As illustrated here, the relationship between the Jewish people and God is one that commonly elicits strong (and divergent) reactions. But what does the Church have to say about this relationship? In particular, are the Jewish people still “chosen,” maintaining a special relationship with God? And, if so, does this therefore mean that they are already in a salvific covenant with him such that they have no need of Christ and his Church?
In regard to the first question, perhaps the most significant evidence that the answer is Yes can be found in Section 16 of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, which says:
Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the people of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (Romans 9:4-5): In view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the patriarchs, for the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance (Romans 11:28-29).
Here, the Council Fathers explicitly apply the divine choice to the Jewish people as a whole, to “those who have not yet received the Gospel.” They cite Romans 11:28-29 as the scriptural authority for this teaching. “Divine choice” is, of course, simply another way of stating that the Jewish people are still “chosen” by God. This teaching appears even clearer in the original Latin. Similarly, Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) states in Paragraph 4:
Even so, the apostle Paul maintains that the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.
A footnote on this passage refers to Romans 11:28-29 and Lumen Gentium. Again, the Council Fathers singled out the Jews and directly applied Romans 11:28-29 to them in the present tense. This is echoed also by the citation of the same biblical text in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (839).
This view is supported by another very interesting text, the Postulatum Pro Hebraeis that was presented to and signed by most of the bishops attending the First Vatican Council. Although not officially promulgated and therefore not strictly magisterial, the document nevertheless witnesses to the beliefs of the very bishops who defined the dogma of papal infallibility. On the specific topic before us, their Postulatum states, almost 30 years before the First Zionist Congress:
The undersigned Fathers of the Council humbly yet urgently beseechingly pray that the Holy Ecumenical Council of the Vatican deign to come to the aid of the unfortunate nation of Israel with an entirely paternal invitation; that is, that it express the wish that, finally exhausted by a wait no less futile than long, the Israelites hasten to recognize the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ, truly promised to Abraham and announced by Moses; thus completing and crowning, not changing, the Mosaic religion.
On one hand, the undersigned fathers have the very firm confidence that the holy Council will have compassion on the Israelites, because they are always very dear to God on account of their fathers, and because it is from them that the Christ was born according to the flesh.
Here, even the Fathers of the First Vatican Council interpret St. Paul to have been referring to the very same group of people as “enemies” in respect to the Gospel yet “beloved” of God for the sake of the patriarchs of Israel (see Romans 11:28-29).
And although not magisterial, the Holy Father (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) has stated that the Jewish people are still “chosen” by God:
Q: God has not, then, retracted his word that Israel is the Chosen People?
A: No, because he is faithful. (God and the World, p. 150)
However, in regard to the second question (Does the Church teach that the Jewish people are already in a salvific covenant with God such that they have no need of Christ and his Church?), while the Jewish people have a special relationship with God because of the patriarchs, the Church has also taught that this relationship is not salvific in and of itself. The Church has affirmed that there are not two salvific covenants — one for Jews and one for Gentiles.
All men, Jew and Gentile alike, need Jesus Christ and his Church. In Lumen Gentium (1964), the Church affirmed that God “chose the race of Israel as a people” and “set up a covenant” with them, instructing them and making them holy. However, “all these things … were done by way of preparation and as a figure of that new and perfect covenant” instituted by and ratified in Christ (No. 9). In Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism (1985), we read that the “Church and Judaism cannot then be seen as two parallel ways of salvation and the Church must witness to Christ as the Redeemer of all.” And in Dominus Iesus (2000), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states, “There is only one salvific economy” (No. 12), and “God willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. …The certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ” (No. 22).
Thus, while the Church has taught that the Jewish people still maintain an irrevocable and special relationship with God because of their forefathers, it has also taught that this relationship is not salvific in and of itself; it finds its ultimate fulfillment in and through Christ and his Church. The Gospel and the Church are for all men — Jew and Gentile alike.
Michael Forrest is a Catholic speaker, apologist, and catechist. His articles have appeared in several Catholic periodicals. David Palm, a convert to Catholicism, holds an M.A. in New Testament Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.