Christian Conversion of Jews?
- Created: June 19, 2009
- Written by RNS: Kevin Eckstrom
(UNDATED) U.S. Catholic bishops tried Thursday (June 18) to clarify the Catholic Church's relationship with Judaism, saying Jews will not be targets of evangelism, but the church reserves the right to share its faith and welcome Jewish converts.
The bishops resurrected a 2002 statement that they called "insufficiently precise and potentially misleading" about whether Christians should share the Gospel with Jews. The bishops said the document had "raised many questions" among U.S. Catholics.
Jewish groups, however, worry that Catholics are retreating from decades of interfaith progress that culminated in a 1986 statement by Pope John Paul II that the Jewish covenant with God is "irrevocable."
The bishops' 2002 document, produced by an ongoing dialogue with Reform and Conservative rabbis, said targeting Jews for conversion is "no longer theologically acceptable" because Jews "already dwell in a saving covenant with God."
In a three-page statement issued at the bishops' spring meeting in San Antonio, the bishops' doctrine and ecumenical committees said the 2002 statement presented a "diminished notion of evangelization" that seemed to imply that Catholics should not attempt to convert Jews.
The new statement appears to try to answer Catholic critics who said the 2002 statement implied that salvation could be found outside of Jesus Christ, or that the church didn't have the duty to evangelize.
Jewish leaders say the revised statement is the latest in a series of troubling steps by the Catholic Church.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI revised, but refused to delete, a Good Friday prayer in the Latin Mass that calls for Jews to be converted. The U.S. bishops last year deleted a section in the official U.S. Catholic Cathechism for Adults that said "the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them."
"There was a growing comfort level in the Jewish community over how Catholics viewed Jewish salvation," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the U.S. director of interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee.
"That's now becoming less sturdy, less clear, and will need a new redefinition."
A spokeswoman for the bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said the San Antonio statement was primarily directed at Catholics, not Jews, and sought to "clarify any misunderstanding" over the earlier document.
She added that the 2002 statement was produced by the dialogue team and was never an official document of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "although it was treated that way."
The bishops said confusion had "led some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews." Instead, the bishops said the church is "always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited."
The bishops reaffirmed longstanding teaching that God "does not regret, repent of, or change his mind" about the covenant he established with the Jews through Abraham and Moses. Yet they said Jesus Christ "fulfills God's revelation," and sharing that message is "at the heart of (the church's) mission."
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who heads the bishops' doctrine committee, said the Catholic Church believes that the Jewish covenant that began with Moses and Abraham and "that continues to be adhered to by Jews today is fulfilled ... in Jesus."
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the outgoing head of the Conservative movement who worked on the original 2002 document, said he would like some "clarification" on who, exactly, the bishops are trying to address.
"If they're saying they want to stress that...for Catholics the way to the covenant is through belief in Jesus Christ, I would say that message is appropriate," Epstein said from Israel.
"But if they're saying that they're going to go sell that message to Jews, then I've got a problem with that."
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
c. 2009 Religion News Service