Forty-four years of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, set in motion by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and nudged forward by thousands of hours of dialogue and theological review, appear to be in jeopardy right now, threatened by an ideological battle inside the Catholic Church.
The crisis was sparked by a church statement on Catholic-Jewish relations, issued June 18 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that purports to clarify “ambiguities” in a 2002 statement on interfaith understanding. Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.
Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.
Even interreligious dialogue, the very forum that produced the 2002 document, should not be mistaken for what the old statement called “sharing of gifts, devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner into baptism.” Actually, we now learn, “the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.”
Jewish scholars and community leaders who work closely with Catholic leaders were thunderstruck when they received the new statement. The “ambiguous” 2002 document, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” was understood to sum up four decades of painstaking dialogue, in Washington and Rome, between church officials and a broad coalition of Jewish groups. The new statement, “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in ‘Reflections on Covenant and Mission,’” looks very much like a sign of rollback. Suspicions are only heightened, Jewish sources say, by the church officials’ unusual failure to consult or even warn their Jewish partners.
Reactions have been sharp. The Orthodox dialogue participants, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, described the “Note” in a June 29 letter to the bishops as “a dagger thrust into the heart of the entire enterprise of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on matters of religion.” The other Jewish partners — the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — tried to negotiate with the bishops for another month and a half before joining with the Orthodox groups in an August 20 letter expressing “serious concerns” about the future of dialogue.
Does this mean that 44 years of growing mutual respect have come suddenly to a halt? Some Jewish experts say no: The only thing that’s new is that the church has shown its true colors. “It’s been a fantasy of liberal Catholics and folks who engage in Catholic-Jewish dialogue that the Catholic Church suddenly became universalistic” after the 1965 Vatican Council, said one intergroup affairs expert.
But most dialogue insiders, both Catholic and Jewish, insist that the new tone amounts to a genuine U-turn. The church, they say, underwent a revolution in its approach to Jews and Judaism in the last half-century. Now the counter-revolutionaries have arrived. What’s not clear is how far the conservatives will try to turn back the clock — and, no less important, whether the shift is homegrown or dictated from the Vatican.
Some of the fingerprints are clearly domestic. “Reflections” had been issued in 2002 by the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, which handles dialogue with the Jewish community. The new “Note” is a joint publication of the ecumenical committee and the Committee on Doctrine, the bishops’ theological discipline unit. Reading the note’s dismissive treatment of the earlier document, it’s hard to see it as anything but the doctrine police giving the ecumenicals a spanking.
There’s also a strong trace of the thinking of Cardinal Avery Dulles, the towering American theologian who died in 2008 at age 90. A staunch conservative, he was one of the most influential critics of “Reflections” when it appeared in 2002, arguing in a much-discussed essay that God’s covenant with the Jews was “obsolete” and that Jews could achieve salvation only through the church.
Whatever the intrigues within the American church, though, Catholic doctrine begins in Rome. In important ways the “Note” is just the latest in a series of disappointments since the inauguration in 2005 of Pope Benedict XVI. One was the resurrection in 2008 of the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. Another was the restoration to the church in 2009 of four excommunicated traditionalist rebels, including the Holocaust-denying theologian Richard Williamson.
Benedict’s conservatism should surprise no one. Previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was a leading church conservative who served for 24 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition. One of his major writings, Dominus Iesus (“Lord Jesus”), issued in 2000, foreshadowed the new “Note on Ambiguities” in declaring the Catholic Church the only path to salvation. It also urged Catholics to “witness” that doctrine in every interaction, including interfaith dialogue.
Even before Benedict, however, there was John Paul II. He is remembered as the greatest friend the Jews ever had in the Vatican, but he is also remembered as a crusading conservative who ruled for 27 years and appointed an entire generation of fellow conservatives as bishops. He named Ratzinger head of doctrine and made Dulles a cardinal. Years before his death, Catholic liberals were warning that John Paul’s conservatism would someday undermine his philosemitism. That prediction may be coming true before our eyes.
As the Orthodox leaders wrote in their June letter, it’s “not our business to tell Christians what to believe about their own religion.” At the same time, we’d rather they not tell us what to believe.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).