RECENTLY, CARDINAL John O'Connor together with the Episcopal and Lutheran bishops of New York issued a tightly-worded statement on Christian-Jewish dialogue, in which all three are deeply committed and active participants. The accompanying press release noted that the statement was necessitated by the questions all three were receiving in the wake of a resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) announcing a renewed commitment of its own to a mission specific to the Jews. Without commenting on the SBC's action, the practical effects of which are in any case not yet clear, the three bishops wished to clarify the approach of their own traditions to some of the complex theological and pastoral questions involved.
The statement is a brief one. The three Church leaders agree on the theological understanding of the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people as articulated in 1965 by Vatican II's historic declaration, Nostra Aetate (no. 4), and the Episcopal Church's more recent 1988 Guidelines for Christian-Jewish Relations. The former relies on St. Paul to affirm that “in respect to the election, (the Jews) are beloved by God because of the patriarchs. God's gifts and call are irrevocable” (Rom 11, 28-29). Or, as Pope John Paul II has put it so well (although this language is not cited in the joint statement), God's covenant with the Jewish people has “never been revoked by God.” This means that the Church's dialogue with the Jewish people is not “extrinsic” to the essential life of the Church, but “in a certain sense intrinsic” to it. The Church's spiritual bond with God's People, Israel, is for the Pope “more intimate” than with any other religion, and in a very real sense “unique,” since the Jewish faith, like our own, is a response to God's revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Episcopal Church's Guidelines state that “Christians believe that God's self revelation is given in history. In the Covenant with the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai the sacred law became part of our religious heritage. Christians see that same God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, to whom the Church must bear witness by word and deed among all peoples. It would be false to its deepest commitment if the Church were to deny this mission. The Christian witness toward Jews, however, has been distorted by coercive proselytism, conscious and unconscious, overt and subtle.”
In the first part of their joint statement the three bishops enter a level of the divine mysteries, if I may be permitted to put it into traditional Catholic categories. Yes, they seem to be saying that the Church's proclamation of the Gospel is universal, “to Jews and Gentiles alike” (cf. Acts 4, 10; 12). Yes, Christians affirm the universal salvific significance of Christ's death and Resurrection, such that no person is saved except through that event. Yet one does not have to be a formal, baptized member of the Church as an institution to participate in it, since God's salvific will is also universal (cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 1991, no. 10). If this is true of all people faithfully following the tenets of their religious traditions, how much more so of the Jews, called into being by God to receive and to witness to divine revelation?
Thus far the reasoning is theological. But I believe that the joint conclusion, eschewing the development by the Churches of any organization designed specifically to convert Jews, is reliably based on prudential, pastoral reasoning by the bishops. The history of Christian conversionary efforts directed toward the Jews has been long and incredibly tragic through the centuries. Refraining from organized proselytizing among Jews is hardly a denial of the universality of the proclamation of the Gospel. On the contrary, it is a commitment flowing out of profound respect for the very nature of that proclamation and the freedom of faith necessary for its fulfillment.
Dr. Eugene Fisher is Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.
Readers interested in pursuing these topics would be well to begin with the statement, Dialogue and Proclamation issued jointly in 1991 by the Holy See's Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for Education, the 1974 Guidelines for Implementing Nostra Aetate no. 4 and the 1985 Notes on the Correct Presentation of Jews and Judaism issued by the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.