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Mea Culpa: For Misrepresenting the Bishops Conference, Ashamnu

About a month ago I blogged about a document published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last June that had drawn sharp protests from several national Jewish organizations. I wrote that the bishops’ conference had responded to the complaints in October by withdrawing two offending sentences from the document, at the Jewish organizations’ request. But, I wrote, the bishops had removed the wrong sentences, leaving one of the offending passages and excising a third that wasn’t in question.

Well, I was wrong. The principal drafter of the initial Jewish letter, Professor David Berger of Yeshiva University, has written to say that I was confused, and that the controversial sentences “were indeed dropped.” The bishops’ conference, Berger wrote, “has — quite remarkably — done exactly what we asked.”

This is important, so I’m going to spell out what I got wrong. The bishops’ June document was a clarification — more like a critique — of a paper published by the conference in 2002, Reflections on Covenant and Mission, which discussed some of the lessons learned in three decades of formal dialogue between the Catholic church and a consortium of Jewish organizations.

The Catholic-Jewish dialogue process had been launched following the historic Vatican II conference of 1965, which had called for the church to improve its relations with the Jewish community. Reflections said, among other things, that the church now realized that the Jewish covenant with God was a living thing, and therefore “campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”

Such “campaigns to convert Jews” have been, to put it delicately, a significant source of friction in Christian-Jewish relations over the past 20 centuries or so, so this was a welcome change.

But in June 2009, the bishops’ conference published a follow-up paper, Notes on Ambiguities Contained in ‘Reflections on Covenant and Mission.’ Disturbingly, from the Jewish organizations’ point of view, Notes seemed to backtrack on that all-important issue of evangelization, or “sharing the good word,” that raises such painful memories in our circles.

“In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization,” Notes said of the earlier paper,

the document develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear. For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism.” Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.

Two Orthodox Jewish dialogue partners, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, responded a few days later with a sharply worded letter that singled out the second and third sentences in that paragraph. It said they were

a dagger thrust into the heart of the entire enterprise of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on matters of religion. They undermine everything we were led to believe about that enterprise. If they can be removed on the grounds that Jews have misunderstood them (whether or not we would accept that assessment), we could continue our relationship without change. As long as they remain, we cannot continue business as usual and maintain our self-respect as Jews.

The other Jewish participants, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements plus the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, signed onto the Orthodox complaint in August, after several fruitless efforts to resolve things quietly.

Instead of a feud, however, the spat was cleared up in a gracious October 2 letter from five top officials of the bishops’ conference, promising to remove the offending sentences. A new version of Notes was issued on October 13 with two sentences removed.

And here’s where I goofed: I wrote that the bishops had removed sentences two and three, rather than sentences one and two, which I said were “the two sentences cited.” And I went ahead and ascribed slippery motives to the switch, linking it to a series of backward steps taken by Pope Benedict XVI since he took office in 2005.

In fact, as David Berger points out in his letter to us, the sentences that the bishops removed, two and three, were “exactly” the sentences he had questioned, and not sentence one as I had mistakenly written. I’m not sure if it was something I ate for breakfast or someone who jostled me on the subway, but I fluffed this one and I caused hurt and I’m sorry.

There’s still reason to be uncomfortable with the amended document, and the direction Benedict is heading still raises questions, but the bishops’ conference is clearly eager to maintain the forward motion in reconciliation, and they deserve credit.

Here’s Professor Berger’s full letter:

To the Editor,

J.J. Goldberg’s thoughtful article (“Mysteries of the Church: The Bishops Blink…Sort Of”) contains a serious error of fact. He quotes a three-sentence paragraph from a recent document issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affirming that interfaith dialogue involves an implicit invitation to baptism, and he notes that the Rabbinical Council of American and Orthodox Union responded with a critical letter. That letter, he reports, “cites the first two of the three sentences” and calls them “a dagger thrust into heart of the entire enterprise of Jewish-Catholic dialogue on matters of religion.”

Goldberg continues by affirming that although the bishops have now revised the document in response to Jewish protests, the first sentence has been retained. In fact, the letter, of which I was the primary author, clearly referred to sentences two and three of that quotation, not sentence one, and both of those sentences were indeed dropped. How one should react to the retention of the first sentence is a separate question, but the USCCB has — quite remarkably — done exactly what we asked.

David Berger Dean Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies Yeshiva University

The balancing act that is journalism is nicely summed up by the Torah in a powerful series of commands in Leviticus 19, verses 16 to18. On one hand, it says, “Go not as a tale-bearer among thy people and do not dance on your neighbor’s blood.” On the other hand, it immediately adds, “You shall surely reprove your neighbor and not carry his guilt.” That is, call him out when he’s wrong, so you don’t become party to his misdeeds, but don’t be tempted into gossip or rumor-mongering.

How to walk that narrow line? When you’re doing your reproving – or, as we call it, investigative journalism – “do not be vengeful or bear a grudge against your people. And love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

It’s a delicate balance, and sometimes we stumble. That’s when it’s your job to reprove us.

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