(RNS) U.S. Catholic bishops have tried to reassure Jewish leaders that interfaith dialogue will never be used as a means of proselytism or a “disguised invitation to baptism,” after months of interfaith tension.
The overture from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops comes more than three months after the bishops angered Jewish leaders by seeming to imply that Jews would be targets of evangelism and conversion.
In two letters sent Friday (Oct. 2) and released Tuesday, the bishops said an attempt to clear up an “insufficiently precise and potentially misleading” statement from 2002 had actually created more problems.
“We remain deeply committed to dialogue and friendship with the Jewish people, who are, in the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘our elder brothers and sisters in the faith,'” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the president of the bishops conference, wrote in a letter signed by four other bishops.
George, whose letter was signed by the chairmen of his interfaith relations and doctrine committees, said the “gift” of faith in Jesus Christ is one that “can never be coerced.”
“Jewish-Catholic dialogue… has never been, and will never be, used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism, nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”
The letter to the Jewish groups is the latest wrinkle in several months of back-and-forth exchanges that had left both sides uncomfortable. It was also an uncommon about-face for the bishops who rarely, if ever, backtrack on previous statements or positions.
The bishops said they had deleted two troublesome sentences from a statement they issued in June that said, in part, that Catholic partners in interfaith dialogue are “always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are invited.”
George also issued a six-point “statement of principles” on Jewish-Catholic dialogue that apologized for the “misunderstandings and feelings of hurt” that had resulted from their June statement.
“Because we are dialogue partners, this hurt is ours as well,” the statement said.
Jewish leaders say they are satisfied with the bishops’ actions, but say the incident is a stark reminder that words carry enormous weight in the difficult discussions between faiths.
“They need to understand that in the language they choose there may be understandings, or misunderstandings, and people need to be careful about what they say and also how they say it,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who oversees U.S. interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee.
Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who oversees interfaith talks for the Anti-Defamation League, said the Jewish groups will issue a collective response, but thanked the bishops for taking their concerns seriously.
“We were really concerned, and showed that, and they really heard our concerns,” Greenberg said. “That’s a sincere response, and they’re doing the best they can in a very complicated situation.”
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