Christian Conversion of Jews?

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Preface to the 2nd Edition of "No to Mission to the Jews - Yes to Dialogue between Jews and Christians"

Preface to the 2nd edition

The declaration of 9 March 2009 "No to the Mission to the Jews - Yes to the Dialogue between Jews and Christians" of the discussion group "Jews and Christians" of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) has been met with many responses and has set off a rather controversial public debate. These discussions illustrate the charged nature of the problem that-decades after the Second Vatican Council-the relations between the Church and Jews remain strained. A no to the mission to the Jews is considered as a test case for the credibility of the Church's rejection of the traditional paths of hostility toward the Jews. Some prominent Catholic critics see this as the unacceptable renunciation of a binding teaching of the Church. However, these objections do not respond to the declaration's approach and argumentation. The discussion group thus feels compelled to clarify the following points.

Our declaration neither claims to be a comprehensive theological treatise, nor is it an official document of the Church. It is also not a declaration in the name of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). It is, nonetheless, the result of many years of dialogue between Catholics and Jews, in which on both sides the faithfulness to one's own tradition was never a question. This declaration stands on the strength of its arguments.

  • Without taking into account the context of the discussion group's earlier statements, it is difficult to appropriately understand and assess our most recent declaration. Both our 2005 declaration "Jews and Christians in Germany" (Juden und Christen in Deutschland), mentioned in our declaration from March 2009 (p. 2) and the 1979 declaration "Important Theological Issues for Jewish-Christian Dialogue" (Theologische Schwerpunkte des jüdisch-christlichen Gesprächs) should be consulted in this context. In these declarations, some critics of our most recent declaration will find more in-depth statements regarding both Jesus Christ's universal message of salvation and a form of dialogue which necessarily includes the attestation to one's own faith. The Catholic members of our discussion group stand to their earlier statements.

  • We must not disregard the catastrophe that the past mission to the Jews was. Over centuries, it caused fear and horror for innumerable Jews, it violated the Jew's religious dignity, and it is responsible for the deaths of Jews. Through the mission to the Jews, the Church lost great credibility. When Jews today, in light of the numeric asymmetry between Judaism and Christianity, see in the mission to the Jews a new danger for their religious existence after Auschwitz-even when this mission is nonviolent-then Christians must not only take this viewpoint seriously, but also theologically reflect upon these concerns.

  • We hold the fundamental decision against the organized mission to the Jews on part of the Catholic Church after the Council to be true and just. Accordingly, the problem of the mission to the Jews is for Cardinal Walter Kasper "factually, but not yet theologically resolved" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20.03.08). It still must be asked how the Church can theologically justify the renunciation of the mission to the Jews, something which some critics interpret as a betrayal of tradition. To aid in the resolution of this open question, our discussion group formulated its declaration and presented it to the public for debate.

  • Our thesis is: Even without believing in Jesus as the Christ and without baptism, the Jews are, as the people of God, on a path to salvation. God will lead them on this path to this end. For us, there is no discrepancy therein to the commitment of the Church that Jesus Christ is the savior of all men and women: "The covenant of the New Testament ... points to the death of Jesus as an act of God toward universal forgiveness of sins" (p.10).

  • The decisive argument for our thesis is the "never revoked old covenant" (John Paul II). Otherwise, the faithfulness to God on part of the Church would be in question. That all men and women, when they follow their own convictions of their beliefs, can achieve salvation, only says that there are as many paths to God as there are human beings. This message, however, avoids the theological question regarding what God's eternal covenant with his people of Israel means for its path to salvation.

  • Our declaration draws not only from Paul's statements in his Epistle to the Romans (9-11), but it also reads afresh the passages in the New Testament which are traditionally utilized as rationale for the mission to the Jews. Similar to prominent exegetes, in our declaration we arrive at the conclusion that a duty on part of the "gentile Christians" to preach the gospel of Jesus the Jew as their Messiah cannot be found. In the New Testament, it is always Jews who advocate to other Jews for the recognition of, and belief in, Jesus the Messiah.

  • "What separates us is history." This was one of the central convictions, based on decades of dialogue, of a founding member of our discussion group, Professor Ernst-Ludwig Ehrlich who passed away in 2007. One cannot refer to the New Testament while forgetting history. Paul's and the first Christians' hope for a church "of Jews and gentiles" would be a utopia for the Church and a nightmare for the Jews, because this would mean the end of the latter's religious and cultural identity.

  • On 12 March 1979, John Paul II said that the encounters between the Church and the Jewish people should be "at the very level of their respective religious identities." And, Cardinal Karl Lehmann adds: "This does not preclude individual conversions, which occur on the basis of a very personal decision." The discussion group consciously did not address the theological controversy concerning whether God's covenant with Israel and the Church should be understood either through the metaphor of two paths towards salvation or through the metaphor of a common path ("shoulder to shoulder," Zeph 3:9) or, as the declaration states, as one history of the covenant with many iterations. The declaration limits itself to the statement: "Israel and Church are, together and each in its own specific way, instruments of God for the coming of His universal Kingdom" (p.10). Commonality and difference are stressed, just as Israel's and the Church's universal "light to the Gentiles - lumen gentium" (Isa 49:6; Mt 5:14). Nonetheless, we are with Paul in our conviction that God's plan for salvation is a mystery; for Jews and Christians it will be understood only when our common goal is upon us (Rom 11:33-36).

  • That the discussion group decidedly positions itself against the mission to the Jews does not impede its conviction that Jews and Christians alike should witness to one's own faith and enter into dialogue about one's faith. Throughout almost four decades of dialogue, we have learned again and again how enriching this witness and dialogue is and can be.

Bonn, 4 May 2009
For the discussion group "Jews and Christians"
Prof. Dr. Hanspeter Heinz