National Catholic Register


Should Catholic Evangelization Target Jews?

A Symposium

BY John Zmirak

October 06-12, 2002 Issue | Posted 10/6/02 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON — The Catholic dialogue with Jewish believers has been fraught with difficulty since the Church's earliest days. And when the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. bishops’ office recently released a preliminary statement, “Reflections on Covenant & Mission,” it generated a storm of controversy over issues that lie at the very heart of the Christian mystery. Said the bishops’ committee document: “[C]ampaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”

The scholars contacted by the Register for this symposium were eager to respond in depth. Here is a sampling from their comments, which are available in full along with the complete text of “Reflections on Covenant & Mission” at the Register's Web site,

Dr. Eugene Fisher, associate director secretariat, for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

There is an overwhelming consensus among Catholics that for pastoral reasons stemming from the long, often tragic history of Christian mistreatment of Jews, the Church should sponsor no aggressive, organized proselytizing of Jews. “Reflections” asserts that there may be theological as well as pastoral reasons for this restraint. These reasons flow from the respect Catholics give to Judaism — alone among world religions — as a faith response to God. This is firmly embedded in Church teaching (see the catechism, No. 839). The controversy appears to flow from understanding the Jewish covenant as “salvific.”

If the covenant has not been superseded, then what can it be called other than “salvific” for Jews? Is not God true to his word? Supersessionism was declared a heresy by the Church in the second century. It still is. Affirming the universal salvific validity of the Christ event and the consequent realization that in the Church one finds the fullness of the means of salvation does not necessarily lead us to hold that God has broken his word by rejecting the undying hope and faith his ineffable grace and inscrutable will have instilled in the people he chose for himself so long ago.

A Man From Mars

Jesuit Father James Schall, professor of government, Georgetown University:

If I were someone from Mars who read this text, I would conclude it amounted to two evidently different groups explaining that they have nothing to do with each other.

The Jewish section tells us about the people chosen by Yahweh. They are to remain what they always were, but they have some universal mission to the whole world. Nothing is said of dying or eternal life. The world is to be perfected into “the Kingdom of the Almighty,” with no indication of when or how.

The Roman Catholics affirm that the original covenant is not revoked. But there is a “new covenant.” Christians are supposed to bring its “good news” to all nations. But this “no longer includes the wish to absorb the Jewish faith into Christianity and so end the distinctive witness of Jews to God in human history.” The Jews already have a “saving covenant with God.” The Catholics do “witness” to their “faith in the presence of God's Kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all peoples,” but with no effort to convert.

The Church “now recognizes that Jews are also called by God to prepare the world for God's Kingdom. Their witness to the Kingdom, which did not originate with the Church's experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.”

Both groups seem to conceive the “Kingdom of God” as primarily “this worldly.” For both, this Kingdom itself may point to something else, but it is very difficult to see. To a man from Mars can judge, the being and figure of Christ, whether he is in fact the Messiah or Son of God, has little or nothing to do with the relation of these groups to one another.

Their Joy Is Boundless

Dr. Ronda Chervin, professor of philosophy, Our Lady of Corpus Christi College:

Throughout the centuries after the death of Christ, misguided and sinful Catholics have thought it pious to persecute Jews for the Crucifixion or to force conversions on others through pressure. But there were also saintly efforts to evangelize the Jewish people, so that they experience the joy of knowing God the Son. Why did he come and die for them if he thought that their knowledge of God the Father was enough?

Does barring “campaigns that target the Jews” mean that any group that is designed to attract and inform Jewish people of the coming of Jesus, their Messiah, is illegitimate? This is contrary to all the documents about evangelization that have come from the Church in the 20th century — including the catechism. These carefully explain that the Church cannot be true to itself without wishing the Jewish people could find the truth about Jesus as the Messiah.

I myself, a Jewish person brought up as an atheist, would never have found Jesus had not zealous Catholics reached out to me in love and brought me to Jesus. Most of my family followed me into the Church. If you read accounts of such famous Hebrew-Catholics as St. Edith Stein, Rabbi Israel Zolli of Rome or Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, you will realize that the joy of the Jew who finds the Jewish Christ, the Jewish Mary and the Jewish Apostles is boundless.

All Israel Will be Saved

Scripture scholar Father Francis Martin, John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, D.C.:

There will always be an Israel; the irrevocability of the gifts and the calling are due to God's love for his people (see Romans 9:25). This calling, for Christians, includes the call to the Gospel addressed to God's beloved people. As St. Paul writes, there will come a time when Israel “too may now be shown mercy as a result of the mercy shown to you [the Gentiles]” (Romans 11:31).

