What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Mission to the Jewish People?

By D'Costa, Gavin G. | Theological Studies, September 2012 | Go to article overview

What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Mission to the Jewish People?


D'Costa, Gavin G., Theological Studies


MISSION TO THE JEWS is probably the most disputed theological question between Catholics and Jews today, second only to the Land. Much progress and agreement between Catholics and Jews has been reached since Vatican II's teachings in Nostra aetate (hereafter NA) (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [1964]) no. 4. (1) This was fuelled by the energetic pontificate of Pope John Paul II and an active Commission for the Jews established in 1974 within the existing Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1960). The Secretariat has been guided by Cardinals Bea, Willebrands, Cassidy, Kasper, and, since 2010, Koch. A stream of important documents has also been published since the council, perhaps most importantly the Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration "Nostra Aerate" (n. 4) (1974), Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), and We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998). The Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) also published The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002). (2) The good will and cooperation of many Jewish international groups and scholars have been critical for consolidating these developments, most notably the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, and the International Council of Christians and Jews.

Since there is no single center to world Jewry, it is inappropriate to indicate formal mutual agreement, but the following theological areas can be argued as having Catholic magisterial endorsement arising out of NA: that anti-Jewishness is sinful; that God does not revoke his promises to Israel; that the Jews should not be viewed as cursed, or their religion as worthless, for they are still the people of the Old Covenant; their Scripture, called the "Old Testament" by Christians, is regarded as revelation; the Jews, as a people, cannot be blamed for the death of Christ, as the primary cause of the cross was human sin, in which we all share, even if historically some Jews were responsible; that Jesus was a Jew and treasured the Jewish Scriptures; that Christians have much to learn from Jewish readings of Scripture and from Jewish forms of spirituality; that Jews and Christians should work together whenever possible toward social justice and peace; that individual and sometimes groups of Christians have regretfully misused their sociopolitical power to evangelize and convert Jews in aggressive and violent ways. (3) There is no turning back from these important developments.

However, the question whether the church teaches that mission to the Jews is legitimate has been disputed by many Catholics (and not a few Jews). (4) The long history of persecution and anti-Semitism toward the Jewish people within Christian cultures culminating in the Holocaust inevitably gives "mission" genocidal overtones. Chief Rabbi Ricardo Di Segni argues that for Jews, Christian mission suggests that Judaism possesses "only part of the truth" and entails a view that "would amount to its [Judaism's] end." (5) Chief Rabbi David Rosen suggests that mission is the major contentious issue between Jews and Catholics and requests a clear statement from the Catholic magisterium (6)--he feared that failure to provide it would jeopardize the future of Catholic-Jewish relations. (7) I tentatively argue that there are clear teachings from the magisterium on this issue. (8) I proceed by first outlining some arguments against the traditional position that mission and conversion of Jews is required by the gospel. I then develop critical counterarguments to defend the position that mission to the Jews is taught by the magisterium, even if the practice of this mission raises many complex questions that remain unresolved. I do not think that such a position by the Catholic Church need damage Christian-Jewish relations--to judge by recent exchanges between Rabbi Jacob Neusner and Pope Benedict XVI. …

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