Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue which said that dialogue “has never been and will never be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism—nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”
Participants also addressed Middle East issues, particularly Israel’s policy on visas for religious workers.
Catholic Near East Director Msgr. Robert Stern expressed particular concern for 147,000 Christians who reside in Israel and the 30,000-40,000 who live in the occupied territories. “Their plight is very serious as they find themselves in a tenuous situation,” he stated.
The forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman synagogue was also mentioned as a hopeful sign that the advances of the past will continue to cement a trusting relationship between the two faiths.
Catholic participants at the consultation also included Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor, America Magazine; Father Lawrence Frizzell, Seton Hall University; Atonement Father James Loughran, Atonement Ecumenical Institute; Bishop Basil H. Losten, Former Bishop of Stamford for Ukrainians; Monsignor Guy Massie, Diocese of Brooklyn, New York; Father James Massa, USCCB staff; and Father Robert Robbins, Archdiocese of New York.
Jewish participants also included Rabbi Moses A. Birnbaum of Plainview, New York; Rabbi Lewis Eron, Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Ethan Felson, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Gunther Lawrence, Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Joel Meyers, Executive Vice-President Emeritus of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Daniel F. Polish of LaGrangeville, New York; Jacob Stein, NCS advisor; Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, Congregation Beth-El in Massapequa, New York; and Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg (Rabbi Emeritus), Adas Israel Congregation, Washington. Special guests at the meeting were Rabbi Gerald Meister, Religious Affairs Director (Emeritus), Israeli Consulate, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Jewish Federation of Chicago; and Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly.