Pope Francis’ Synagogue Visit Underscores New Document on Catholic-Jewish Relations

NEWS ANALYSIS: The visit will be the third by a pope, after St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope St. John Paul II greeting the former chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff during the first recorded papal visit to a synagogue at Rome's central synagogue on April 13, 1986.
Pope St. John Paul II greeting the former chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff during the first recorded papal visit to a synagogue at Rome's central synagogue on April 13, 1986. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Just over a month since the Vatican issued a controversial document affirming the end of any institutional mission to the Jews, Pope Francis will visit the Great Synagogue of Rome on Sunday afternoon.

The visit, at the invitation of Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni and the Jewish community in the city, will be the third by a pope, after St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Rome’s Jewish community, thought to be the oldest in Europe, dating back to 2 B.C., hopes the Pope’s encounter with them will “open new doors of dialogue” so it can, among other things, face the “inhuman tragedies” of terrorism together.

But the meeting could be dominated by the document “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” issued Dec. 10 by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, in particular its statement that, “in concrete terms,” the Church “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

The document adds that Christians are “nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah.”

“The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” was issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, which some have described as a “revolutionary” document. It rejected the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and opened the door for a “transformed” dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

Although the Vatican insists this latest document is not magisterial, it’s being seen by Jewish groups as a groundbreaking and important new statement.

Particularly noteworthy is that the document repudiates replacement theology, also known as supersessionism — the teaching that the Church has replaced (or superseded) Israel in God’s plan of salvation by substituting the “Old Covenant” with a new one of the New Testament. It also reiterates the Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism, quoting Francis’ dictum that one cannot be both a Christian and an anti-Semite.

Rabbi Di Segni told Haaretz Jan. 13 that he hopes the Pope on Sunday will build on the document by stating “clearly” that Catholics should not actively seek to convert Jews.



But some Christians, particularly evangelicals and charismatics, have criticized the document.

David Brickner of “Jews for Jesus” called it “egregious” and wondered how the Vatican could “ignore the fact that the Great Commission of Jesus Christ mandates that his followers are to bring the Gospel to all people.” He said he felt St. Paul, who is quoted in the document’s title, “would be horrified” at the repudiation of his words.

Michael Brown, a convert from Judaism and president of FIRE School of Ministry, a charismatic leadership training institute, said although the document contained “many praiseworthy points,” it “misunderstands Jesus’ own mission to his Jewish people.” If Jesus is not the Messiah of Israel as well, he argued, “then he cannot be the Savior of the world.”

In a Jan. 8 interview with the Register, Salesian Father Norbert Hofmann, secretary for the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews and one of the principal authors of the document, explained that the Church hasn’t had a missionary intention to convert the Jews since Nostra Aetate, and this is the “first time that it’s written in a document.”

He said most popes in the 20th century “stuck to the old theology” and that supersessionism was predominant over the past two millennia, especially in the Middle Ages, but this document puts a definitive end to it. Nostra Aetate first planted the beginning of the abolishment of supersessionism, he said, and this document is “clearly against this idea.”

Jews have long opposed replacement theology because it suggests that Judaism is a somewhat a “dead branch” that has run its course.
“It implies that [Jews] had fulfilled their purpose 2,000 years ago, leaving them exposed to continuous attacks, insults and lack of respect,” Rabbi Di Segni told Haaretz news service.

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said the ending of supersessionism “is in itself important” because it shows mutual respect. “If one sees another as an inferior precursor, then the relationship is not fully one of equal mutual respect — even though, personally, I can still live with such an approach,” he told the Register, adding that he has some evangelical friends who pray for his conversion daily.

Father Hofmann couldn’t explain how, exactly, supersessionism had come to be dropped, only that its abolishment “developed theologically” from “the nucleus to be found in Nostra Aetate.”


No Rupture in Doctrine
But giving Nostra Aetate such weight, despite it only being a declaration and not a doctrinal text, has led some to see it as having a revolutionary impact, possibly breaking with nearly two millennia of Church teaching and tradition. Documents from the Councils of Florence 1438-1445 and Trent 1545-1563 seem to radically contradict the current teaching, leading some to believe this not to be a development of doctrine but a corruption of it.

