Roman Catholic Reflections: Evangelization and the Jewish People
Christianity has an utterly unique relationship with Judaism because "our two religious communities are connected and closely related at the very level of their respective religious identities."
The history of salvation makes clear our special relationship with the Jewish people. Jesus belongs to the Jewish people, and he inaugurated his church within the Jewish nation. A great part of the Holy Scriptures, which we Christians read as the word of God, constitute a spiritual patrimony which we share with Jews. Consequently, any negative attitude in their regard must be avoided, since "in order to be a blessing for the world, Jews and Christians need first to be a blessing for each other."
In the wake of Nostra Aetate, there has been a deepening Catholic appreciation of many aspects of our unique spiritual linkage with Jews. Specifically, the Catholic Church has come to recognize that its mission of preparing for the coming of the kingdom of God is one that is shared with the Jewish people, even if Jews do not conceive of this task christologically as the Church does. Thus, the 1985 Vatican Notes observed:
Attentive to the same God who has spoken, hanging on the same Word, we have to witness to one same memory and one common hope in Him who is the master of history. We must also accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice, respect for the rights of persons and nations and for social and international reconciliation. To this we are driven, Jews and Christians, by the command to love our neighbor, by a common hope for the Kingdom of God and by the great heritage of the Prophets.
If the Church, therefore, shares a central and defining task with the Jewish people, what are the implications for the Christian proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ? Ought Christians to invite Jews to baptism? This is a complex question not only in terms of Christian theological self-definition, but also because of the history of Christians forcibly baptizing Jews.
In a remarkable and still most pertinent study paper presented at the sixth meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Venice twenty-five years ago, Prof. Tommaso Federici examined the missiological implications of Nostra Aetate. He argued on historical and theological grounds that there should be in the Church no organizations of any kind dedicated to the conversion of Jews. This has over the ensuing years been the de facto practice of the Catholic Church.
More recently, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Religious Relations with the Jews, explained this practice. In a formal statement made first at the seventeenth meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in May 2001, and repeated later in the year in Jerusalem, Cardinal Kasper spoke of "mission" in a narrow sense to mean "proclamation" or the invitation to baptism and catechesis. He showed why such initiatives are not appropriately directed at Jews:
The term mission, in its proper sense, refers to conversion from false gods and idols to the true and one God, who revealed himself in the salvation history with His elected people. Thus mission, in this strict sense, cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God. Therefore, and this is characteristic, there exists dialogue but there does not exist any Catholic missionary organization for Jews.
As we said previously, dialogue is not mere objective information; dialogue involves the whole person. So in dialogue Jews give witness of their faith, witness of what supported them in the dark periods of their history and their life, and Christians give account of the hope they have in Jesus Christ. In doing so, both are far away from any kind of proselytism, but both can learn from each other and enrich each other. We both want to share our deepest concerns to an often -disoriented world that needs such witness and searches for it.
This statement about God's saving covenant is quite specific to Judaism. Though the Catholic Church respects all religious traditions and through dialogue with them can discern the workings of the Holy Spirit, and though we believe God's infinite grace is surely available to believers of other faiths, it is only about Israel's covenant that the Church can speak with the certainty of the biblical witness. This is because Israel's scriptures form part of our own biblical canon and they have a "perpetual value . . . that has not been canceled by the later interpretation of the New Testament."
According to Roman Catholic teaching, both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God. We both therefore have missions before God to undertake in the world. The Church believes that the mission of the Jewish people is not restricted to their historical role as the people of whom Jesus was born "according to the flesh" (Rom 9:5) and from whom the Church's apostles came. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recently wrote, "God's providence . has obviously given Israel a particular mission in this `time of the Gentiles.'" However, only the Jewish people themselves can articulate their mission "in the light of their own religious experience."
Nonetheless, the Church does perceive that the Jewish people's mission ad gentes (to the nations) continues. This is a mission that the Church also pursues in her own way according to her understanding of covenant. The command of the Resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:19 to make disciples "of all nations" (Greek = ethnç, the cognate of the Hebrew = goyim; i.e., the nations other than Israel) means that the Church must bear witness in the world to the Good News of Christ so as to prepare the world for the fullness of the kingdom of God. However, this evangelizing task 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.
Thus, while the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God. The Catholic Church must always evangelize and will always witness to its faith in the presence of God's kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all other people. In so doing, the Catholic Church respects fully the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, so that sincere individual converts from any tradition or people, including the Jewish people, will be welcomed and accepted.
However, it 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. The distinctive Jewish witness must be sustained if Catholics and Jews are truly to be, as Pope John Paul II has envisioned, "a blessing to one another." This is in accord with the divine promise expressed in the New Testament that Jews are called to "serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all [their] days" (Luke 1:74-75).
With the Jewish people, the Catholic Church, in the words of Nostra Aetate, "awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder (Soph 3:9; see Is 66:23; Ps 65:4; Rom 11:11-32)."
In the endless quest to bring meaning to life, communities, just like individuals, seek to define their mission in the world. So it is certainly for the Jews.