What is fulfilled is neither absorbed nor superseded: It is perfected. Christ is the “goal” of the law, not as its termination but that toward which it moves (Romans 10:4). For Christians, the ancient covenant continues and is “sublated,” that is, taken up into a greater context that needs it. In this sense Christ fulfills the covenant and “love [agape] is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

As God's plan has unfolded we have always with us the actual, historical Jewish people — a sign that God's gifts and calling are irrevocable. The completion of God's plan has yet to take place, and this will somehow include both the perdurance of the Jewish people and their unique place within the Church. For it is the Gentiles who are “co-heirs, co-bodied, co-sharers in the promise, in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (Ephesians 3:6), owing reverence toward the mystery of Israel. For our part, we Christians must witness in love to the fidelity of God to his people who has protected them from our sins against them, and we must strive to be worthy of bringing about that plan by which “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Will Jewish Agnostics Like Christians More?

Dr. Paul Gottfried, professor of political science, Elizabethtown College, Pa.:

There are problems with taking theological positions on the basis of not wishing to give offense. It does not lead to mutual respect among diverse ethnic-religious communities. (For just one example, see the free-swinging attempts of Daniel Goldhagen, among many others, to blame Christianity, specifically Pius XII, for the Holocaust.) It is hard to see how this document, full of what are supposedly shared faith claims, will make Jewish agnostics like Christians any better. It is equally problematic whether Orthodox Jews will run to embrace the specifically Christian revealed truths that the document proclaims. Why should they unless they accept the historical truth of Christian Revelation?

The Church Must Proclaim Christ

Mark Drogin, editor, Hear O Israel!:

Besides the documents of Vatican II, the Vatican has issued many official documents concerning the Church's relationship to Jews. All these documents have repeated emphatically that the Church, by her nature, must proclaim Christ. Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, to clarify the Church's mission of evangelization. That papal encyclical affirmed that the Church's mission is to proclaim Christ. Any attempt to silence proclamation of the Gospel is contrary to all contemporary magisterial teaching.

Catholics and Jews must enter again into the Jewish dialogue of the first century between the Jewish followers of Jesus and the Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. We must enter into this dialogue with wisdom and compassion born from 2,000 years of hatred and violence (from the Crucifixion of Jesus to the slaughter of millions by anti-Jewish Europeans). We must enter into an honest theological dialogue knowing that God calls every person to conversion. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he quoted the Shema(from Deuteronomy): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might.” All are called to love God. Jesus proclaimed the good news of salvation; the Church, by her nature, must proclaim the good news of God's boundless and eternal merciful love for all people.

Intended Only for Gentiles?

David Moss, founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics:

As a Hebrew Catholic, I am quite aware of the tragic history of Catholic-Jewish relations and of past abuses in evangelizing. I am grateful beyond all telling that, since Vatican II, the magisterium has been engendering a new, positive appreciation of the Jewish people. I am also aware of the heroic struggles of many Jews who have journeyed to their Messiah and his Church. But to me, this document suggests that the Jewish people do not need Yeshua, for they have their own salvific covenant.

Is the fact that Yeshua was born a Jew and restricted his mission to his own people no longer relevant? Are we to believe that the new covenant made with the Jewish people is now intended only for Gentiles? Are we now to heed the high priest in Acts and not teach about Jesus? How can we square this document with the New Testament and the teaching of the Church for two millennia? If Yeshua is not the Messiah of the Jewish people, then upon what basis can we believe that he is the Messiah of anyone?

The Association of Hebrew Catholics wishes to maintain the distinctive, historic and God-given identity and witness of the Jewish people, within the Church, through a Hebrew Catholic community (or “rite”).

Only the Lost Sheep of Israel

Martin Barrack, author of Second Exodus:

Jesus, during his public ministry, evangelized only Jews. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5). “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). He told Nicodemus, a devout Jew and member of the Sanhedrin, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). That alone is rock-solid evidence that Jews do not live in a saving covenant apart from God's Messiah.

Rabbi Y'shua, Jesus, was the most Jewish Jew of all. The catechism (No. 578) tells us, “He is in fact the only one who could keep [the Jewish law] perfectly.” St. Paul told us, “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). The Jewish people do indeed have an irrevocable role in salvation history: to bear witness to the Messiah. See the catechism (No. 674): “The glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by all Israel, for a hardening has come upon part of Israel.”

Jews can find salvation as Jews. The catechism (No. 1257) describes the doctrine of “baptism of desire.” But all salvation comes through Jesus’ redemptive final sacrifice. As Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation, ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi,’ Dec. 8, 1975, No. 14, says: “The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.”