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John BorelliFebruary 22, 2010

Exchanging public statements is a poor way to conduct dialogue. But for the past several months Catholic bishops and Jewish leaders have been doing just that about two topics that cut close to the heart of the relationship between the two communities: the status and relevance of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and the nature of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Few issues could be more sensitive.

The proximate cause of the recent exchange was A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Covenant and Mission, a statement made public June 18, 2009, during the bishops’ semi-annual meeting. The note, prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees on Doctrine and Pastoral Practices and on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, is mostly a critique of the Catholic side of a joint statement with Jews titled Reflection on Covenant and Mission, issued seven years ago. Jews and other observers view the note as one more step backward for Catholic-Jewish relations and for the ecumenical and interreligious outreach of the U.S.C.C.B, which was already deteriorating through a series of events over the last several years. While steps have been taken to resolve substantive differences between the two sides, questions about the conduct and supervision of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and about trust between the parties are still to be addressed.

Reflections on Covenant and Mission

By itself, the bishops’ note bears three new and troubling features that fall short of usual standards for dialogue. First, never before has the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee officially criticized the work of one of its own dialogues. Previously, the U.S.C.C.B. has prepared responses to certain developments or occasionally to dialogue texts. But past responses never included the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs if the work of a dialogue group under its own sponsorship was under scrutiny. Reflections on Covenant and Mission, the text criticized by the bishops in their June note, was a joint statement of that committee’s dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues. Unfortunately, the press release issued with R.C.M. incorrectly identified it as a statement of the bishops’ conference rather than of one of its dialogues. Although this was corrected at the time and the text was even removed from the U.S.C.C.B. Web site, the note worries that since R.C.M.’s appearance “some...have treated the document as authoritative.”

Second, the level of authority for national dialogue texts was never a concern before. They can claim no more authority than that of the scholars and others, including church officials, who prepare and release them. While their consensus usually carries considerable weight, not until sponsoring bodies receive these texts formally or officials cite them approvingly do agreed texts acquire any official weight.

The bishops observe that this Catholic-Jewish dialogue text “was not subject to the same review process that official documents undergo.” That would apply a procedure for approval of dialogue texts not then in effect and implies that such review will be imposed now and in the future. Review by an outside group, even a doctrine committee, before a dialogue group can release a text would undermine the dialogue process by unilaterally imposing controls on the partner in dialogue and undercutting the standing of the Catholic interlocutors. Pending official reception or rejection, control should be exercised by careful appointments, not on what the appointees wish to say.

Third, the bishops’ note came out during the U.S.C.C.B.’s June meeting, usually planned as a nonworking session when observers and the press are absent. These meetings were originally intended as retreats or a time for relaxed consultation among bishops, unlike the November meetings, when most deliberations are public except for specially designated executive sessions. At both their June 2008 and 2009 meetings, the bishops agreed in private to actions that have negatively affected Jewish relations.

At the June 2008 meeting, bishops had voted in favor of replacing a sentence in the American catechism, “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” The replacement text is mostly a quotation from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (9:4-5). The new wording approved was: “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’” Speaking for the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the Rev. James Massa explained that the expunged wording “was not flat-out wrong” but “was ambiguous and needed to be qualified.”

One wonders what was so ambiguous. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that “the Old Covenant has never been revoked” (No. 121). Replacing and not editing the sentence in the American catechism indicates that the U. S. bishops felt something was wrong with referring to the covenant as “eternally valid” for Jews, even with qualification.

The U.S.C.C.B. announced on Aug. 27, 2009, that Rome had given permission for this change. The announcement explains that it “clarifies Catholic teaching on God’s covenant with the Jews” and further that “Catholics believe that the Jewish people continue to live within the truth of the covenant God made with Abraham, and that God continues to be faithful to them.” There are no reasons given why a shift from the covenant “through Moses” to the earlier covenant “with Abraham” and why the somewhat awkward expression “to live within the truth of the covenant” represent improvements, especially for catechesis. The announcement appeared several days after Jewish representatives had sent a firm response to the bishops’ June note.

The Jewish Response

Jewish representatives of five organizations responded to the June 2009 action by a letter on Aug. 18 to the signers of the note. While many Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, declare that they have no business telling Catholics what to believe, this letter points out that the note seems “to posit that the Mosaic covenant is obsolete and Judaism no longer has a reason to exist.” What is certainly lacking in the note and other recent U.S.C.C.B. announcements is the key term in the English rendering of Rom 11:29 in the New American Bible (the Bible translation officially authorized by the U.S.C.C.B), “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Declaring that the covenant was never revoked—using John Paul II’s often stated interpretation of Vatican II’s teaching—thwarts any supersessionist view to the contrary. (Supersessionism is the belief that the church, the “New Israel,” displaces the Jews as God’s people.)

But the primary concern of Jewish leaders with the note was another matter entirely: the nature of dialogue itself. “A declaration of this sort,” they wrote, “is antithetical to the very essence of Jewish-Christian dialogue as we have understood it in the post-Vatican II era.” To them, the bishops seemed to state “that Catholics engaging in dialogue with Jews must have the intention of extending an implicit invitation to embrace Christianity and that one can even imagine a situation in such a dialogue where this invitation would be made explicit.” Their reply to any invitation to baptism was unequivocal: “Jewish participation becomes untenable” when dialogue becomes “an invitation, whether explicit or implicit, to apostatize.”