The mission of the Jews is part of a three-fold mission that is rooted in Scripture and developed in later Jewish sources. There is, first, the mission of covenant: the ever-formative impetus to Jewish life that results from the covenant between God and the Jews. Second, the mission of witness, whereby the Jews see themselves (and are frequently seen by others) as God's eternal witnesses to His existence and to His redeeming power in the world. And third, the mission of humanity, a mission that understands the Biblical history of the Jews as containing a message to more than the Jews alone. It presupposes a message and a mission addressed to all human beings. The Mission of Covenant The Jews are the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the physical embodiment of God's covenant with these ancestors. Abraham not only sets out on a journey to the Land of Canaan after being called by God, but when he is ninety-nine years old, God appears to him and tells him: "Walk in my ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous." The covenant is described as "everlasting,.to be God to you and to your offspring to come. The covenant involves the Land of Canaan which is an everlasting holding. There is a physical symbol of the covenant: the circumcision of all males on the eighth day of their lives. The covenant is both physical and spiritual. The Jews are a physical people. The covenant is a covenant of the flesh. The Land is a physical place. But it is also a covenant of the spirit for it is connected to "walking in His ways." The Jews are a people called into existence by God through a loving election. Why would God do such a thing? The Torah tells us the story of a unique God who, so different from the God of Aristotle, was not content with contemplating Himself. It is a great mystery, but God, who is essentially beyond our ken, willed a world into existence. He gave His creatures a single commandment, not to eat of a certain fruit of the Garden of Eden. What, of course, do they do? They eat the fruit. And so God, who had decided to share His ineffable self, was denied. It was not long before the earth became corrupt before God. And so He began again, destroying the creation, bringing the primordial waters back together and leaving only Noah and his family. Yet that too does not work, for no sooner are they out of the Ark than Noah gets drunk and uncovers himself. Downhill again-until the Torah begins the story that works, that is the heart of the Bible's saga: the story of Abraham and his progeny, the Jews. The covenant is not just a promise or a general exhortation toward perfection. When the People of Israel has turned into a large community and has suffered Pharaoh's bondage, the people is redeemed from Egypt with extraordinary wonders. They come to Sinai and the covenant gains its content: the laws and statutes given there and subsequently in the Tent of Meeting. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me. Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. To Jews this is not divine flattery but the burden of divine obligation. And this, then, is the theological definition of the Jews: a physical people called upon to live in a special relationship with God. That relation has specific content. There are rewards for its observance, punishments for its abandonment.
Such a view of the Jews is not tailored to fit the normal sociological definitions of a people, a community or a folk. It is even possible that most Jews would be uncomfortable with this theological sociology. People are usually more satisfied with picturing the Jews either as an ethnic group or as a faith community untied to a people. But that is not the notion of the Jews in the Bible and in later Jewish literature. The Jews are, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, partners with God in a sometimes stormy and sometimes idyllic romance, in a loving marriage that binds God and the People of Israel together forever and which gives the deepest possible meaning to Jewish existence.
The practical result of all of this is that the first mission of the Jews is toward the Jews. It means that the Jewish community is intent upon preserving its identity. Since that does not always happen naturally, it is the reason why Jews talk to each other constantly about institutional strengths and the community's ability to educate its children. It creates an abhorrence of intermarriage. It explains the passion to study the Torah. The stakes are high in Jewish life and in order not to abandon God, the Jewish community expends a great deal of energy seeing to it that the covenantal community works.
Having examined the three-fold notion of "mission" in classical Judaism, there are certain practical conclusions that follow from it, conclusions that also suggest a joint agenda for Christians and Jews.
It should be obvious that any mission of Christians to the Jews is in direct conflict with the Jewish notion that the covenant itself is that mission. At the same time, it is important to stress that notwithstanding the covenant, there is no need for the nations of the world to embrace Judaism. While there are theological verities such as the belief in God's unity, and practical social virtues that lead to the creation of a good society that are possible and necessary for humanity at large to grasp, they do not require Judaism in order to redeem the individual or society. The pious of all the nations of the world have a place in the world to come.
Just as important, however, is the idea that the world needs perfection. While Christians and Jews understand the messianic hope involved in that perfection quite differently, still, whether we are waiting for the messiah-as Jews believe-or for the messiah's second coming-as Christians believe-we share the belief that we live in an unredeemed world that longs for repair.
Why not articulate a common agenda? Why not join together our spiritual forces to state and to act upon the values we share in common and that lead to repair of the unredeemed world? We have worked together in the past in advancing the cause of social justice. We have marched together for civil rights; we have championed the cause of labor and farm workers; we have petitioned our government to address the needs of the poor and homeless; and we have called on our country's leader to seek nuclear disarmament. These are but a few of the issues we Jews and Christians have addressed in concert with each other.
To hint at what we might yet do together let us look at some of the concrete ways that classical Judaism takes theological ideas and transforms them into ways of living. And, if these be stones in a pavement on which we might together walk, then we will be able to fashion a highway that is a route we share in common toward humanity's repair and the world's perfection.