Mysteries of the Church: The Bishops Blink ... Sort of

America’s Catholic bishops, responding to Jewish protests, are backing away from a controversial policy statement they issued last June in which interfaith dialogue was portrayed as a forum for promoting Christianity.

Jewish organizations that partner with the church in ongoing, formal dialogue, here and in Rome, had warned in August that the controversial June statement could threaten the future of the historic, four-decade exchange. As I wrote in a column at the time, the dispute seemed to be the latest in a series of jolts to Catholic-Jewish relations since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

The bishops’ new statement looks like an attempt to calm the waters. It offers a revised version of the June statement that drops the offending passages. But, as I’ll show, the edited version looks like a clumsy job that leaves part of the offending passage firmly in place. Well, it’s either a mistake or an indication that they’re not really backing down, and that we have indeed entered into the Age of Benedict. And a close read of the bishops’ new “Statement of Principles in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” suggests pretty strongly that it’s no mistake.

The controversial June statement was itself a reversal of an earlier statement from 2002, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” which had affirmed the post-Vatican II Catholic view of Judaism as a living covenant with God.

“Reflections” was the product of an annual dialogue between the National Council of Synagogues, representing the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist wings of Judaism, and the ecumenical affairs committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Two Orthodox participants, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, broke away from the synagogue council in 1992 and have maintained their own separate dialogue with the bishops ever since.

What the bishops produced this past June, “Notes on ‘Reflections on Covenant and Mission’,” was bluntly critical of “Reflections.” Its central point was an apparent dismissal of the hard-won understanding, key to the post-Vatican II rapprochement, that the church no longer aspires to convert the Jews. “Note” was issued jointly by the bishops’ ecumenical committee and the more hard-line committee on doctrine, which appeared to have stepped in to restrain the ecumenicals’ overenthusiasm. The Jewish groups complained that there was no advance warning, undermining the spirit of partnership that was the dialogue’s supposed foundation. Here’s the “Notes” money quote:

The two Orthodox organizations responded immediately with a sharp letter to the bishops. The letter cites the first two of the three sentences I quoted, calling them

The National Council of Synagogues and two secular Jewish agencies that participate in the dialogue, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, joined the protest in an August letter, after trying and failing to negotiate a revision.

The bishops responded October 2 with what appears to be a complete reversal. Five top officials of the bishops’ conference, including the heads of the ecumenical and doctrine committees and the conference president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, wrote a letter to the Jewish dialogue partners thanking them for their frankness and promising a new version of “Notes” with the offending sentences omitted. The new version was released October 13 as promised, but curiously, it doesn’t excise the two sentences cited as “a dagger” in the Orthodox letter. Instead, it retains the first of the three sentences I quoted and drops the second and third. As a result, the new “Notes” still criticizes “Reflections” for offering a “vision” of evangelization in which “the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear.”

The problem seems to be indecision—or, more likely, a standoff between the church’s liberal and conservative factions. That becomes clear in a new document, “Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue,” issued by the bishops on October 2 along with their contrite-sounding letter to the Jewish groups.

The “Statement” presents itself as an attempt to clear up “misunderstanding and feelings of hurt” in the June “Notes.” “Because we are dialogue partners, this hurt is ours as well,” it says. It then outlines six guiding principles. Principle 1 reaffirms Pope John Paul II’s historic declaration of Judaism’s ongoing legitimacy: “God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and made with them a covenant of eternal love, which was never revoked.” It was that principle, the outgrowth of Vatican II and 40 years of subsequent dialogue, that led to the 2002 “Reflections” and its “conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable.”

But Principle 2 yanks us back to the pre-Vatican II era, when Jews still needed to be enlightened. “At the same time,” it says, “in the faith that comes to us from the Apostles, Jesus Christ is the unique savior of all humankind, who fulfills in himself all of God’s promises and covenants with the people of Israel.” How to square the circle? Quite simply, by declaring that belief in Jesus is “a gift of God” and “can never be coerced.”

Which brings us to Principle 3: “Catholics have a sacred responsibility to bear witness to Christ at every moment of their lives, but lived context shapes the form of that witness.” And in that context, “Jewish Catholic dialogue, one of the blessed fruits of the Second Vatican Council, has never been and will never be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytization — nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.” If it makes you guys more comfortable, we can leave that until after dessert.

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Mysteries of the Church: The Bishops Blink ... Sort of

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