Christian Conversion of Jews?

Dialogika Resources

Response to Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Covenant, Mission, and Dialogue

Beginning in 1998, representatives of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have held semi-annual meetings with a group representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on matters of mutual concern. At the most recent meeting (June 25, 2009), one topic of discussion was a document issued on June 18, 2009 by the USCCB (“Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission”) reacting to a 2002 Catholic statement on covenant and mission in the context of Jewish-Christian relations. At the end of the meeting, the Jewish group was asked to send a letter setting forth the concerns expressed during the discussion. The letter, written by Prof. David Berger in consultation with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, who chairs the Jewish delegation, was sent on June 29th. On July 1, a USCCB press release, prepared without awareness of the letter, was issued containing a brief summary of the Jewish concerns expressed at the meeting along with a Catholic response. Because of the wide dissemination of this press release, we feel the need to place the letter on the record so that our concerns can be understood as clearly as possible.

Here, then, is the text of the letter:

It was, as always, a pleasure to speak with you at our meeting this past Thursday. In compliance with your request, we write to summarize our concerns regarding two sentences in the newly issued USCCB document entitled “Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission.

Reflections contained the following passage as part of an argument for a broad definition of “evangelization”: “Catholics participating in interreligious dialogue, a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism, are nonetheless witnessing to their own faith in the kingdom of God embodied in Christ. This is a form of evangelization, a way of encouraging the Church’s mission.” The phrase asserting an absence of intention to issue an invitation to baptism in the context of interfaith dialogue (clearly referring primarily to dialogue with Jews, who are the sole focus of the document) is not the primary thrust of the passage. That phrase expresses what the authors clearly saw as a patently uncontroversial observation, a bedrock assumption, a self-evident truth, a given, an elementary understanding of what interreligious dialogue is about.

The new document expresses dissatisfaction with this phrase. The two sentences at issue read as follows: “Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is ‘devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism.’ 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."

This assertion that the Christian partner enters the dialogue with Jews with the intention of extending an implicit invitation to join the Church strikes at the very heart of the dialogical enterprise and undermines the most basic understanding that makes that enterprise possible. Moreover, the assertion that an explicit invitation to abandon Judaism would not “normally” be extended implies unmistakably that the authors of this document can envision a circumstance in the context of Jewish-Christian dialogue when such an explicit invitation would in fact be extended. This possibility is so far beyond anything that Jews who engage in dialogue ever imagined that it comes as a bolt from the blue.

Some of the interpretations proposed by a few Catholic participants in our meeting inadvertently demonstrated the desperate measures to which one must resort in an effort to make these sentences mean anything other than what they manifestly mean. A passage in a document focusing specifically on Jews cannot refer to dialogue with adherents of Asian and African religions. A sentence responding to a passage describing dialogue as an exchange entirely devoid of the intention to convert the other party cannot refer to “a dialogue of conversion or catechesis.” A passage taking issue with an assertion that specifically affirmed the role of witness in dialogue cannot be urging witness without conversionary intent (not to speak of the fact that such intent is explicit in the sentence in question).

When the insupportability of all these explanations became clear, we were finally told that everything a Christian does must implicitly invite his or her interlocutor to accept baptism. It may indeed be the case that the authors of the new statement believe that a Christian politely thanking someone for a favor is obligated to do so with the intention of inviting the other party to the baptismal font, but it would be a surreal exercise to conjure up an imaginary USCCB document criticizing the assumption that one may say “thank you” without such a conscious intention. It is precisely the religious context of dialogue that brings this obligation—if indeed there is such an obligation--to the fore, and once such dialogue is explicitly characterized as an invitation to baptism, Jewish participation becomes more than problematic.

Let us make it clear that we do not regard such a Catholic position as morally objectionable. Catholics are absolutely entitled to believe that they cannot in good conscience hold interfaith discussions without the intention of extending an implicit invitation to baptism. We can—and in your case certainly do—regard such Catholics as good friends and wonderful human beings whose values we more often than not share and with whom we can cooperate in all sorts of ventures in support of shared legal and social initiatives. But the moment such cooperation takes a form that would intuitively be seen as a religious dialogue, it must be ruled out once such dialogue has formally been characterized as an invitation, whether explicit or implicit, to apostasy. Small meetings of experts in political and social issues like aid to religious schools, yes—but no religious dialogue. Lobbying against laws recognizing gay marriage, yes--but no statement about marriage of the sort we issued, which was replete with Scriptural references and religious language. Efforts to limit pervasive immorality in popular culture, yes--but no further discussion of the ten commandments. Since in our case—unlike that of other Jewish denominations—the lion’s share of discussion has dealt with those narrower, non-theological issues, much of our interaction can continue. Nevertheless, some of the examples just noted point to a profound effect even on our exchanges. Those Jews who engage in quintessentially theological dialogue would, if they react to this document as they should, be required to transform their activities in this regard even more fundamentally. Precise lines would need to be thought through, but the overall approach is, at least to us, clear and, to our deep regret, unavoidable. We take apostasy seriously.

Precisely because Orthodox Jews generally appreciate the need for preserving the integrity of traditional religion, we have refrained from criticizing positions of the Church that other Jews have sometimes denounced. One of us has made this point vigorously in many settings and been subject to criticism for doing so by both Jews and liberal Christians. Consequently, we can live with the rest of the USCCB document even though many Jews see it as profoundly objectionable. Here we apply the principle that it is not our business to tell Christians what to believe about their own religion. But these two sentences are a dagger thrust into the heart of the entire enterprise of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on matters of religion. They undermine everything we were led to believe about that enterprise. If they can be removed on the grounds that Jews have misunderstood them (whether or not we would accept that assessment), we could continue our relationship without change. As long as they remain, we cannot continue business as usual and maintain our self-respect as Jews.


Prof. David Berger
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld