Dialoguing with the Jewish people is harder than you think.
It has looked easy recently. The Church is still basking in the glow of the 40th anniversary of the day Pope Paul VI signed a document of the Second Vatican Council that transformed relations between Catholics and Jews. It was the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.
But don't just take a Catholic newspaper's word for it. Listen to Washington Jewish Week. It quoted Al Vorspan, a longtime Jewish Reform movement activist. He's 81 now, and remembers what happened 40 years ago. “I think it's been revolutionary,” he said. “Of all the revolutions [of the 1960s], this may have had as profound an impact as any of them.”
Catholics and Jews regarded each other with deep suspicion before. Conservative Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz describes the time since then as “an era of good feelings,” in which, “to the extent we had issues, at least we could talk about them with ease.”
So, what's the difficulty?
We saw it when the Holy See observed the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in late October. Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo di Segna, boycotted the event. The reason: One of the speakers was the retired archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a former Jew who became a Catholic as a youth. According to the paper, the rabbi thought the cardinal's presence clashed with the document's message of respect for Jewish identity.
It reminded us of a PBS tribute to Pope John Paul II that praised his respect for the Jewish people, but regretted that he didn't go further.
Jewish journalist Neal Acherson was at Auschwitz when the Pope visited in 1979 and blessed the Carmelites there. A line of nuns passed before the Pope's encouraging eyes, but then one stopped. She told the Pope, “I want you to know that I am a Russian Jew who converted.” The Holy Father's mood changed; he was “immensely moved,” said Acherson. “Tears ran down his face, and he embraced her. I think that's very significant. Because he isn't free, to put it mildly, of Catholic triumphalism.”
For Jewish critics, said the PBS piece, “Edith Stein is emblematic of an imperial Catholic impulse to celebrate those who have ‘seen the light.’”
Indeed, Catholics do celebrate when a Jewish person — or any person — joins our family. We don't consider it a slight to what they were when they take that step. In fact, we hope they will bring the best of what they were into the Church.
And here lies an inherent tension between the Catholic and the Jewish side of the dialogue — a tension that is no less keenly felt for being subtle.
Jewish dialoguers expect increased respect and acceptance, but they would be shocked and not necessarily enthusiastic if their Catholic dialogue partner suddenly declared his intention to become Jewish. That's because the Jewish people consider themselves a race, a bloodline, as well as a confession.
In its dialogue with Judaism, the Church isn't looking to convert Jews (more on that in a moment). But when anyone converts, we are overjoyed. That's because Christianity is a confession and a different kind of bloodline — one established by Christ for all people.
That's not to say that the Catholic should use dialogue as a pretense for proselytizing Jews. At his inaugural Mass homily, Pope Benedict XVI greeted “the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.”
It's a reference to the fact that the Jews’ relationship with God is unique. When Peter Seewald asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, three years before he became Pope Benedict, “Are the Jews still God's chosen people?” Cardinal Ratzinger answered, “God has not abandoned them.” He quoted St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans, saying, “In the end all of Israel will be brought home.” God hasn't retracted his word to the chosen people. Why not? “Because he is faithful.”
In a nice turn of phrase, Cardinal Ratzinger said of the Jews, “they stand within the patience of God in which we, too, place our trust.”
We, too, are glad 40 years later at the progress made in Catholic-Jewish relations. They are our elder brothers in the faith, as Pope John Paul II put it. “Nor can we forget,” as Nostra Aetate put it, that we have been grafted as “wild shoots” to the tree of Judaism, and draw sustenance from the same root.
We acknowledge the unique place of the Jewish people in God's heart. But, meaning no disrespect, we long for the day when all races will be united under the One Messiah.