Christian Conversion of Jews?

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Letter of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion to Several American Bishops

The Sisters of Our Lady of Sion are an international Roman Catholic congregation with a particular commitment to Jewish-Christian relations. In September their general leadership team wrote the following letter to the members and staff of the (U.S.) Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, as well as to those bishops with a commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue or whose dioceses include significant Jewish populations. The sisters expressed their concerns about the USCCB's June "Note" and the August "Recognitio" and "Backgrounder."

Nostra Signora di Sion

As the general leadership team of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, we would like to express our deep concern about recent developments in Catholic-Jewish relations. These developments are American in their context, but because of the international nature of some of the Jewish organizations involved, as well as the Vatican's granting of the "Recognitio" to the changes in the U.S. Catechism for Adults, we believe it necessary to address these matters at the level of our congregation's international leadership.

In June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published "A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission." The "Note" left the impression that the authors were implying that the Sinai covenant is fulfilled in Jesus in such a way that the covenant with the Jewish people no longer exists, and that Judaism is no longer valid. This is paralleled in the change in the U.S. Catechism for Adults that removes the clause stating that the "covenant that God made with the Jewish people remains eternally valid for them" and cites Romans 9:4-5. This change is explained in the "Backgrounder" as correcting any inclination to misunderstand that "one of the former covenants imparts salvation without the mediation of Christ." The covenant with Abraham is affirmed, but the change and the "Backgrounder" appear to deny the enduring validity of the Mosaic covenant, despite the citation of Romans 9.

A further major problem arises in the "Note" when it speaks of dialogue as an occasion for "implicit" - and sometimes explicit - invitations to Jewish partners to conversion. This is particularly threatening to Orthodox Jews, who have long been reluctant to engage in theological dialogue precisely because they fear that Christians will seek to use such conversation as an opportunity to encourage Jews to abandon the Torah.

These developments go to the foundation of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Neither the "Note" nor the "Backgrounder" take into account the extensive body of Church teaching developed in documents since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, as well as numerous statements by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Those documents and statements affirm the ongoing validity of the Sinai covenant, the nature of dialogue as an encounter with the other as other, the importance of allowing the other to define her or his identity and experience, and the mutual exchange of learning in that encounter.

"Mutual understanding" as the goal of Catholic-Jewish dialogue has been a constant theme in the documents and statements developed since Nostra Aetate. The prologue of the 1974 "Guidelines" tells us that Nostra Aetate "provides an opportunity to open or to continue a dialogue with a view to better mutual understanding." The document goes on to speak of the importance of learning the "essential traits" of Jewish self-definition "in light of their own religious experience."

The 1985 "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church" of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews emphasize the mutuality of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews. It calls Catholics engaged in dialogue to "due awareness of the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practiced still today" (1, 3). In 1986, Pope John Paul II affirmed the significance of the 1974 "Guidelines" and the 1985 "Notes" in his address at the Great Synagogue of Rome (Address at the Great Synagogue of Rome, April 13, 1986, #5).

Pope John Paul II spoke of the Christian-Jewish dialogue as "the meeting between the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God," citing the words of Paul that culminate in the praise of God's mysterious wisdom and knowledge (Rom. 11:29-36; Address to Representatives of the West German Jewish Community, Mainz, November 17, 1980). The Holy Father spoke of the Mosaic covenant at Mount Sinai: "But now on the heights of Sinai this same God seals his love by making the covenant that he will never renounce. If the people obey his law, they will know freedom forever. The exodus and the covenant are not just events of the past; they are forever the destiny of all God's people!" (Homily at Mount Sinai, February 26, 2000).

As early as the Second Vatican Council, bishops were concerned about the appearance of proselytism (Acta Syn III.8, p. 648). "Dialogue and Proclamation" recognizes dialogue as part of the Church's mission of evangelization, defining it as "all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment." Dialogue "includes both witness and the exploration of respective religious convictions" (#9). "Dialogue and Proclamation" refers its readers to the 1974 "Guidelines" and the 1985 "Notes" for instruction concerning dialogue between Christians and Jews ("Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Collaboration with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, footnote 8). While "Dialogue and Proclamation" - and indeed, several papal statements - speak of witness to faith in Jesus in the context of dialogue, nowhere do the documents or statements imply that witness should be an invitation to conversion.

Pope Benedict has spoken recently of the nature of dialogue. Dialogue, he said, "is only serious and honest when it respects differences and recognizes others precisely in their otherness. A sincere dialogue needs both openness and a firm sense of identity on both sides, in order for each to be enriched by the gifts of the other" (Address to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations [IJCIC], Vatican City, October 30, 2008). And this year he said, "We must each do all we can to learn the language of the other ... Let us learn from one another and let us go forward along the path of true dialogue ..." (Interview during Airplane Flight to Jordan, May 8, 2009).

For us, as Sisters of Our Lady of Sion present in twenty countries, recent developments touch the heart of our vocation in the Church. During the Council years Sisters worked closely with Cardinal Bea, in the process that resulted in the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. This collective history has led us, over the decades, to understand our vocation as a calling to contemplate the Word of God, and to live in a three-fold commitment to Church, the Jewish people, and to a world of justice, peace and love (Constitutions, 6, 13). It is a vocation to witness to God's faithful love for his people rather than to work for their conversion (13). That new understanding was ratified by the Church in the 1984 approbation of our Constitutions by the Sacred Congregation of Religious.

Recent developments have direct impact on our ministry and the ways in which we live our vocation because Jews with whom we work are rapidly losing trust in the Church's commitment to dialogue. If Jewish partners break institutional ties with the U.S. Catholic Conference, that negative impact will become even graver.

Our Jewish partners have made it clear that they need to hear that the Church teaches the ongoing validity of the Mosaic covenant, and that the purpose of dialogue is mutual understanding, not conversion whether explicit or implicit. We respectfully ask that you make an authoritative statement that reassures our Jewish partners about Catholic teaching on those two essential points without in any way diminishing the call to Catholics to witness to their faith in Jesus the Christ in the context of dialogue.

Sister Maureen Cusick NDS
Superior General

Sister Darlene DeMong NDS
Sister Helen Frawley NDS
Sister Marta Bauchwitz NDS
General Councilors