Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Catholic Response to Gavin D'Costa

Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Catholic Response to Gavin D'Costa

Article excerpt

GAVIN D'COSTA HAS IDENTIFIED MISSION as a central issue in the current dialogue between Christians and Jews. One may even agree with him (and with Edward Kessler) that this is the central issue at the moment. I would demur at that assertion just a bit, however, as I believe that the Israeli- Palestinian question, in its increasing complexity politically and theologically, is beginning to challenge the primacy of the mission issue. Be that as it may, I would join D'Costa and Kessler in arguing that the question of mission must be confronted head-on in any authentic Christian-Jewish encounter.

The profound sensitivity of mission and evangelization (the two are not totally integrated) was seen several years ago when the original US bishops' critique of the study document "Reflection on Covenant and Mission" (1) was released. The initial text appeared to Jews and many of the Christians involved in the Christian-Jewish engagement as affirming mission as an integral part of the Catholic commitment to dialogue. This affirmation produced an immediate response from a unified leadership across Jewish denominational borders (a rarity in contemporary Judaism) as well as among Christian contributors to the dialogue. In fact, Bishop Richard Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, who chaired the bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs when the first draft of the document was presented to him by the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, refused to sign off on the text. However, his successor, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, quickly reversed Sklba's decision when he assumed the chairmanship. The International Council of Christians and Jews, the Council of Centers for Christian-Jewish Relations, and the international leadership team of the Sisters of Sion also seriously questioned this mission-dialogue linkage. The message to the bishops was clear and direct: dialogue with integrity cannot continue if mission, especially in terms of evangelization, is to be defined as a central goal of such dialogue. This dispute had all the makings of a controversy that would rival, if not outstrip, the controversy generated by the proposed erection of a Catholic convent at Auschwitz some years earlier.

To their credit, the Catholic episcopal leadership quickly regrouped. A committee of five leading bishops, headed by then-president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in the United States, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, revised the document, eliminating the controversial section about mission as an inherent part of the Catholic Church's dialogue with the Jewish community. The Jewish leadership accepted this correction and the crisis was defused.

My own observation is that the Jewish leadership let the bishops off the hook too easily because, while the explicit link between dialogue and mission was removed, the document does not resolve the more fundamental question as to whether mission to the Jews ought to be promoted outside the context of formal dialogical encounters with Jewish leaders and scholars. D'Costa has thus taken up an issue that remains a challenge within the Christian-Jewish dialogue. But I and many of my Catholic colleagues in the dialogue would disagree profoundly with the directions he takes in trying to respond to this continuing challenge.

There is little question in my mind that D'Costa is right about continuing ambiguity in the official Catholic position on mission and dialogue, not only regarding evangelization efforts with regard to the Jewish community but also in terms of the wider interreligious conversations in which institutional Catholicism had been involved. The three major Vatican documents released over the last several decades confirm this continuing ambiguity.

The first of these documents was Pope John Paul II's Redemptoris missio, which underlined the need for Catholics to take up their responsibility to proclaim the gospel to those not in communion with the Catholic Church. …

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