Representatives of five groups with decades-long relationships with the U.S.C.C.B. signed the response—the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Synagogues and two Orthodox Jewish organizations: the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America. Their complaints were heard, for on Oct. 2 five bishops replied: Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishop’s conference; Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Bishop William Lori, chairmen of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and of Doctrine; and the two longtime co-chairmen of these dialogues, Cardinal William Keeler and Bishop William Murphy.

They indicated they would excise the two sentences on baptism and dialogue and issued a “Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue,” which includes a strong denial that dialogue is a “disguised invitation to baptism” or will ever be used “as a means of proselytism.” That helps because most of these bishops, and now also Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who was recently named to replace Cardinal Keeler in heading Jewish relations for the U.S.C.C.B., are the people primarily responsible for promoting these relations. (See Archbishop Dolan’s “A Shared Path,” Am., 2/1.) Still, though the offending words are removed from the bishops’ note, Jews must wonder what the bishops truly believe is the relationship between dialogue and baptism.

Interpreting ‘Nostra Aetate’

Speaking in 2004, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, summarized what Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate), accomplished for Jewish relations: “In this declaration the church expressed regret for every form of anti-Semitism, it affirmed its Jewish roots and, with reference to the Epistle to the Romans, the continued validity of God’s covenant with Israel.” He also explained that St. Paul’s idea of a covenant (Rom 11:29) not revoked is “so important in this new time of relations...that it should not be treated in isolation and apart from the whole multi-layered New Testament covenant theology.” The current weight of Christian biblical and theological scholarship favors such a single covenant. Nostra Aetate also put an end to supersessionist views, that the old covenant ended and that the church has replaced the Jews as God’s people. An adequate Christian account, following Cardinal Kasper’s advice, would need to reject any vestige of a replacement theory as well as avoid any suggestion of two independent, ongoing covenants.

In 2002 the dialogue text R.C.M. attempted to address, from the Catholic side, the relationship between mission and dialogue in light of “a deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people.” That text consisted of a preface and two parts, one by the Catholic side and the other by the Jewish side. Some critics felt that the Catholic section needed more careful attention to the complex relationship between mission and dialogue. Others criticized what they saw as an overall imbalance, because the Jewish section did not address in theological depth the relationship Jews have with Christians. Among the critics was Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who rebuked the Catholic participants for making it appear that the universal call to conversion does not apply to Jews and for insufficiently testing their positions on the covenant against the whole New Testament (Am., 10/21/02).

Healthy as it is for internal Catholic discussion on mission and dialogue to be out in the open, the bishops’ recent note comes across as a unilateral and premature attempt to be doctrinally precise, jeopardizing the relationships with Jews necessary for dialogue. Such precision is prone to overstatement. The Orthodox Jewish scholar Rabbi David Berger, a signer of the Jewish response in August, called the reference to baptism “a bolt from the blue.” Public revision continues. As promised, a new version of the bishops’ note is now posted on the U.S.C.C.B. Web site with the offending sentences removed. The revised text repeats its criticism of R.C.M. for failing to develop a vision of mission and dialogue that incorporates the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ, but offers no examples or references.

Furthermore, the committees’ explanation of the covenant in the note and the change in the catechism obfuscate R.C.M.’s summary of teaching from the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II on God’s unrevoked covenant with the Jews. The revised note fails to mention the Vatican’s Guidelines on Religious Relations With Jews, issued in 1974, which acknowledged the Christian obligation to witness and preach Christ as well as not to repeat supersessionist mistakes and proselytizing abuses of the past against Jews in the name of mission. From 1980 on, Pope John Paul II referred to the Old Covenant as “never revoked by God.” This Vatican-II mentality gives priority to nurturing relationships between Christians and Jews rather than to impatient and unilateral attempts to impose doctrinal purity on unsettled questions.

Healing a Troubled Relationship

The way out of the current messy situation is to recall what Vatican II encouraged: joint review of relevant biblical texts, especially St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans but also the Letter to the Hebrews, which was used by Cardinal Dulles in his criticism of R.C.M., and any other relevant New Testament passages that seem to offer contrary or different views. Catholic biblical scholars and theologians should invite Jewish scholars to assist them with this task. In dialogue, for the sake of clarity and avoidance of misunderstanding, they might also share their understandings of “covenant,” particularly as expressed in Jeremiah 31, with reference to the covenant’s renewal in light of current Jewish and Christian self-understanding. Internal Catholic discussion of dialogue and mission should be informed by joint reflections on the experience of Jews and Catholics in dialogue. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have addressed these topics. Jews and Catholics might also share their perceptions of the present state of papal teaching. Joint scholarly study by Jews and Christians on these questions is sorely needed, not more unilateral actions that ignore the fruits of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue of the past 45 years.

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lLetha Chamberlain
13 years 9 months ago

Relationship issues are so terribly fraught with sensitivities right now... our need to be "right" with Jews so glaringly apparent, yet our desire for them to embrace Christ sometimes puts sand in their eyes-often unwittingly.  These are harsh and dramatic times for everyone.  I wrote a poem about some meditations I had, read it to a friend, and she took extreme opposition to the words-feeling I was making a "pronouncement", when I had only meant for them to be "reflections".  I then found out she had spent the last two weeks with a dying and agitated old friend... not to mention the economic, political, and familial issues with which we all deal (making people pretty cranky currently).  This seems to be endemic in the current world on all fronts-so real dialogue with anyone is near to impossible, it seems.  Yet the building of the New Jerusalem and a transformed Earth is still very much alive in the hearts of humankind-so we must continue trying for the sake of ourselves and our Creator.

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