Talk of such a rupture, however, is dismissed by some theologians, such as Jesuit Father Philipp Renczes, director of the Cardinal Bea Center for Judaic Studies in Rome.

“Joseph Ratzinger’s teaching of hermeneutic of reform, with regards to the understanding of Vatican II in the context of the whole Church Tradition, needs to be applied here, as well,” he told the Register. “Using the term ‘break’ is, in my mind, already inappropriately forcing this document.”

The Church has continuously affirmed the validity of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, he said, but it has not, to the same degree, declared the “invalidity” of the Old Covenant. He added that the last person who did so unequivocally was Marcion of Sinope (85-160), who “was identified as heretical.”

Father Renczes acknowledged that “a positive evaluation” of the magisterium concerning the significance of Romans 11:29 — “The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” — has been a “more recent phenomena,” but said this view of the Old Covenant as a “gift” is “ultimately linked to the character indelebilis [indelible spiritual character] that the grace of God disposes of, which the Church has always believed and faithfully announced, according to 2 Timothy 2:13: ‘Even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’”

Professor John Rist, one of the Church’s foremost patristics scholars, has pointed out that the new document, “far from being a new ‘breakthrough,’ is actually a return to apparently forgotten medieval practice, based on Augustine's interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans.”

He told the Register that St. Augustine “taught at length that there should be no proselytizing of Jews — especially in his book Against Faustus the Manichaean — and this teaching was followed by many medieval popes (often to the irritation of less theologically informed bishops).”

Rist said the reason for Augustine’s relatively positive attitude towards the Jews was because the saint saw them as a “special case among non-Catholics” who should be protected for two reasons: because they bore witness against Manichaeism and because they are “witness to the hardness of heart, which comes from not recognizing that God had acted again through the Incarnation.”

Rist said he wondered whether those drafting the document were aware of this, as it is not mentioned in the document. He said the omission is “at best a cavalier and, sadly, a misleading attitude to the history of theology and Catholic practice.”

The Question of Salvation

But the question remains: How can Jews be saved if they do not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior? The document tries to square that circle by stating it remains “an unfathomable divine mystery” how the Jews can attain salvation “without confessing Christ explicitly.”

It also quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom Benedict XVI also quoted in this context in his work Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, as saying that, for the Jews, “a determined point in time has been fixed” for the Jews to be saved, “which cannot be anticipated.”

Benedict doesn’t, however, say that will happen independently of Christ, and neither does St. Paul, who prophesied that would happen at the end of time.

“Our ratio, our reason, is not enough to understand” how salvation is attained for the Jews, said Father Hofmann. “We have to respect God. He’s more than our thoughts; he’s more than our documents; he’s more than our theological thoughts.” He said the document “clearly states that the Jews will be saved, in spite of their non-recognition of Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. How God does that is a matter for God.”

The document further states that by “observing the Torah the Jew receives a share in communion with God, just as Christians do through Christ.” This was something Pope Francis also mentioned last June. “In seeking a right attitude towards God,” he told a gathering of Jews and Christians at the Vatican, “Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life and Jews to the teaching of the Torah.”

Father Hofmann said the Church can still pray for the Jews’ conversion, which the Church used to explicitly do in the pre-conciliar liturgies, but said there is no longer “a call to conversion” for the Jews. The so-called “Good Friday” prayer was amended in 2008 from explicitly praying for the Jews’ conversion when Benedict XVI gave universal permission for priests to celebrate the Mass in the old rite.

Asked why that was done when the Church believes praying for the Jews’ conversion is still valid, Father Hofmann said: “For me, it’s not problematic; for other people it is problematic.” He added that a prayer formulated four centuries ago “may be misleading and misunderstood in our times, so we have to adapt it a little.”

‘A Commendable Way Forward’

Despite the various questions surrounding the document and how it reached its conclusions, the Vatican is hoping it will “deepen theological dialogue,” involve young people in that dialogue and enable Jews to work with Catholics on charitable projects.

Father Hofmann said he hoped the document would be a focal point for future discussion and is pleased that it’s the subject of coverage and conversation in the Jewish press. “That was my intention,” he said.

Rabbi Di Segni said the timing of the new document and the visit, although not planned, was “a good one,” as it “shows a commendable way forward for certain issues that have historically been sensitive for the relationship between Jews and Catholics.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.


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